Since Thomas Dorsey was deemed the Father of Gospel, James Cleveland‘s success earned him the next best title: the Crown Prince of Gospel. From the 1950’s on, Cleveland laid the foundation for the elevation of choir music into a sophisticated art form. Implementing diverse elements of jazz and pop, blues and Sanctified church rhythms, he created a new sound for gospel choirs. It is therefore no surprise that he’s hailed as the paradigm by which all other choirmasters are judged.
Born in Chicago on December 5, 1932, in the heart of the Great Depression, Cleveland was the only son among three children. His father, Ben, worked on WPA projects to keep food on the table and, as a kid, Cleveland took a newspaper job to help make ends meet. “I was Mahalia Jackson‘s paperboy,” he once said.
Cleveland began pretend-playing piano at the age of five. When Cleveland was eight years old, Thomas Dorsey, the minister of music at Pilgrim Baptist Church, sat him on top of a box at church and had him sing “All I Need Is Jesus”. That was the beginning of his music career. At the age of 15, Cleveland joined the gospel group the Throne Crusaders.
When he started performing, Cleveland literally begged and hustled his way onto programs. In 1950, he joined Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk to form the trio called the Gospelaires. They weren’t together long, but his work with the group caught the ear of gospel star Roberta Martin. Cleveland had already begun to compose songs, so she recruited him to write for her group.
Soon Albertina Walker recruited Cleveland to play piano with her group, the Caravans. He was more than a piano player though. He wrote songs for them and in their concerts he often narrated hymns while the group sang under him and the music played.
In 1968, legendary COGIC choir conductress Mattie Moss Clark and Elma Hendricks convened a Sing-A-Rama in Detroit at C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church. They formed a 1,000 voice choir and had Cleveland come in as a special guest. Cleveland so enjoyed the music and teaching classes that he told Clark he would like to create a similar convocation and maybe call it the Music Workshop of America. Clark suggested that he add “Gospel” to the title to let prospective attendees know it was gospel music only. Cleveland wasted no time in putting the word out. The first GMWA convention took place in August 1968 at the King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit. The idea was to perpetuate the legacy and appreciation of gospel music through classes and provide an opportunity to expose new talent.