The Evolution of Gospel Music- A Look At The Past Century

By: Gabrielle Weeden 

From the jubilee period to the present-day trap era, gospel has existed as a hybrid genre. Since gospel is classified by its lyrics, subjects, and themes rather than musical style, it has always been a genre that reflects mainstream music. Gospel music has grown and developed in many forms since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, reflecting its roots in the African American community and the collision of the African American religious community and African American music. Continue reading to learn more about the progression of the gospel genre over the past decade.

1920's - The Formation






At the beginning of the 1920’s American record labels started making “race albums” to appeal to the African-American market.  African American preachers and gospel artists such as Arizona Dranes, Blind Willie Johnson, and Washington Phillips were invited to be apart of the records because they had a fresh, raw sound. Additionally, music genres such as blues, ragtime, and early jazz were highlighted by the record labels.  This form of music is also known as gospel blues or holy blues.







The first gospel chorus was founded in 1931 by Theodore Frye and Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey went on to found the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, which he co-founded. The gospel songs “Precious Lord,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “Highway to Heaven” are among Dorsey’s more than 400 compositions. 










At the end of the 1930’s (1938 to be exact), with the hit single “This Train,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Rosetta Nubian Tharpe) became the first gospel artist to have a million-selling album. Tharpe, who mixed soulful guitar licks and big band accompaniment with sacred words, was the leading gospel music performer of the late 1930s and 1940s.







Mahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana. When she was 16, she joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church choir and soon became the lead soloist because of her amazing voice. Mahalia first got public attention in the 1930’s because of her popular song “He’s Got The Whole Word In His Hands”. During the 1940s-50s, Mahalia recorded numerous records and gained even more attention. By the time the 1950’s hit, she was performing to sold on crowds in New York, and became the first gospel singer to preform at Carnegie Hall


In 1968, the world was in awe when the gospel single “Oh Happy Day” was released. This single was the first gospel song to hit the secular music charts. The lead singer on this song was Edwin Hawkin. Hawkin mixed contemporary sounds like Latin grooves, synthesizers, and soulful vocalist, to create a new sound for gospel music. Hawkins is said to have influenced artists like Aretha Franklin, The Winans, and Richard Smallwood. 






Brothers Ronald, Marvin, Carvin, and Michael Winan’s grew up in Detroit and created a family singing group to produce gospel music. In 1975, the group recorded their first album (all together) under the name “The Testimonial Singers” . Five years later, the group reintroduced themselves as “The Winans”. The brothers would go on to win multiple awards and top multiple charts throughout their career. 






In 1980, the Clark sisters released their live recording of “Is My Living In Vain” and their popularity soared. At the end of that year/beginning of the next year, The Clark sisters released their debut album, which hit number 21 on the Billboard Spiritual Albums year-end charts by the end of 1981. The sisters released another hit single this year, called “You Brought the Sunshine”. The Clark sisters are credited for helping bring gospel music to the mainstream media. The sisters unique sound and harmonies, continue to influence and inspire people today.







In the early 1980’s Yolanda Adams was invited to be the lead singer with Houston’s Southeast Inspirational Choir affiliated with the Church of God in Christ. For the next 10 years, Yolanda sang with this choir and started to gain a little attention. In 1990, she was signed Tribute Records and released a couple of songs. Yolanda captured national attention when she released “Mountain High…Valley Low” in 1999. The album went 2x platinum and won a Grammy a year later. 







In 2001, popular gospel artist Kirk Franklin, ventured off on his own to start a solo music career. In 2002, Franklin released his first solo album entitled The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. This album topped the Gospel Albums chart, and was certified platinum. This album featured prominent collaborations with Bishop TD Jakes, Shirley Caesar, and Yolando Adams.

2010's- Now







Mary Mary is a female duo group composed of sisters Erica and Trecina Campbell. The group was formed in 1998 and spent two decades creating chart topping music for the gospel genre. During the 2010’s, the sisters released two albums and numerous songs that hit the charts. Mary Mary has sold over eight million records worldwide and have won four Grammys. 

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