It is difficult to imagine a more pervasive influence on modern gospel music than that of the raspy-voiced Rev. James Cleveland, who died Saturday at age 59. A pianist, singer, composer, arranger, producer and teacher, Mr. Cleveland became the world's foremost gospel musician.
For the better part of half a century, he shaped the genre. As a singer, his gravelly baritone inspired widespread imitation of his innovative voicings, time signatures and general arrangements. As a composer with more than 400 gospel works and three Grammy awards to his credit, he was inordinately prolific, writing as many as three songs a week. As a conductor, he was passionate, marrying emotion with powerful movements of arms, hands and head that both inspired and awed singers under his direction.
James Cleveland's lifelong love of music enabled him to overcome a voice he often likened to a "fog horn" to influence the likes of Aretha Franklin, Jessy Dixon and Billy Preston. His mark is also deeply ingrained in modern day gospel style. He revolutionized the field in the '60s by introducing the choir movement, adding bass guitar and drums as accompanying instruments and perfecting the "song-sermonette" which alternated choral passages with chanted recitation by the soloist.