Gospel music is the most American of American music and the veritable soundtrack of black America. Born in the trauma of the 1930s, nurtured in the dramatic shifts of the 1940s and 50s, validated during the uncertainties of the 1960s and 70s, and complicated amid the technological advances of the 1980s and 90s, it has wonderfully articulated the hopes, fears, struggles, and joys of generations of blacks. As the root of R&B, Soul, and Rock, it is perhaps the most influential American musical genre, having launched the careers of countless singers past and present. Gospel music is the most authentically black cultural expression and the most glorious music on earth with a sound and a feeling all its own.
Coming up with a list of the best gospel songs is a near impossible task, so this list of 10 represent the most significant in terms of music and lyrical quality, originality, innovation, and most important, how they conform to the classic understanding of gospel music, which is “good news.” They not only have the gospel sound, but also the “spirit” of Gospel!
TAKE MY HAND, PRECIOUS LORD (1932): Written by former bluesman, Thomas A. Dorsey, this song is perhaps the iconic gospel song and has set the musical and thematic tone for all gospel music. The melody is from a 19th century hymn, but Dorsey wrote the lines in bereavement over the deaths of his first wife and child. One of the most recorded gospel songs in history, “Precious Lord” has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Chaka Khan. Four years after Mahalia Jackson sang it at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., Aretha Franklin sang it at Jackson’s funeral.
MOVE ON UP A LITTLE HIGHER (1947): Pastor and composer W. Herbert Brewster wrote this other iconic gospel song which became gospel music’s first bone fide “hit,” selling 8 million copies. Now in the National Recording Registry and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it is one of the most celebrated songs in gospel history.
HOW I GOT OVER (1951): The relatively sad life of Clara Ward did not prevent her from writing one of the most uplifting gospel songs. Ward was inspired to write the song after a racist incident while traveling in the South with her group The Ward Singers. The two best-known versions of it are Mahalia Jackson’s 1961 recording and Aretha Franklin’s 1972 recording on the now classic album “Amazing Grace.”
I’M TOO CLOSE (1953): A favorite of Ray Charles, Professor Alex Bradford was one of the first great “showmen” of gospel and one of the most influential male gospel singers in the Post-WWII era. He wrote and performed this song, which became a huge hit in the early 1950s. The bluesy cadence of the song spoke of perseverance and longsuffering on one’s journey to heaven. Bradford’s singing ranged from a husky baritone to a sweet, sweet falsetto, and he influenced many R&B, Soul, Rock and Pop artists. While he’s known as the “Little Richard of gospel,” it is more accurate to call Little Richard the “Alex Bradford of Rock and Roll.”
TOUCH THE HEM OF HIS GARMENT (1956): Sam Cooke, gospel’s first “sex symbol,” quickly wrote this song on his way to a scheduled recording session with his group The Soul Stirrers. It is one of the finest examples of male quartet singing during the “Golden Era” of gospel. The majestic vocal harmonizing is characteristic of so many of the quartets of that time.
OH, HAPPY DAY (1967): Set to the tune of an 18th century English hymn, this song is a perfect example of a hymn that has been “gospelized.” It was recorded live in 1967 but picked up by radio station KSAN in 1969 and soon became an international hit. The cheery tune of deliverance and salvation rang out against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and racial strife.
WHOLY HOLY (1971): Marvin Gaye co-wrote this song of faith and peace and included it on the magnificent album “What’s Going On.” One year later Aretha Franklin transformed it into a gospel classic, complete with gospel vocals, a choir lead by the legendary James Cleveland, organ and piano. The result was a chilling, near otherworldly rendition of Gaye’s song.
MARY, DON’T YOU WEEP (1972): Although this song dates back to the slave era, recounting the biblical story of Lazarus being razed from the dead, it has also been “gospelized” and is now an undisputed part of the gospel canon. First recorded by Inez Andrews and The Caravans in 1958, the most familiar version is Aretha Franklin’s 1972 recording.
I. O. U. ME (1987): While not the greatest of the 1980s gospel songs, this one is perhaps the best example of the artistic expansions and technological advances happening in gospel music during the time, which often blurred the lines between secular and sacred. Written by famed producer Keith Thomas, it was recorded by Be Be and Ce Ce Winans, two members of the Winans family, widely acclaimed as “the first family of gospel.” It topped the R&B and gospel charts and won numerous awards.
STAND (1996): No matter what you may think of minister and singer Donnie McClurkin, he personifies vocal power. A prot?g? of Andre Crouch and the Winans family, McClurkin wrote and performed this anthem to faith, courage, and endurance which catapulting him to fame. Oprah Winfrey brought attention (and massive sales) to the song when she proclaimed it her “favorite CD in the world.” It is indeed a superb, modern example of the gospel tradition, and likely will “stand” the test of time.
Gospel music is moving into a new era of change, but I suspect this most American of American music will continue to be the means by which we express our biggest hopes, fears, struggles, and joys.