Born December 23, 1932 (some sources say 1931), in Chicago, Ill.; son of Ben Cleveland (a WPA worker); children: LaShone (daughter). Addresses: Home-- Los Angeles, CA. Office-- c/o Ed Smith, Gospel Artists Association, P. O. Box 4632, Detroit, MI 48243.

Variously hailed as the King of Gospel Music and the Crown Prince of Gospel, the Reverend James Cleveland has combined his talents as preacher, composer, singer, producer, and philanthropist to become one of the most outstanding exponents of the modern gospel sound. Indeed, with a voice that has earned acclaim as one of gospel's greatest, and a religious fervor that has refused the lure of secular music, Cleveland, more than any artist of his generation, has served as a champion of gospel in its purest form. As he explained to Ed Ochs in an interview for Billboard, gospel is not only "a music, but ... a representation of a religious thinking. Gospel singing is the counterpart of gospel teaching.... It's an art form, true enough, but it represents an idea, a thought, a trend."

Born in Depression-era Chicago, the son of hard-working, God-fearing parents, Cleveland grew up in an environment where gospel flourished. His grandmother introduced him to Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church, where the budding musician was influenced by choir director Thomas A. Dorsey--also known as the father of gospel music. Under Dorsey's tutelage, the youth made his solo debut with the choir at the age of eight. The vocalist subsequently taught himself to play piano, often recounting how he practiced on imaginary keys until his parents could afford to purchase an upright for him. As Tony Heilbut quoted the star in The Gospel Sound: "My folks being just plain, everyday people, we couldn't afford a piano. So I used to practice each night right there on the windowsill. I took those wedges and crevices and made me black and white keys. And, baby, I played just like Roberta [Martin]. By the time I was in high school, I was some jazz pianist."

Roberta Martin, a Dorsey disciple and one of the Chicago gospel pioneers to gain international recognition, was among Cleveland's idols. It was her group, the Roberta Martin Singers, who first helped shape the youth's singing and piano style, with Roberta Martin herself inspiring the youngster to begin composing. By the time he was a teenager, Cleveland was singing with a neighborhood group, the Thorn Gospel Crusaders. And once the group began featuring Cleveland's compositions, the artist found himself piquing the interest of prominent gospel talents. In 1948 Cleveland's "Grace Is Sufficient," performed at a Baptist convention, prompted Martin to begin publishing the new composer's work.

The next decade proved a productive one for Cleveland. He made his recording debut on the Apollo label in 1950, singing "Oh What a Time" with the Gospelaires. He composed songs for Roberta Martin, including "Stand By Me," "Saved," and "He's Using Me." He worked frequently with the Caravans, first establishing himself as a superlative gospel arranger, then emerging as a singer--the Caravans scored their earliest hits, in fact, with Cleveland as lead vocalist on such tunes as "Old Time Religion" and "Solid Rock." And he founded the first of his own groups, the Gospel Chimes, which helped showcase his talents as composer, arranger, and singer.

By 1960 Cleveland, who had incorporated blues riffs and what Heilbut described as "sheer funkiness" in his work, had become associated with a new tenor in gospel music. That year "The Love of God," a song he recorded with Detroit's Voices of Tabernacle choir, was a sensation, and its success helped Cleveland secure a recording contract with Savoy Records, for whom he has since recorded more than sixty albums. The artist passed another milestone with Savoy's 1963 release Peace Be Still. A recording pairing Cleveland with the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey, the album, which held a spot on the gospel charts for more than fifteen years, has sold more than one million copies, an almost unheard of achievement for a gospel recording.

During the 1960s Cleveland also formed the James Cleveland Singers, gradually built an international reputation, and became one of the best paid of the gospel music entertainers. And although two of Cleveland's former pupils--Aretha Franklin and Billy Preston--went on to achieve celebrity status, the master himself declined to expand his audience by moving into secular music, choosing instead to devote himself strictly to gospel.

Indeed, in the early sixties Cleveland became a minister and served Los Angeles's New Greater Harvest Baptist Church as pastor until he was able to build his own Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church in 1970. For him, gospel music and gospel teaching are inseparable--different mediums conveying the same message. As the minister-musician explained to Ochs: "If we can't preach to people in a dry, talking sermon and get their attention, we'll sing it to them, as long as we get the message across. We have been instrumental in drawing more people to the church in recent years through singing and getting them to find favor with something in the church they like to identify with. Then when we get them into church, putting the same message into words without music is not as hard, for we have set some type of precedent with the music to get them into the church and get them focused on where we're coming from."

For Cleveland, gospel music is so vital that in 1968 he organized the first Gospel Music Workshop of America. Designed both to help preserve the gospel tradition and to feature new talent, the workshop has grown to include more than five hundred thousand members representing almost every state. "My biggest ambition is to build a school somewhere in America, where we can teach and house our convention," Cleveland told Village Voice interviewer David Jackson. This is the best way, in the artist's opinion, to assure that gospel's legacy continues.

As a musical artist for more than forty years and a minister for nearly thirty, Cleveland remains not only one of the most successful and popular gospel artists of all time, but also one of the staunchest supporters of gospel in its purist form. Remaining true to the gospel heritage, Cleveland perpetuates an understanding of gospel music and gospel teaching as part of the same religious experience, believing that the music devoid of the mission is not genuine gospel. As Jackson articulated: "What Cleveland has been saying since he first started composing and performing gospel music is that God seeks to bring us peace--to reconcile us with ourselves. Through classics like 'Peace Be Still,' 'Lord Remember Me,' 'Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,' and 'The Love of God,' Reverend Cleveland retells a biblical love story for the plain purpose of reconciling people to God and to one another." And as his scores of devoted followers attest, concluded Jackson, "his message is widely appreciated and applauded."

by Nancy H. Evans

James Cleveland's Career

Minister and gospel singer, songwriter, and pianist. Singer with The Thorn Gospel Crusaders, 1940s; The Gospelaires, 1940s; Mahalia Jackson, early 1950s; The Caravans, beginning in 1954; The Gospel All Stars, late 1950s; The Gospel Chimes, 1959; co-director of music for New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, Mich., beginning in 1960; minister of music for Prayer Tabernacle, Detroit, beginning c. 1960; recording artist with Savoy Records, 1960--; founded James Cleveland Singers, 1963; founded Southern California Community Choir, 1969. Makes concert tours. Ordained minister, early 1960s; Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, Los Angeles, Calif., founder and pastor, 1970--.

James Cleveland's Awards

Award from National Association of Negro Musicians, 1975; Image Award from NAACP, 1976; Billboard magazine's Trendsetter Award; Ebony magazine's Artist Award; NATRA's award as best gospel artist; Billboard 's award for best album and best male singer in soul/gospel for Live at Carnegie; Hall; Grammy Award from Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; six gold albums.

Famous Works

Further Reading

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 4 years ago

I was a James Cleveland Singer in 1964-65. I don't see the album The Sun Will Shine Afterwhile and the proper title for the Album Heaven Is Good Enough is Heaven That Will Be Good Enough For Me. There are a number of other group albums not listed. Rev. Cleveland was an awesome person to work with..I have written about my time as a Cleveland Singer in my book "I Remember Gospel And I Keep On Singing..released March 2010..Min. Gene Viale..

over 4 years ago

I was a member of the Gospel Music Workshop and went to the first convention in Cleveland Ohio in 1974. I was attracted to the gospel music style of Reverend Cleveland from his album with Angelic Gospel Singers and just wanted to have the chance to glean from him. I made up my mind to move to Los Angeles and a couple years later I became a founding member of Los Angeles Gospel Messengers which was comprised of gospel ministers, songwriters, musicians and singers who, like myself, wanted to spend time with a master musician, singer and songwriter. I thank God that he made a way for me to sit under this teacher, mentor and friend. Rev. Cleveland was one of the best who gave his life to the church and was the predecessor to all who are making a life in gospel music. I thank God for opening up the doors and leaving them open and fitting as many in those doors before he left the world.

almost 6 years ago

I've been singing Reverand Cleveland's song since I was in high school back in the early sixties and his music is as fresh and new to me now as it was all those years ago! I agree totally with Benjamin when he said that James seems to bring with him a spirit that penetrates your very soul. I couldn't have said it better. All I know is, whenever I hear his music and try to sing along, something comes over me and I swell up with tears. He sang from his heart and when you connect with others like that, it brings the Holy Spirit nearer. Oh! What a feeling! I have missed Reverand Cleveland so much since his death, but his music keeps him alive, not only in my heart and soul, but in millions of others, I'm sure.

almost 6 years ago

my father's name was James riley smith the brother of gerald smith, i was told Gerald was a member in Mr.Cleveland's choirs and was just wondering if that was true..im am not seeking anything at all, just peace of mind. but if it is true.. just wanted to thank Mr.Cleveland for the blessings he brought to my family.. by blessing my Uncle Gerald. my father James Riley Smith was said to have over 30 children.. talk about a story .... : ) love you in a Christ like way.

about 7 years ago

I followed the Rev. James Cleveland for many years. I would not miss him when I lived in New Orleans when he came with other groups to perform. When I moved to California I continued to follow him wherever he performed. I thought that he was one of the greatest gospel singers that ever lived. He seem to bring with him a spirit that penetrated your very soul. Ben Myles