The Reverend Dr. James Edward Cleveland (December 5, 1931 – February 9, 1991) was a gospel singer, musician, and composer. Known as the King of Gospel music, Cleveland was a driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound by incorporatingtraditional black gospel, modern soul, pop, and jazz in arrangements for mass choirs. Throughout his career, Cleveland appeared on hundreds of recordings, won 4 Grammy Awards, and received a star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Early life and career
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Cleveland began singing as a boy soprano at Pilgrim Baptist Church where Thomas A. Dorsey was minister of music and Roberta Martin was pianist for the choir. He strained his vocal cords as a teenager while part of a local gospel group, leaving the distinctive gravelly voice that was his hallmark in his later years. The change in his voice led him to focus on his skills as a pianist and later as a composer and arranger. For his pioneering accomplishments and contributions, he is regarded by many to be one of the greatest gospel singers that ever lived.
Work with the Gospelaires
In 1950, Cleveland joined the Gospelaires, a trio led by Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk. His arrangements modernized such traditional standards as “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion” and “It’s Me O Lord”. After the trio disbanded, an associate of the group, Roberta Martin, hired him as a composer and arranger.
Cleveland subsequently went to work for Albertina Walker, popularly referred to as the “Queen of Gospel” and The Caravans as a composer, arranger, pianist, and occasional singer/narrator. In November 1954, Albertina Walker provided him the opportunity to do his very first recording. By staying out of the studio for a while, she convinced States Records to allow him to record with her group. He continued to record with The Caravans until States closed thdown in 1957.[
Throughout this period, he recorded with other groups like The Gospel All-Stars and The Gospel Chimes, mixing pop ballad influences with traditional shouting.
In 1959, he recorded a version of Ray Charles’ hit, “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, as a solo artist.
James Cleveland signed with Savoy Records in 1962, going on to release a huge catalog of black gospel recordings, many of which were recorded in a live concert setting.
The Love of God
He became known by more than just the professionals within gospel music with his version of the Soul Stirrers’ song, “The Love of God”, backed by the Voices of Tabernacle fromDetroit, Michigan. Rev. Cleveland moved to Los Angeles, California, to become Minister of Music at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ where he attained even greater popularity working with keyboardist Billy Preston and the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey. His 1963 recording of “Peace Be Still”, an obscure 18th-century piece, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He would then return to the touring with the newly organized James Cleveland Singers which included Odessa McCastle, Georgia White, Eugene Bryant, and Billy Preston, among others.
In 1964, Cleveland re-organized The James Cleveland Singers which included Odessa McCastle, Roger Roberts, and Gene Viale.
In 1965, Cleveland added Clyde Brown and Charles Barnett to his group which by then was traveling extensively throughout the United States and abroad into the late 1960s, performing in all major venues. This collaboration produced such recordings as “Heaven That Will Be Good Enough For Me”, “Two Wings”, and “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now”.
From the 1970s until 1990, Cleveland would bring together a number of artists to back him on appearances and records. Additionally, he himself backed other acts, contributing to the recordings of such well known artists as Aretha Franklin and Elton John. He also continued to appear and record with some of the most notable gospel choirs of the time.
The documentary film “Gospel” (1983) features James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, Walkter Hawkins and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, Twinkie Clark and the Clark Sisters. The film was directed by David Leivick and Frederick A. Ritzenberg.