Though its roots are ultimately as hard to pin down to a specific time and place as those of any other enduring musical genre, Chicago looms as large in gospel music as it does in the electric blues, thanks in large part to the pioneering Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey and the extraordinary women who followed in his footsteps.
One does not have to be a person of faith to appreciate the music, echoes of which are heard in all modern pop, especially via the rich tradition of call-and-response vocals and the never-ending search for melodies that evoke spiritual transcendence.
The importance of the music as the magnet at the centers of community represented by African-American churches cannot be overstated — in the present or in the past. (For the history of gospel as the soundtrack for the civil rights movement, as well as the story of some of Chicago’s most important artists, I highly recommend my Sound Opinions colleague Greg Kot’s book I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era.)
10. Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey
“I sat down at the piano and my hands began to browse over the keys. Then something happened: I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I’d never heard or played before, and words came into my head. They just seemed to fall into place.”
For many, gospel begins with Dorsey. But for him, the music he first popularized and brought to national attention began with the blues. The secular pianist — originally known as Georgia Tom — moved from the South to Chicago following the devastating loss of his first wife and son in 1932, when he was 33 years old.
Dorsey brought spiritual themes, and more complex vocal and instrumental arrangements, to what he called “field songs.” He served as music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from 1932 until the late ’70s, when he wrote more than 400 songs and started the first gospel music publishing company, Dorsey House of Music. Dorsey died in 1993 at age 93. He will be best remembered for “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which was sung by Mahalia Jackson at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
11. Mahalia Jackson
“It’s been a wonderful life serving the Lord and His people through song.”
Born in New Orleans in 1911, friends called Jackson “Halie.” Harry Belafonte called her “the single most powerful black woman in the United States,” and most everyone else who listened to the more than 30 albums she recorded during a longer career with Columbia Records called her “the Queen of Gospel.”
Suffering since birth from bowed legs that never were corrected by surgery, she gracefully accepted the challenges of a difficult life by relying on her faith, refusing to sing secular songs and spending 14 years in a fruitful musical partnership with Dorsey. She died in Chicago in 1972, at age 60, and a capacity-crowd filled the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place for her funeral.
12. Albertina Walker
“It is easy to be independent when you’ve got money. But to be independent when you haven’t got a thing, that’s the Lord’s test.”
Born in Chicago in 1929, Walker first made her mark on gospel with the Caravans, a group she founded in the early 1950s. A decade and a half later, she set out on a solo career.
“Mahalia [Jackson] used to kid me. She’d say, ‘Girl, you need to go sing by yourself!’ ” Walker said in a 2010 interview shortly before her death.
Walker ultimately record more than 60 albums, scoring hits such as “The Best Is Yet to Come” and “I Can Go to God in Prayer,” and singing for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as South African President Nelson Mandela, before she died at age 81.
13. The Staple Singers
“Pops, he was a singer’s singer. I loved to hear my father sing. He just was so laid-back and cool. I always wished I could sing like Pops.” — Mavis Staples
No slight to her golden-voiced siblings or legendary father, whose vision of merging gospel with soul, rhythm and blues, rock and his work as an incredibly deft guitarist are vastly underrated, but Mavis always was the heart and soul of the Staple Singers. As a solo artist, she remains at the top of the list with her devoted admirer Bob Dylan as one of America’s greatest living musical treasures.
Pops was working in the steel mills and meat-packing plants on the South Side when he began performing with his four children in Chicago churches in 1948. They began their long recording career four years later, experienced some of their greatest success with Stax Records, and sang the songs that helped fuel and inspire the marches of the civil rights movement.
At age 77, Mavis is still going strong—some of the best music of her career can be heard on recent releases for ANTI-/Epitaph — and she is the subject of an in-depth, career-spanning interview that airs on Sound Opinions this weekend (with a second installment coming later this year).
About this series:
In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”
In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.
Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.
Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.
Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.
Click here for Part Two in this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ’n’ Roll.