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How Sweet the Sound – Gospel’s Hidden Roots in South Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES - Gospel music is so synonymous with the Black church today, that it is hard to imagine a time when the sweet sounds that so many have come to cherish was new, exciting and a little controversial. Looking back at the roots of the genre, the effect it had on the Black community, and the titans who emerged from melodic origins, it is clear that Gospel music is not only Black history, but the history of Black Los Angeles, yet it is a history that few bother to study. Dr. Daniel E. Walker hopes to change that.

Walker has spent years chronicling the evolution of gospel music and preserving its history. In addition to creating the Gospel Music Archive at USC, Walker is the author of the critically-acclaimed book When Roosters Crow, Let's Have Church, was recently the lead historian for the exhibit How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles at the California African American Museum (CAAM).

“For the past 40 years I have been really concerned about preserving and providing access to people about the history of Gospel music,”’ said Walker. “That has been my mission as a historian and archivist. As an academic you are always looking at what to study next and here is this huge genre of life and people that is not studied very well…there are more books written on Miles Davis then there are about all the history of gospel music from the beginning to today.”

The history of Gospel music in South Los Angeles is important. The 1960’s was a tumultuous time for Black Angelinos, many who had migrated from the South in hopes of a better life but had found themselves the victims of over unfair housing policies, lack of jobs and police discrimination. Their frustrations erupted in 1965, in Watts, as the city erupted in violence protests for days, and while the Watts Rebellion had its dark moments, it was a turning point for the Black community.

In the aftermath of the community organized itself both culturally and politically, and would find itself as the center of a music revolution that would not only birth this new sound, but help start a political movement that would usher in Tom Bradley as the first Black mayor of Los Angeles.

Gospel music had always existed in churches, but there was a formalized style to the songs that was very much steeped in tradition and decorum.

As the co-producer of the documentary How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles, Walker was determined to create a visual narrative that takes viewers back to South Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the west coast redefined the sound of gospel and broadcast it to the world.

The documentary aired as the tenth episode of the PBS Emmy Award-winning television series Artbound, and aired on KCET, PBS and DirecTV and Dish Nation. The episode was co-produced by Wrong Creative and produced in conjunction with the Heritage Music Foundation.

Walker believes that Los Angeles was the perfect place for the rise of a new type of gospel music because of what it represents and the opportunities it could provide.

He points out that the Black Migration to Los Angeles was built on optimism and that Los Angeles offered its new residents “a new sun shinny place where anything felt possible.”

“When you think about gospel, it’s ‘the good news’, and with gospel music you’re signing about the good news, and you have the entertainment industry centered right here, so when you have people who are so optimistic coming with their traditions, and wanting to perfect and innovate their traditions, and you have an entertainment industry that is all about perfecting and performing art, and you put that together, you kind of have a perfect storm,” said Walker.

For a decade that storm made noise and laid waste to the past, while creating a new, loud and bold future for Blacks in Los Angeles.

But much of that has been forgotten.

The Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, on the corner of Western and Slauson avenues, which was founded by James Cleveland, and where so much of this music was sang, is now a Big Lots, and many churches in South Los Angeles face an aging population and decreasing attendance.

Still, that part of history lives on in the vinyl records and digital streams that make a singer like James Cleveland immortal.

Much of the documentary revolves around the role James Cleveland played in ushering a “golden age” of gospel music that birthed the “big choir” sound where albums were recorded with local church choirs, making the music mainstream and accessible to a wider audience.

Walker, however, is quick to point out that he was not the only gospel singer making waves.

The documentary also looks at what lead to the recording of the highest selling album in the history of gospel music, Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, and spotlights many of the choirs that participated in Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America.

“In addition to Cleveland there was also Mattie Mark Clark and the Clark Sisters…there was Andrae Crouch… there was the Hawkins family… but James Cleveland was the first person that understood the marketability of gospel music,” said Walker. “Prior to (Cleveland) people didn’t buy albums of choirs, they were buying soloist. Cleveland changed that…it is important to remember that he also had a record contract with Savoy that gave him the infrastructure to put songs on wax the next day.”

These gospels singers would go on to be staples in the living rooms of Black families, their songs song in Black churches and their stories were the stories of the Black experience in America.

“This is our history. It tells our story and without our story we don’t have a foundation, we’re just lost,” said Walker. “It’s important to know what we have gone through and continue to survive, not just in America, but in Los Angeles, with two major race riots, gentrification, with so much community change, we laid down a foundation…and we believed, and continue to believe, that we can overcome. Our history is what glues us to something…it connects us to our grandparents, it connects us to our parents, it connects us to our children…that is what knowing our history does for us.”

Walker hopes that this documentary will serve as an important window into Los Angeles’ past while offering some insights our present and our future.

“I hope that the people who watch this documentary get a sense of possibility,” said Walker. “In 1965 there is this devastating racial upheaval and then eight years later they elect the first Black mayor in Los Angeles. Imagine going from feeling at your worse in 1965, to such joy and optimism eight years later. It is a reminder that in the midst of such terrible situations things can change.”

“Back then well-meaning people of all races --- Whites, Hispanics, and Asians put their race stuff aside and elected the best person for the job,” Walker continued. “And if they can do that then, the majority of people can come together now, and we can put our differences aside and do the right thing for each other.”

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