Though it accounts for less than 5 percent of the recorded-music market, gospel has been rediscovered by major labels in the last few years. Huge corporations, such as Epic and Warner Bros., known for their hit-makers, are quietly working to satisfy demand for both new projects and reissued classics. And mighty independents, such as Malaco, which dominates the gospel charts, are transferring older titles to compact disc.
This abundance of choices makes it possible to build a widely varied gospel library, one that reaches back to Mahalia Jackson and also covers the funky, souped-up contemporary choirs. Following are suggested titles:
As the holidays approach, the talk in contemporary gospel will be the all-star "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration" (Warner Bros.), released last week. A loose adaptation of the classic Christmas work, "Messiah" features contemporary gospel performers, such as Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins, and hot, church-influenced R&B; singers, such as Stevie Wonder, Tevin Campbell and Dianne Reeves. It also includes some unusual collisions. The chorale "Glory to God" finds the Boys Choir of Harlem surveying all sorts of black music, and includes a rap by Leaders of the New School.
Choir music is hot right now. "My Mind Is Made Up" (Word/Epic), by the Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, has held the top spot on Billboard's gospel-album chart for 21 weeks. It builds a bridge between traditional gospel's invective and the electric instrumentation of contemporary gospel.
Working a similar vein is the just-released "Stand Still Until His Will Is Clear" (Air) from another choral powerhouse, the Rev. Ernest Davis Jr.'s Wilmington Chester Mass Choir.
As for classic contemporary works, only one song from Aretha Franklin's landmark 1972 gospel project, "Amazing Grace," is included on "Queen of Soul," the new Atlantic/Rhino four-CD boxed set. The full "Amazing Grace" is available on CD.
The Staple Singers, considered by many rock critics to be the cream of the pop-gospel crop, are the subject of a just-released early-career overview, "Freedom Highway" (Legacy).
Philadelphian Marion Williams, once the star of the Clara Ward Singers and now gospel's pre-eminent female soloist, displays her rare versatility on the 20-song "Strong Again" (Spirit Feel).
Among recent quartet recordings worth noting: the Fairfield Four's "Standing in the Safety Zone" (Warner Bros.), which returns this Nashville group to the studio after a decades-long absence; "He's My Ever-Present Help" (Malaco), by the Angelic Gospel Singers, led by Philadelphian Margaret Allison; and "Brand New" (Wajji), from Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, which captures the venerable group moving toward a contemporary style.
The works of New Orleans-born Mahalia Jackson, considered by many to be the world's greatest gospel singer, have recently been re-engineered and transferred to compact disc for a series of Columbia/Legacy boxed sets. The first, "Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns," documents many of Ms. Jackson's staples; Volume 2 contains some rarities -- including a rousing "I'm on My Way" from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
Specialty Records, which was responsible for stellar quartet music in the '50s and '60s, is offering a series of CDs that spotlights the label's high-profile artists -- the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Swan Silvertones, the Pilgrim Travelers, Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes. Each disc contains the music of two albums. Specialty, which also owns the early recordings of Sam Cooke, last year issued "Sam Cooke With the Soul Stirrers," which contains such hits as "Touch the Hem of His Garment."
Those seeking an overview of classic gospel will find no better starter kit than Specialty's "Greatest Gospel Gems," which features Alex Bradford and the Soul Stirrers, among others.