Living legends of Chicago gospel honor tradition, carry on family legacies

CHICAGO (WLS) -- "Gospel music is a hybrid. It's always been a mix of whatever the popular or folk sound may be at the time with the Christian theology," said Charrise Barron, a gospel scholar and Presidential Post-Doctoral Fellow at Brown University.

Gospel music was born in Chicago out of the Great Migration. In the early twentieth century, black residents emigrated from rural southern regions into urban centers. Chicago became one of the major destinations.

"African American music historically has been a reflection, as well as a commentary, on whatever is happening to African Americans in this country," Barron said.

As more than 500,000 African Americans settled in the South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, trends in religious, jazz and blues music all converged to form a new, distinctly American genre. And at Pilgrim Baptist Church, musical director Thomas A. Dorsey was beginning to institutionalize gospel music.

Born in 1899 in Villa Rica, Ga., Dorsey moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. By 1932, Dorsey was the musical director at Pilgrim Church and the co-founder of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.

At the time of his death in 1993, Dorsey had written over 1,000 gospel songs, including the transcendent classic: "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

"The history of gospel music in Chicago really starts with Dr. Thomas A. Dorsey," said gospel music executive Skip Barrett. "It makes me think of him as a pioneer."

Dorsey's legacy carries on to this day. Pilgrim Baptist is currently being converted into a gospel museum. The convention is still active today; this year, it will be held in Detroit, Mich., from August 3-9.


After the first wave of gospel history introduced a new musical genre, the second wave also began in Chicago - marked by individual stars like Chicago's own Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland.

Dorsey's niece, Lena McLin, became part of the second wave through her compositions and arrangements. Her most famous and oft-performed works include Free At Last, written in the wake of her friend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, along with a popular arrangement of Amazing Grace.

As a voice teacher, McLin was also the coach behind some of the world's favorite singers - from Chaka Kahn to Jennifer Hudson, Mandy Patinkin to Mark Rucker.

Today, McLin is no longer able to perform. But her grandson, pianist and composer William Kurk, carries on the legacy.

"My grandma embodies everything relevant to my understanding of music and everything that's important to my understanding of life," Kurk said.

Kurk's personal style is rooted more in jazz, a sound that comes through in Kurk's improvisation in any genre. But that is all supported by a foundation in his own royal gospel lineage.

"The issue with trying to institutionalize something like gospel, with gospel, it is purely based on how you feel it," Kurk said.


Thomas Dorsey spent his Chicago life in Chatham, on the city's South Side, down the street from where Mahalia Jackson would also live. Go there today, and you'll find even more living legends of Chicago gospel: two remaining members of the renowned Barrett Sisters.

Led by the eldest sister, Delois Barrett Campbell, the Barrett Sisters were active for more than 40 years. Delois first began her career singing behind legends like Thomas Dorsey and Albertina Walker. As their own career took off, the sisters traveled the globe as performers.

"I could harmonize with 'em even when they were off tune," said alto Billie Barrett-Greenbey.

Sitting beside Barrett-Greenbey, younger sister and soprano Rodessa Barrett Porter laughed.

"We felt these songs. I mean, it just wasn't singing. We believed in them, we felt them," said Porter. "The gospel music in our hearts will always live on."

Today, the names of both The Barrett Sisters as a trio and Delois Barrett Campbell as a soloist are engraved into the Stellar Awards, the oldest and longest-running prize for gospel music achievements.

"No matter where you are in the music industry, if you work with siblings, there's a blend that happens that you cannot achieve if you work with singers from different families," said Skip Barrett, a cousin of the Barrett Sisters.

For the sisters themselves, gospel music was more than just a career field. It defined their lives.

"It guided me," said Barrett-Greenbey. "I knew which way to go. You see, if you don't, if you don't have the lord in your life, you don't know which was to go. But I was guided through music."


As showcased in the annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival downtown, the city is proud of its musical heritage. With contemporary pioneers like Kirk Franklin and new singers like Jonathan McReynolds, the city also continues to produce chart-topping gospel artists.

Professor Charrise Barron specifically noted one new trend in Chicago gospel that could lead to another new wave in the genre's history.

"It is also a place to watch now as a lot of hip hop artists are making inroads and blending gospel and hip hop in ways that have become commercial viable," Barron said. "It's an exciting time to watch Chicago gospel now."
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