The Gospel
According to Los Angeles


By Anne Burke, Photos by Ann Johansson

Published Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM

Gospel singers at West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

From the Midwest to Mount Moriah

Gospel music generally calls to mind the Midwest and the South, and in particular Chicago, the home of Thomas A. Dorsey, the “father of gospel music.” Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1899 but resettled in the Windy City to make his living as a blues pianist and composer. In 1932, Dorsey’s wife died in childbirth and the newborn succumbed soon after. Believing that God was punishing him for his wayward lifestyle, Dorsey vowed to give up secular music and commit himself to sacred songs.

Dorsey’s gospel music — redolent with what he called that “blue moan” and “low-down feeling” — borrowed so heavily from his blues that it initially caused a stir among African-American churchgoers in Chicago. Their counterparts in Los Angeles didn’t much care for gospel either, preferring the more familiar anthems, hymns and spirituals, DjeDje writes in California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West. But in the late 1930s and ’40s, L.A. gospel began to flourish with support from churches like Mount Moriah and radio stations that suddenly found audiences hungry for this new musical style.

Choir member Judy McAllister prays at
West Angeles Church of God in Christ on
Chrenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Mount Moriah sits on the corner of Figueroa Street and West 43rd Place, south of the Los Angeles Coliseum in a neighborhood of stucco houses with tidy lawns and barred windows. The church was founded in 1946 by the Rev. Earl Amos Pleasant, a native of New Orleans. Pleasant was a gospel singer of considerable reputation before his call to the ministry, having toured with gospel’s first superstar, Mahalia Jackson, a childhood friend from the Crescent City. Pleasant’s influence was such that the biggest gospel stars of the day came to Mount Moriah to sing.

Other transplants, among them the prolific songwriter Doris Akers and the great Clara Ward, helped put Los Angeles on the gospel map. In 1962, the arrival of gospel legend James Cleveland — known as “King James” and “The Crown Prince” — marked the beginning of gospel’s shift to Los Angeles as its primary focus of activity, according to DjeDje.

Holy Hip-Hop

Cleveland died in Los Angeles in 1991, but his gospel work lives on through an important organization he founded in 1968 — the Gospel Music Workshop of America. Today, the workshop has more than 75,000 members in 185 chapters throughout the United States, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. DjeDje says the workshop has played a huge role in globalizing gospel. For example, many of the young Japanese students who sign up for UCLA’s African-American Music Ensemble, which focuses on gospel music, first learned about this uniquely American art form back home, in no small part due to Cleveland’s workshops.

Other stars, like Andrae Crouch, son of a Pacoima preacher, achieved crossover fame by mixing gospel with rock and R&B. In the mid-1990s, Crouch gave up pop stardom to take over his late father’s church, the New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ, which he co-pastors with his twin sister, Sandra.