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Show Guide for Harlem Gospel Choir

Show Guide for Harlem Gospel Choir

A brief history of gospel music and the founding of the Harlem Gospel Choir


Founded by Allen Bailey in 1986, the Harlem Gospel Choir is a choir of singers ages 17 to 70. The choir uses performances to “create a better understanding of African-American culture and the inspirational music of gospel as it relates to the Black Church. The theme of every performance is ‘bringing people and nations together and giving something back.’” The choir also raises money for Feed The Children, a non-profit relief organization that delivers food, medicine and clothing to children and families lacking these necessities.


Allen Bailey was in Harlem attending the Cotton Club’s celebration of the 1986 observation of Martin Luther King, Jr, Day as a federal holiday, when he got the idea for the Harlem Gospel Choir. Bailey now tours full-time with the choir and is the Harlem Gospel Choir’s founder, frontman and master of ceremonies.

The Harlem Gospel Choir has performed for two popes, former South African president Nelson Mandela and Sir Elton John. The Harlem Gospel Choir has shared the stage with musical artists Cindy Lauper, The Chieftains, Harry Belafonte and Diana Ross.

As the choir’s home base, New York City holds great importance for the Harlem Gospel Choir. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared January 15, 2006 as Harlem Gospel Choir Day.

Bailey estimates the choir has logged nearly two million miles of travel since its inception. In 2004, the Harlem Gospel Choir performed with U2 at Rockefeller Center to raise funds for World of Hope Fund, a charity dedicated to helping AIDS victims in Africa. The choir toured through Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005 to encourage the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The Harlem Gospel Choir has toured all over the world, including Japan, Korea, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Harlem Gospel Choir was the first gospel choir to tour with Night of the Proms through Belgium, Holland and Germany. In 2008, they became the first gospel choir from Harlem to perform in Lebanon; the choir also had the same honor in Slovakia, Bulgaria and Korea.

In 2008, the Harlem Gospel Choir made several television appearances, including the Christmas episode of Top Chef: New York, The Colbert Report and Good Morning America’s annual coat drive for the homeless.

About the Founder

Allen Bailey has worked in the entertainment industry for over 40 years. He was a promotional director for recording artists and actors, including Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Prince, Michael Jackson, Mr. T, and Isaac Hayes.

Bailey has extensive experience in combining talent management, theatrical production and fundraising. Bailey was entertainment coordinator for “Rumble in the Jungle,” the heavyweight title fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Bailey assisted the east coast production of “We are the World”(1985) as part of the USA for Africa campaign. Bailey served as chairman for the Martin Luther King, Jr, Holiday Campaign. Bailey coordinated Harlem's entertainment for the Ne lson Mandela celebration at Yankee Stadium (1990) and co-directed the Harlem Jazz Festival. Bailey has been actively engaged in fundraising efforts for the Leukemia Society, the Cancer Foundation, United Negro College Fund and, through the Harlem Gospel Choir, Feed the Children.

A Brief History of Gospel Music

Contemporary gospel emerged in the early twentieth century. Its roots are often cited as a mixture of West African and African-American music, dance, poetry, and drama that grew into an expressive celebration of the Christian experience of hope and salvation. For many churchgoers, gospel music is not just a form of music but an intricate part of the religious experience.

Composer and pianist Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) is considered the father of gospel music. Dorsey was an accompanist for blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

While at an annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention Dorsey heard compositions by Charles A. Tindley, the first hymn writer to have a hymn copyrighted; Tindley’s songs inspired Dorsey to combine Christian praise lyrics with the jazz and blues rhythms he had cultivated in his secular music career.

Dorsey wrote lyrics explicitly about the self’s personal relationship with God and faith, a deviation from typical hymns of the day, which usually focused on group belief. Dorsey coined the term “gospel music” and worked with many singers and composers who were instrumental in the growth of the gospel movement.

In the 1920s, many touring gospel groups had members who were also traveling preachers. They started cutting records that, based on Dorsey’s new gospel music model, melded traditional religious themes with barrelhouse, blues and boogie-woogie techniques. Drums and horns, typically categorized as jazz instruments, were brought into the church.

Some shunned this blending of sacred songs and hymn with secular blues and jazz tunes, but other religious groups were invigorated by it. Early gospel flourished in Sanctified or Holiness churches that encouraged church members to testify through spontaneous songs and stories of personal experiences of faith. Members of these churches were sometimes called "holy rollers" by members in other denominations.

During the 1930s, the gospel movement was centralized in Chicago. Dorsey founded Dorsey House of Music, the first black gospel music publishing company in 1932. Traveling gospel quartets, as well as artists like Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, helped popularize gospel music on a national scale throughout the ‘40s. In the last half of the 20th century, gospel choirs began to replace quartets as the main purveyors of the music’s popularity. In the 1990s and 2000s, albums by Kirk Franklin, Take 6 and Yolanda Adams received Grammys and other awards from the musical community in addition to achieving gospel and secular chart success.

Gospel has inspired a myriad of music genres. Rock-and-roll and country-western artists, from Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Willie Nelson, have covered gospel songs. Musicians like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke developed and defined the sound of soul music based on their early church encounters with gospel. Soul itself is a fusion of gospel and rhythm and blues.

A Few Gospel Music Pioneers

Mahalia Jackson (1911- 1972) is hailed as the first Queen of Gospel Music. An impromptu church performance when she was 16 years old led the contralto singer to an introduction with Thomas Dorsey. During their 14-years of touring and collaboration, Dorsey wrote Jackson’s signature song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The Grammy category of Gospel Music or Other Religious Recording was created specifically so Jackson could be nominated; she won the first Gospel Music Grammy in 1961. Jackson also received a Grammy Lifetime achievement award in 1972 and was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Jacksons other accolades include a star on Hollywood Boulevard and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Jackson’s friend Martin Luther King, Jr said of the singer, “A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 - 1973) was the first recording star of gospel music. Born Rosetta Nubin, Tharpe blended sacred and secular music styles – she modeled her singing after jazz and picked the guitar like a blues musician. She often performed with a big band in nightclubs and concert halls as well as in churches. During World War II, Tharpe was one of only two gospel artists to contribute songs to record compilations made especially for overseas troops. Tharpe’s recordings brought a wider, secular audience to gospel and artists such as Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash and Elvis cited the influence of her skill and showmanship.

Clara Ward (1924 - 1973) was a singer, songwriter and arranger. Ward started singing gospel in 1931 alongside her mother and older sister as the Ward Trio. Marion Williams’ performance of Clara Ward’s arrangement of “Surely, God is Able” was the first gospel song to sell one million copies. In the 1960s, Ward achieved two more gospel music firsts; she became the first gospel singer to record with accompaniment from a 100-piece orchestra, and Ward was the first gospel singer to sing gospel on Broadway when she performed in Langston Hughes’ Tambourines To Glory. Ward influenced many gospel singers, including Aretha Franklin.

James Cleveland (1931 - 1991) was a singer, pianist and composer. As a boy, Cleveland sang soprano at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church where Thomas A. Dorsey was minister of music. A vocal chord strain during his teens gave Cleveland’s voice its signature growl. He made his name singing in and arranging for gospel groups and choirs. Cleveland’s choral arrangements were complex and their unusual time signatures made energetic rhythms and powerful harmonies; Cleveland gave shape to modern gospel with his arrangements for mass choirs. In 1968, Cleveland founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the largest gospel convention in the world.

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