Gospel Music and the Legacy of Gospel Choirs
“Choir music is undefeated. It’s the best music in the world.” –Zak Williams
What Is Gospel Music?
Gospel choirs have greatly influenced American culture, impacting the legacy of Gospel music—a vibrant and soul-stirring expression of faith, hope, and unity. Rooted in African American folk culture and Negro Spirituals, gospel music played a significant role. Throughout history it is through worship that Black Americans found comfort, joy, and community. This distinctive sound characterized by improvisational ad-libbing and complex harmonies built a powerful genre of music.
The three- and four-part harmonies of choirs added a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and head-bopping sound that revolutionized the way we experience music. The impact of gospel choir music is undeniable. It has impacted the lives of believers worldwide—beyond America and across the Pacific.
The Early Roots of Gospel Choirs
In the 19th century enslaved Africans in America found solace and strength in communal singing as they gathered for worship and prayer. Negro spirituals and hymns became a powerful means of expression, offering hope and comfort during slavery—singing through pain and calling out to God.
Charles A. Tindley: The Author of the First Gospel Song
In 1900, Philadelphia-based pastor, Charles Tindley penned what is widely regarded as the first gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which later became “We Shall Overcome.” Throughout his prolific career as a hymnologist, Charles Tindley composed a vast collection of hymns, each carrying messages of resilience, empowerment, and faith. “Stand by Me” and “Leave It There,” continue to touch the hearts of believers and non-believers alike, transcending time and cultural boundaries. Although an influential figure in many regions, gospel music spread substantially through Thomas A. Dorsey of Chicago.
Thomas A. Dorsey: The Father of Gospel Music
In the early 20th century, gospel music became more and more popular under the pioneering efforts of Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson. A former blues pianist, Dorsey combined his love for sacred and secular music, infusing traditional hymns with elements of blues and jazz. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” revolutionized gospel music and laid the foundation for Milton Brunson’s Thompson Community Singers—one of several groups that formed and toured the country. The rise of Rev. James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Worship of America in 1967 further popularized gospel music.
The Philadelphia Mass Choir and the Iconic Rise of Gospel Choir Music
Philadelphia Mass Choir was the first gospel mass choir in America, and the first chapter of the Gospel Music Worship of America. By the 1980s and ‘90s gospel choirs exploded in popularity. It’s during this time that we see the rise of “the Prince of Gospel Music” John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir, Wilmington Chester Mass Choir, Hezekiah Walker and Love Fellowship Crusade Choir, Ricky Dillard’s New Generation Chorale, Walter Hawkins and Love Alive Center Choir, and others.
The Impact of Gospel Choirs
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the profound influence of gospel choirs. Soprano, alto, and tenor voices served as the backdrop of voting rights campaigns and protests. In addition, choir songs became anthems of hope and freedom, providing inspiration and strength to activists and communities fighting for equality and justice. Singing at churches, community events, and social gatherings also fostered a sense of belonging. Gospel choirs participated in outreach programs, using music to spread messages of hope and compassion to those in need.
The Legacy of Philadelphia
By the end of the ‘90s, gospel music was at the forefront of musical excellence. The most listened to and recorded gospel song is “I’ll Fly Away,” Hezekiah Walker released his version in 1997. As gospel music continued to evolve, so did gospel choirs. From traditional sounds to contemporary styles, and from larger mass choirs to smaller choirs, powerful programming and events, such as the Stellar Awards and Bobby Jones Gospel, continuously pushed gospel music to the forefront.
The impact of Philly song writers and producers, such as Carol Antrum and her work with Joy Unlimited Youth Mass Choir and Wilmington Chester Mass Choir, was significant. Other choir-songwriter collaborations included James Poyser and Hezekiah Walker & the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir, and Garland “Miche” Waller with Dobbins Mass Choir, Philadelphia Mass Choir, and John P. Kee’s New Life Community Choir. Tye Tribbett, who was a part of Steve Middleton’s Unity & Praise Choir went on to found Greater Anointing (GA) in the late 90s. Zak Williams, who wrote, produced, directed, and played for a number of gospel choirs including Wilmington Chester Mass Choir, founded the Stellar Award-nominated gospel choir 1/Akord in 2003. Their latest gospel project “Revisited” was released in 2023. The lead single from that project “Jesus I’ll Never Forget” topped the Media Base Gospel Charts in 2023.
Along with these influential choirs, countless gospel workshops and festivals sprung up, further contributing to gospel choirs’ growth and popularity. In Black churches especially, gospel choirs hold a central place in worship services, encouraging hearts, nurturing talent, transforming congregations, and deepening their divine connection with the Lord.
Gospel Choirs’ Influence on Popular Music
During the crack epidemic of the 90s, when Philly teens didn’t have many outlets, they sang on choirs—school choirs, community choirs and national recording choirs. At one time there were dozens of recording and church-based gospel choirs from Philadelphia touring the tri-state area, singing every weekend.
Not only were gospel choirs an important part of community involvement, it was a training ground. Listen to the many interviews from iconic singers, and watch out for this common thread, “I started singing at church.” Singing on a gospel choir has been the training ground for artists of other genres including R&B, Rock & Roll, Blues, and Soul for centuries.
These artists carry the legacy of gospel music in their voices, bringing gospel music’s authentic heavenly spirit into the mainstream. Their performances graced stages, radio broadcasts, and television shows, expanding gospel music’s influence and breaking barriers in the entertainment industry. Gospel choirs have even collaborated with Hip-Hop artists, infusing gospel elements into their choruses.
The influence of gospel choirs has transcended borders and cultures, reaching audiences worldwide. From Africa to Europe, Asia, and beyond, gospel music and choirs have been embraced and celebrated, connecting people from diverse backgrounds through their shared love of music and Jesus Christ.
Gospel choirs stand as a testament to the enduring power of gospel music. From Negro spirituals to present-day global influence, gospel choirs have left an indelible mark on the hearts and souls of believers worldwide. As these ensembles continue to resound with praise and worship, their transformative impact on individuals, communities, and popular culture serves as a reminder of the unifying power of faith and music. Celebrate the rich history and soul-stirring influence of gospel choirs, recognizing their vital role in shaping the spiritual and musical tapestry of the world.