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It’s no secret that a legion of R&B singers trace their musical origins to the church, with the aesthetics of spirituals, gospel and the blues forming the bedrock of sounds that have invigorated soul, rock, pop, and other genres. Here are some of the artists whose sounds were formed in spiritual sanctuaries.
Daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin of the New Bethel Baptist congregation in Detroit, Aretha Franklin was dubbed the Queen of Soul due to the full-bodied exquisiteness of her recordings, displaying a church-raised voice and understanding of musical interpretation that soared above the rest.
Under Atlantic Records, the multiple Grammy winner became a household name in the mid-to-late 1960s with momentous hits like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Chain of Fools.” A stellar pianist as well, Franklin regularly infused her secular songs with gospel accents and phrasings, as seen with the instrumental introduction to the No. 1 R&B track “Don’t Play That Song for Me.”
She ultimately had dozens of singles that reached the soul Top 10. Other luminous hits from the ’70s included “Spanish Harlem,” “Rock Steady,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Angel,” with the Queen revamping her career in the ’80s upon joining Arista Records.
While having a huge canon of secular tunes, Franklin released albums that focused on the church as seen with the critically acclaimed Amazing Grace in 1972 and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism in 1987. The concert documentary Amazing Grace, chronicling the making of the album of the same name, was released posthumously soon after Franklin’s death in 2018.
Whitney Houston was born into musical royalty with the church playing a major part in her upbringing. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was part of the gospel-oriented group the Sweet Inspirations, known for their work with Aretha Franklin, and Dionne Warwick was a cousin. Houston’s self-titled debut album was released in 1985 and featured the No. 1 pop hits “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.”
The follow-up, Whitney, was a multi-platinum success with the unforgettable “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” among other singles. I’m Your Baby Tonight and Your Love Is My Love took on a more decidedly R&B-based turn, while her soundtrack work for The Bodyguard, featuring “I Will Always Love You” and “I’m Every Woman,” as well as Waiting to Exhale yielded even more success to make her one of the biggest pop artists of all time.
Houston continued to perform church-based songs throughout her career, notably via The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. Her earlier performance of the gospel song “Wonderful Counselor,” with mother Cissy and brother Gary at the 1988 American Music Awards, was unshakeable in its electricity and power. Yet over time, Houston’s career was famously marred by drug use, the pressures of an unrelenting spotlight and what would be viewed as a toxic marriage to fellow recording artist Bobby Brown. Houston died in 2012 at the age of 48.
The son of a deacon, Otis Redding developed his skills as a performer singing as part of the junior choir in Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia, and also performed with an outside gospel quartet. The charismatic Redding, naming Little Richard as a huge influence, eventually became a renowned solo recording artist with a voice that registered strength, vulnerability and care.
He had a number of hits on the R&B charts during the 1960s, including “Chained and Bound,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” “Respect,” “Satisfaction,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “Tramp,” the latter with Carla Thomas. Redding died in a 1967 plane crash at the age of 26, abruptly ending a meteoric career. Yet his sound and the textures of his music came to define a decade for future generations, with his posthumously released “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” becoming a No. 1 U.S. pop hit and long-time classic.
Born in Washington, D.C., to a reverend father, Marvin Gaye started singing in the House of God church at an early age, later studying several instruments. In the early 1960s, Gaye met Motown founder Berry Gordy and worked with the label as a drummer and singer before embarking on a solo career that would lead him to become a powerhouse pop/soul act with Top 10 singles like “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Your Precious Love,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
Having survived abuse at the hands of his father during his youth, Gaye’s career was marked by a range of concerns about the human experience. Gaye’s wish to take his artistry in a more provocatively conscious direction was evidenced with the ethereal, layered 1971 album What’s Going On.
By contrast, his devotion to romantic love and eroticism were evident with other ’70s outings like Let’s Get It On and I Want You in contrast to the sets Here My Dear, dealing with divorce, and In Our Lifetime, featuring an album cover depicting the singer as both angel and demon. He had a major final hit, “Sexual Healing,” before Marvin Gaye’s father shot and killed him in 1984.
The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers had their origins in both the Mississippi and Chicago church scenes and rose to popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. The group was led by patriarch Roebuck “Pop” Staples, featuring daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne, with son Pervis in the lineup for some time as well.
The Staples had their start as a straight-up gospel group, and by the 1970s the act reached secular audiences via Stax Records with songs like “Respect Yourself,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” “Oh Le De Da,” “Touch a Hand (Make a Friend),” and the No. 1 pop hit “I’ll Take You There,” all clearly concerned with spiritual transcendence and care. Yet the group tackled sensual themes as well, as seen with “Do It Again,” a praise of intimacy and another No. 1 hit made with Curtis Mayfield for the soundtrack to the film of the same name.
Chicago-based sisters Sheila, Wanda and Jeanette Hutchinson formed the vocal group The Emotions during the 1960s with gospel as a foundation. Soon after, they landed a Top 5 R&B hit “So I Can Love You.” The act continued to make waves on the R&B charts after teaming with Maurice White and in 1977 had a No. 1 hit “Best of My Love.”
This was soon followed with more commercial success with the ballad “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” and the Earth, Wind & Fire collaboration “Boogie Wonderland,” where gospel-based harmonies were front and center.
Some might be surprised to learn that the Queen of Disco — a title earned in her 1970s heyday with tracks like “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” and “Hot Stuff” — sang during her youth at Grant AME Church in Boston, Massachusetts. The native Bostonian, whose vocal style smoothly fit a number of genres, started to perform in German and Austrian theatrical productions in the late 60s.
Donna Summer embarked on a solo recording career and collaborated with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte for the albums A Love Trilogy, I Remember Yesterday, Four Seasons of Love, and Once Upon a Time. Summer ended the decade with her album Bad Girls and a greatest hits collection while embracing her Christian roots. In the ’80s, with the demise of disco, Summer’s tunes took a decidedly pop turn before she returned to dance club material during the ’90s and 2000s. Summer died in 2014.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Stephanie Mills sang as a youngster at Cornerstone Baptist Church and starred as a teen in the 1975 Broadway production of The Wiz, portraying Dorothy.
Soon becoming a recording artist, she started off the 1980s with one of radio’s kindest odes to romance, “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” That decade, the vocalist was a soul chart juggernaut, with five No. 1 singles that included “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,” “I Feel Good All Over” and “Something in the Way (You Make Me Feel).” On her 1989 album Home, the musical and vocal arrangements for “So Good, So Right” and “Comfort of a Man” could easily be positioned as a song fit for the pews, even with secular lyrics.
Mills released the gospel album Personal Inspiration in 1995, and in an homage two decades later to her Broadway roots, appeared in the 2015 live TV event The Wiz Live! as Auntie Em.
Having performed in Newark’s Emmanuel Baptist church as a toddler, Faith Evanswas later an honors student who earned a university scholarship before deciding to write songs for hitmakers on the urban contemporary music scene. She wed rapper Notorious B.I.G. in 1994, with whom she appeared on the cut “One More Chance/Stay With Me.”
Her vocals were laidback, assured and tender and she would soon become a Bad Boy Records staple. In addition to ballads, Evans had singles that rocked the R&B charts and clubs from the late ‘90s into the 2000s as seen with “Love Like This Before,” “All Night Long,” “You Gets No Love,” and “Burnin’ Up.”
Evans also handled the chorus for the chart-topping dedication to her late husband Biggie, “I’ll Be Missing You,” and was part of a trio consisting of two other women anchored in gospel — Whitney Houston and Kelly Price—on the No. 2 pop/No. 1 R&B single “Heartbreak Hotel.”
As a child in Springfield, Ohio, John Legend grew up in a family of church musicians, with Legend taking on vocals and the piano. Later, during his Ivy League college years at the University of Pennsylvania, he served as choir director for Scranton’s Bethel AME Church.
He would soon work with the likes of Lauryn Hill and Kanye West, appearing on the latter’s label with the debut album Get Lifted, featuring the ballad “Ordinary People.” The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s work has decidedly stayed in the R&B and pop lanes, though a taste of earlier gospel music interplay with his family can be heard on “It Don’t Have to Change.”
More albums have followed over the years, with 2013’s Love in the Future a particularly formidable set. In many ways a traditional stylist, Legend has constructed a sound that has fused soul, hip-hop, gospel, pop, jazz, and Broadway, cementing his status as a contemporary crooner with appeal to a large adult audience.
This critically cherished British artist released her debut album Sing to the Moon in 2013. Growing up in Birmingham, England, in a devout family of Caribbean descent, Laura Mvula’s church experiences led her to focus on penning and conducting music, and she thus attended the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
The vocalist/composer has readily incorporated choral-type singing and overtly spiritual themes into her music, much of which has a wondrous, cinematic feeling with nonconventional takes on traditional pop. Her second studio album, 2016’s The Dreaming Room, continued explorations of both grand and personal themes with neo-spirituals like “Bread” and “People.” And the up-tempo lead single “Overcome,” delivers a message of uplift to “God’s children” with guitarist Nile Rodgers.
A Chicago native, Curtis Mayfield performed as a guitarist and singer, and during his youth belonged to the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. He was later invited by fellow singer and Jubilee group member Jerry Butler to join the Impressions, a leading R&B group known for a long roster of 1960s singles like “It’s All Right,” “Amen,” “Keep on Pushing,” and “We’re a Winner,” with devotion to the goals of the Black Pride and Civil Rights movements.
Having led the act after Butler’s early departure, Mayfield went solo with his debut album Curtis in 1970 and received acclaim for his work for the 1972 soundtrack to Superfly. Working with other soul luminaries, he would also helm the soundtracks for the films Claudine, Let’s Do It Again and Sparkle.
While the Impressions were known for overtly religious themes, Mayfield’s work as a solo artist touched on these sensibilities, sometimes with caustic wit, as seen via the lyrics to his single, “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” A hero to several generations, Mayfield died in 1999.TAGSBLACK HISTORYBY CLARENCE HAYNES
Originally from New York City, Clarence Haynes is a writer and content manager whose articles focus on arts, culture and history.
Written by: CLARENCE HAYNES
First published: https://www.biography.com/news/aretha-franklin-black-singers-church
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