The gospel purists are quick to blame the early 1950’s pop artists for desecrating what was considered Christian music. But this process had already started, while the only persons that knew Elvis’ name were his mother and father. In the late 1940’s a gospel-influenced style of music called jump blues or rhythm and blues, was making itself felt on the dance floors of the USA, and the message it carried was more of the sexual kind than a church sermon, with songs such as Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” having more than one meaning. In 1955 a young Afro-American singer/song writer, Richard Wayne Penniman, started recording in a style he had been performing on stage to mainly Afro American audiences for years, composed of varied rhythm, a heavy backbeat and over-the-top gospel-style singing; this new music, which included a shot of funk, was called ‘rock and roll’, and the young artist’s stage name is Little Richard.
This staggering change, so to say the re-birth of popular music, was hidden behind America’s wall of segregation; hidden that is, until 1956, when music producer Sam Phillips and a youthful Elvis Presley gave rock and roll a white face. Rock and roll faced many negative criticisms in its early years, from extreme Christians on both side of the racial line, and country and western traditionalists. But the baby had been born, and the world loved it! In fact it has become a force of its own, breaking down racial and language barriers on its way.
In the last decade or so, the opposite has taken place, where gospel has used some of the traits of rock to bring out that extra feeling! In many cases the quality of rock music being played by Christian bands is as good as mainstream groups. Many established pop artists have returned to the roots and recorded gospel related albums; Elvis Presley, for example, released three gospel LPs. Recently some of gospel’s major artists have recorded Bob Dylan songs, giving them a new lease of life!
If you, like me, are a soul and r&b fan, then the gospel scene is the place to search out that extra soulful voice. Don’t forget singers such as Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding first made their debuts in chorals, not to mention Steve Marriot, whose first singing experience was in his local church choir! These are just a handful of pop dignitaries that initiated their careers in church halls. I leave you with a clip from a man I consider to be one of the best soul/gospel singers of today Smokie Norful singing -“Run ‘Til I Finish”.
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