Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Intemperate Reverend: James Cleveland

There is just something about a large black choir in the groove!

A while back I posted a collection of the Edwin Hawkins Singers.  In the write up I mentioned the Rev James Cleveland whose music I love but would not promote.

Well, l I have thought a lot about that position and while I’m still disgusted with the alleged high hypocrisy of the ‘good’ Reverend, I just can’t get away from the music he created.  I’ve been resisting the temptation to promote it for months but at last have given in. 

Why the change of heart?

I guess I believe the music is so powerful and beautiful that it stands on its own. Whatever the deep failings of its creator this is music that deserves to be loved and listened to and absorbed by as many people as possible.

James Cleveland was an exasperating personality throughout his life including right up to and after his death.  He had a restless spirit that took him from one singing group and church to another leaving colleagues and friends and sponsors irritated and frustrated.  He also had a great ego and the thin skin to go with it. James Cleveland considered himself to be simply the greatest composer and arranger of modern gospel music. When others got recognition or when record companies dropped him or when he was challenged, he sulked.

Rev. James Cleveland

Born and raised in Chicago in 1931, James Cleveland grew up in a family of modest income. His family attended Pilgrim Baptist Church where the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas Dorsey, was a minister.  He loved the piano but his family was unable to buy one, so little James pretended his windowsill was one. “I used to practice each night right there on the windowsill. I took those wedges and crevices and made me black and white keys. And, baby, by the time I was in high school, I was some jazz pianist."

After high school he began his stop and start journey with a whole series of gospel groups, sometimes as a singer, sometimes as composer/arranger. Though he caused waves and earned a reputation as unreliable and tempermental he was already adding funk and deep soul and groove to the gospel style. His reputation grew and in 1960 his position as the absolute King of Gospel was sealed when his record Peace Be Still sold 800,000 copies to almost an exclusively African American audience.  This was at a time when a gospel record that sold 5000 copies was considered a big hit!

After this success he branched out on his own forming the Cleveland Singers out of which came a couple of rather illustrious singers: Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston! Generally, the Rev. James Cleveland is considered the most important figure in modern gospel music after Mahalia Jackson and during his career he made a huge number or recordings.

Tonight’s selection is a South African edition of a record called the King of Gospel.  Blessedly, it includes several extra tracks (including a cover of Elvis Presley’s In the Ghetto) not on the American release. So without further ado, the shiveringly good music of the Rev. James Cleveland. 

            Track Listing:
01 Peace Be Still
02 May the Lord God Bless You Real Good
03 Good Day
04 I Press On
05 Everything Will Be Alright
06 Where is Your Faith?
07 This Too Will Pass
08 Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus
09 He Didn't Bring Me This Far to Just Leave Me
10 In the Ghetto
11 A Change Will Come
12 I Can't Stop Loving God
13 The Lord is the Strength of My Life

Listen here.

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