HE WAS KNOWN to all who loved his husky baritone as the "King of Gospel" -- but to the tens of thousands of his musical disciples, the Rev. James Cleveland was a spiritual leader who brought the inspiration as well as entertainment of this special art form to marvelous new heights. For more than 50 of his 59 years, Mr. Cleveland, who died Saturday in Los Angeles, worked nonstop and ever successfully on the mission he insisted went beyond his soul-stirring musical performances. Gospel music, he always insisted, should be a commitment to religion -- not sung merely for entertainment. "I actually believe in the music," he would say -- and you believed he believed.
Whether it was on Sundays by the radio in the early days, at religious gatherings he toured or around the world as a brighter spotlight beamed his 400 compositions and arrangements, three Grammys and 16 gold record albums to people never exposed to the gospel experience, the strong, driving sound moved millions. But for this singer, composer, pianist, arranger, producer and star, the purpose was "to perpetuate and upgrade the quality of gospel music for this generation and generations to come."
Mission accomplished, with glory: today the Gospel Music Workshop of America, which Mr. Cleveland founded and personally developed into what he considered his greatest achievement, boasts at least 20,000 members nationwide. It was he more than anyone who introduced the choir movement in contemporary gospel, an extension of the music he came to love as a boy in his native Chicago -- listening to Mahalia Jackson, Beatrice Lux, the Barrett Sisters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward and the work of choir director and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." It was in the home of the Rev. C. L. Franklin, where he taught the pastor's 9-year-old daughter, Aretha, to sing gospel, which much later would lead to his production of her gospel album "Amazing Grace."
The secular audiences began to listen, starting with Mr. Cleveland's "Peace Be Still," "Love of God" and "Everything Will Be All Right." But the king of gospel concentrated on teaching and preaching hand-in-hand, pointing out that both are ways of spreading the "good news" of faith. "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 a feeling in them of perpetuation, to help repay the grass roots of the movement, so they'll know where it came from."
They know -- and so will future gatherings that will sway, clap, raise palms upward and throw out a "Sing It!" or an "Amen!" as the legacy of the Rev. James Cleveland electrifies the air.