It is difficult to imagine a more pervasive influence on modern gospel music than that of the raspy-voiced Rev. James Cleveland, who died Saturday at age 59. A pianist, singer, composer, arranger, producer and teacher, Mr. Cleveland became the world's foremost gospel musician.
For the better part of half a century, he shaped the genre. As a singer, his gravelly baritone inspired widespread imitation of his innovative voicings, time signatures and general arrangements. As a composer with more than 400 gospel works and three Grammy awards to his credit, he was inordinately prolific, writing as many as three songs a week. As a conductor, he was passionate, marrying emotion with powerful movements of arms, hands and head that both inspired and awed singers under his direction.
James Cleveland's lifelong love of music enabled him to overcome a voice he often likened to a "fog horn" to influence the likes of Aretha Franklin, Jessy Dixon and Billy Preston. His mark is also deeply ingrained in modern day gospel style. He revolutionized the field in the '60s by introducing the choir movement, adding bass guitar and drums as accompanying instruments and perfecting the "song-sermonette" which alternated choral passages with chanted recitation by the soloist.
More than any other contemporary gospel artist, James Cleveland was a bridge musician. Two of his best known works, "Peace Be Still" and "The Love of God," were crossover hits that bridged the gulf between sacred and secular audiences. He also joined the disparate traditional and contemporary elements of gospel popularized by Edwin Hawkins and his Singers.
Yet for all his success, James Cleveland resisted the temptation to cross-over into pop music. Instead, in what he called his finest accomplishment, he founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America in Detroit to set and improve standards of gospel choir performance.
Above all else, James Cleveland's love of gospel was steeped in a deep spirituality, a love of God and the rich tradition of the black church. "Preaching is good news about Christ through the spoken word; gospel music is good news about Christ through music," he once said. There will "always be good exponents of gospel. I would just like to touch their lives, to instill in them a feeling of perpetuation, to help repay the grass roots of the movement, so they'll know where it came from."
James Cleveland did this and more. His is an important chapter in the book of American gospel music that lives on.