Did you know that gospel music began in Los Angeles? Not the Deep South as you might expect …
In South Central, L.A. was blossoming as a world center of sacred music. During the 60s and 70s, giants in the pantheon of gospel introduced this spiritual music into the realm of popular culture, and the world has never been the same.
What we know today as gospel music is a blend of various elements of African American culture. Its roots are in West Africa where music was considered a potent connector to the spirit world, utilizing call and response singing, drums, and dance. After Africans were forced into slavery in the U.S., they merged this indigenous music with Christian hymns to form what was at the time referred to as “Negro Spirituals.” A form of worship also developed called “shouts” in which participants would shuffle in the center of a circle of musicians when they felt the spirit.
Like Pentecostalism, gospel music was not born in L.A. but came to prominence here. Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) from Chicago is considered the Father of Gospel music. However, when William J. Seymour’s preaching at the Bonnie Brae House (see page xxx) and the following Azusa Street Revival sowed the seeds for the worldwide Pentecostal movement in 1906, the staid hymns of traditional Christian churches were not a match for the exuberance of these new congregations. And so, a new form of African American sacred music evolved.
In 1967, gospel burst onto the international Top Singles charts around the world with “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers (if you haven’t heard this song, put this book down, open Spotify and listen RIGHT NOW). Thus was born the new category of Contemporary Gospel.
L.A. producers James Cleveland and Andraé Crouch were two giants of the Contemporary Gospel scene. James Cleveland (1931-1991), also called the Prince of Gospel, produced more than 190 albums, wrote and performed some of its most well-loved songs, and founded the Gospel Workshop of America, an annual convention nurturing many talented artists. He recorded Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, the best-selling gospel album of all time.
Andraé Crouch (1942-2015) had a massive impact on religious music worldwide. He and his twin sister, Sandra Crouch (1942- present), multi-Grammy-winner in her own right, grew up in Pacoima and were initially Pentecostal. He is widely credited with bringing spiritual music into the mainstream and helping to bridge the gap between black and white. Crouch worked with Madonna on Like a Prayer and with Michael Jackson on his albums, Bad, Dangerous and History, as well as with Elvis, Elton John, and Paul Simon.
Another L.A. gospel star was Della Reese (1931-2017), a prominent singer, actress, talk show host, New Thought minister (see page xxx) and founder of her own The Up Church in Inglewood. The now defunct House of Blues on Sunset used to host a celebratory and always-sold-out Sunday Gospel Brunch. You can still get tickets in Anaheim, Las Vegas, or San Diego, or further east in Houston, Chicago, or Orlando.
Currently, GospoCentric Records in Inglewood is one of the most prominent gospel labels, hosting Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary, who have brought urban flavor to gospel. Sandra Crouch continues on as the Pastor of New Christ Memorial Church in San Fernando leading services each Sunday.
Gospel would not be as prominent today if not for its flowering in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s. L.A.’s gospel music has brought faith, joy, and sustenance to millions worldwide.
© 2020 Catherine Auman
This is an excerpt from Catherine Auman’s book Guide to Spiritual L.A.: The Irreverent, the Awake, and the True