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Chicago Gospel Music Festival - History

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A Short History of Gospel Music in Chicago – By Robert M. MarovichRobert M. Marovich

Gospel music can trace its ancestry to the ceremonial music of West Africa, the spirituals and camp meeting hymns of the South, and the swinging jazz and blues of the urban North, but it all came together in Chicago. It was here where some of the most beloved gospel songs of all time were inspired, written, arranged, sung, published, broadcast, recorded, and spread worldwide.

Chicago became the birthplace in large part because from the 1920s to the 1960s it was a significant final destination for hundreds of thousands of African Americans. They migrated from the South to better their condition. They brought their love for joyous congregational singing with them, only to discover that Chicago’s mainline African American Protestant churches sang a different way. These services were refined, classical, oratorical, and bewilderingly unfamiliar. In response, some migrants sought out the familiarity and intimacy of the city’s growing number of Pentecostal, Holiness, and Spiritual churches, where congregational singing, shouting, and holy dancing were not only accepted but fundamental to the worship experience.

Gospel music broke through the barrier of Chicago’s “silk stocking” churches in 1931 when Dr. J. H. L. Smith of Birmingham, Alabama, became Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Smith asked Theodore R. Frye to assemble a group to sing for the congregation the sacred songs he enjoyed in Birmingham. Frye recruited pianist-songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey to assist him. After nearly a decade of disappointment, Dorsey was finally experiencing some success introducing his jazz-propelled sacred songs in the bigger churches. The two organized newly-settled southern migrants into the first modern gospel chorus. The chorus debuted at Ebenezer in January 1932 to great acclaim, and a week later inspired Pilgrim Baptist Church to follow suit. Soon every African American church in Chicago wanted its own gospel chorus.

In 1933, Dorsey, Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts transformed the city’s gospel chorus phenomenon into a national movement by organizing the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Gospel songs spread like wildfire through church-based gospel choruses and groups such as Chicago’s Roberta Martin Singers, the Sallie Martin Singers, and the Willie Webb Singers. Sallie Martin and Kenneth Morris built the most successful African American-run publishing concern on the basis of their national distribution network. Powerful radio broadcasts from First Church of Deliverance also gave budding gospel songwriters a national platform. When Mahalia Jackson’s recording of “Move On Up a Little Higher” became a national hit in 1948, the music industry awakened to the commercial potential of gospel music.

Broadened commercial appeal ushered in gospel’s golden era and Chicago was the national headquarters. Joining Roberta Martin and Mahalia were Albertina Walker and the Caravans, the Argo Singers, the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, the Highway QCs, Salem Travelers, James Cleveland, Alex Bradford, the Thompson Community Singers, and many others.

By the 1970s, the contemporary choir sound had shifted the locus of gospel music from Chicago to California. Nevertheless, Chicago still makes its presence known through the work of Anita Wilson, Donald Lawrence, Mark Hubbard, Lemmie Battles, Queenie Lenox, Fellowship Chicago, and others. You can hear the churchy double-time Chicago swing in the Chicago Mass Choir, Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Warriors, and in the fiery quartet harmonies of the Victory Travelers and the Stars of Heaven.

Chicago and gospel music go together like bacon and eggs. Thanks to the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, we gather each year to pay righteous tribute to America’s great musical art form on the holy ground where it was born.