A City Called Heaven:
Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music
by Robert M. Marovich
Transformative artistic movements don’t just appear, fully developed. They arise over time out of a complex web of interconnected people, places, history, circumstance, raw talent, and society’s readiness to accept them.
In A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music Robert M. Marovich ploughs deep and wide to connect all of Gospel’s variant threads from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries.
To say that A City Called Heaven is meticulously researched inadequately credits Marovich’s thoroughness. The nearly 150-page-long notes, index, and appendixes section is a good indicator of how much information the author troved and then masterfully knit together. The song index at the book’s conclusion lists about 400 titles, plus the page in the text that each appears.
This is a who’s who of international stars like Mahalia Jackson, who graces the cover, big congregations, and other major local and national industry players.
But its beauty and practicality as a definitive reference source on Gospel music lies in the book’s additional depth, in the attention also given to the unique contributions of countless small and medium-sized players and their accompanying details. Marovich strives to give credit to everyone—amateur, semi-professional, and professional singers; choir directors; accompanists; songwriters; musicians; quartets and quintets; sheet music arrangers and music publishers; music shop owners; television executives and personalities; and promoters who collectively used live appearances, records, radio, and ultimately television to share Gospel music with Chicagoland, the nation, and the world while developing it into a modern sound.
After a long and arduous, not-always-linear process, the world embraced it.
The text is densely penned, scholarly, and fact-laden. Readers will quickly lose count of the number of names, dates, and places chronicled.
Wondering when singer Albertina Walker’s parents migrated to Chicago from Georgia? Marovich’s got that. (Between 1915 and 1920; she was born in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1929).
Or the date that the Gay Sisters—Evelyn, Mildred, and Geraldine—first recorded with Savoy Records? The cut from that session that reportedly sold a million copies? (March 21, 1951; “God Will Take Care of You”)
How old was Milton Brunson when he organized the Thompson Community Singers in the basement of St. Stephen AME Church? What year was that? How many members were in the original group? And what was the church’s street’s address then? (Nineteen; 1948; 40; 2000 West Washington Blvd.)
A City Called Heaven begins by laying out the parallel journeys of those who ran Chicago’s large, deliberative Protestant churches—that had classically-trained choirs and professional choir directors—and the migrant preachers and street-corner musicians who came from the South during the Great Migration and founded storefront, communal churches that encouraged exuberant congregational participation.
“The worship style of the established protestant churches in the urban north was dramatically different from what migrants practiced down South,” Marovich writes. “The northern worship style tended to reflect the refined tastes of its upwardly mobile middle-class membership.”
“Not finding a comfortable home in the Old Landmarks, migrants created their own ‘islands of southern culture,’ establishing churches that welcomed newcomers and encouraged congregational participation.”
By the 1930s, these two styles became interwoven. Marovich tells you who was behind that—in detail.
The author gives special credit to a “nexus” of five people—Thomas Dorsey, Malahia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye, and Magnolia Lewis Butts—for being at the forefront, in the 1920s and ’30s, of the melding of these two styles into a modern Gospel sound that incorporated the best qualities of both—emotive and stirring with deep African roots, but also polished and professional.
By the mid-1930s, “Ebenezer Baptist Church was filled to overflowing whenever its Gospel Chorus sang,” Marovich writes. Moreover, “migrants at other churches were eager to have gospel choruses of their own, and their influence was no longer insubstantial.”
Chicago’s deliberative protestant churches had no choice but to acknowledge Gospel’s popularity. If they were to grow their congregational ranks, they had to have a Gospel choir.
“… if indigenous folk music could help increase membership and tithing, it could not be ignored.”
In any industry, rising stars need to know someone who can get them a gig, or just encourage their emerging talent. In the twentieth century, if you were in Chicago and wanted to rise in the Gospel music industry, the people you needed to back you were often right down the street—worshiping every Sunday at your church or at a church within a few blocks’ radius. Mahalia Jackson, for instance, worked as a demonstrator for Dorsey, singing his sheet music compositions on Bronzeville street corners beginning in 1930 and later travelling the country with him “as one of his chief demonstrators.”
A City Called Heaven is a rich timeline of firsts, including groundbreaking moments like the formation of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which still exists today, at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1933.
Important mentions include that in 1926, classically trained singer and pianist Arizona Dranes recorded the first Gospel record at Chicago’s OKeh studios.
Marovich follows the evolution of Gospel’s accompaniment as first piano and then organ, guitar, and then drums backed singers. Similarly, the author traces the rise of gospel choirs in Chicago churches, followed by a move in the 1940s and ’50s to quartets and other small groups, and finally the movement back toward large choruses.
And Marovich traces the career trajectory of Gospel singers like Sam Cooke, who crossed the controversial line into secular music, which artists often did as a way of financially supporting themselves and their families. Born in Mississippi, Cooke migrated to Chicago with his family in the 1930s and went onto sing with Gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers. He founded commercial success in secular tunes like 1957’s “You Send Me.”
Finally, as the twentieth century progressed, Gospel stars from Chicago became part of the historical fabric of the Civil Rights Movement. Mahalia Jackson sang at both the 1963 March on Washington and at the 1968 funeral of Dr. Martin Lutheran King, Jr.
A City Called Heaven is a Bible of where Gospel and has been, where it’s going, and who’s been at the wheel in a century of melding and shaping. An essential new reference.
April 2015, University of Illinois Press
$29.95, paperback, 488 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann