The glittering pageantry and religious joy of a 3,000-voice gospel choir performing last night at Constitution Hall brought 10 days of intense gospel music activity - concerts, music workshops, prayer services and rehearsals - to a resounding climax and an end.
James Cleveland, founder and president of the convening Gospel Music Workshop of America, told workshop graduates yesterday morning at the Shoreham Hotel that gospel singers, like any other performers, must submit to strict discipline to perfect their art.
"You won't get anywhere by wishing," he barked in his hoarse voice. "You've got to take some action."
Cleveland, called "The Crown Prince of Gospel," had successfully guided the Workship through its 11th annual convention. More than 15,000 persons had registered. The daily schedule of events usually started with prayer services at 7 a.m. and ended with midnight services and concerts that sometimes lasted until 5 a.m.
The convention apparently confirmed Cleveland's aim in founding 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."
So, a rigorous round of classes was held with topics as diverse as choral directing and keyboard theory, history of gospel music and hymnology, introduction to ushering and review of basic first aid.
They were taught by experts, many of whom have advanced degrees.
The meeting also brought together amateurs such as small-town church youth choirs and professionals such as Andrae Crouch, Edwin and Walter Hawkins, Albertina Walker, Shirley Ceasar and the Williams Brothers. The convention was a blend of doctors and lawyers, maids and construction workers.
"Many people saved all year to come here," said Edward M. Smith, the Workshop's executive secretary. "They said dinners and held concerts. Many people take their vacations right here at the convention."
The convention was largely young (ages 15 to 25) and black (the sprinkling of whites included a choir from Hamburg, Germany).
If anything, the convention demonstrated the increasing popularity of gospel. In 1968, at the Workshop's first meeting, only 1,800 attended. This year, the 15,000 persons here caused some Workshop officials to wonder whether the group had grown too large.
The convention, sprawling over the Shoreham and Sheraton Park hotels, sparked debate on other burning issues:
Is gospel being diluted by pop music influences?
Do gospel performers earn enough money?
Is there need for more gospel workshop?
Should gospel performers involve themselves in politics?
Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, a radio announcer in Detroit, sparked a lively discussion when she asserted in a speech that gospel performers were being outdistanced by pop artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire and the O'Jays, who were recording gospel songs.
"I say let gospel be free to be influenced by pop music," she said to the traditionalists. "We've got to quit playing God. He's constant energy. If He wasn't, we would have stopped at the Old Testament."
Audiences, she said, want contemporary music - gospel or pop - to blend the passion of the old melodies with the complicated zigzag of today's rhythms, and to be showcased with string orchestras and horns, packaged in the latest recording techniques.
This sounded like too much for Cleveland to take. "We don't need them (pop singers) to sing gospel," he intoned at the same luncheon gathering. "We can do a good job of singing gospel ourselves. We want someone who's going to live his song."
Crouch, tanned from his recent tour in Bermuda, takes a different position. "I'm not interested in preserving the ethnic sound of gospel," he said. "Stereotypes have restricted it. On a scale of 1 to 10, gospel has reached a minus 5. We haven't tapped all the possibilities."
His musical blend of pop, rock and gospel has attracted a largely white audience (he's been called "the Johnny Mathis of Gospel").
But white audiences have not always been kind. "I remember my first job in Alabama," he recalled. "They thought (from his name) that I was French. But when I came on stage, the first tour rows of people got up and walked out.I thought there was a fire!"
Probably only Mahalia Jackson has been able to bridge the two gospel audiences - black and white. The musical strains of black gospel sound lkie the aching tonality of the blues and spitituals. White gospel has the twangy flavor of country music.
But to both, Mahalia was "Queen." Albertina Walker, a major gospel performer and a protege of Jackson's in the early '40s, said, "Mahalia's name was magic. The white folks loved that woman. They thought she was a saint."
Until recent years, gospel performers were among the lowest-paid artists. That is changing slowly, particularly for the big names. Insiders say Cleveland probably earns $500.000 annually from concerts, record sales and endorsements. Crouch probably earns more. Ceasar is said to earn less.
Groups like the Williams Brothers, a five-man group that started six years ago, may pull $1,500 to 2,500 a concert. Even if the ensemble works most of the year, much of their money is eaten up by expenses.
Still, the plethora of groups make for a multimillion dollar slice of the music industry. Record World reported in 1977 that 50 million people buy gospel records.
The growing gospel market means that performers increasingly want to preserve and extend their music. Cleveland says that was a prime motivating factor for him starting the Workshop.
Edith Hawkins has similar plans. He wants to launch a music and arts seminar on the West Coast. It would differ from the Workshop by being multiracial and focus on a variety of arts - music fashion design, painting, interior design, photography.
"It's our intention to give guidance to young people who have talent that might need developing," he explained. "But we don't see it as a rival to the Workshop. I've written Rev. Cleveland about the idea."
While extending their influence in a musical and religious sense, gospel performers seem to shy away from political involvement.
Cleveland, and ordained Baptist minister, explained: "I never involve my church in it simply because I believe politics is a very private thing. I don't say much because too many people are persuaded by the thinking of certain leaders."
Nevertheless, Cleveland said he gives President Carter a zero-rating on his domestic programs affecting blacks. "I feel his administration has fallen victim to tokenism," he smiled.
There are other singers like Ceasar, who said she soon plans to run for mayor of Durham, N.C., her hometown.
She's a Democrat, as is Cleveland. Crouch is a Republican, who supported President Ford.
In its 50-year history, modern gospel has taken many circuitous twists. In the 1920s it was ignored as a minor component of "race" music. By the 1940s and 1950s, it had gained popularity but was still known primarily among rural and blue-collar blacks.
Today it's a major and growing force in the music world. Crouch is widely known in Europe and America. The Hawkins Family's recording of "Oh, Happy Day" sold 7 million copies. Gospel choirs are being organized at universities and many churches - Catholic and Protestant.
Cleveland said, "We want to make gospel a living reality for everyone."