Sing Skillfully Unto the Lord: The Modern Gospel Chorus Movement in Chicago

In early 20th-century Chicago, the intersection of classical and gospel church traditions gave birth to the modern gospel chorus movement. This history has made Chicago the gospel choir capital of the world—and continues to have an impact on ensemble singing today.

If John Wesley Jones felt anxious sitting in Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church one August day in 1933, it wasn’t just because of the city’s famously sweltering summer heat; it was also the task before him. A fellow Chicago conductor named Thomas A. Dorsey had asked Jones to evaluate the singing capabilities of an ensemble Dorsey formed to represent the organization he had recently co-founded, the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.

The singers did not have much in common with Jones’s 100-voice, award-winning radio choir from Chicago’s Metropolitan Community Church. His choir performed the works of Bach, Handel and Schubert. It was one of the first black choirs to perform at the city’s venerable Orchestra Hall and to cut a phonograph record. The group sang over high-powered radio station WLS. People lined up around the block to gain admission to Jones’s monthly musicales at Metropolitan. But on this summer day, many of the singers facing Jones couldn’t read sheet music—most probably never had a music lesson in their life.

The apprehension was mutual. Jones, though small in physical stature, was ten feet tall in the conventioneers’ eyes. A two-time president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Jones was one of the most respected African American choir directors in the country. Meanwhile, most, if not all, of the members of the gospel chorus were migrants, fresh from the South, struggling to conform to a bewildering urban environment. But what they lacked in formal training they made up for in enthusiasm and desire.

The singers performed for Jones and nervously awaited his verdict. Complimentary and encouraging, Jones pointed out areas for improvement and offered vocal remedies. Dorsey was pleased. This interaction gave credibility to his 12-year effort to introduce a new form of worship music to change-resistant Protestant churches in the urban North. Henceforward, he would invite Jones and other African American classical artists to the convention to give gospel choruses professional singing workshops.

An artistic response to the Great Migration

As this anecdote suggests, African American gospel music did not develop in a vacuum. Gospel music, a form of sacred hymnody that drew its force from the prevailing black secular music of the era, was also built upon a solid firmament of formal music instruction. Musically astute directors such as Dorsey and his colleagues Magnolia Lewis Butts and Roberta Martin taught gospel choruses to employ vocal and performance techniques drawn from the classical choral tradition to make the emotionality of southern African American church music accessible and appealing to a wider audience.

The modern gospel chorus movement, led nationally by Dorsey, was an artistic response to the social and emotional ramifications of the Great Migration. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, approximately six million African Americans departed their southern birthplace between 1915 and 1970 to better their condition in northern industrial centers. African Americans from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Georgia living near Illinois Central stops tended to head for Chicago because that was the railroad’s northern terminus. So many Mississippians migrated to Chicago, in fact, that the city is referred to jokingly as North Mississippi.

The southern migrants were raised singing spirituals, hymns, and camp meeting songs. Through oral tradition, they maintained many of the music and worship practices of their West African ancestors. These practices included handclapping, foot patting, falsetto singing, repetition, and antiphonal, or call-and-response, singing. According to ethnographer Pearl Williams-Jones, black sacred folk music retained more “Africanisms” than any secular style of black music.

Yet by the early part of the 20th century, African American Protestant churches in the urban North disdained the exuberant worship practiced in the South. In Chicago’s aspirational middle-class Protestant churches, university-trained pastors offered learned sermons while senior choirs, directed by university-trained musicians, rendered choral literature by Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and other Western European masters. New settlers were bewildered by this staid form of worship. It made the church, the most important institution in the African American community, feel as unfamiliar as the rest of the urban environment. Seeking sacred refuge in this strange land, migrants packed into the city’s Pentecostal and Spiritual churches, where the music and preaching reminded them of their southern church experience.

Gospel Takes Root in Chicago

Dorsey’s early experiences illustrate how this culture clash between African American old settlers and new migrants informed the development of worship music. A Georgia migrant, Dorsey had tried in vain since 1921 to get his gospel song compositions accepted by the city’s conservative Protestant churches. One pastor after another criticized his songs as nothing more than “jazzing the hymns.” Had it not been for Willie Mae Ford Smith’s rendition of Dorsey’s “If You See My Savior” at the 1930 National Baptist Convention, held in Chicago that year, the songwriter may never have broken through those barriers. But bowing to popular interest in the song Smith sang, convention leaders gave Dorsey a table at the gathering to sell his song sheets.

The second breakthrough occurred in 1931, when Dr. John Henry Lorenzo Smith of Birmingham, Alabama, was named pastor of Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He wanted to hear the soul-stirring songs of the Southland in his church. He asked Theodore Frye, an itinerant singing evangelist, to assist with this endeavor. Frye, a Mississippi migrant, asked Dorsey, whom he met at the 1930 National Baptist Convention, to help him establish and accompany a gospel chorus at Ebenezer.

After a few weeks of rehearsal, the Ebenezer Gospel Choir debuted to an enthusiastic congregation on January 10, 1932. Smith was so elated with the result that he brought the chorus with him to Pilgrim Baptist Church the following Sunday. As guests of Pilgrim’s pastor, the Reverend Junius Austin, the Ebenezer Gospel Choir was just as well received as it had been the week before. Eyeing the potential of a gospel chorus to attract a growing migrant population, Austin hired Dorsey to organize one for Pilgrim.

Dorsey directed the Pilgrim Gospel Chorus with the rigor he had admired in J. Wesley Jones. Gospel chorus members learned to enunciate lyrics clearly, pronounce consonants, and deliver the highest level of musicality in their performance. Dorsey taught them the rudiments of stage presence, how to march in unison up the aisle to the choir stand, and how to deliberately incorporate improvisational techniques of southern sacred folk music into their singing. Choir members used sheet music to learn a song but were prohibited from referring to it during public performances.

Pilgrim Gospel Chorus member Fannie Hunt told Dorsey biographer Michael Harris that rehearsals were just like school. “You had to do the right thing. He was strict. He could really see and hear.” Dorsey made room for the spirit to inspire the unexpected, but he also made certain his singers employed improvisational techniques skillfully and strategically so as to delight those who enjoyed spirited singing while also earning the respect of a still-skeptical northern Protestant congregation.

Jonathan Miller, founder of Chicago a cappella and a student for two years with Dorsey’s niece, Lena McLin, while attending high school, concurs. “Dorsey’s genius was that he had something that the classically oriented worshippers felt had some substance to it, and the people who wanted more of a storefront worship felt it was emotionally compelling enough to interest them.”

The Growth of Gospel

Word about this new sacred folk singing trend spread like wildfire through Chicago. It appeared as if a new gospel chorus popped up somewhere in the city every week. To sustain the growth of this new musical form, instill technical uniformity, and broaden the market for Dorsey’s song sheets, Dorsey, Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts (a protégée of J. Wesley Jones) formed the Chicago Choral Union in 1932. The following year, they took gospel music beyond Chicago by founding the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses (NCGCC). Today the terms “choir” and “chorus” are interchangeable, but at the time of the NCGCC, they distinguished between the formal singing of senior choirs and the sacred folk singing of the gospel chorus.

With Dorsey engaged by Pilgrim, Ebenezer was without an accompanist. His replacement would become almost as influential as the master himself. Roberta Martin, a migrant from outside Helena, Arkansas, was a piano prodigy who could play by ear but took formal piano lessons with the intention of becoming a concert pianist. Forsaking these dreams as she became more involved in gospel music, Martin nevertheless pulled on her classical piano proclivities to write and arrange for the new gospel chorus.

Roberta Martin gave gospel music a grace and dignity that helped stifle the remaining naysayers who felt the new sacred folk music was too jazzy for worship. She spread her deft touch throughout the nation by heading up the NCGCC youth division and by publishing and marketing her arrangements and new songs. Most important, she organized gospel’s first ensemble of significance, the Roberta Martin Singers. From 1933 to 1969, the Roberta Martin Singers traveled the U.S. extensively, performed in Italy, and earned Gold Records for their single and album releases.

Martin’s impact on gospel music cannot be overestimated. According to Dr. Ray Allen Berryhill, whose Evangel World Outreach Choir was a national finalist in the 2009 Verizon How Sweet the Sound competition for the best church choir in America, Martin influenced many Chicago gospel pioneers, including soprano DeLois Barrett Campbell and the internationally renowned Barrett Sisters. “All of them had classical influence in their music,” Berryhill says.

Over the decades, classical influences figured strongly in the sound of Chicago’s African American churches. Formed in 1929, the First Church of Deliverance Radio Choir was initially led by a music minister who traced his musical lineage to J. Wesley Jones. In that light, it’s not surprising that the First Church of Deliverance Radio Choir sang hymns, anthems, spirituals, gospel songs, and sacred classical pieces. Julia Mae Kennedy, another First Church music minister, contributed what she learned as part of the Williams Jubilee Singers, one of several formally trained jubilee singing groups that headquartered in Chicago. Founded in 1950, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church benefited from several learned musicians who planted the folk styles of southern church tradition into a musically sound firmament.

The sound of the gospel chorus spread nationally through the proliferation of NCGCC chapters as well as through Chicago church services that aired over high-wattage radio stations. It also benefitted from song sheets sold via mail order from the Chicago-based music publishing firms of Roberta Martin, Thomas Dorsey, Theodore Frye, and Sallie Martin and Kenneth Morris.

But until 1948, the only way to join a church gospel chorus was to be a member of that church. The Reverend Milton Brunson helped change that in 1948 when he organized the city’s first African American youth community choir. His vision for the Thompson Community Singers was to provide a positive out-of-school outlet for latch-key youth and to enable youth from different churches and denominations to fellowship. For the first few years, the “Tommies” sang hymns, anthems, spirituals, and an occasional classical piece. By the early 1960s, they fully embraced gospel music and became one of the nation’s most popular recording choirs.

Like the gospel chorus movement, the community youth choir movement swept through the city. Subsequent aggregations included the Treadwell Community Choir, South Side Community Choir, Helen Robinson Youth Choir, Holloway Community Singers, and the Wyatt Choral Ensemble. The Wooten Choral Ensemble was organized in 1949 by classically trained keyboardist Robert Wooten.

The Soul Children of Chicago, founded by Dr. Walt Whitman, is another example of a gospel choir with classical underpinnings. “The Soul Children of Chicago has been singing classical and choral music since its inception,” Whitman says. “We have always been able to weave the powerful delivery of gospel around the accepted sound of classical without compromise.”

Gospel in Chicago Today

Classical music influences remain prevalent in gospel choirs, thanks largely to songwriters and directors like Richard Smallwood and Donald Lawrence. The classically trained Smallwood has deftly braided together classical and sacred folk traditions in such church staples as “Center of My Joy,” “I Love the Lord” (performed by Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir in the 1996 film The Preacher’s Wife), and “Total Praise.” Lawrence draws from his university training and musical theater experience to create gospel music rooted in tradition but built on a solid musical foundation.

Gospel influences have found their way into the broader choral community, especially when it comes to the relationship between the singers and their audience. Notes Jonathan Miller: “Audiences want a more emotional connection with what is happening on stage. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if gospel choirs have given [other kinds of choirs] license to have more emotion in their music. Many choirs are so bound to the page that it takes some work to get them to put their books down and think about doing anything else.”

In Chicago itself, internationally respected gospel choir clinician L. Stanley Davis highlights several examples of how African American gospel music has influenced the broader choral community. Among these are the annual Auditorium Theater presentation of Too Hot to Handel, a gospelization of Messiah, and an annual collaboration that took place at Orchestra Hall between Paul Freeman’s Chicago Sinfonietta and the Apostolic Church of God choir. Citing his own experience successfully introducing gospel music to a Lutheran church in suburban Chicago, Davis says, “I’ve seen how gospel music can change the spiritual life of a classically based church.”

Since its inception during the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Children’s Choir has sung music that transcends race and religious boundaries, serving as a model for scores of youth ensembles formed nationwide in the decades since. “Gospel music has always been integrated into our repertory, at every level,” says president and artistic director Josephine Lee. “There is not one style of music superior to another. Performing gospel music is just as important as performing Bernstein’s Mass.” To underscore the point, she shares a favorite memory: “A woman once said to me that she never understood who God was until she stood next to someone singing gospel music.”

The sound of gospel music has journeyed far from its early days at Ebenezer and Pilgrim, but the churchy style of Dorsey and Frye is alive in Chicago, courtesy of groups such as Dr. Lou Della Evans Reid’s Traditional Gospel Choir and the Gospel Music According to Chicago Mass Choir. Not only do they perform songs from gospel’s golden age, but their soloists include gospel singers who first rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.

From the Chicago Mass Choir to Dexter Walker and Zion Movement, there seem to be more professional and semi-professional gospel choirs in Chicago than anywhere else. It’s no surprise, then, that despite the many changes that have taken place in gospel music over the past 50 years, Chicago is still considered the gospel choir capital of the world.
Robert M. Marovich is editor-in-chief of the award-winning website Journal of Gospel Music, host of the weekly radio program “Gospel Memories” on Chicago’s WLUW-FM, and author of A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (University of Illinois Press).