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Gospel Music – Roots and Famous Singers

Photograph of the blog post author, Annika Hope

Annika Hope


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Gospel music is passionate and soulful and can be associated with more of a religious genre of music. This will be the more present theme in our article today, however it must be said that  there are a few of the singers mentioned in this list who would be considered more country or more mainstream but there is still that gospel genre running through some of their songs. I am looking here at Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. One thing is for certain regarding these music icons, they all have become part of the backdrop of the gospel scene due their unwavering talent. I’m excited to tell you more about them, but let’s review the history of gospel music first. 

Gospel Music History

Where did this genre of music originate and how did it become such a movement as it still is today? Gospel music is a type of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South. Before the 1930s, when the gospel music scene really took off, black gospel music had its foundation in ‘African American spiritual’, a religious folk song that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. 


The form has its roots in the informal gatherings of African slaves in “praise houses” and outdoor meetings called “brush arbor meetings,” “bush meetings,” or “camp meetings” in the eighteenth century. At the meetings, participants would sing, chant, dance and sometimes enter ecstatic trances. Spirituals also stem from the “ring shout,” a shuffling circular dance to chanting and clapping of hands that was common among early plantation slaves. 

Under white colonization, the African population were introduced to Christianity but it took some time at first to see the likeness of their stories to that of those in the Bible. There began the start of gospel music and a way for African Americans to amplify their faith using the stories of the Bible. 

Spirituals have a certain pattern to them. For example, they retain a call and response form, whereby a leader will sing a line of text and the audience / chorus of singers will sing back a refrain. 

There was a time when spirituals were seen as coded protest songs and a spiritual that was certainly used as a code for escape to freedom was “Go down, Moses,” used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north. Another was “Steal away,” composed by Wallis Willis. On February 7, 1958, a rendition of the ‘Go Down, Moses’ was recorded in New York City and sung by Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra. 

H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949), African-American composer, was known for his involvement in his adaptations of African-American spirituals. He composed piano-voice arrangements of spirituals in the early twentieth century for solo classical singers. 

The Great Migration

Between 1910 and 1970, about 6 million Black Americans moved from the rural South to cities in the North, the West and other parts of the United States. It’s known as the Great Migration. The southern gospel music was brought to the northern cities and the culture from where gospel began remained. The meaning behind the spirituals and the original music styling was in abundance in African American communities and this is where gospel really started to get going. 

So shall we hear more about the famous gospel singers who made their mark in the music industry and how they got started? I will also be adding in some gospel music YouTube links so you can get a taste of the music of these fabulous artists. 

Famous Gospel Singers

This is certainly not an exclusive list by any means, but we have curated one which includes our favorites today. I hope you enjoy it. 

Mahalia Jackson 

She was given the title “Queen Of Gospel” as the most influential gospel singers of the 20th century. She was born October 26, 1911, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.—died January 27, 1972, Evergreen Park, near Chicago, Illinois. Her strict upbringing, and the singing in the church choir had such a profound effect on her that at the age of 16, she moved to Chicago to join the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir for which she became a soloist performer. 

In 1945, she released the song, ‘“Move on Up a Little Higher,” which was her biggest hit, but she had released a single before this in 1934 called “God Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares,” which probably gave her the success she needed to go on to perform Move On Up. 

In gospel, there is something called ‘vamp’ in which repetitive phrasing is seen, whereby solo improvisation can follow. We saw this in the call and response pattern mentioned above. Her songs drew upon biblical texts, and rhythm and blues had a profound effect on her music. She performed at The Carnegie Hall in 1952 and was the first gospel singer to perform there and also at Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. She also performed at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, at the March on Washington in 1963, and at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gary Davis

‘Reverend Gary Davis’, also ‘Blind Gary Davis’, was a blues and gospel singer who was also proficient on the banjo, guitar and harmonica. April 30, 1896, Laurens, South Carolina, US and died May 5, 1972 Hammonton, New Jersey, US. He was blind since birth but that did not prevent him from becoming a famous gospel music icon, one that inspired musicians from The Rolling Stones to The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. It was the fingerpicking style that he used when he played both the banjo and guitar that caught people’s attention. 

He first performed professionally in the Piedmont blues scene of Durham, North Carolina in the 1930s, before converting to Christianity and becoming a minister. After relocating to New York in the 1940s, Davis experienced a career rebirth as part of the American folk music revival that peaked during the 1960s. His most well known songs include, ‘Samson and Delilah’ ‘If I Had My Way,’ and ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy,’.

Elvis Presley

Elvis was born 8 January 1935, Tupelo, Mississippi, US and died 16 August 1977, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, US. 

We all know about Elvis being the King of Rock and Roll, but did you know that he released a gospel album called ‘He Touched Me’ in 1972? This actually helped him win a second Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance.  There was a 14-stop tour of the album which saw a 4 night sell out at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The live recording of the music concert became one of his largest ever selling albums. 

Presley’s recording of ‘How Great Thou Art’ also won him his third and final competitive Grammy Award. Receiving 14 Grammy nominations, which three were for his gospel albums is a clear demonstration he was master of many musical talents. 

Sam Cooke

He was born January 22, 1931, Clarksdale, Mississippi, U.S. and died December 11, 1964,

Los Angeles, California, U.S.

His song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was his greatest hit and he certainly changed gospel music, but also the sound of both R&B, and soul. His smooth voice radiated far and wide and he is known as “The King Of Soul.”

The Highway QCs, was a gospel group he performed with when he was young, but it was with The Soul Stirrers where he became the lead singer and his singing took off from there. He traversed into pop in the mid-1950s and with the help of 29 of his singles charted the Top 40, he was a famous singer everybody knew.

He also was an advocate for human rights and change. He had friendships with Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.  

However, his career and his life came to a tragic end in 1964 when at the young age of 33, he was shot and killed. In his brief life on earth, he inspired many with his music, with songs like  ‘You Send Me’ and ‘Good News’.

Hank Williams

Hank Williams was an example of where country gospel music became one.  He was born 17 September 1923, Mount Olive, Alabama, US and died 1 January 1953, Oak Hill, West Virginia, US. 

He was an American singer, songwriter, and musician. Regarded as one of the most significant and influential American singers and songwriters of the 20th century, he recorded 55 singles that reached the top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, including 12 that reached No. 1. 

Writing songs under his alter ego –  Luke The Drifter, 40 gospel songs exist, which include ‘I Saw The Light,’ ‘Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul,’ and ‘A Home In Heaven.’

He has been inducted into all of the following; the Country Music Hall, the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Songwriters Music Hall of Fame. Even though he had many a good year in the music industry and was a well respected musician, his demons won in the end, in the form of alcoholism and drug abuse and a young death at only 29 years old in 1953. His legacy however lives on. 

Larnelle Harris

His audience loves this man and for good reason, he inspires so many with his gospel music, far and wide. He was born July 6, 1947, Danville, Kentucky, U.S and still performs today. He is part of the band Gaither Vocal Band and has won a far few awards, including five Grammy awards. 

His start in music was based on a love for the drums, in a popular gospel touring group The Spurrlows, but then he forged a solo career, collaborating with other artists such as Christan music star Sandi Patty and gospel singer Wintley Phipps.  ‘More Than Wonderful’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen Jesus’, are just some of his greatest hits. 

He has made several tv appearances including ; Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, The 700 Club, several Billy Graham crusades, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has appeared on numerous Gaither Homecoming shows, and his own Christmas special. In his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, Harris has made many appearances on the WHAS Crusade for Children, a long-running local telethon benefitting children’s charities.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

She was young when she started performing for The Church of God in Christ. Actually, she was only 6 years old. And so it continued, since at the age of 23, she began to release professional songs. These included; ‘The Lonesome Road’ and ‘That’s All.’ She was born March 20, 1915

Cotton Plant, Arkansas, U.S. and died October 9, 1973, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.

She broke a record as the first gospel song reaching the R&B Top 10 with her song ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’. She played guitar which was an inspiration for some younger artists. For example, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presely, but also later on influenced what was known as the British Blues. The likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards all have been know to say they champion her as their role model. 

She was the first great recording star of gospel music, but to appeal to rhythm and blues, rock and roll audiences is a feat in itself. She is a true gospel music star.

Tasha Cobbs Leonard

One of the more current gospel music artists on this list, Tasha is taking this world by storm.She was born July 7, 1981, Jesup, Georgia. 

In 2010, she launched a self-released album ‘Smile’. She recorded the extended play ‘Grace’ in 2012 with EMI Gospel, which was later released in 2013 with ‘Break Every Chain’ being the lead single. The EP reached No. 61 on the Billboard charts. At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, Cobbs won the Grammy for Best Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music Performance. She has also won 15 Stellar Awards, 3 Billboard Music Awards, and 9 Dove Awards.

Is there anything this powerful female gospel musician can’t do? She also currently co-pastors a congregation with her record producer husband, Kenneth Leonard. 

Johnny Cash

Cash is known for being an American country singer-songwriter, who had a romance with June Carter. He was born February 26, 1932, Kingsland, Arkansas, U.S. and died September 12, 2003, Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.

His ascent in the country music scene was a stroke of pure genius but people may not know he had a passion for gospel music too. For every ten songs he wrote, one had to be a gospel song that proudly linked him to his humble beginnings. 

During his career which spanned 50 years, he wrote many songs, but ‘He Turned The Water Into Wine,’ ‘It Was Jesus,’ and ‘Lead Me Father’, speak of a strong relationship to God for Johnny.  

In 1959, he recorded the album ‘Hymns’ which was his fifth studio album and first gospel album. It was said to be his most popular gospel album of his career. 

Travis Greene

Travis was born January 17, 1984, Delaware, U.S. He is an American gospel musician and pastor. He co-leads a congregation with his wife and is a star in the making at the age of 38 years old.

In 2007, he released his first record called ‘The More’ through Greenelight Records. He has gone on to release further albums; ‘Stretching Out’ in 2010 by Pendulum Records, ‘The Hill’ in 2015  from RCA Inspiration and an extended play, ‘Intentional’ in 2015. In 2017, he released his third album ‘Crossover: Live From Music City’ as a live album. 

He is the youngest gospel music artist in this list and has achieved a great deal in his 38 years. His music has been on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums and the Top Gospel Songs charts. He has also been nominated for multiple awards, including five Grammy Awards and 13 Stellar Awards. 

Closing Thoughts

Wow, now if these gospel music legends don’t inspire you then I don’t know what will! I have to say that I have loved writing every part of this article and exploring this genre, so I really hope you have too. It is our duty here at Music Gateway to share with you a little bit of information on the greats in the industry or give you the best music advice so I hope we have excelled today in doing this. Gospel music is  


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