december 2011


‘Glory, Glory to the New Born King’

Gospel at Christmastime

By Bob Marovich

Today, nearly every popular gospel artist has a Christmas project in his or her catalog. The Mississippi Mass Choir, Luther Barnes, and Yolanda Adams are among those releasing Christmas albums this season. But when did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of "Silent Night," but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia's disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years.

Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers, the first known African American sacred group to record a Christmas carol. 'Silent Night, Holy Night' was recorded in 1926 for Paramount Records.

The Elkins Mixed Quartette, also known as the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers, is the first known African American sacred group to record a Christmas carol. In 1926, the quartet, organized by William C. Elkins, sang "Silent Night, Holy Night" for Paramount Records. Two years later, the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers of All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago released their only record, a Christmas-themed disc for Vocalion: "Pleading for Me" and "There Was No Room in the Hotel." The lyrics of the latter no doubt resonated with African Americans living in Jim Crow America, as it described the Holy Family's futile search for available lodging.[1]

More than a decade later, in 1941, the stalwart Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded the Yuletide spiritual "When Was Jesus Born" for Bluebird. The Middle Georgia Singers sang this same spiritual for the Fort Valley Music Festival in 1943. Captured on tape, the Middle Georgia Singers' version can be heard for free on the Internet. [2]

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, ‘Silent Night’

It was the guitar toting, Pentecostal-bred Sister Rosetta Tharpe who demonstrated the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, Tharpe, accompanied by her new background group, the Rosettes (formerly the Angelic Queens), recorded 'White Christmas' and 'Silent Night' for Decca. The two-sider was a smash hit, hitting #8 on Billboard's R&B Hit Singles chart.

Although the Soul Stirrers, featuring the classic tenor voice of R.H. Harris, recorded "Silent Night" for Aladdin in 1948, it was the guitar-toting, Pentecostal-bred Sister Rosetta Tharpe who demonstrated the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, Tharpe, accompanied by her new background group, the Rosettes (formerly the Angelic Queens), recorded "White Christmas" and "Silent Night" for Decca. The two-sider was a smash hit, hitting #8 on Billboard's R&B Hit Singles chart and earning Tharpe and the Rosettes a coveted spot on CBS Television's Supper Club with Perry Como on January 1, 1950.[3]

While Sister Tharpe's record took the country by storm, it also took her gospel contemporaries and their record labels by surprise. Autumn 1950 witnessed a flood of Christmas singles by popular gospel singers and quartets. This is when Mahalia Jackson released her timeless arrangement of "Silent Night," coupled with another Christmas chestnut, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," on Apollo. These were the first of dozens of Christmas recordings Mahalia would make during her career. Not to be outdone, the Ward Singers released their version of "Silent Night" in 1950 (Savoy).

Also in 1950, Philadelphia's Gotham Records released eight odes to the season by its top gospel sellers, namely Brother Rodney, the Davis Sisters, the Harmonizing Four, and the Angelic Gospel Singers. The Angelics' "Glory, Glory to the New Born King" became an instant classic. Thereafter, no Christmas program in the African American community would be complete without a performance of "Glory, Glory to the New Born King." A couple of years later, the Angelics released another Christmas single, "A Child is Born." The song's similarity to "Glory, Glory" in melody and arrangement was no coincidence: back then, record companies deliberately created sound-alike versions of hits, hoping that they could strike gold twice.

Eventually, Gotham had sufficient holiday product from its gospel lineup to produce a various artists LP, most likely the first gospel Christmas LP. The album, Gotham X-1, is impossibly rare. Constellation reissued it in the early 1960s as The Christmas Story (SS-106). The album is part of Constellation's "The Scripture in Song Series," a seven-album collection of gospel from the label’s vaults. Thankfully, the reissue is much easier to find.

Nineteen fifty-one witnessed new Christmas product from Savoy, including the Patterson Singers' "Jesus, the Light of the World" and "Christmas Morn" by Charles Watkins. Watkins' gentle crooning of "Christmas Morn" is not as well remembered today as it should be. Truth be told, had race relations been better back then, Watkins' version would have climbed the pop charts, it's just that good. Charles Watkins was that good. He later became a Bishop in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

That same year, Sister Tharpe's protégé Marie Knight delivered a double-sided Christmas single of her own for Decca ("Adeste Fideles"/"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"). In 1953, the Pilgrim Travelers gave Bing Crosby's "I'll Be Home for Christmas" an uncharacteristically morose treatment. While Bing's original articulated the wistful yearnings of World War II soldiers, the Travelers' version suggested a darker and less optimistic mood surrounding the Korean Conflict. Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith heralded the coming of a new decade by releasing a beautiful Christmas LP on Savoy in 1959. Marion's "O Holy Night" in particular enchanted many a music critic.

Langston Hughes's
Black Nativity presented at Seattle's Intiman Theater. 'They come expecting to see a show, and they come out ready for the holidays. They feel good. It uplifts them.'

One of the most beloved events of the Christmas season is Black Nativity by Langston Hughes. Hughes called it a "gospel song play." It is a joyful retelling of St. Luke's story of the birth of Christ by way of gospel music, dance, poetry, and narrative.

Black Nativity was first produced on New York City's Broadway on December 11, 1961. The original name for this play was Wasn't It a Mighty Day? Original cast members such as Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade quit the production before opening day because they objected to the use of the word "black" in the title. The rationale at the time was that this word might be too divisive for a Broadway production aimed at keeping things harmonious with all audiences.

This liberating and energetic musical opened to rave reviews. When the New York production ended, Black Nativity toured Europe and was well received in 1962 at the Spoleto Festival in Italy.

Hughes-besides being a poet, journalist, memoir writer, novelist, and short story writer-also wrote more than twenty plays and other musicals. Tambourines to Glory, Mulatto, Emperor of Haiti, Simply Heavenly and Jericho-Jim Crow are a few of Hughes's stage works. His political plays included Scottsboro Limited, Harvest, Angelo Herndon Jones, and De Organizer. He also wrote Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston. Many of the contemporary productions of Black Nativity have tweaked the original musical to reflect today's cultural interests.

Christmas gospel-style reached its apex in 1962 when Vee Jay Records issued the original Black Nativity soundtrack album. The Christmas musical starring the Alex Bradford Singers, the aforementioned Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart was a sensation: it toured Europe and continues to be presented the world over. Another full-length ode to Christmas released in 1962 came from a group that formerly recorded for Vee Jay. The Staple Singers' marvelous The Twenty-Fifth Day of December was released on the group's new label, Riverside, with Vee Jay-era accompanists Maceo Woods and Al Duncan on organ and drums, respectively. In Cincinnati, the Galatian Singers crafted a Yuletide LP of their own for King Records.

The Blind Boys of Alabama, ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’

In 1963, Vee Jay released a various artists album titled A Treasury of Golden Christmas Songs, featuring holiday fare by gospel artists under contract to the label, such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, Caravans, and Charles Taylor. One lone track by the Gospel Clefs, the frenetic "Mary's Boy Child," has long confused collectors, since the Clefs were not Vee Jay recording artists. A review of Vee Jay internal documents, however, suggests that the company considered signing the Savoy artists at the time the Christmas LP was compiled, but the deal was never consummated.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson released Christmas Carols and Good Gospels for Peacock in 1967, an album that included a chilling version of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy." In 1968, Checker Records released singles and an album of classic and new Christmas songs from its stable of artists, including the Soul Stirrers, Meditation Singers, and Salem Travelers, the latter two neatly folding anti-war sentiments into their holiday lyrics. Meanwhile, Brother Joe May, James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and countless other artists contributed singles and LPs to the gospel Christmas catalog throughout the 1960s.[4]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a stream of Christmas releases by artists such as Singing Sammy Lewis, the Gospel Keynotes, and various artists collections from Peacock, Malaco, and New Jersey-based Glori Records. Even Chicago's venerable First Church of Deliverance choir contributed an EP of Christmas cheer. Among the Clark Sisters' early LPs for the Sound of Gospel label was a Christmas album, New Dimensions of Christmas Carols, although it does not represent their finest work. In 1985, Edwin Hawkins released The Edwin Hawkins Family Christmas for Birthright, a project that featured Richard Smallwood's "Follow the Star." This breathtaking piece presaged the majestic beauty of Smallwood's later compositions, such as "I Love the Lord" and "Total Praise."

Sadly, the Hawkins album, like so many others mentioned in this essay, remains out of print and has never been reissued. Still, each Christmas recording extended the tradition begun by the Elkins Mixed Quartette 81 years ago.

Copyright 2007 by Robert M. Marovich


Source Notes:
[1] Dixon, Robert M.W., Godrich, John, and Rye, Howard W. Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943. 1964, 1969, 1982, 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

[2] Website for "Now What a Time:"

[3] Wald, Gayle F. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

[4] Hayes, Cedric J. and Laughton, Robert. The Gospel Discography, 1943-1970. Vancouver: Eyeball Productions, 2007.


The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas

By Bob Marovich

Looking for an alternative from the standard Yule music fare? Try these twelve classic gospel songs on for size. Use your favorite search engine to locate reissue CDs, or maybe even the original vinyl on which these songs were released. Happy Holidays, everyone!

"Glory, Glory to the New Born King,” Angelic Gospel Singers (Gotham, 1950)

Philadelphia's Angelic Gospel Singers, featuring Margaret Allison, hit it big in 1949 on their very first 78 rpm single, "Touch Me, Lord Jesus." Riding high on their newfound popularity, they recorded "Glory, Glory to the New Born King" for Gotham the following year. Horace Clarence Boyer notes that the song became as popular in the African American community as "White Christmas" did in the white community. Even today, a gospel Christmas compilation without someone singing "Glory, Glory to the New Born King" is simply incomplete.

marion"O Holy Night,” Marion Williams (Savoy, 1959)
The legendary gospel soprano Marion Williams moved the Ward Singers up a little higher before stepping out on her own in 1958 to fashion the Stars of Faith from fellow members of the Wards aggregation. One year later, Marion and the Stars of Faith waxed a Christmas album for Savoy Records. On the album, Marion performs "O Holy Night" as a solo. While the entire song is a masterpiece, its finest moment comes at the composition's emotional apex, when Marion launches one of her signature high-whoos, like a sonic rocket, heavenward.

"Christmas Morn,” Charles Watkins (Savoy, 1951)
Before Charles Watkins became a bishop, he was a gospel crooner, one of the smoothest male vocalists to ever grace the genre. His 1963 "Heartaches" was a gospel hit that would be covered by many artists, but 12 years prior, he recorded "Christmas Morn" for Savoy. "Christmas Morn" remains an obscure title, but that is unfortunate: the melody is every bit as unforgettable as Nat Cole's take on Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." Forget global warming: the polar ice cap began to melt when Watkins falsettoed "Merry Christmas to you" in the song's final bars.

'Pretty Little Baby,' James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers: 'One of Cleveland's most perfect recordings.'

"Pretty Little Baby,” James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers (Savoy, 1968)
A Christmas spiritual, sung slowly and with much gravity and passion by "King" James Cleveland, whose coarse, pious voice always seemed one beat away from a full-out cry. The Cleveland Singers increase and decrease in intensity in all the right places, making this one of Cleveland's most perfect recordings. Given Cleveland's prolific recording career spanning four decades, that says a lot.

"I'll Be Home for Christmas,” Pilgrim Travelers (Specialty, 1953)
The Pilgrim Travelers were one of the finest a cappella gospel quartets of the Golden Era. They lent their voices to this popular Christmas song, which was as relevant during the Korean War as it was a decade earlier when sung about World War II soldiers missing loved ones at home during the holidays. The Travelers' version, however, doesn't seem nearly as optimistic about soldiers returning as did Bing Crosby's 1943 classic, but instead seems to stoop under the weight and weariness of continued conflict. The steel guitar flourishes at the end, added presumably to brighten the arrangement, only thicken the fog of loneliness and despair.

"When Was Jesus Born,” Patterson Singers (United Artists, 1968)
The Patterson Singers were no strangers to Christmas songs, having performed a few for a special Christmas album produced in 1963 by Vee Jay Records. This recording, however, finds them across the ocean, in concert in Frankfort, West Germany, shouting this timeless spiritual at elite runner pace. The Pattersons' rhythmic stutter during the litany of months at the composition's center drives the audience into an understandable frenzy.

"White Christmas,” Vocalaires of Newport News, VA (Pinewood, early 1970s)
The Vocalaires male quartet, like the Ravens and Drifters before them, turn Bing Crosby's zillion seller into a rousing, fun doo-wop. While the Ravens' and Drifters' recordings remain fairly faithful to the original, the Vocalaires sing the lyrics to a standard 50s doo-wop song structure, resplendent with playful booming bass lines and high harmonies. A tough-to-find recording, but well worth the search.

jordan"Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” Wings over Jordan Choir (RCA Victor, 1948) & "Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” Rev. Cleophus Robinson (Peacock, 1967)
Men and women of all races and creeds who grew up in the 1940s recall fondly the Wings over Jordan Sunday radio program, where they heard some of the most moving spiritual singing on the planet. Who better, then, to render Robert MacGimsey's neo-spiritual than Rev. Glenn Settles' Wings over Jordan? The Cleveland-based chorus sings the composition like a teary lullaby, with lovingly hushed harmonies. Rev. Cleophus Robinson's take on the composition two decades later, however, eschews the supplicant quietude and aims straight for the theme's parallel to the plight of African Americans in the 1960s. Robinson's gravitas on the lyric, "The world treat you mean, Lord/Treat me that way, too," will raise the hair on the back of your neck.

"Jesus Christ, the Baby,” Six Trumpets feat. Maggie Ingram (Nashboro, 1961)
This Christmas gospel favorite introduced the sweet, girl-group soprano of Maggie Ingram. The Six Trumpets male quartet supporting Ingram chant "baby" (as in Jesus) in the background, though it sounds for all the world as if they are chanting "Maggie." Ingram went on to form a successful family group called the Ingramettes, but she never again replicated the charmingly graceful performance of her debut.

"Follow the Star,” Edwin Hawkins, feat. Richard Smallwood (Birthright, 1985)
Richard Smallwood wrote "Follow the Star" and accompanied the Hawkins Family on their performance of it for their much sought-after 1985 Christmas album. "Follow the Star" features a chorus of beautiful, tight harmonies, crisp and invigorating as a starry winter night. A master of the expansive, emotional finish, Smallwood writes a real heart-wrenching coda for "Follow the Star." It alone is guaranteed to elicit sighs of wonder and soul satisfaction.

"Joy to the World,” Stars of Black Nativity (Vee Jay, 1962)
Alex Bradford and the Bradford Singers, Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart served as the original cast for Langston Hughes' captivating interpretation of the Nativity based on the Christmas story in the book of Luke, Black Nativity. Like the Christmas Star, Black Nativity would soon be witnessed and marveled at the world over. "Joy to the World" was performed for the production by Professor Bradford and his Singers. It was a stroke of genius: the group's over-the-top effervescence was perfect for this musical explosion of exaltation.

Mahalia Jackson, 'Silent Night.' What more to say?

"Silent Night,” Mahalia Jackson (Apollo, 1950)
Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr wrote this Christmas chestnut in 1818, but when Mahalia Jackson wrapped her gospel tonsils around it 132 years later, you'd swear the two Austrians wrote the song expressly for her. Millions upon millions have crooned this carol, but few with the straightforward, heartwarming religious intensity of 'Halie.

Copyright 2006 by Robert M. Marovich

marovichBob Marovich is a gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author. In its seventh season, Bob's "Gospel Memories" program of vintage black gospel music and artist interviews airs live first Sundays from 3:00 to 7:30 a.m. on Chicago's WLUW 88.7 FM, and streams live at Snippets of recent broadcasts can be heard at Bob is also editor of The Black Gospel Blog.

This feature was originally contributed on December 16, 2007 as a guest post by Mr. Marovich to, 'A Thoughtful Blog About Gospel Music' by LaTonya.

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