British teen Laurie London brought the Sunday school mainstay "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" to #1 in 1957. Doo-wop groups of the '40s and '50s borrowed a cappella harmonies from church singers, and a handful of gospel groups provided backing for secular artists, such as the Jordanaires' work on several Elvis Presley hits. Folk musicians spun hymns into freedom anthems during the Civil Rights Era, with Pete Seeger promising "We Shall Overcome," an adaptation of "If My Jesus Wills." Meanwhile, artists like Ray Charles made inroads on the R&B charts with secular makeovers of spiritual songs, with "This Little Light Of Mine" becoming "This Little Girl Of Mine."
But "Oh Happy Day" is regarded as the first pure gospel song to cross over thanks to its religious credentials: It was a gospel song recorded in a church by a gospel choir. Any number of songs could have made the leap first, but many churches discouraged their singers from commercializing their faith. Hawkins faced ire from his local church, but his song influenced a trend of adding gospel elements to secular hits. Below we examine "Oh Happy Day" and other gospel-inspired tunes from the pop chart.
"Wings Of A Dove" – Ferlin Husky
Nearly a decade before "Oh Happy Day" broke out on the charts, the country-gospel tune "Wings Of A Dove" was a big hit for Ferlin Husky. Christian-themed songs were popular among country singers whose faith was entwined with their deep Southern roots. Everyone from Johnny Cash to Loretta Lynn to Elvis Presley would release albums of hymns, but few made an impression in the pop realm.
Not only did "Wings Of A Dove" spend 10 nonconsecutive weeks at the top of the Country chart, it also crossed over to #12 on the Pop chart. Nashville songwriter Bob Ferguson was inspired by the story of Noah's Ark in Genesis. After the great flood obliterated everything except for the people and animals housed on the ark, Noah sent a dove to scope out the land to see if it was dry enough to disembark. The dove eventually returned with a fresh olive branch in its beak – God's assurance to Noah that all was well, or as the song goes:
Troubles, he had some
But wasn't forgotten
He sent him His love
On the wings of a dove
The dove became a popular symbol of peace in Christian art, and also signified the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some versions of the song, like Dolly Parton's 1971 rendition (produced by Ferguson), contain an additional verse about Jesus' baptism. As recounted in the Gospels, John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River and the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove.
When Jesus went down through the river that day
Well, he was baptized in the usual way
And when it was done
God blessed His son
He sent him His love
On the wings of a dove
If there was any room on those wings for romantic love, many a soul singer could've used a visit from a dove.
"Can I Get A Witness" – Marvin Gaye
But it hurts me so inside
to see you treat me so unkind
Somebody somewhere tell her it ain't fair
Can I get a witness?
The Motown hitmaking trio Holland-Dozier-Holland dusted off their Sunday suits when they wrote "Can I Get A Witness" for Marvin Gaye, a #22 hit in 1964. Lamont Dozier recalled growing up in the church and listening to gospel music, a way of life for most black families. The influence crept into the H-D-H team's music.
The title phrase was often used by preachers to get an affirmation from the congregation, usually met with a chorus of "Amens." In the song, Gaye is frustrated by a one-sided relationship and needs a little support from his brothers (and sisters – The Supremes provided backing vocals) when he cries out, "Can I Get A Witness?"
Although he pursued a career in secular music, Gaye, a preacher's son who sang his first song in church at 4 years old, credited his religious background with his soulful fervor: "That's how I found the courage to sing according to feeling. I let my voice do things choir teachers would never allow. I realized my voice was a gift from God and had to be used to praise Him."
Gaye wrote the spiritual tune "Wholy Holy" for his landmark 1971 album What's Going On. The song of faith and unity is far from a gospel shouter, but is lightly rendered with a delicate string arrangement. That all changed when Aretha Franklin included a gospel-infused version on her live album Amazing Grace, swapping the strings for organ and piano and adding a choir led by Reverend James Cleveland aka The King of Gospel Music. Franklin wasn't sure if Gaye's song would be appropriate to perform at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where the album was being recorded, so she asked for Cleveland's advice. He recalled to Franklin biographer David Ritz: "It's all God's music and it's all good. Marvin was essentially a minister and I welcome his songs in my church."
"Wholy Holy" barely made an impact on the charts, almost giving credence to naysayers who insisted the doors to gospel would be forever closed to former church singers who sought secular success. Almost. The album, which also included the traditional hymns "Amazing Grace," "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and "What A Friend We Have In Jesus," was a huge release for the preacher's daughter-turned-soul singer. It peaked at #7 on the US albums chart and won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
"People Get Ready" – The Impressions
People get ready
There's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage
You just get on board
While Marvin Gaye was busy worrying about his woman, Curtis Mayfield had more heavenly matters on his mind. Mayfield's background as a gospel singer with Chicago's Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers made an impression on the music of his group The Impressions, including their best-known song "People Get Ready."
Train imagery was often used to symbolize passage into the heavenly realm in many traditional spirituals, including "The Gospel Train." Some of the songs were significant during the abolitionist era when they were used as secret codes to signal slaves to escape safely through the Underground Railroad. A century later, African Americans embraced "People Get Ready" as an anthem of freedom during the Civil Rights Era. "That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church," Mayfield explained. "Like there's no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song."
When Vanilla Fudge recorded the song in 1967, they wanted to build on the gospel feel. Carmine Appice, the band's drummer, told us: "We came about the song and said, 'This would be a great song. It sounds like a gospel song, let's make it sound like a churchy, gospel-type song.' We came up with a very symphonic kind of intro, as we've done with many songs, but most of the song was done just with an organ and a vocal, and I actually sang that. With the background harmonies singing, 'Thank the lord,' it made it sound very gospely. At the end, it built into a big, powerful last verse and chorus, and then it went out with gospel vocals."
The following year, the biggest gospel-pop hit of the decade made its debut and influenced spiritual and secular singers alike.
"Oh Happy Day" – The Edwin Hawkins Singers
Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
My sins away
The Edwin Hawkins Singers can't contain their excitement in their jubilant crossover hit "Oh Happy Day," based on the 18th century Protestant hymn "Oh Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice." With Hawkins on piano and Dorothy Morrison at the lead, the choir delights in their walk with Jesus, who taught them how to live rejoicing every day. As recounted in the four Gospels, Jesus atoned for the world's sins by sacrificing himself through crucifixion. The joyous day in question is the day of conversion when the singers accept the gift of salvation. Not exactly the stuff of a mainstream hit.
Hawkins was as surprised as anybody when his song, part of an album intended to finance the Northern California State Youth Choir's trip to a church conference, started gaining traction on local pop radio. Suddenly, a hymn-based, Jesus-praising gospel tune recorded in a church, with a church choir, using church musicians, was sacrilegious. Hawkins' church, the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley, California, wanted no part of it and demanded the youth choir's name be removed from the song. Officials of the denomination even petitioned secular stations to stop airing it. The record label relented and renamed the group The Edwin Hawkins Singers, but pop stations didn't, and the song soared to #4.
"I think they thought they were doing the right thing," Hawkins told The Chronicle of his church. "What confused me about it was they were teaching us all our lives that we were to take the message everywhere." (The original hymn expresses this sentiment: "Well may this glowing heart rejoice and tell its raptures all abroad.")
The group is best known for "Oh Happy Day," which saw a range of covers from Glen Campbell to Aretha Franklin, but they continued to record. Most notably they brought a spiritual vibe to Melanie's Top 10 hit "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" the following year. Dorothy Morrison also sang backup for a number of artists, including Chicago, Boz Scaggs, Simon & Garfunkel, and Huey Lewis & the News.
By the time the song reached its zenith in 1969, Jesus was starting to become a popular character in the counterculture scene with more and more musicians making references to the Son of God. George Harrison was on tour with Delaney & Bonnie when he heard Hawkins' song for the first time, inspiring him to write his own devotional tune, "My Sweet Lord." He recalled: "I was so thrilled with 'Oh Happy Day' by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. It really just knocked me out, the idea of that song and I just felt a great feeling of the Lord. So I thought, I'll write another 'Oh Happy Day,' which became 'My Sweet Lord.'"
"They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, 'Bob Dylan's no prophet.' They just can't handle it."
But he gained a new audience with younger Christians, and the single "Gotta Serve Somebody" became his first hit in three years, peaking at #24 on the pop chart. Dylan returned to his rock roots with the 1983 album Infidels, but he continued to incorporate religious imagery in his songs. When asked about his faith, he told Newsweek: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music... I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."
"Spirit In The Sky" – Norman Greenbaum
That same year "Oh Happy Day" peaked on the pop chart, Norman Greenbaum channeled his appreciation of gospel music into the religious rock song "Spirit In The Sky." The Jewish singer figured Jesus was more marketable than Jehovah, so he encouraged listeners to buddy up with the Christian savior if they wanted to spend eternity in heaven:
Prepare yourself, you know it's a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
Greenbaum, who took just 15 minutes to write the hit, didn't have much time to crack open the Bible, but the above lyric evokes John 3:16, which indeed says you must have a friend in Jesus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
The singer also gets some spiritual backing from the Stovall Sisters, a gospel group from Indiana. The following year, the trio did a turn with the Ikettes backing Ike and Tina Turner.
In the meantime, rock bands started inviting Jesus to jam, and some of his followers tagged along.
"Jesus Is Just Alright" - The Doobie Brothers
In 1973, some unusual fans started showing up at Doobie Brothers concerts. They would point to the sky during the show, and go absolutely nuts when the band played their hit "Jesus Is Just Alright."
The song was written by the gospel singer Art Reynolds, who recorded it with his Art Reynolds Singers, a group culled from members of his church choir. The message is crystal clear:
I don't care what they may say
Jesus is just alright, oh yeah
In 1969, The Byrds recorded a rocked-up version with their trademark jangle, reaching #97. A psychedelic group called The Underground Sunshine recorded it in 1970, and in 1972, The Doobies took a crack at it.
The group wasn't trying to preach the Gospel, but you wouldn't know it from the breakdown they added to the song:
Jesus, he's my friend
I said Jesus, he's my friend
He took me by the hand
He let me far from this land
Jesus, he's my friend!
Lead singer Tom Johnston told us there was no motive. "We weren't anti-religious," he said. "We weren't anything. We were just musicians out playing a gig."
Those fans who went crazy at their concerts during the song were "Wayers," members of a popular religious movement. They might not have known that the group is named after a marijuana cigarette. If they did, they may have argued the growing Jesus Movement welcomed folks from all walks of life.
Like Norman Greenbaum, Simon & Garfunkel were Jewish musicians who found a friend in Jesus. Two years after they assured "Mrs. Robinson" that "Jesus loves you more than you will know," the duo dipped into gospel on their iconic final album.
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" – Simon & Garfunkel
I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Paul Simon had a simple hymn of comfort in mind when he wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the title track to Simon & Garfunkel's final album, but it turned into a near-five minute devotional with Art Garfunkel's sensitive vocals soaring over a gospel piano. Simon still isn't quite sure where the idea for the song came from, only that it struck him suddenly after listening to a lot of gospel songs, mainly from The Swan Silvertones. Their 1959 cover of "Mary Don't You Weep" contains the similar lyric, "I'll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name," and being one of their most popular songs it was likely on Simon's playlist.
Another hit from the album, "The Boxer," borrows bits of common phrases from scripture, thanks to Simon's occasional habit of reading the Bible in hotel rooms. The song follows a lonely boxer's downward spiral as he tries to make it in New York City. He tries to find a job, asking only workman's wages, but the only offers he gets are from prostitutes, and seeks out the poorer quarters to stay. The song's most significant religious inspiration comes from one of its recording locations: St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University in New York City. The venue choice wasn't for spiritual, but acoustical reasons thanks to the sonorous effect of the church's famous tiled dome. According to Garfunkel, the duo had to sneak in, "under the cover of night, to record the ending of 'The Boxer.' We stayed there the whole night, singing all 16 li-la-lis.'"
Simon returned to the gospel fold with "Loves Me Like A Rock," one of his first big solo hits. Backed by the popular Southern gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, Simon sings about his mother's steadfast love:
She loves me like a rock
She rocks me like the rock of ages
"Rock of Ages" (not the Def Leppard song) is the name of a traditional Christian hymn inspired in part by Psalms 91:1: "O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation."
"Let It Be" – The Beatles
When Paul Simon heard the Beatles' "Let It Be" he was shocked at the similarity with his own hymn-like ballad. John Lennon hated the Beatles song because of its Christian overtones and implied in a 1980 interview that Paul McCartney was trying to write his own "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The Beatles, however, recorded "Let It Be" at the beginning of 1969, and Simon & Garfunkel didn't record their ballad until the year's end. McCartney was likely absorbing the same gospel vibe running through popular music at the time.
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be
Many assumed McCartney was singing about the Virgin Mary, but he was actually referring to his late mother, Mary, who died when he was a teenager. He was struggling over strife within the band when he dreamed of his mother, who advised him to "let it be."
"'Mother Mary' makes it a quasi-religious thing, so you can take it that way. I don't mind. I'm quite happy if people want to use it to shore up their faith."
Other bands interpreted times of trouble as opportunities to prepare to meet their maker.
"Are You Ready?" – Pacific Gas & Electric
Are you ready to sit by His throne?
Are you ready not to be alone?
Someone's coming to take you home
And if you're ready, then He'll carry you home
PG&E frontman Charlie Allen delivers a gospel-funk sermon in the group's biggest hit, "Are You Ready." The opening line, "There's rumors of war," is a nod to Matthew 24:6, when Jesus prophesied about the end times and His second coming. "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars," he told followers at the Mount of Olives, "but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come."
The chorus follows through with Jesus' return, promising "He'll carry you home." The line evokes the traditional African American spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," where the narrator spies a band of angels "Comin' for to carry me home."
The song addresses Allen's own apocalyptic fears. He shared in a 1970 interview: "We're now to the point where we can just blow it all up with one little button, one little detonator. Never before in the history of man has that ever happened where you could literally destroy the world."
Many Jesus-centric songs of the era focused in His provision in times of trouble.
"Put Your Hand In The Hand" - Ocean
Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea
In 1971, the Canadian rock band Ocean borrowed "Put Your Hand In The Hand," a gospel-infused Anne Murray album cut penned by Gene MacLellan, and turned it into a #2 hit. Janice Morgan takes the lead as a sinner hoping to be a little more saintly by following Jesus. A glimpse into the holy book makes her tremble:
When I read about the part where the carpenter cleared the temple
For the buyers and the sellers were no different fellas
Than what I profess to be
Jesus' ministry didn't pay the bills, so he made his living as a carpenter. On two different occasions (Matthew 21:12-17 and John 2:13-22), Jesus entered the temple courts and found merchants selling goods and cattle. Disgusted, he overturned their tables and denounced them for turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves.
Morgan finds hope in Jesus, "the man who calmed the sea." As recounted in Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25, the apostles' boat was caught in a raging storm while Jesus was sleeping. Fearing for their lives as the boat filled with water, they woke Jesus up in a panic and asked if he cared that they were about to die. With one command he calmed the wind and waves. Then, he questioned his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"
But the band wasn't as gung-ho about Jesus as they appeared to be. "I wouldn't say that we feel strongly about the religious angle of the song," Ocean keyboardist Greg Brown explained to Ritchie Yorke in Axes, Chops, and Hot Licks. "We were concerned that it might give the group a gospel image."
It did. Ocean had a couple more hits in their native Canada before sailing off the charts for good.
A few years later, Al Green was also tormented by a storm, but it was raging within himself.
"Take Me To The River" – Talking Heads
Take me to the river
And wash me down
Won't you cleanse my soul
Put my feet on the ground
Al Green notched several hits on the R&B chart in the '70s, but "Take Me To The River" wasn't one of them. The gospelized soul track, which finds the singer torn between his carnal and spiritual desires, debuted on his 1974 album, Al Green Explores Your Mind, but wasn't released as a single. His labelmate Syl Johnson was the first to take the tune to the pop charts the following year. Several other covers followed, most notably from Talking Heads in 1978, whose version peaked at #26.
Meanwhile, Green had dropped the song from his repertoire after a harrowing event (a jealous lover attacked him with a pot full of boiling grits, then committed suicide) forced him to reevaluate his life and pushed him into ministry. He eventually ditched soul in favor of gospel music for awhile but still reaped the benefits of his secular past.
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne noted, "Coincidence or conspiracy? There were at least four cover versions of this song out at the same time: Foghat, Bryan Ferry, Levon Helm, and us. More money for Mr. Green's full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose. A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin' Jesus."
Green, who often included religious songs on his albums such as "Jesus Is Waiting," would argue that "Take Me To The River" started out as an entirely wholesome spiritual song. He claimed he was inspired after witnessing a full-immersion baptism in an Arkansas river, and the sexual elements were added by his guitarist/co-writer Mabon "Teenie" Hodges. "All this about the cigarettes and the sixteen candles? That's Teenie," he said.
None of Green's gospel output made it on the pop charts, but his first gospel album, The Lord Will Make A Way, did give him his first Grammy (Best Soul Gospel Performance). But the singer admitted his walk on the spiritual side wasn't always easy with a background in secular music. "Boy, you haven't seen no hatred 'til you get in the church," he said in a 1986 interview. "There seem to be a lot of judgmental folks in the church world."
Thankfully, the Staple Singers knew of a place of refuge away from all the hate in the world.
"I'll Take You There" The Staple Singers
A year before Bob Dylan sang about "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" in his folk/gospel hit for the western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the Staple Singers found a path to the pearly gates. The group was a popular gospel family band who drifted into the mainstream in the '70s with the anthemic soul-funk hits "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," a call-and-response invitation to take the listener to heavenly heights, where peace and equality exist. Mavis Staples sings:
Oh mmm I know a place
Ain't nobody cryin'
Ain't nobody worried
Ain't no smilin' faces
Lyin' to the races
The group, formed by patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples, was a popular fixture on the gospel circuit singing folk-tinged Christian tunes, but their association with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Era turned them on to protest songs that addressed social injustice. Pops wanted to get King's message beyond the church walls, but knew the move to mainstream was risky. The Staple Singers toured with Sam Cooke in the late '50s when he was transitioning from a wildly popular gospel singer to an R&B star and witnessed die-hard gospel purists rebuke the Soul Stirrers lead when he took the stage. According to Mavis, women in the congregation shouted, "You sit down! We don't want you singing the blues!" until Cooke was forced to abandon his set. He stirred further controversy by signing gospel quintet The Womack Brothers to his record label. Under the new name The Valentinos, the group revamped the gospel song "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" as the pop hit "Lookin' For A Love." Their devout father kicked them out of the house.
So it wasn't a big surprise when the Staple Singers were accused of "Uncle Tomming for the flower children" when they spread their message songs to white audiences in coffeehouses and rock venues. By the time they released "I'll Take You There," the group settled into a soul-funk groove with help from the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
But the family's influence was reverberating through rock before they ever hit the charts. Keith Richards borrowed a bluesy guitar riff from Pops for the Rolling Stones' 1965 hit "The Last Time," a reworking of the Staple Singers' cover of the traditional gospel song "This May Be The Last Time." A few years later, John Fogerty tapped into gospel for Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born On The Bayou," and recalled listening to the Staple Singers on Sunday evening gospel shows on the radio, particularly Pops' guitar work. "That's really why I would tune in, to hear that harmony sound and his guitar style," he explained.
After hearing the group's gospel rendition of the hymn "Stand By Me," Ben E. King tried to get his group The Drifters to record it, but they refused. When he went solo, he worked with rock 'n' roll producers Leiber and Stoller to give the song a contemporary polish, resulting in a #4 hit on the pop chart in 1961.
In 1989, the phrase "I'll Take You There" took on a sexual connotation as Madonna sang it in "Like A Prayer" (the following year Salt-n-Pepa's safe-sex anthem "Let's Talk About Sex," samples the Staple Singers hit), but the real gospel influence came from the Andraé Crouch Gospel Choir.
"Like A Prayer" – Madonna
In the midnight hour
I can feel your power
Just like a prayer
You know I'll take you there
Andraé Crouch scrutinized the lyrics to "Like A Prayer" before agreeing to appear with his choir on the hit single. To the gospel singer's holy ears, it probably sounded like the Material Girl's opening praise, "I hear you call my name, and it feels like home," was the setup for a wholesome song of faith. The fact that she was down on her knees could only mean she was praying. The song almost does sound religious with its use of a church organ and Crouch's choir bursting in the background. The innuendo, however, became apparent when it came time to shoot the video, which featured Madonna in a church making out with a black saint and dancing in front of burning crosses. The choir refused to appear in the controversial clip.
Crouch, often called the Father of Contemporary Gospel Music, was an influential figure in Jesus music of the '60s and '70s that brought Christian-themed music into the mainstream and secular stylings into the church. Although Crouch's compositions, including "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" and "My Tribute (To God Be the Glory)," have become standards in worship services, he dealt with the same criticisms as his contemporaries. Purists accused him of spreading a watered-down gospel mixed with the devil's music. Crouch, who was also a pastor, thought traditional church music was boring and didn't see anything wrong with spicing it up, as long as it was in line with his beliefs.
"Every song I've written takes you through the Scriptures and reinforces the word of God," he told The Los Angeles Times in 1982. "I give people a beautiful message, but I do it with pop, rock, funk, jazz or disco or anything that will make it appealing."
"Man In The Mirror" – Michael Jackson
Working in secular music also meant Crouch could reach more people. In the '80s lots of pop singers were interested in injecting their music with a gospel flavor and Crouch was their go-to guy. He teamed with Michael Jackson on several hits, including "Man In The Mirror," an anthem about being the change you want to see in the world.
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change
Not only did Crouch lead the choir on the 1987 Bad cut, but he also arranged the song.
Siedah Garrett, who co-wrote the song and provided backing vocals, said she had some help from above. She recalled praying, "'I want to write a song for Michael Jackson.' Since I wanted Michael to know who I was, I was thinking in my mind, 'What can I say to him that he wouldn't be afraid to say to the rest of the world?' And this song came through."
The real danger came from contemporaries who didn't want their brethren to succeed doing "the devil's work." According to Willie Chambers of The Chambers Brothers, the group got into hot water with gospel royalty when they dared to sing outside the church. Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, went on a popular talk show and blasted the brothers for singing in clubs where alcohol was served. Aside from calling them blasphemous, she claimed, "To sing gospel in a club under these conditions is equivalent to burning the American flag." Because clubs refused to hire them after the charge, the group decided to mix up their repertoire with rock and soul, which brought them their defining psychedelic hit, "Time Has Come Today."
"Count On Me" – Whitney Houston and CeCe Winans
In 1996, Whitney Houston played the title character in The Preacher's Wife, a romantic comedy about an angel who comes to help a struggling church. He also convinces Houston, a former nightclub singer, to lead the church choir. It was a familiar role for the R&B diva, whose mother was famed gospel singer Cissy Drinkard, a popular backing vocalist for the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. With lots of gospel numbers to show off Houston's vocals, The Preacher's Wife soundtrack became the best-selling gospel album of all time.
But we're here to talk about the singer's other movie that year: Waiting To Exhale. The story revolves around a group of women who lean on each other through their romantic struggles with unreliable men. (Houston is concerned for a husband in this film, too – someone else's. She's a mistress waiting for her lover to leave his wife.) The friendship theme is reflected in the hit single "Count On Me," a duet between Houston and her friend CeCe Winans. It was the first Top 10 on the pop chart for the gospel singer, who often crossed over to the R&B tally in inspirational duets with her brother BeBe Winans. The duo faced criticism early in their career for removing overt references to God and Jesus in their music in order to be accepted into the mainstream.
"People always try to put gospel music in a box, but God is bigger than that," CeCe explained. "Gospel music is not always going to be a song that says, 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.' You have a Bible you read every day, and every Scripture doesn't say, 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.' But the Scriptures talk about the lifestyle. It talks about being holy, it talks about loving one another."
CeCe admitted she had her own genre prejudices to work through, namely rap music as groups like Gospel Gangstaz brought hip-hop to Christian music and, occasionally, mainstream rap artists incorporated gospel elements into their songs.
"I'll Be Missing You" – Puff Daddy feat. Faith Evans
Sean Combs, still known by the stage name Puff Daddy, recorded the chart-topping rap ballad "I'll Be Missing You" in honor of the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G., who was gunned down a couple months earlier. The most prominent sample on the track is The Police's "Every Breath You Take," but a portion of the melody was borrowed from the 1929 gospel song "I'll Fly Away."
Albert E. Brumley, a prolific southern gospel songwriter, was picking cotton on his family's farm when he got the idea for a joyous hymn about flying away to the afterlife. The hymn became one of the most-recorded gospel songs of all time, but never crossed over to the pop chart until the rapper borrowed a bit for his tribute. As Puff found out, it wasn't up for grabs. Brumley's heirs successfully sued Arista Records and a host of other companies involved with "I'll Be Missing You" for sampling the song without permission.
"I'll Fly Away" got more acclaim a few years later when Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch recorded a bluegrass version for the hit soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou. It wasn't released as a single, but the album was a smash hit that took home the Grammy for Album of the Year.
But Combs' appreciation of gospel didn't fly away with his legal bills. The rapper invited gospel singer Kelly Price to join his songwriting and producing dream team. Secular music was strictly forbidden in the Price household, so Kelly would sneak doses of pop through her headphones, and the deception paid off. Kelly and her sister Shanrae Cheree Price got their professional start backing Mariah Carey on tour (Carey herself was dubbed the extraordinary gospel singer who didn't actually sing gospel upon the release of her debut hit "Vision Of Love"). Kelly sang on loads of hits, including Carey's "Fantasy," Whitney Houston's "Heartbreak Hotel," and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems." She also wrote and arranged hits such as Brian McKnight's "You Should Be Mine." Rather than sign with Combs' Bad Boy label or Carey's Crave Records, she got her own deal and released a string of hit R&B albums. The singer is often expected to defend her walk on the secular side, especially after a performance of the adultery-themed tune "As We Lay" at a gospel expo set the Bibles a-thumpin.'
"I don't call it secular, I call it music," she said. "I don't like the word secular because the raw definition of secular means without God and I take God with me everywhere I go, I'll never allow anybody to tell me that I'm without God. He's here right now... He's here 'cause I'm here, He's here 'cause you are here."
He's also with Kanye.
"Jesus Walks" – Kanye West
Before Kanye West released "Jesus Walks" on his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004, Jesus hadn't appeared in the title of a pop entry since 1996. George Michael's "Jesus To A Child" was a #7 hit, but the ballad wasn't a profession of faith, merely a comparison between the tenderness of his late lover and the Son of God.
In West's song, he uses the story of a drug dealer who tries to rise above his circumstances by turning to God, but is afraid of being rejected because he hasn't prayed in so long. The rapper makes the point that Jesus walks with sinners, because often they are the ones who need him the most. He also incorporated samples of the traditional gospel song "Walk With Me," performed by the ARC choir, a gospel group made up of reformed drug addicts.
West, who already struggled to get a record deal because he didn't fit into the gangsta rap scene, knew a song of faith that overtly namechecked Jesus was an atypical move for a fresh rapper in need of a hit.
They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won't get played
West said he was using reverse psychology, "calling out people who didn't want to play it without pointing fingers at anybody. It worked; the single peaked at #11 and won the Grammy for Best Rap Song.
The gospel industry even recognized The College Dropout, which also featured a cover of "I'll Fly Away," by nominating the album for several Stellar Awards, including Best Gospel Rap Album, temporarily. It was pulled from the ballot when complaints rolled in from the pews. One youth minister compared the song to a Hostess snack, a tasty confection that offered little spiritual sustenance. But another preacher pointed out the hypocrisy of people punishing Kanye for singing about Jesus while simultaneously complaining that crossover gospel artists didn't sing about God enough. West took the snub in stride, figuring the evangelical crowd wasn't who really needed the message.
When West's dad heard "Jesus Walks," he told his son he may have missed his calling as a minister. The rapper replied, "No, maybe this is my calling. I reach more people than any one pastor can."
March 8, 2018
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