Who He Was: Reverend James Cleveland (1931-1991) was, justifiably, known as “The King of Gospel Music.” The Chicago-bred singer, composer, pianist, arranger, and choir master gained growing acclaim through the 1950s for his formative work with The Gospelaires and The Caravans (the latter group including the extraordinary Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews and Dorothy Norwood, among others), before embarking on a long and prolific featured artist/solo career on Savoy Records in 1962. Reverend Cleveland’s instrumental arrangements were radically influential, incorporating R&B, soul, and jazz elements into traditional gospel idioms, and his work as a choir master was revelatory and transformative, eventually spawning the Gospel Music Workshop of America, which remains active to this day on a global basis. Aretha Franklin’s critically-revered 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace was the best-selling release of her career, and also in the history of recorded gospel music. Reverend James Cleveland served as musical director, master of ceremonies, co-vocalist and pianist for that recording, shepherding the Southern California Community Choir and an ace backing band (including session legends Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie) through a mind-blowingly inspirational, emotional, and powerful set of songs, recorded over two nights at The New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Reverend James remained active, prominent and influential until his death in 1991 of complications associated with HIV/AIDS, forcing a reckoning, of sorts, in the ways that churches have treated (and treat) their LGBTQ members. That reckoning obviously remains a work in progress to this day, but Reverend James Cleveland was a titanic presence in the history of modern gospel music, even if, in his time, and in his place, he could not fully disclose who he was and who he loved.
When I First Heard Him: During my early childhood, at my grandparents’ house in South Carolina. There were a fair number of gospel or gospel-adjacent records and (later) 8-track tapes around their house, and the one that I loved best was called James Cleveland Sings Song of Dedication (1965). Sometime in the ’80s, I found a big box of his classic Savoy Records albums on cassette tapes at a “fell off the truck” record warehouse, and bought something like 12 hours of his music for less than ten bucks. (Sings Songs of Dedication was one of those tapes). They were crappy quality recordings, but I played them to death, literally, mostly in the car when driving around on my own, singing along with Reverend James and his various choirs, loudly, enthusiastically, happily. When the digital era emerged, I replaced the few tapes that had survived, and acquired others, on various compact disc and music file formats, and I still play a big list of Reverend James’ best works regularly. Interestingly enough, Sings Songs of Dedication was the one record of his that I’ve searched for in digital formats for, literally, decades, and I’ve never seen it released with its original track listing (many of its songs came out elsewhere) in ways that I can readily play it in my current computer-based idiom — until this morning, when I was researching this article, and, on a whim, searched for that favorite record on iTunes, and was tickled to pieces to finally see it there. Hallelujah!
Why I Love Him: I actually wrote about this very question and its answers about 10 months ago, in the early days of this our Anno Virum, invoking the concept of “comfort music” to describe the resonance that Reverend James Cleveland holds for me to this day. Rather than re-typing those sentiments here, I’ll just send you over to that article for the back story. I’ll be here when you get back. Got it read? Good! Okay, so Reverend James may not have been the best gospel singer ever (his rough and ragged baritone is powerful and distinctive, if not pure and clear, and I suppose could be an acquired taste), nor the best pianist ever, nor the best arranger ever, but he was pretty darn good and boundary-pushing at all those things, had character to burn, and his music moves me in strange ways that few other performers’ catalogs can. As I’m searching for song files online to post my very favorite of Reverend James’ songs for this article, I do note that his later, more polished works are the most readily available, and that the same cuts from his later years seem to appear on a variety of greatest hits compilations, over and over again. But Reverend James Cleveland’s best work is his earlier, grittier stuff, where you often just get his voice, loads of skating-rink style swirly church organ (Billy Preston played with him for a while, before he started playing with the likes of the Beatles and the Stones), maybe a snare drum, usually a piano, and almost always a bold mass choir accenting those thrilling choruses. If you like Gospel Music, then Reverend James Cleveland is a must-listen. And if you don’t like it, then Reverend James Cleveland might make you change your mind. Give him a chance. He’s good, good, good. Amen. Selah. Right on. (Note: Reverend James’ massive discography is something of a mess, but I’ve tried to cite the earliest source recordings for the ten songs in my list below).
#10. “Something’s Got A Hold of Me,” from He’s So Divine (1959?)
#9. “Get Right Church,” from Crown Prince of Gospel (1967)
#8. “Meeting Tonight,” from “Lord Do It”/”Meeting Tonight” single (1962?)
#7. “God Can Do Anything But Fail,” from Today (1959)
#6. “Old Ship of Zion,” from The Soul of James Cleveland (1962)
#5. “Plenty Good Room,” from Crown Prince of Gospel (1967)
#4. “It’s Real,” from James Cleveland Sings Songs of Dedication (1965)
#3. “No Cross, No Crown,” from I Stood On The Banks of the Jordan (1963)
#2. “Lord Do It,” from “Lord Do It”/”Meeting Tonight” single (1962?)
#1. “Wondering,” from James Cleveland Sings Songs of Dedication (1965)