2008: Edwin, left, and Walter Hawkins performing their timeless hit “Oh Happy Day.” (AFRO Archive)
By Marnita Coleman
Special to the AFRO
Over the years, we have turned on the radio, scanned past gospel stations to reach soul, blues and rock and roll frequencies that air our favorite hits. Not wanting to feel convicted by preaching and religious tones, we quickly bypass gospel stations unaware that our preferred genre has the same roots. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, can be credited for the rocking tempo in gospel music. As a prolific blues and jazz musician of the 1930s, Dorsey’s cutting-edge compositions married the lyrics of Christian faith with jazz instruments at a time when gospel music was merely accompanied by a pianist. He’s the foundation on which the entire gospel music industry stands. The ever-evolving sound of gospel music comes from like-minded musicians and composers who dare to impact the world with the gospel in a form that is creative and energetic.
In 1967, Edwin Hawkins of the famed Hawkins family and the Northern California State Youth Choir (renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers) broke protocol with their rendition of “Oh Happy Day,” which initiated the sound of contemporary gospel music. The funky arrangements of an 18th Century hymn was the first gospel song to crossover to the secular charts in the United States and won the group a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. The brilliance of Hawkins’ foresight of music reached international communities as “Oh Happy Day” charted in the top 10 in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, and the UK. Hawkins’ contemporary sound of gospel music featuring synthesizers and Latin effects paved the way for other artists to enhance their projects and reach audiences with the message of the gospel. Performers like Arethea Franklin, The Winans and Richard Smallwood were impacted by his music.
The debut song from Kirk Franklin and Nu Nation’s album, “Stomp,” featuring Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-N-Pepa, had people from every generation, saved and unsaved, grooving and stomping along. (Courtesy photo)
In 1997, the gospel music industry shifted when hip-hop phenomenon, Kirk Franklin, released God’s Property from the Nu Nation album. The debut song, “Stomp,” featuring Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-N-Pepa, had people from every generation, saved and unsaved, grooving and stomping along. Franklin’s bold lyrics announced “For those of you who think gospel music has gone too far or that we’ve gotten too radical with our message, I’ve got news for you . . . you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” The project targeted a generation of youth with a purpose of encouraging their faith in God. In the first week of sales, the album garnered massive results charting in the number three spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart. It also reached number 1 on the R&B chart and Hip Hop chart for five weeks. Franklin is the most popular gospel artist of all time, always taking his gift of composing and performing music to new heights. He collaborated in many different genres of music some of which have involved, Kanye West, Kelly Price, Tyrese, and Fantasia.
The sister duo was instrumental in expanding the fan base of urban contemporary gospel with their soulful style of music, hip hop, funk, jazz and edgy tracks. The name Mary Mary is representative of two biblical Marys, Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. (Courtesy photo)
In 1998, Erica and Trecina Atkins, the dynamic sister duo of Mary Mary, was formed after penning “Time to Change” and “Yeah,” recorded by Yolanda Adams on the Mountain High … Valley Low album. Prior to that pivotal moment, the COGIC churchgoers performed in church choirs, stage plays and television productions. They connected with producer Warryn Campbell, who married Erica) and consummated a publishing deal with EMI for several soundtrack selections including movies such as Dr. Dolittle and The Prince of Egypt. As Mary Mary’s notoriety grew in the gospel music industry they were offered a record deal with Columbia Records and released the blockbuster debut project, “Thankful” featuring lead single “Shackles,” on Columbia. The song had far reaching crossover effects which sling-shotted them to the top 10 position on music charts around the world. It made the top 5 on the R&B chart, top 10 on the Pop chart and reached number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was the first gospel song during that period to rank in the top 10 of the R&B chart. Mary Mary went on to win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album and was certified Platinum for $1 Million records sold. The sister duo was instrumental in expanding the fan base of urban contemporary gospel with their soulful style of music, hip hop, funk, jazz and edgy tracks. The name Mary Mary is representative of two biblical Marys, Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
In 1982, Commissioned emerged from the Motor City with six strong members combining their talents with the likes of Fred Hammond, Mitchell Jones, Keith Staten, Karl Reid, Michael Brooks and Michael Williams. A few years later Marvin Sapp, Eddie Howard, Jr. and Maxx Frank were added to the group as Staten and Brooks departed. (Courtesy of Gospel Music Hall of Fame)
In 1982, Commissioned emerged from the Motor City with six strong members combining their talents with the likes of Fred Hammond, Mitchell Jones, Keith Staten, Karl Reid, Michael Brooks and Michael Williams. A few years later Marvin Sapp, Eddie Howard, Jr. and Maxx Frank were added to the group as Staten and Brooks departed. The revolving door continued with Howard, Hammond and Williams leaving an opening for Montrell Darrett, with Marcus Cole and Chris Poole joining later.
Commissioned’s rich harmonies blended gospel, soul R&B and funk with encouraging messages of the gospel. Classic Commissioned left us with tunes that will never fade away like Hammond’s voice on “Running Back to You,” “Ordinary Just Won’t Do,” “King of Glory,” “Will You Be Ready,” and the banging sounds of “Love Is the Way.”
Their music has been recognized and applauded by many R&B acts like Boyz II Men, 112, and Dru Hill. Commissioned recorded 12 chart-topping albums over the lifetime of their group. The Detroit super group also impacted the music of Brandy, Whitney Houston, and the Winans. Several of the members have accomplished successful solo careers reaching millions of fans worldwide.
Last but certainly not least, the legendary Clark Sisters have been singing, performing, making movies and serving in the church for over 60 years. They are a true American art form. Clearly, retirement is nowhere in sight for these gospel greats. In 2018, the Clark Sisters broke the glass ceiling for gospel artists in the film industry. Their lives were placed on the big screen for all to see and it wasn’t pretty. In a television biopic, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel which aired on Lifetime, the Clark Sisters’ behind the scenes drama was just that … drama. Neither was it a small matter with viewership of 2.7 million watching. The film was the highest rated original movie in four years for the Lifetime network. The performances were astonishing and the casting was impeccably true to life. The film was executive produced by Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige with Aunjanue Ellis starring as Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, Angela Birchett as Jacky Clark Chisholm, Raven Goodwin as Denise Clark Bradford, Christina Bell as Twinkie Clark, Shelea Frazier as Dorinda Clark Cole, and Kierra Sheard as her mother, Karen Clark Sheard.
In 2020, when the world was on lockdown, the Clark Sisters released their 17th album with a feature by Snoop Dog and produced by some of the industry’s most talented hitmakers Warryn Campbell, Rodney Jerkins, J. Drew Sheard, Jermaine Dupri, Marno Hines, and Kurt Carr. (Courtesy photo)
The Clark Sisters are the daughters of singer, composer, producer and musician extraordinaire, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, who created and taught three-part harmony. Dr. Clark was the visionary and matriarch of the Clark Sisters’ legacy. The Clark Sisters have been in the forefront of gospel music and revered for bringing gospel to mainstream. They are recipients of BET Awards, Dove Awards, Grammy Awards, NAACP Image Awards, Soul Train Awards and Stellar Awards. Along with Edwin Hawkins and the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Clark Sisters are among those who pioneered contemporary gospel music. They are the highest selling female gospel group in history.
In 2020, when the world was on lockdown, the Clark Sisters released their 17th album with a feature by Snoop Dog and produced by some of the industry’s most talented hitmakers Warryn Campbell, Rodney Jerkins, J. Drew Sheard, Jermaine Dupri, Marno Hines, and Kurt Carr.
Those who impact gospel music are too numerous to reference. The genre has shaped music around the world particularly in genres like Soul, R&B, Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll. As a courtesy we raise it up to other groups that are worthy of recognition such as The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Hawkins, The Winans, Donald Lawrence and Tri City Singers, and The Kurt Carr Singers. From choir to hip hop features, from writing to producing these are just a few of the well-recognized gospel groups that have impacted the gospel music industry.
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