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Mahalia Jackson, known as “The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer,” she was a civil rights activist, Gospel’s first international million-selling artist s (during the era of 45’s) and one of the most gifted contraltos to ever sing a note of praise. The New Orleans native rose to fame after relocating to Chicago where she worked with the father of modern-day gospel, Thomas A. Dorsey who wrote her signature song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
The Multi-Grammy Award Winner and Grammy Award Hall of Famer would later sing that current day church staple at the funeral of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her career spanned from the 1920s until her death at age 60 in 1972. She recorded for Decca, Apollo and Columbia Records during her 40+ year recording career. She influenced such stars as Aretha Franklin and Della Reese. Her biggest hits included “Move On Up A Little Higher, ” “How I Got Over,” “In The Upper Room,” Among the International Gospel star’s many “firsts”: she was the first gospel artist to sing at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall; first gospel artist to host and star in her own weekly network national radio series on CBS in 1952 and she was among the first gospel artists to achieve mainstream music success by performing at The Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 and performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
Her career highlights also including singing at one of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parties in 1960; singing at the 1963 March On Washington, just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered is famous “I Have A Dream” speech and at his funeral in 1968. Jackson has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her extraordinary life will hit the big screen soon in the upcoming biopic about her life, starring American Idol and Grammy Award-winning Fantasia Barrino.
Arguably the best selling Gospel artist of all time and the artist who has pushed Gospel the farthest into the mainstream is Multiple Grammy Award and Stellar Award-winning singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Kirk Franklin. He was a 1970s Ft. Worth, Texas child prodigy who got his start playing piano, directing choirs and writing songs for the recording choirs like the Dallas Ft. Worth Mass Choir.
He became a household name as a Gospel recording artist in the early 1990s when his 1993 cross-over hit, “Why We Sing” from the album, Kirk Franklin and The Family (GospoCentric/Sparrow) hit Gospel and Urban radio airwaves.
The album stayed on the charts for roughly two years and became the first million-selling Gospel album. His most controversial hit was the single “Stomp” from the collaborative project God’s Property from Kirk Franklin‘s Nu Nation (B-Rite) which featured rapper Cheryl “Salt” James from popular rap duo, Sal-N-Pepa. The video was one of the first Gospel clips to receive heavy rotation on MTV. It also charted on Billboard’s Gospel, Urban and Top 40 charts.
The Multiple Grammy Award and Stellar Award winner recorded hit music with singing ensembles The Family, God’s Property (both relationships ended with lawsuits against Franklin) and 1 NC up until 2000. Since then he’s recorded as a solo artist.
Franklin’s hit list of cross-over music includes the Pop/Gospel/Urban collaboration “Lean on Me,” featuring R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Bono of U2 and Crystal Lewis from the CD The Nu Nation Project (1998), “Melodies From Heaven” from What “˜Cha Looking For (1994), “Now Behold The Lamb” from Kirk Franklin and The Family Christmas (199,) “Joy” featuring Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir from the soundtrack of the movie The Preacher’s Wife; “Looking For You” and “Imagine Me” from Hero (2005), “Declaration (This Is It)” off Fight of My Life (2007) and “I Smile” from his latest CD, Hello Fear.
BeBe and CeCe Winans
Brother and sister duo, Benjamin and Priscilla Winans, better known as BeBe and CeCe, are the younger siblings of Urban Gospel pioneers, The Winans. They are credited as the first Gospel duo to reach number 1 on the Billboard Sales chart (1988) and as trendsetting pioneers who added to Gospel’s push into the mainstream.
The two came to the world’s attention as members of the PTL Singers on Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker’s popular religious PTL Club TV show back in the 1980s and recorded their first album, Lord Lift Us Up on the show’s (PTL Records).
From the late 1980s through the mid-90s, BeBe and CeCe recorded on the Sparrow/Capitol label. They became the most popular Gospel duo at the time, charting new territory for Urban Contemporary Gospel, selling in the millions with Gold and Platinum commercial success. They released six albums with over a dozen top-charting hit singles, including “Addictive Love,” “I’ll Take You There (Staples Singers’ re-make featuring Mavis Staples)” “Heaven, ” “Celebrate New Life” “Meantime,” “I O.U. Me,” “The Blood (featuring MC Hammer), “It’s Okay” and “Count It All Joy.”
Despite worldwide acceptance evidenced by their music topping the Gospel, Christian and R&B sales and radio charts throughout the 90s, the duo drew criticism from the church for making “urbanized’ “worldly” songs that carefully replaced the name “Jesus” with words like “you” and “he.”
Even with this flack, the Grammy and Dove Award-winning team blazed a trail and opened doors at mainstream radio for Urban Gospel artists to come. The two took a hiatus in 1995 an embarked on solo careers. In 2009 they came back together and recreated the magic of BeBe and CeCe with the release their latest hit CD, the Grammy Award-winning Still (B&C Records/Malaco) featuring hits “Close To You” and “Grace.”
Detroit based brothers Ronald, Marvin, Carvin and Michael Winans, aka The Winans shook up the world with their fresh Urban Contemporary Gospel sound laced with secular beats and Bible-based/inspirational lyrics from 1981 through 1995. They were among the second wave of Gospel artists pushing their way into mainstream after contemporary Gospel legends Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins paved the way in the ’60s and ’70s.
Andrae Crouch was instrumental in the group getting its first record deal with Light Records. And in 1981 they released their first album, Introducing the Winans featuring the church song that became a cross-over hit, “Tomorrow,” “Trust In God” and “Uphold Me.” This marked the beginning of their cross-over success in Gospel and R&B sales and at mainstream radio.
When the group signed with Quincy Jones’ mainstream label, Warner Bros. distributed Qwest in the late 1980s, it opened the doorway to a wider audience and a whole new world of success and celebrity for the Grammy Award-winning. They became Gospel superstars.
When Gospel artists were rarely heard on Urban radio except for on Sundays, The Winans were getting consistent airplay with songs like “Ain’t No Need To Worry (featuring Anita Baker),” “The Question Is,” “Let My People Go,” and “Millions,” (one of Oprah’s favorite songs). The Gold selling album, Return which contained the very Urban “It’s Time,” produced by and featuring R&B producer, Teddy Riley was one of their most successful projects, but it also got them in hot water with traditionalist for working with a secular producer and artist.
Their strategic pairings with top R&B artists and producers helped propelled them to millions in sales and Gold record success.
And with that came more Urban radio airplay. The Winans became Gospel pioneers, breaking ground that would pave the way for artists such as Kirk Franklin and MARY MARY. The brothers stopped recording together officially as The Winans after 1995, but continue to record on other projects.
Eight-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, arranger and producer Andrae Crouch is one of the early modern-day pioneers in Christian and Urban Contemporary Gospel music credited with crossing Gospel music over into the Christian music arena at a time when churches and styles of music were very segregated. The Southern California born and raised Crouch has been recording music since the 1960s and has influenced two generations of artists and songwriters, including Donald Lawrence, Marvin Winans, and Donnie McClurkin.
Crouch was a key figure in the Christian music movement of the 1960s and 70s. His group Andrae Crouch and the Disciples signed with Light Records and later joined by his twin sister, Sandra Crouch, released some of the greatest songs the church has ever heard, “There Is Power In The Blood,” “My Tribute,” “Through It All,” “Take Me Back, ” and “Soon and Very Soon,” the latter was performed at Michael Jackson’s televised memorial service. By the 1980s Crouch was a solo artist at Quincy Jones’ Qwest label, taking his music to an audience beyond the church.
He broke ground as a Gospel music producer in film and TV by producing music for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated The Color Purple (“Maybe God Is Trying To Tell You Something”), Disney’s The Lion King and Free Willie. He also wrote the theme song for the TV show Amen.
And as a producer, arranger, and songwriter of over a thousand songs, he’s worked with both secular and Gospel artists. The list includes Michael Jackson (“Man In The Mirror), Madonna (“Like A Prayer”), Quincy Jones, Elton John, The Winans, and Diana Ross. His songs have been even recorded by Pop music greats Elvis Presley and Paul Simon.
After a 40+ year recording career, Crouch is still making heavenly music. The Oscar nominee’s latest CD is The Journey on Riverphlo Entertainment. It contains the chart-topping Billboard Gospel hit, “Let The Church Say Amen” with Marvin Winans on lead. Andrae Crouch and his sister Sandra serve as pastors of the New Christ Memorial Church in Pacoima, CA.
The Caravans paved the way for female groups of the day with their powerhouse vocals, unrivaled harmonies and trendsetting chic style of dress. Founded in Chicago in 1952 by the late Albertina Walker, they were the most popular female Gospel group in the country from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.
Its members fluctuated throughout the years. But the best known and most consistent members were Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, Shirley Caesar, Delores Washington, Cassietta George, and Bessie Griffin. Once accompanied by the legendary late James Cleveland (Founder of the Gospel Music Workshop of America) on piano, the group’s first record deal was with States label. They also recorded with Savoy and Vee-Jay.
Some of the group’s biggest hits, which are now church classics heard during Sunday morning church services, were “I won’t Be Back,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” ” Remember Me, ” “Walk Around Heaven“ “You Can’t eat God Giving,” “Lord Keep me Day By Day,” “Show Some Sign,” “I’m Not Tired Yet” and “I’m Willing.”
At the height of their stardom, The Caravans outpaced any female group in their genre. Although the core group ceased to record regularly in the 1960s, they continued to do reunion concerts in the 1970s and 80s and spot recordings.
The Caravans’ last project, Paved The Way (Malaco), was released in 2006, before the death of Albertina Walker. The album was nominated for a Grammy, Dove, and Soul Train Music Award and proved to the world that they are living legends who are still a world-wide music treasure.
The Clark Sisters
Best known for their 1983 pioneering cross-over hit, “You Brought The Sunshine,” The Grammy Award-winning Clark Sisters: Jacky Clark Chisholm, Dorinda Clark Cole, Karen Clark Sheard, songwriter/producer Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark and Denise Clark Bradford is one of the best selling female Gospel groups of our time. Following in the footsteps of The Caravans decades before, The Clark Sisters’ distinct familial vocals, tight harmonies, signature runs with Jazz, R&B and Blues infusions have influenced a generation of female singers from Faith Evans to Fantasia Barrino.
Their mother Mattie Moss Clark formed the group in the 1960s when they were just girls. They began creating a stir in their hometown of Detroit and signed their first deal with a local label in the early 1970s. However, they didn’t become the famed “Clark Sisters” until the 1980s. That’s when they started churning out hits (mostly written by Twinkie) they churned out cutting edge Christian themed hits in the 80s and blazed a trail as trendsetting pioneers in Contemporary Gospel Music, helping to move it closer into the mainstream.
Their music was a constant atop the Billboard Gospel charts throughout the 1980s. Among their hits were, “Endow Me,” “Is My Living In Vain?” “Hallelujah,” “Pure Gold, “Jesus Is A Love Song” and “Expect A Miracle.” And their biggest hit, the danceable “You Brought The Sunshine” (Sound Of Gospel Records) became s huge that you could turn on any number of Gospel and R&B stations and hear DJs jamming it. It charted on the Billboard Gospel Black Singles and Club charts. Churches were singing it at service and the clubs were rocking it on the dance floor.
One of their career highlights was performing at the 1983 Grammy Awards. Their mother joined them. She was later chastised by her denomination, The Church Of God In Christ, and ordered not to perform with The Clark Sisters again.
By 1986 Denise had left the group and remaining members Dorinda, Karen, Twinkie and Jacky continued to record. The Clark Sisters’ hit albums as a foursome include Heart & Soul, Conqueror, the live album Bringing It Back Home and Miracle. In 1990s they started solo careers. However, Dorinda and Karen have enjoyed the most commercial success.
Although, today they are still enjoying solo careers, the sisters reunited in 2006 to record the Donald Lawrence produced Grammy-winning Live”One Last Time (EMI Gospel) featuring hit, “Blessed and Highly Favored.”
Edwin Hawkins and Walter Hawkins
Four-time Grammy Award-winning Edwin Hawkins and his younger brother, the late Walter Hawkins are the architects of the West Coast Gospel choir sound. And Edwin is credited with being the originator of Urban Contemporary Gospel, opening the door for Urban Contemporary Gospel artists of today.
Raised in the San Francisco/Oakland, CA Bay Area and in the Church of God In Christ, Edwin and Walter became synonymous with African American church choir music in the 1970s and 80s. Their style was smooth, yet invoked the spirit. And it has influenced the likes of Gospel stars Donald Lawrence and Richard Smallwood.
Edwin made Gospel history first with a simple song that found its way into the hands of a local DJ and onto Gospel, R&B and Pop radio stations all over the country. The song was “Oh Happy Day,”Edwin’s Urban Gospel arrangement of this 18th-century hymn recorded was recorded by Edwin Hawkins and The Northern California State Youth Choir on the album, Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord (1968).
The freshly arranged hymn turned Urban Contemporary Gospel cross-over song became the first hymn to reach a top 5 spot on the Pop charts, achieve world-wide popularity and major sales. It’s appeared in the films Sister Act 2 (starring Whoopi Goldberg), Big Momma’s House (starring Martin Lawrence), Robin Williams’ License To Wed and the biographical Secretariat (starring Diane Lane).
Since opening doors for Gospel in the mainstream with “Oh Happy Day,” Edwin recorded with his family, The Hawkins Family and with his Music and Arts Seminar Mass Choir. His hits over the years include, “My Trust Lies In You, “Testify, “I Heard The Voice Of Jesus,” “Dear Jesus I Love You” and “Jesus Lover Of My Soul.” He hosts an annual conference , The Music and Arts Seminar to educate a new generation of gospel artists on the business and fundamentals for a career in Gospel music.
Walter who recorded much of his music with the Love Center Choir on the Love Alive series, passed away in 2010, but left a musical legacy that spanned over 30 years and includes some of the most influential choir music ever recorded, such as hits “Thank You, Lord,” “Grateful,” “Marvelous,” “Going Up Yonder” (featuring ex-wife, Tramaine Hawkins), “Jesus Christ Is The way,” “He’ll Bring You Out,” “Changed” featuring Tramaine Hawkins, “I’m going Through,” “Thank You,” “When The Battle Is Over,” “I Love The Lord,” and “What Is This.”
Although Erica and Trecina Atkins Campbell, aka Grammy and Stellar Award-winning MARY MARY have only been recording artist for 12 years. They have released 7 albums to date and racked up Gold and platinum hits, and sales in the millions along the way to becoming the top-selling female Gospel duo. They stepped onto trails blazed by their Gospel legends and took the genre even further into the mainstream with their palatable brand of Urban Gospel Music.
These Southern California girls’ journey to cross-over success began with their 2000 debut CD, Thankful (Columbia) which skyrocketed to Platinum success was spurred on by the ground-breaking cross-over hit single, “Shackles (Praise You).” Produced by Erica’s husband, Warryn Campbell, it possessed danceable beats with a non-churchy message. The song immediately caught on with Urban, Gospel and Christian music audiences and received mainstream radio airplay out of the box. It opened doors for more Gospel to be played on mainstream radio.
The duo’s other hit albums include Incredible (2002), MARY MARY (2005), A MARY MARY Christmas (2005), The Sound (2008), Something Big (2011) and their latest, Go Get It (2012). Mary Mary’s list of Urban, Gospel and Contemporary Christian charting hits include “In The Morning,” “God In Me” featuring Kierra Sheard, “Heaven,” “Can’t Give Up Now,” “Get Up,” “I Survive” and their latest single, “Go Get It.”
Named Billboard Magazine’s number 1 Gospel Artist of the decade in2009, Grammy and Stellar Award-winning singer/songwriter/actress and radio host Yolanda Adams is a former teacher, turned cross-over groundbreaking, multi-million selling Urban Contemporary Gospel recording artist whose music has successfully merged the worlds of Gospel and R&B, widening the door for Gospel in the mainstream marketplace.
Her first introduction to national fame came as a teen when the Houston native sang lead on the 1982 Gospel hit, “My Liberty” by the Southeast Inspiration Choir. She was later featured on Edwin Hawkins’ hit, “My Trust Lies In You” from his Music and Arts Seminar Mass Choir’s album Give Us Peace.
In the late 80s, she released her first album, Just As I Am on an independent label. By the early 1990s, Gospel Jazz pioneer, Ben Tankard had signed her to his Gospel/Jazz label, Tribute. Because her vocal style had Jazz overtones, it was an easy fit.
Adams released a series of hit albums in the 1990s for Tribute, starting with Through The Storm, Save The World, More Than A Melody, Yolanda Adams“¦Live in Washington. Her first taste of cross-over radio airplay came with her single, “Gotta Have Love” from More Than A Melody, featuring R&B crooner Tony Terry.
Despite this new avenue, she remained firmly planted as a Gospel star with soul-stirring classics like her signature song, “The Battle Is The Lord’s,” “Even Me” and “Through The Storm.”
Through label mergers and acquisitions, the Gospel diva landed at Verity/Zomba Records by the end of the 1990s where she continued her string of Gospel cross-over hits into the new millennium, which included “Still I Rise,” and “Only Believe” from the CD, Songs From The Heart.
Her greatest success and biggest push into the mainstream came when she broke ground as the first major Gospel artist Sylvia Rhone signed to Elektra Records in the late 90s. She released the cross-over multiple platinum-selling CD, Mountain High”¦Valley Low in 1999 which crossed formats and racked up spins at Urban, Gospel and Christian music radio with the ballad, “Open My Heart.”
That song introduced her to a large mainstream audience and broadened her appeal beyond Gospel and the church. Under Elektra Adams gained more cross-over appeal with the release of Day by Day, spawning hits “Be Blessed,” “This Too Shall Pass” and “Victory,” featured in the film, The Gospel.
In between, she released a Christmas CD and the Grammy Award-winning live project, The Experience, the Gold selling Believe featuring “Never Give Up.” When her association ended with Elektra/Atlantic Adams became a part of the Columbia Records family but only released a Christmas album What A Wonderful Time in 207 featuring the hit “Hold On.”
Because of her worldwide popularity, she is often called upon to represent the Genre on major TV specials. She’s performed on BET Honors and in a tribute to Aretha Franklin on the 53rd Grammy Awards.
In 2011 she became a record label owner and released Becoming Yolanda. Adams continues to break ground in nonmusic areas. As host of the nationally syndicated Yolanda Adams Morning Show, she is one of the few modern-day Gospel stars to host a successful syndicated morning radio show. She also has published the book Points of Power. And as a diva who loves fashion, she recently launched her own clothing line.