If you’re familiar with the classic film “The Jazz Singer,” you’ll know that secular music was not always welcome in a religious environment. While Al Jolson’s 1927 movie—and Neil Diamond’s 1980 remake—told the story of the son of a Jewish cantor venturing into popular music, African-Americans can recount a similar tale.
At least during the 20th century, most Black musicians began their journey in the church. It was a foregone conclusion among Black parents that children who demonstrated musical aptitude would perform only in the sanctuary and not be tempted to sing—let alone to make a career of it—modern jazz, blues or rock ‘n roll music.
There’s a long list of famous names ranging from Bessie Smith and Big Moma Thornton, to Aretha Franklin and Al Green who started out in the church choir and ascended to worldwide acclaim performing popular music. Let’s look back at some of our favorite artists who got their foundation in gospel music and broadened that natural talent to entertain audiences around the world and gain the adoration of generations of fans:
Aretha Franklin was a multiple Grammy winner who became a household name in the mid-to-late 1960s. Among her hits were “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” As an outstanding pianist, Franklin was able to regularly infuse her secular songs with gospel accents and phrasings, as seen with the instrumental introduction to the No. 1 R & B track “Don’t Play That Song” (1970).
While having a huge canon of secular tunes, Franklin released albums that focused on the church as seen with the critically acclaimed “Amazing Grace” in 1972 and “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” in 1987. The concert documentary “Amazing Grace,” chronicling the making of the album of the same name, was released posthumously soon after her death in 2018.
Little Richard, the acknowledged “Architect of rock ‘n roll,” was more than a little religious during his flamboyant career. He was a pioneer of rock ‘n roll who was steeped in gospel music and unashamedly borrowed from it to create his unique style.
Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) had a church deacon for a father and a Baptist “mother” both at home and on Sunday morning. One of his biggest hits, “Tutti Frutti,” was the result of listening to the Clara Ward Singers and a specific “gospel yodel” that would become a trademark of rock ‘n roll music at home and abroad.
“I was playing for the church,” he told the BBC in 1972. “My grandfather was a preacher—Rev. Peniman. I used to play for him every Sunday morning ‘cause he was taking up collections about seven times. You know, ‘just one more dime, just one more quarter.’ So I used to play ‘Tutti Frutti” and ‘Long Tall Sally’ while he was preaching…but he didn’t know it.”
In 1957, about two years after “Tutti Frutti” swept the world, he changed course after plane trouble on a concert tour. He proceeded to enter Oakwood College (now Oakwood University), an historically Black Seventh-Day Adventist school in Alabama, to return to spiritual music.
After that, Little Richard recorded several gospel albums on different labels, including “Clap Your Hands” (1960) and “King Of The Gospel Singers” (1962). Little Richard’s gospel music was far more reverential and subdued than his pop personna. These albums didn’t sell the way he had expected, but he continued his devotion to gospel music for the next few decades including the release of “Longtime Friend” in 1986.
Otis Redding was the son of a deacon. He developed his skills as a performer singing as part of the junior choir in Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Ga. Redding named Little Richard, a fellow Macon, Ga. native, as his main influence.
Redding had a number of hits on the R&B charts during the 1960s, including “Chained and Bound,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now).” Each of these tunes reflected Redding’s foundation in gospel music in reverberating the sounds of strength, vulnerability and care. Redding died in a 1967 plane crash at the age of 26.
The Staples Singers
The Staples Singers had their origins in both the Mississippi and Chicago church scenes and rose to popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Staples had their start as a straight-up gospel group. By the early 1970s, however, the act had reached secular audiences via Stax Records with songs like “Respect Yourself,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” “Touch A Hand (Make A Friend)” and the No. 1 smash “I’ll Take You There.”
While these songs were clearly concerned with spiritual transcendence, the group tackled more sensual themes as seen with “Let’s Do It Again” which became another No. 1 hit this time with producer Curtis Mayfield for the soundtrack of the 1975 movie.
Curtis Mayfield began with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. He was invited by fellow singer and former Jubilee group member Jerry Butler to join the Impressions who were a leading R&B group known for the hits “Amen,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep On Pushing” and “We’re A Winner.” These songs were devoted to the goals of Black pride and the Civil Rights Movement.
Mayfield often returned to his gospel roots, most notably in the song “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” from 1970. A hero to several generations, Mayfield died in 1999.
The Edwin Hawkins Singers
The Edwin Hawkins Singers are known for their 1969 worldwide hit “Oh Happy Day.” It was not the first time that an ode to Jesus would capture world popularity. It had been done previously with British teen Laurie London “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” (1957), Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” (1963), and Ray Charles’ “This Little Girl Of Mine” (1955) which was a makeover of the hymn “This Little Light of Mine.”
“Oh Happy Day” was based on the 18th century Protrestant hymn “Oh Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice.” The pop classic would be regarded as the first “pure gospel” song to cross over thanks to its religious credentials: It was a gospel song by a gospel choir recorded in a gospel church.
Hawkins initially faced ire from his local church, Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, Calif. Older members of the congregation wanted no part of it. It was reportedly “sacrilegious” to use church members on a secular song. They petitioned local radio stations to stop playing it. In the end, the song reached No. 4 on the pop charts and influenced a trend of adding gospel elements to secular hits.
Al Green notched several hits on the R & B charts in the 1970s. “Take Me To The River” wasn’t one of them. The gospel-soul track, from 1974 really didn’t take hold among music audiences until the Talking Heads recorded their version in 1978.
In the mid-70s, a harrowing event forced Green to “reevaluate” his life and pushed him into the ministry. He eventually ditched soul in favor of gospel music—for a while–but still reaped the benefits of his secular past recordings. None of Green’s gospel output made it to the pop charts, but his first gospel album “The Lord Will Make A Way” (1980) earned him his first Grammy Award (Best Soul Gospel Performance).
Green, who often included religious songs on his albums (i.e. “Jesus Is Waiting” from 1973), said in 1986 that his walk on the spiritual side wasn’t always as easy with a background in secular music. “Boy, you haven’t seen no hatred ‘til you get in the church,” he explained to Rolling Stone Magazine. “There seem to be a lot of judgemental folks in the church world.”