Rev. James Cleveland

Rev. James Cleveland was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 5, 1931 to Rosie Lee and Benjamin Cleveland during the height of the greatest depression.  James’ grandmother attended Pilgrim Baptist Church, where she was a member of the choir.  James had no choice but to attend these rehearsals with his grandmother and found himself sitting through these choir rehearsals – bored stiff!!  Eventually James decided he would conquer the boredom through attempting to sing along with the choir.  It was in one of these rehearsal that James’ singing was noticed and he was made choir mascot.   The choir director, Thomas A. Dorsey wrote a song for him which launched the career of what was the be a long line of performances.  Through Dorsey’s teaching and directing young James was influenced in a great way.

Playing the piano was a skill that James developed through trial and error.  His keen ear and ability to quickly grasp musical style helped him develop a command of the keyboard.  But it was Roberta Martin who was the inspiration for his piano style.  At a young age, James patterned his playing after Mrs. Martin, and it was Roberta Martin who published James Cleveland’s first composition, “I Want to See Jesus”.  After developing his musical skills, James went to New York where he became Minister of Music at Faith Temple COGIC. where Bishop A. A. Childs was pastor.  There he worked with organist Herman Stevens.  From New York, James went to Philadelphia, where along with Bessie Folk and Narcellus McKissick (former members of the Martin Singers) the Gospel group “The Gospelaires” was formed.  After much success with the Gospelaires, James went on to move to Detroit, Michigan where he became Minister of Music for  Dr. C. L. Franklin.  In the course of the next few years, James moved from Detroit to Chicago, and then back to Detroit.  It was then that he became Second Assistant Pastor to Rev. Chas A. Craig Sr., at Prayer Tabernacle and through this  fellowship the famous “Voices of Tabernacle” was born.  Eventually Rev. Cleveland relocated to Los Angeles, California, where he founded the Cornerstone Baptist Church.  Even though the church started with less than 100 members, the membership grew to over 7,000 people.

Before moving to California, James Cleveland enjoyed a great deal of success as a Savoy Recording artist.  However, after moving West, he found himself without the usual polished background singers, and nearing the end of the recording contract, James needed to complete one more recording session.  He decided to call his friend Reverend Lawrence Roberts, pastor of First Baptist Church of Nutley, New Jersey, and solicit the use of Roberts Angelic Choir to background this final session.  Roberts responded positively and James along with friends Thurston Frazier and Billy Preston drove from California to Nutley, New Jersey.  The album was recorded in 1962 and titled “This Sunday In Person” featuring James Cleveland with the Angelic Gospel choir, under the direction of Thurston Frazier and Rev. Lawrence Roberts, featuring Billy Preston at the organ.  The LP was the first live gospel recording session ever. It was an overwhelming success.  Savoy Records hurried to re-sign Cleveland and quickly produced Volume 2.  This LP was even greater success featuring the hit selection “How Great Thou Art”.  Volume 3 of James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir was titled “Peace Be Still”.  This 1963 LP became the first gospel LP to sell over 50,000 albums (unheard of back then).  From then on James Cleveland had the “Midas” touch on any LP which he was associated.  He spoke of his musical style … “I’ve always maintained my own style of music, it has changed slightly over the years because I’ve tried to stay up with the times.  I prefer traditional messages and stylings because people in the church choirs can sing it.  I try to make my music a source of material for churches and choirs.  I play simple enough so that even storefront musician can pick it up”.

As  a musician, performer and producer, James maintained a level of excellence over an incredibly long period of time.  Reverend Cleveland stated once, “I want to stay in the music business through promoting gospel music and upgrading the quality and performance of gospel music.  I am pleased that Gospel Music Workshop of America has grown to the largest gospel music organization in the world, with over 20,000 members”.

The stage presence of Rev. James Cleveland is an experience that’s almost unexplainable, he mesmerizes audiences, not only with the presentation of singing material, but this unique way of addressing musicians with a single “ssshh”. Cleveland had a charisma on stage that was inimitable.  He 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”.

Through his lifetime James Cleveland has won numerous awards and accolades that are too numerous to list. However it is noteworthy to remember James Cleveland won five (5) Grammy Awards. The last was February 21, 1991, awarded posthumous with The Southern California Community Choir on the Savoy Records LP entitled,  “Having Church”.  It should also be mentioned that Rev. Cleveland was awarded an honorary Doctrine degree from the Trinity Bible College and was the first gospel artist to be awarded a “STAR” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Reverend Cleveland will never be forgotten as one of the world’s foremost leaders and pioneers of gospel music and his gospel music ministry will live on. Literally every black gospel artist today has been influenced by James Cleveland.