Reverend James Cleveland King of Gospel Music

Aug2Curch15Sitting on the south side of Washington Blvd. a block and a bit west of Vineyard is an unassuming small white building that houses the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church.  Little do passing drivers and new members of our community know about  the important history this little church boasts.  It was founded by Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, who put the church on history's map by becoming one of the pioneers in the melding of gospel and secular music. 

Born December 5, 1931 in Chicago, Cleveland became a gospel singer, pianist, composer, recording artist, arranger, and had developed a reputation as the "King of Gospel Music."  Starting as a boy soprano at Pilgrim Baptist Church, he was mentored by Thomas A. Dorsey, composer of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and Roberta Martin, the brilliant singer and pianist.
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Cleveland joined the Gospelaires where he began to modernize traditional hymns and standards.  This followed work with Albertina Walker, the "Queen of Gospel," and the Caravans, whose members also included future stars Shirley Caesar and Inez Anderson.  In 1954 Albertina Walker gave Cleveland his first opportunity to explore blending pop and gospel singing styles as a recording artist.  This concept was far from acceptable in the conservative world of traditional gospel.  Cleveland, like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and, later, Billy Preston and Aretha Franklin, realized that secular and religious music had been deeply blended in their upbringing and that this blend was key to widening their audience.

Cleveland moved to Detroit and was mentored by Rev. C. L. Franklin, Aretha's father, at New Bethel Baptist.  Anjetta McQueen of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Aretha Franklin credited Cleveland as her mentor in voice and piano.  In the early 1960s  Rev. Cleveland came to Los Angeles to become Minister of Music at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ where he worked with keyboardist Billy Preston.  In 1963, his recording of "Peace Be Still" sold thousands of copies.  Other gospel hits such as "Two Wings" and "The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now"  provided national and international exposure for the James Cleveland Singers.

In 1970,  he was fired as musical director at a conventional church for emphasizing the music over the message. The choir and most of the congregation left and joined him at a struggling church on Washington Blvd., where he founded and became pastor of Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, and transformed the church into a thriving membership fueled by the vitality of his music ministry.

Rev. Cleveland insured his gospel legacy by his participation in the landmark recording, "Amazing Grace", featuring Aretha Franklin and choirs under his direction.  The two-day recording was held in South Central Los Angeles at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, January 13-14, 1972 for Atlantic Records.  The recording won the 1973 Grammy for best Soul Gospel Performance and became the biggest selling live gospel album of all time.  
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My friend Elliot Johnson attended the SRO performance and counts it as one of the great experiences of his life.  "Cleveland came in with a swagger and was in fine form from start to finish.  It was a convocation of who's who in black gospel as well as regular people from all over town.  Aretha came in, the place went wild with soul stopping hallelujahs.  This was as positive an experience as you have ever seen. It lasted forever and ever and that was fine with all of us. There were so many cars in the parking lot I don't know how any of us ever got out." 

In the late 1970s, Cleveland formed the Southern California Community Choir, an outgrowth of the Gospel Music Workshop of America that he founded in 1967.  The GMWA provides education and training for young gospel artists where large choirs are trained to sing as a single instrument.  Ebony magazine reported that "Cleveland was good enough to put together a 300-voice choir within days of arrival at any town." 

Cleveland released 46 albums, fifteen of them gold records and three which received Grammys.  In 1981, he became the first clergyman and gospel artist to have a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. "He was one of the last of the great male gospel pioneers...and one of the great songwriters, singers and ministers of the 20th century," said Willa Ward, who used to perform with her more famous sister, Clara.  Rev. James Cleveland passed away in Los Angeles at age 59 on February 9, 1991. 

CORRECTION
 An original member of the Cornerstone Church contacted TNN and corrected the information regarding the Reverend's connection to the Cornerstone building we referred to in our article. He claimed the Rev. started his church on Washington in a building 5 blocks west of that building then moved the congregation to Virginia and Washington, then to Adams and Crenshaw at the Kabuki Theatre, then to Slauson and Western. After he passed on, the Executive Secretary took the name and moved the Congregation to the white church featured in our article. That building was recently sold.
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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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