Gospel music is a curious genre, reflecting a number of styles (including hybrids) with a Christian message at its core. Sometimes used in worship, for personal enjoyment and often simply for the entertainment value, it is considered largely a construct of the Americas ‘ particularly the Deep South of the USA.
1. Whitney Houston
Though she shot to fame with the song ‘I wanna dance with somebody’, her powerful voice developed from an early age through the gospel music scene, something that was in her blood (she is the daughter of Cissy Houston and the cousin of Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick). She never made it a facet of her commercial career, releasing only one album ‘ the soundtrack to the movie The Preacher’s Wife though notably it is the biggest selling gospel album of all time. Houston died in 2012 following a drug overdose, she had struggled with addiction for many years.
2. Little Richard
Another singer famous for commercial genres, Richard is best known for the upbeat jazz hit ‘Reet Petite’ and laying the foundations for a lot of the rock and roll movement. He experienced a resurgence in the 1980s for a while. He too sang gospel from an early age and recalled the upbeat tone of his Pentecostal church that had to deal with the segregation of the era. The playful tone of the style undoubtedly influenced his later commercial career. He got his big break when Sister Rosetta Tharpe heard him singing one of her songs and invited him to sing on stage.
3. Oleta Adams
The daughter of a preacher, Adams grew up on gospel music so it is no surprise that that’s where she wanted to focus in a decade obsessed with disco music. She faced a large number of rejections before moving to Kansas where she released two albums that had limited success. In the 1980s, her lucky break came from an unusual corner: the electro rock band Tears for Fears and they invited her to perform on their next album. She moved into R&B and then eventually got back to her gospel roots.
4. Johnny Cash
The big time country star liked to mix a variety of styles and a lot of his work had clear Christian theme so it is no surprise that he dabbled in gospel as often as he dabbled in country, rock, blues and even Irish folk music. He has the rare honour of having been inducted into the hall of fame of several music genres. His biggest hit as popular music goes is ‘When the Man Comes Around’ which featured as the title track for the 1994 movie Dawn of the Dead.
5. Dolly Parton
Another famous country singer, it is usually natural for those of that genre to either come from a gospel background or to be influenced by their peers in some way. Parton’s voice is quintessentially country and it has never really been a big part of her global commercial career. In 2012, she starred with Queen Latifah in Joyful Noise, a movie about two women trying to save a gospel choir. In 2009, she was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame.
6. Tyrone ‘Tye’ Tribbett
Tribbett broke onto the scene in 2000 following a tour with Faith Hill. That was the lucky break he needed and ended up as a supporting act for Will Smith, Don Henley and then Sting ‘ all of whom his positive style of music fitted in well. Born to parents who were both worshippers, in the last ten years ‘Tye’ has released a total of five albums with no sign of a slowdown any time soon. He now has his own band called Tye Tribbett & Greater Annointing.
7. Mahalia Jackson
Her title ‘The Queen of Gospel’ says it all; Harry Belafonte described her as ‘the single most powerful black woman in the United States’ and they are not titles that are easily given out. She died in 1972 having released an immense 30 albums. She was from New Orleans and grew up through the war years and to see the end of segregation of the Civil Rights Movement. Her other hardship was that she had bow legs though her family’s inability to treat it never stopped her dancing. She died in 1972.
8. Elvis Presley
The man that needs no introduction blurred many lines between rock and roll, blues and gospel spent his early days listening to white gospel music and it was undoubtedly an influence on his own style. His Hand in Mine is one of the best performing gospel albums commercially, reaching 13 in the US Billboards and number 3 in the UK charts. A later gospel album How Great Thou Art won him a Grammy Award so regardless of his popular appeal, he is one of the greatest gospel artists of all time.
9. Kim Burrell
One of the new breeds of gospel is to fuse something a bit more modern and though jazz is not modern music, Burrell’s style is indicative of many contemporary artists bringing a jazz renaissance. Burrell herself describes her style as ‘jazz gospel’. Her rise has been meteoric, breaking onto the scene in the 1990s and is already considered one of the genre’s most influential figures. She has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald amongst others.
10. Al Green
One of the biggest names in gospel music, he also experienced a great deal of commercial success in the 1970s. His biggest hit is ‘Let’s Stay Together’ which found resurgence in the 1990s thanks to featuring on the soundtrack of the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. He claims Elvis Presley as one of his main influences growing up, particularly during his teenager years. He dabbled in gospel music directly through the 1980s before returning to secular commercial success.
Gospel music will always be a niche, though sometimes it may break out from the religious audience that is its target, it is hardly ever likely to be a critical and ongoing commercial success. Some of the stars above clearly did become superstars thanks to their interests in other areas and ability to mix up different styles for a wider fan base.