The loss of the King of Gospel


Now sing: "Master, the tempest is raging. . ."

Sway gently back and forth.

Put your hands together, softly.

And rock, rock.

". . .Peace be still. . ."

Rock, rock.

". . .Peace be still. . ."

Rock, rock.

Keep it going, now.

". . .Peace be still. . ."

This is how this column should be read: Like a gospel hymn. Deep and soulful, rhythmic and slow. Like the man himself. Like the Rev. James L. Cleveland, the King, the musical patriarch of modern-day gospel music who died of heart ailments in Los Angeles Feb. 9. He was 59 years old.

"So who will take his place?" I asked.

"Uh, uh, we don't talk like that," said the Rev. Norma Pender, a spokesperson for Cleveland's Gospel Music Workshop in Detroit.

"We're not using the term, 'take over' because James left us so much and gave so much of himself. He opened so many doors that all we have to do is pass on through and continue his work."

"Nobody," she continued fervently, "is going to 'take over.' But, if we pool together and work together, we can continue his legacy. That is our plan. A new leader may come later. Who knows? It is not important."

The Gospel Music Workshop of America is but one of Cleveland's legacies. He founded it in 1968 as a way of bringing musicians together, of promoting the music. The group has 200 chapters nationwide and more than 20,000 members.

"His big dream was to one day build an accredited college for gospel music," said Pender. "That's something we're going to press on for."

But Cleveland also is credited with writing or arranging more than 400 gospel songs and he has recorded nearly 100 albums.

He was a pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and record producer. He won three Grammy Awards and was nominated countless times, including a nomination just last year. He nurtured or inspired countless artists, including Aretha Franklin, Billy Preston and Quincy Jones.

"That was his thing, bringing along others," said Pender. "Many of his albums were really, 'James Cleveland Presents So and So.' That was his way of presenting promising groups to the public, of bringing them along."

Cleveland's musical roots go almost as deep as gospel music itself.

He grew up in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago listening to Mahalia Jackson and the Roberta Martin singers. He studied and sang under the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, founded by Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey is considered the father of modern gospel music.

But if you really want to find the roots of gospel music you have to go back even further.

"You have to go back to Bishop C.A. Tindley of Philadelphia. He is the gentleman credited by most scholars and lovers of the music as being the progenitor of gospel music," said Daphne Harrison, head of the African American studies program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Harrison said early gospel "moved from congregational singing to quartet singing to solos."

Therefore, she said, Cleveland, who is credited with popularizing large gospel choirs, really brought the music back to its roots.

And, before gospel music, there were spirituals and the blues. And before spirituals and blues there was the music of Africa.

"The idea of singing as an integral part of religious worship-- where worship doesn't happen without singing -- is very much rooted in African tradition," said Harrison.

"You can't break it out and say, 'this is gospel,' 'this is blues,' 'these are spirituals.' Gospel as we know it today is part of that continuum. All of it feeds on each other."

But not even Africa takes Cleveland's musical roots far enough.

"He had a great, great musical gift from God," said Pender. "We have lost a giant."

So sing, it now. Clap your hands and rock, gently, gently, to the music. . .

"Gospel," said a friend, "is like a direct line to God. There is no minister in between giving his interpretation. It is just you and God. Gospel is extremely personal. Extremely moving."

". . .Peace be still. . ."

The King of Gospel has died. But his legacy lives on.

Long live the king.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad