Gospel singer James Cleveland talked like a man with a mission.

"Let me lay upon your thinking the need for organization," he said in his raspy voice. "There are dog shows for dogs, cat shows for cats, the Kentucky Derby for horses. But we don't have nothing."

The artist whose albums have sold 7 million copies, making him the biggest-selling gospel performer in recent years, quickly paces in front of about 75 persons who had just finished a workshop on quartet singing.

"We're not about establishing a convention to showcase each other. We're about building something that we can all point to years from now - an institution."

Cleveland's preaching now. He throws his head back and talks faster.

"I want the best of everything for us - the best pianos, the best sound equipment - because we deserve the best."

And Cleveland is living up to his word. The Gospel Music Workshop of America, which he founded in Detroit at a 1968 meeting, is holding its 11th annual convention this week in Washington.

About 15,000 persons from all over the country are expected to attend classes, concerts and religious services at the Shoreham and Sheraton-Park Hotels, Constitution and the D.C. Armory.

The convention is a tribute to Cleveland's zeal to make gospel "respectable" in the thinking of the general public, to make it art as well as religious music.

Always walking briskly like a man on the move, Cleveland frequently wears bright, floral shirts outside his pants, giving his 5-feet-11, more-than-200-pound frame a slimming effect. He has the build of a chunky running back.

His eyelids look heavy, almost closed. His voice is gruff but filled with drama ("They call me the Louis Armstrong of the gospel").

For a man also called "The Crown Prince of Gospel," Cleveland is noticeably uncomfortable around strangers. Even when he first goes on stage, his moves are tentative. He's most relaxed when he is acting as mentor and adviser, sitting in his suite receiving old friends.

Why did Cleveland, 46, already a star and described by gospel authority Tony Heilbut as "the most important gospel figure since Mahalia Jackson," fell the need to found the workshop?

"I felt there was a need to inspire and encourage gospel musicians who had limited ability but were holding positions in churches as choir directors and musicians. But their knowledge of gospel was not broad enough.They were mostly working off inspiration.

"And I was thinking there's no place a gospel musician can go if he wants to advance himself. Most gospel musicians play by ear. I thought if I could get the best pianists, the best organists to come together and donate some of their time, we could make things better."

Probably no other gospel singer could have pulled off the workshop organization. Cleveland has the special blend of vocal skills and charisma to appeal to a wide range of followers - staid Baptists and flamboyant Pentacostalists, young and old, white collar and blue collar.

Also, more than anyone, Cleveland is responsible for introducing the choir movement in contemporary gospel. After recording "The Love of God" with the Voices of Tabernacle in 1960, choir directors copied the discipine of his odd-time signatures, his precise voicings and circuitous melodic lines.

Choirs quickly became the rage in gospel. His "Peace Be Still" has sold more than a million copies, almost exclusively to a black audience.

Heilbut, author of "The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times," wrote: "No record ever, neither Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' nor the Beatles' 'Abbey Road,' has so blanketed its market."

Yesterday Heilbut said, "Cleveland has had unparalleled recording success. None of the gospel singers have had such recording success, including Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward. None of them sold so well for so long a period as Cleveland has."

Other singers seek his favor. Ministers wait for his blessings.

The other day in his Shoreham suite Edward Duncan III, a young Washington singer, dropped by asking for a written endorsement to go on a forthcoming album. Cleveland quickly dictated to his secretary several paragraphs of praise.

Duncan also asked cleveland if he thought it was wise for him (Duncan) to have signed with a particular booking agent.

A minister from Cleveland lunched in the hotel with Walter Swinton, head of a canned chitterling (hog intestines) concern, and Lee Lewis, a Safeway vice-president. Swinton wanted Cleveland's endorsement. He had already closed a deal for Safeway to carry his product, Quick Chitterlings.

The talk of chitterlings sparked Cleveland's memory of Alex Bradford going to the home of the Davis Sisters for a chitterling dinner.

"The Davis Sisters were trying to raise some money to buy some new robes," recalled the singer. "Now everybody knew the Davis Sisters were not domestic. They didn't like cleaning or cooking. But when they got up on stage and started singing, look out!

"By the time Bradford got to their house, all the cooked chitterlings were gone. One of the sisters said, "That's all right, brother Bradford, we'll have some more cooked in a little bit."

"So, she reached in the bucket pulled out some chitterlings and swished them around in the sink for a few moments and threw them in the pot. Now Bradford knew those chitterlings weren't clean.

"He said he wanted to go to the corner to get some strawberry pop. Once he got outside he caught a cab and never went back!"

Not everyone is a Cleveland fan. Walter Stewart, a widely respected gospel announcer in Philadelphia, says, "James is not a great businessman. The workshop reminds me of the black disc jockeys' convention. The record companies wine them and dine them for several days, and then everybody goes home without accomplishing much."

Stewart sums up Cleveland's buzzsaw voice this way: "I think he can drive a car very well. But he ain't got no car. However, this is his time. He has the favor of God."

Cleveland didn't always have things his way.

He grew up in Chicago. His father worked on WPA projects in the '30s. But Cleveland, led by his grandmother, faithfully attended Pilgrim Baptist Church. There he fell under the influence of choir director Thomas Dorsey, composer of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" who is called by some the father of gospel music.

He delivered newspapers to Mahalia Jackson and spent many afternoons singing and cooking in the back of her Southside beauty shop. Later, he directed the choir at the church of Aretha Franklin's father and taught her as a young girl.

"I didn't realize they were lean days," he says. "I was scuffling, but I didn't realize I was scuffling."

By the late 1950s Cleveland was making a name for himself, and in 1960 he broke big.

Like many gospel performers, Cleveland has had offers to turn pop, but refused. Milton Bingham, of Savoy Records, says, "James is consistent. He comes straight from th Bible."

Cleveland is looking ahead to more than just hit records.

While speaking to the workshop session the other day, he said, "What you see here is a half-empty room. What I see here is a convention that will fill this hall in a few years."