The Reverend Dr. James Cleveland was a gospel singer, arranger, composer and, most significantly, the driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound, bringing the stylistic daring of hard gospel and jazz and pop music influences to arrangements for mass choirs. He is known as the King of Gospel music.
Born in Chicago, he began singing as a boy soprano at Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas A. Dorsey was minister of music and Roberta Martin was pianist for the choir. He strained his vocal cords as a teenager while part of a local gospel group, leaving the distinctive gravelly voice that was his hallmark in his later years. The change in his voice led him to focus on his skills as a pianist and later as a composer and arranger. For his pioneering accomplishments and contributions, he is regarded by many to be one of the greatest gospel singers to ever live.
In 1950, Cleveland joined the Gospelaires, a trio led by Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk, who were associated with Martin. Martin hired him as a composer and arranger after the group disbanded. His arrangements of songs such as ” Old Time Religion” and “It’s Me O Lord” transformed them, giving a rocking lilt and insistent drive to old standards.
Cleveland subsequently went to work for Albertina Walker and the Caravans as a composer, arranger, pianist and occasional singer/narrator. In November 1954, Albertina Walker provided him the opportunity to do his very first recording. By staying out of the studio for a while, she convinced States Records to allow him to record with her group. He continued to record with The Caravans until States closed down in 1957. He left and returned to the Caravans a number of times to join other groups, such as the Gospel All-Stars and the Gospel Chimes, where he mixed pop ballad influences with traditional shouting. In 1959 he recorded a version of Ray Charles’ hit “Hallelujah I Love Her So” as a solo artist.