Sunday Service: A guide to the world of gospel music

For those agnostics, atheists or simply the uninterested, it may be difficult to find any appeal in gospel music as a genre given its intrinsic link to spirituality. However, as someone who can see its appeal and how it shaped much of the music we hold dear today I’m here to give some of its favourite characters and introduction.

You may think my day job as a purveyor of breakfast spreads has little to do with music, however, the premise of creating the perfect start to any morning, I believe, has just as much to do with using music to create a great setting, whether its jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop or, indeed, gospel. This bears a strange parallel to the way gospel music in its truest form is used as a way of connecting a congregation to the spirituality of the church. Developing the day.

That said, no matter the time of day, most gospel music has a soul and passion which is expressed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to let a track pass you by without imbuing the same head-nodding or toe-tapping you’d expect as a reaction to the music.

So, what better way to start the heads nodding and the toes tapping than with this introduction to some of Gospel music’s biggest stars.

Pastor T.L Barrett & The Youth for Christ Choir

Thomas Lee Barrett, a pastor, activist and musician from Chicago Illinois, is the creator of one of (in my opinion) the finest examples of a gospel record of all time but has a less than Christian background. Known across the city as a chancer and a conman he was found guilty of defrauding his parishioners of circa $2million in pyramid schemes related to his church. However, it is his album Like a Ship released some years earlier in 1971 when the Pastor was just 27-years-old which has left a lasting and ultimately positive legacy.

With its funk basslines, simple driving drum beats and incredible layers of choral backing vocals topped by the Pastors strong rousing voice it’s easy to get lost in Like a Ship. The record opens with the title track which builds all of the layers of the band into an un-skippable melody—a theme that runs through the record. Standout tracks include ‘It’s Me O Lord’ and the 6 minute 30 second which is ‘Nobody Knows’. If you crank the volume up, push your headphones into your ears and close your eyes you could be in the middle row of the Mount Zion Church in Chicago watching the Pastor and Youth for Christ Choirs soulful renditions in full effect.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Said to be a huge inspiration to such rock ‘n’ roll forefathers like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and a pioneer of distorted guitar sounds, her title as the Godmother of the genre is well deserved and it’s easy to see how the good sister can be so inspirational with her shredding guitar and strong, passionate, blasting vocals.

Like any gospel singers of the day, she experienced backlash for taking her talent beyond the religious audiences of the day into the dark realms of the secular hoards—but who knows where we would be if she hadn’t shared her talent.

I fell in love with her solo recordings and believe she shines on tracks such as ‘What is the Soul of Man’, ‘Didn’t it Rain’ and ‘The Devil Has Thrown Him Down’, with a foundation of her beautiful, rhythmic blues guitar playing topped with her powerful, yet refined, story-telling vocals each song feels like a cautionary tale wrapped in a fable wrapped in an experience and all the richer for it religious or not.

Mahalia Jackson 

Revered as one of the greatest and most successful gospel singers of all time and easily one of the greatest female vocalists too, Mahalia’s voice was described by Dr Martin Luther King as coming ‘not once in a century, but once in a millennium’.

A multi-Grammy winner, Gospel Hall of Famer and recognised on the Hollywood Walk of fame her influence stretches far outside the genre. She was renowned for her support of the civil rights movement, often performing at rallies organised by Dr King including performing before the iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington DC.

It’s impossible not to feel the strength of Mahalia’s voice given its power and depth. Watch archive footage of her performance and it’s staggering to see the volume that she can conjure without any detriment to her tone.

Songs, like ‘I’m Glad Salvation is Free’ or ‘Walk with Me’ are the perfect example of where the strength of her voice captivates you with its long, drawn out and deep delivery. Her voice is best on tracks where it’s been paired with a simple instrumental arrangement which is often the case and so much better for it.

Honourable mention: Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ 

An honourable mentioned because Aretha needs no introduction, but just as many gospel artists have made the move over to the secular world of song, in Aretha’s case at the start of her career, many make the move back as a sort of musical pilgrimage or homage to their gospel roots. In this case, released in 1972 ‘Amazing Grace’ was a move that won Aretha a grammy and became one of her bestselling albums. It was originally recorded for a documentary which is finally being released after years of shelving. 

It dishes up incredible tracks like ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, long, warm and soulful with a Hammond organ backdrop and James Brown-esque vamps, and ‘How I got Over another rolling rhythmic wonder that will force you to crank the volume and bask in the voice of the undisputed queen. Well worth a listen.

This may be just the taste you need to get your Sunday moving but we’ve gone one step further and have given you a mix to really get your spirits soaring.

Featuring some of the aforementioned artists, below is everything you’ll need to really start your education on a genre so deep and personal that it will touch deep into your soul.