The Virginia State University Gospel Chorale rehearses in early December, before embarking on a European tour. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
It’s fitting to examine gospel music — its history, its legacy and its evolution — at the start of the year. Gospel is about renewal: It heralds the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, death and resurrection through song. The word comes from the Greek euangelion, or “good news.” Through the ages, the word evolved, merging the Old English god, or “good,” and the Latin spel, meaning “story.”
From its roots in African rhythms and slave songs to treasured hymns, from civil rights anthems to top-selling contemporary hits like “Total Praise” and “Why We Sing,” gospel is ever evolving. In Richmond, the legendary quartet The Harmonizing Four helped to revolutionize the gospel sound in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Today, local groups like the youthful Zion’s Voice choir continue to shape the way the music is heard and experienced.
What is gospel music? Call it the steady soundtrack of a people’s pain and pride. In many respects, it’s the sound of the South, its melodies a common denominator of black and white, young and old, those in pain and those in love. It is the mother of jazz, blues and rock, and the inspiration and muse of artists both secular and sacred. While there are various strains of gospel music, including bluegrass- and country-flavored versions, our focus here is the original form of gospel, born in the South and authored by African-Americans. But even that form contains different flavors in a long-simmering, rich and sustaining stew of sacred music.
Web Extra: Watch veteran Richmond gospel singer Cora Harvey Armstrong perform at Virginia Union University, witness a rousing rehearsal by up-and-coming youth choir Zion’s Voice and hear the small-but-mighty sound of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church’s Inspirational Choir here.
Cora Harvey Armstrong, doing what she does best. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Gospel musician and composer Cora Harvey Armstrong transformed the worst parts of her life into the best parts of her music. Read her full story here.
Richmond's Gospel MVPs
1 of 4
Gospel Radio Pioneer: Cavell Phillips
Though Cavell Phillips initially longed to pursue a career in sports, his trajectory changed after seeing his best friend’s dad, legendary Richmond disc jockey John “Tiger Tom” Mitchell, in action during his radio show on WANT-AM. “People were encouraged by Mr. Mitchell’s songs,” Phillips remembers. “I wanted to touch people with the music I played, too.” Phillips, who hosts the UpBeat gospel radio show on 106.5 The Beat, gained experience by accompanying Mitchell to the station. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he established himself as a local radio announcer, with gospel shows on multiple stations. In 1992, he formed the Old Landmark Gospel Association to promote and preserve the legacy of gospel music and provide a network for local gospel radio announcers. “It is by our faith that we overcome obstacles,” Phillips notes. “Gospel music builds a strong faith.” (Photo by Samantha Willis)
2 of 4
Tiny But Mighty: Richmond’s Small Gospel Ensembles
Richmond’s gospel tradition has always included small singing groups. Ensembles such as Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes (shown), the Jewels, the New Golden Jubilees, Larry Bland and Promise, and the A. Alexander Singers have defined the gospel sound of Richmond with their tight harmonies, often in three or four parts, and basic accompaniment — usually piano, drums and bass. “Richmond isn’t a big mass choir city, like Chicago or Jackson [the home of the internationally-renowned Mississippi Mass Choir],” says Willis Barnett, Virginia Union University’s director of choral activity. Richmond’s gospel music, however, is just as rich and emotionally complex as that of larger groups, he adds. “Gospel should be transformative in the life of the listener; Richmond gospel transforms.” (Photo by Ash Daniel)
3 of 4
Gathering Place: Barky’s Spiritual Store
For over 60 years, Barky’s Spiritual Store, the music shop tucked into a row of storefronts on East Broad Street, has been a beacon shining brightly in Richmond’s gospel music community. Founder and owner Barksdale “Barky” Haggins, 83, still works in the store, and remembers “just about everybody and their grandma,” he says. When gospel superstars like Dorinda Clark-Cole or Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s come to town, Barky’s is the place to snag tickets. Barky’s has hosted several local gospel artists in the store, including Cheryl Beaver, the oldest granddaughter of the late Maggie Ingram. “Gospel has a life of its own,” says Haggins. “It’ll never die.” (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
4 of 4
Flamekeeper: Sheilah Belle
Praise 104.7 radio host Sheilah Belle fell in love with gospel as a child; she grew up singing and playing the tambourine, organ and piano in church. In the 1990s, Belle founded the "Gospel Times" newspaper, Richmond’s first publication focused on gospel music. Before landing at the radio station, she created and hosted Inspirational Praises, a gospel music television show on WXEX (now WRIC-ABC 8). Belle currently serves as publicist for “Ambassador of Gospel Music” and BET television personality Bobby Jones. She also produces an online show, Real Good Gospel, and gives inspirational talks, primarily for women, at churches nationwide. “God has given me a ministry to help women get their lives back,” she says. (Photo courtesy of Sheilah Belle)
The Rise of Gospel Music
Gospel music is steeped in American history and folklore. African slaves brought their musical traditions (drumming, call and response-style chants) across the turbulent waters of the Atlantic and adapted them to include Christian themes when they began working on Southern plantations.
“When talking about gospel music, you have to go back to the 19th century; you really have to go into the times of slavery,” says historian Gregg Kimball, of the Library of Virginia. “The old spirituals that were sung by slaves were the roots of gospel. After the Civil War, you had groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Quartet that took them and made them a part of popular [culture].”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, photographed in 1881. (Photo courtesy Gregg Kimball)
Philadelphia clergyman Charles A. Tindley, whose father was a slave, wrote numerous hymns around the turn of the century, including “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” and “I Shall Overcome,” the predecessor of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” In the 1920s and ’30s, many choirs and composers “concertized” spirituals and jubilee songs. “You get beautiful renditions of songs like ‘Go Down Moses’ during this period,” says Kimball.
This is also the era when the “father of gospel music,” Thomas Dorsey, transitioned from bluesman and juke joint patron to sacred songwriter, penning such iconic tunes as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “Peace in the Valley.” Dorsey, a Georgia-born, Chicago-based musician who accompanied blues singers Ma Rainy and Tampa Red on piano, wrote “Precious Lord” in 1932 after his wife died in childbirth and his son died days later.
By the 1940s, popular styles of gospel music included the boisterous version born of the Pentecostal Christian movement. In this strain, instruments such as piano, drums, guitar and bass accompanied spirited singers. A classic example of this style is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who lived in Richmond’s Barton Heights neighborhood. In the 1940s, she had hits including “This Train,” which combined spiritual messages with up-tempo beats.
She performed with jazz composer Cab Calloway in New York City at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1938, solidifying her as a boundary-breaking star. Tharpe has been called the predecessor of rock ‘n’ roll; she influenced Little Richard and Johnny Cash (each called her their favorite singer), as well as Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley.
Quartets and quintets also gained fame in the 1930s and ’40s — among them Richmond’s Harmonizing Four, formed in 1927 at Dunbar Elementary School. The group performed at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral in 1945, and at Tharpe’s wedding, which coincided with a live album recording and drew a crowd of 25,000 in 1951. Other influential groups of this era include the Golden Gate Quartet of Norfolk, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers, featuring lead singer (and crossover secular artist) Sam Cooke.
Richmond's own quartet group, The Harmonizing Four, recorded the single “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Photo courtesy Gregg Kimball)
The “Golden Age of Gospel” began in the 1950s with singers such as Bessie Griffin, Albertina Walker and Roberta Martin rising to prominence. Mahalia Jackson, whose gospel music career began in her New Orleans home church, lent her contralto voice to the civil rights movement. In 1963, she performed one of her best-known songs, “How I Got Over,” at the March on Washington before a crowd of 250,000.
Today’s gospel brims with just about every American musical style. Blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and hip-hop all have roots in gospel music’s rhythms and heritage. Some of the most popular artists of the 21st century — Richmond’s own D’Angelo, Beyoncé, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend and countless others — credit gospel music with inspiring them. Gospel is no longer confined to the church or to the South; it’s a worldwide art form.
Old School or New School, the Message Endures
Asking, “What’s the difference between traditional and contemporary gospel music?” is like asking, “What’s the difference between chocolate and vanilla ice cream?”
Willis Barnett, director of choral activity at Virginia Union University and an accomplished composer and musician, explains: “There are different styles of gospel — traditional, contemporary, Southern — some of the newer gospel doesn’t sound ‘church-y’ at all.” It’s the message that’s most important, he adds.
Traditional gospel is the foot-stomping, hand-clapping music made famous by church choirs and soloists. Traditional gospel music relies on organ, piano and percussion, often incorporating call-and-response phrases and three-part harmony (soprano, alto, tenor).
Modern music tools like synthesizers are often present in contemporary gospel, as are vocal arrangements that break from the traditional three-part harmony. Contemporary artists like Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin and Hezekiah Walker have raised eyebrows among traditionalists with catchy gospel tunes, which some felt were more suited to the nightclub than the sanctuary.
Since 1956, Atlanta-based traditional gospel singer and songwriter Dorothy Norwood has sung with some of gospel’s brightest stars, including Mahalia Jackson, the Rev. James Cleveland and
“I love it because it’s food for the soul,” Norwood says of traditional gospel. “It will get you through some hard times.” Norwood, who opened for the Rolling Stones during their 1972 tour and has won Soul Train, Dove and Stellar music awards, enjoys collaborating with Bubba Johnson, a traditional gospel artist based in Richmond.
Richmond gospel artist Bubba Johnson sings with Dorothy Norwood. (Photo courtesy Bubba Johnson)
Johnson, whose energetic singing style is reminiscent of a holy Little Richard, sang and played piano in various churches before launching his gospel singing career. When he was preparing to record an album in 2003, he called on Norwood. “I asked her to record for me,” Johnson remembers. “She listened and asked if I could come down to Atlanta. I said, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow.’ I went with a few of my singers. We gathered around the white baby grand in her living room, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got something here.’ ” Norwood sang one of the songs Johnson wrote, “A Tribute to Momma.”
Though she’s rooted in traditional gospel, Norwood recognizes the importance of bridging the gap between “old school and new school” gospel music.
When she first heard Richmond-based contemporary gospel youth choir Zion’s Voice perform a few years ago, Norwood was so impressed that she invited them to Atlanta to sing at her church. “I tell you, they have so much energy!” Norwood says of the group, which performed at the Richmond Folk Festival in October. “They are well-disciplined and have talent galore.”
Choir co-founder Monica Lucas says the group modernizes classic gospel standards to fit the needs of today’s youth. “One of our signature songs, ‘Even Me,’ is an old hymn, but we revamped it to reach a younger audience,” she says.
Members of Zion’s Voice rehearse at Second Baptist Church ahead of a trip to Philadelphia. (Photo by Justin Vaughan)
She credits the choir’s “angelic” sound to the trials some of the young singers have faced. “These kids have been battered and bruised, they’ve been through things they shouldn’t have,” she says. “That’s where our sound comes from, turning that pain into glory.”