Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

January 24, 1963

On January 24, 1963, the Sentinel celebrated the one year anniversary of Reverend James Cleveland coming to Los Angeles as the Minister of Music of the Greater New Harvest Baptist church (click to view PDF).  Born and raised in Chicago, by 1963 Cleveland was well on his way to earning the honorific "The King of Gospel Music."  Cleveland incorporated aspects of blues and funk into his compositions and performances, and he helped gospel music reach new audiences both through his recordings on the Savoy label and his collaborations with Aretha Franklin, Billy Preston, and other singers.  Cleveland described these different styles in gospel music in a 1980 Billboard magazine interview: "There are people who like the traditional sounds of gospel, there are those who embrace the contemporary sound, and then there are those looking for sounds even beyond that, so we don't inhibit anybody.  We're like for them to have full expression that related to where they would like to go.  All we ask for them to do is to be mindful of what the music is about.  First, that it's music, but secondly that it's a representation of a religious thinking. Gospel singing is the counterpart of gospel teaching, so we'd like to have that uppermost in their minds; that it's an art form, true enough, but it represents an idea, a thought, a trend."  Regarding his dynamic stage performances, Cleveland said, “Nobody taught me about stage presence, I just try to be with people on their level.  I feel like people like folk who talk about everyday problems and shared experiences, rather than trying to be glamorous.  I try to talk to them (audiences) and give them hope that things are going to get better.  I think I can talk to people on their level because people are just people.”    

Music critic Kelefa Sanneh described Cleveland's multifaceted legacy: "For many listeners, the golden age of gospel ended on February 9, 1991, with the death of the Reverend James Cleveland. He was beloved for his warm, granular voice, and for the precise way that he combined huge choirs with muscular rhythm sections; he did as much as anyone to give gospel music its funk and its swing. A year later, in March, the magazine Jet complicated Cleveland’s legacy with a one-page article that bore the headline 'James Cleveland Infected L.A. Youth with HIV, $9 Mil. Lawsuit Claims.' The plaintiff was a man who said that he had had sexual encounters with Cleveland for three years, starting when he was a teen-ager, and the suit was settled quietly out of court. The allegation didn’t undermine Cleveland’s popularity—his fans had long since learned to ignore the whispers."  After googling James Cleveland and reading the comments on his YouTube videos, it is clear that whispers, allegations, and homophobia did not stop with Cleveland's death.  Thankfully, many scholars are doing important work that examines the complicated relationships among sexuality, music, performance, and religion.  See, for example, Marlon Bailey's Butch Queens Up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit (2013) and E. Patrick Johnson's Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men in the South (2011).


 

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