Some years back, the Rev. James Cleveland stood sternly in front of 200 singers in the Upper Room Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, wondering "what happened to everything I taught last night?" The thunder and lightning outside provided counterpoint to his own gruff voice -- Cleveland once described it as a foghorn and jokingly called himself "the Louis Armstrong of gospel" -- and some of the sopranos might have thought it better to take their chances with the lightning.
As the long evening wore on, Cleveland had encouraging words for the altos and "melodious" tenors, and eventually for the sopranos as well, walking them line by line through "God Will Take Care of You." He would lean into the sound, listening for sharps and flats, shaping timbre and texture, fine tuning the timing, focusing the power, showing the choir how to build tension musically and emotionally, how to balance the demands of his imaginative arrangements while remaining responsive to natural and immediate emotion.
Cleveland always seemed to be in mid-gesture -- part conductor, part cheerleader -- his thick fingers poking at the contours of the melody, his arms spread out imploringly, his head turned slightly away to hide the pleasure as the choir came closer to his expectations.
"He could make you see the song," said the Rev. Marvin Winans of Detroit, leader of the Winans gospel group. Winans was just one of literally thousands of gospel singers who could point to Cleveland as a profound influence on their work. Cleveland, who died in Los Angeles Feb. 9 of heart failure, was a marvelous mentor, teacher and spiritual leader, possibly the most important figure in gospel music after Thomas A. Dorsey, and certainly the world's foremost gospel musician.
He made records -- more than 100, 16 of them going gold, three earning Grammys -- and he performed in concerts around the world. He invigorated the traditional choir, reintroducing it into contemporary gospel after years of dominance by quartets and soloists. He expanded its literature beyond the limits of the Baptist hymnal, writing or arranging more than 500 songs, often melding simple music with simple Bible-based messages that had a profound impact when brought to life by a multitude of voices.
But Cleveland's greatest contribution was the kind of work that brought him to that Northeast church and hundreds more like it, that fueled the Gospel Music Workshop of America, which Cleveland started in 1968 and which he considered his greatest accomplishment. It now has 200 chapters and 20,000 members, achieving its goal of perpetuating and upgrading the quality of gospel music.
It wasn't just the numbers that gave Cleveland so much pride, but the empowerment that so often followed his workshops.
"Within everybody, there's a certain well of creativity," Cleveland had said that night after hours of caressing and cajoling singers. "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 that they're not aware they have."
Cleveland was a large, garrulous figure whose manner would have seemed harsh were it not for a genuine warmth and accessibility not at all in keeping with his stature in the world of gospel. It was a world he'd joined as a boy soprano at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Dorsey, the father of gospel music, was the minister of music, and where the legendary Roberta Martin was church pianist. As a child, Cleveland delivered papers to Mahalia Jackson and spent many afternoons in her beauty shop.
Even as a child, what he called "a spirit born of stubborn perseverance" was evident. His family could not afford a piano and so Cleveland conjured one on his windowsill. He always wanted to sing -- as a young man he was known to send anonymous messages by usher saying "Will you please tell the preacher James Cleveland is in the house and we want him to sing" -- but he first made his mark as an accompanist and arranger.
Cleveland grew up in an era of gospel giants, but he also listened to blues and, later, to rhythm and blues. "I like a song that tells a story," he said, and that perhaps explained his ability to build a stylistic bridge between the sacred and the secular worlds of music, while always remaining on hallowed ground.
In the same spirit, Cleveland liked to identify himself as "part Baptist, part Sanctified." He was the founding pastor of the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church in Los Angeles, but drew from both camps, reveling in the more openly emotional style of the Sanctified church. In effect, Cleveland brought gospel back to its roots, revitalizing it with his songs and arrangements that made you sing better (one of his best known songs, "Peace Be Still," is actually a 16th-century madrigal).
Many of Cleveland's recordings featured sermonlike passages over choral backgrounds, though he did manage, as one critic noted, "to sing beautifully with a homely voice." When he put that voice to songs like "Noways Tired" and "Everything Will Be All Right," they bore into listeners' souls. He also produced one of the first live choir recordings in the early '60s with the First Baptist Church of Nutley, N.J. Its success inspired widespread imitation of Cleveland's complex voicings and odd-time signatures, and choirs were suddenly back in favor outside the church.
The workshops often featured massed choirs, whose members became teachers once they returned to their churches. Even many of the Cleveland records were in a "Presents ..." series, with Cleveland doing one or two songs and then making way for a new voice, a new choir, letting them ride his long coattails.
"We have all been influenced by him," said Edwin Hawkins. "I grew up with his music. We all bought his records as children -- that's how we learned to sing gospel music."
Although most of Cleveland's pupils were the workaday singers, some were special, like Aretha Franklin. She was 9 years old when Cleveland became the choir director at her father's church. "James was probably the most significant factor on me musically in terms of my early piano stylings," she said last week. "Anyone who heard him, you were touched by him. He was a motivator, an innovator.
"A great soul has passed on," she added. "I'm thankful that he touched my life. He leaves the greatest legacy."
That legacy will be heard as long as those whom James Cleveland nurtured sustain the spirit with the same commitment to faith that defined his life and work.
"Preaching is good news about Christ through the spoken word," Cleveland said that long-ago night after the rehearsal. "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... ."
On the other hand, that celestial choir now has its work cut out for it.