The Rev. James Cleveland, the Crown Prince of Gospel, looks semi-sternly at the 200 singers surrounding him in the front of Upper Room Baptist Church in Northeast Washington. "What happened to everything I taught you last night?" The flashes of lightning outside complement the sweet thunder-gruff of a voice halfway between Louis Armstrong's and Wolfman Jack's. "Sopranos, how could you forget?" he asks imploringly without casting his eyes heavenward. "Altos, you were pretty good." (Cheers.)
"Now I want to hear those melodious tenors," Cleveland says, and suddenly all eyes, ears and throats are turned to this marvelous teacher and performer who more than any other individual helped bridge the distances between gospel and pop music in the '60s. Now 49 years old, Cleveland grew up in an unusually rich era of transition: The minister of his childhood church was Thomas A. Dorsey ("Precious Lord, Take My Hand"), while the church's pianist was the great Roberta Martin. Cleveland, who would help develop the strong, driving contemporary gospel sound, in turn became mentor to a young preacher's daughter, Aretha Franklin.
Burdened with an unconventionally gruff voice, Cleveland still became the leading figure in gospel through what he calls "a spirit of stubborn perseverance. A lot of folks said, 'You don't have anything, you can't make it.' But it's like the cliche' says, 'Don't tell a fool it can't be done because a fool would do it anyway.' If you believe in yourself and the God that motivates you, you can become anything."
Cleveland, who is also the author of 350 popular gospel songs, has been in town all week rehearsing the Massed Choir of the D.C. Chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, an organization he founded almost 15 years ago to promote and protect the integrity and expansion of gospel music. Tonight, Cleveland and company will record an album for Savoy Records in Constitution Hall. Says one participant: "Not to brag, but he gets the better chapters around the country and records with them."
Cleveland also helped to revolutionize the field in the '60s by introducing the choir movement into contemporary gospel, as well as inspiring widespread imitation of his innovative voicings, time signatures and general arrangements. Just as he had prompted a crossover between sacred and secular audiences with hits like "Peace Be Still" and "The Love of God," Cleveland also connected the disparate traditional and contemporary elements of gospel music. "I love the D.C. chapter," he said after rehearsal Tuesday night. "They're dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists; they give you that rich, old, authentic gospel sound, and I like that, I get consumed by it."
Wandering around the nave of the Northeast church, Cleveland leans into the voicings, listening for sharps and flats, timbre and texture, timing and power. A naturally emotional man, he is always in mid-gesture, part conductor, part cheerleader, aware that his presence alone is inspiring to these singers. Cleveland's body tenses with the passion of the words sung over and over until they are right -- fingers poke at the contours of a melody and shape the notes, the arms spread out imploringly, the head turns slightly away when the choir achieves his goals.
The singers intently focus on him, causing the Rev. Theodore King to laughingly complain that "it's too bad a person has to come 3,000 miles to get you to open your mouths. I'm the vocal coach here and I have an awful time getting the sopranos to do certain things for me. The excitement of his Cleveland's being here has created some chemistry. James, being who he is, well, it's really an honor to work with him. It's a thrill to even be in the session, and the excitment of it all has engulfed most of them. They really feel like stars."
The teacher leads his pupils through the lyrics of a new song. "This time I'm going to say 'em slow, so you can write them legibly," he admonishes gently. "Sing it very old-fashioned, not contemporary . . . 'Thank You for Your sweet loving spirit . . . that comes to comfort me in times of despair . . . thank You for Your sweet loving spirit . . . that makes these burdens so easy to bear . . .' Just like in school, raise your hands when you finish." This provokes laughs -- and compliance -- from a choir drawn from more than 100 Washington churches.
As he sits by the pulpit, the heavyset Cleveland absent-mindedly falls into some solo singing in a voice that is earthy and strong; it would almost be harsh without the immense warmth that comes wrapped around each word, and even though it's only an incidental and brief moment in a rehearsal, the choir sits enthralled, not bothering to contain its approval, throwing out the frequent "Amen" and "Sing it" that is so graceful and honest in the black church with its rich gospel tradition.
"It is the music of the black man and it is the music of the black church," Cleveland points out. "Preaching is good news about Christ through the spoken word; gospel music is good news about Christ through music. I don't fear for the longevity of the music because I don't feel the church is going out of business. And there will always be good exponents of gospel. I would just like to touch their lives, to instill in them a feeling of perpetuation, to help repay the grass roots of the movement, so they'll know where it came from."
The first gospel figure to be immortalized with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, Cleveland finally removes his irrepressible energy and spirit from the Upper Room Baptist Church, but the members of the D.C. workshop will take his teaching and his sense of direction back to their many churches, allowing the tradition to live on, expand and grow strong. "I try to give them a better understanding of the music," Cleveland explains. "I try to get them to see the music as a picture being put together. Within everybody, there's a certain well of creativity. There are so many sitting there in the choir that don't even know their own potential. I draw them out, and I get a whole lot of stuff out of them they're not aware they have." That seems to be his greatest joy. "I don't fear for gospel. As long as there's a black church, there's going to be gospel music."