Marking a Great Gospel Concert's 50th Anniversary

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Friday marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark in gospel music, the Great Shrine Auditorium Concert. From member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio, Jack Marchbanks has the story of how this concert has influenced and shaped gospel and secular music over the last five decades.

ED GORDON, host:

Listen up and down the radio dial and you'll hear the echoes of an event that happened 50 years ago tonight. Thousands of African-Americans gathered in Los Angeles for the Great Shrine Auditorium Concert. That showcase of the country's most popular gospel acts continues, a half a century later, to send ripples through religious and secular music. From member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio, Jack Marchbanks has the story.


Gospel music historians call the 1955 Shrine Concert great because gospel's once and future male superstars, 24-year-old Sam Cooke, 23-year-old James Cleveland, both performed on the program. Cleveland, pianist for Albertina Walker and the Caravans, was the surprise hit that night. His gruff, commanding baritone, a voice that would be a force in gospel music for the next 36 years, was already in evidence in this live recording from the Shrine Concert.

(Soundbite of concert)

Mr. JAMES CLEVELAND: (Singing) Oh, down my heavy burden, Lord.

Chorus: (Singing) What kind of man is this?

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) Said he would lead me to the River Jordan, Lord.

Chorus: (Singing) What kind of man is this?

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) Hears me every time I call, oh!

Chorus: (Singing) Oh!

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) Oh!

Chorus: (Singing) Oh!

Mr. CLEVELAND: (Singing) Oh!

Chorus: (Singing) Oh!

Mr. CLEVELAND and Chorus: (Singing) It must be the Lord. Yeah!

(Soundbite of concert)

Mr. SAM COOKE: (Singing) Somebody knows...

MARCHBANKS: The wildly popular Sam Cooke and his group, The Soul Stirrers, were the main attraction. It's very clear who the women of the church came out to see and hear that evening.

(Soundbite of concert)

Mr. SAM COOKE & THE SOUL STIRRERS: (Singing) Ah, yes, when things go wrong, somebody's love is there to guide you and make you so strong. And, oh, Lord, but, Lord, I...

MARCHBANKS: No one onstage or in the audience knew it that night, but the concert would be a career-making, life-changing event for James Cleveland and Sam Cooke. For Cleveland, LA's warm embrace of his talent convinced him to move west from Chicago. From Los Angeles, he founded the Southern California Community Choir. It almost single-handedly established the large choir as the favorite vehicle for gospel music. Before Cleveland, gospel music recordings and performances featured mostly soloists and small vocal groups. Music historian Sidney Howard(ph) says Cleveland's influence spread far beyond gospel.

Mr. SIDNEY HOWARD (Music Historian): You had pop groups who would have songs that featured gospel background vocals. Madonna "With a Prayer" brought a choir into a song. There was Foreigner, who had "I Want to Know What Love Is," which when it goes into the vamp, the main part of the vamp is the choir singing the refrain.

MARCHBANKS: The 1955 Shrine Concert also prompted Sam Cooke to relocate from Chicago to Los Angeles. In the audience that evening was Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, a producer for Specialty Records, The Soul Stirrers' label. Specialty had recorded mostly gospel acts until then. Blackwell, who later that year produced Little Richard's top-10 hit "Tutti Frutti," was floored by Sam Cooke's charisma, talent and matinee-idol good looks. Blackwell chased Cooke around the country for the next year and a half, until he convinced Cooke to break from gospel music and go pop. Their first post-gospel collaboration was Cooke's composition "You Send Me."

(Soundbite of "You Send Me")

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) I know you-oo-oo-oo send me. Darling, you-oo-oo-oo send me. Honest, you do. Honest, you do.

MARCHBANKS: Sam Cooke's niece, Doncella Woods Pamon, reflected on his decision to change his musical focus.

Ms. DONCELLA WOODS PAMON (Niece of Sam Cooke): Sam saw all music as a gift from God, and as a means of communicating to people. Why couldn't someone sing about the joys of God and of love? My other uncle, L.C., said Sam had a vision that one day gospel music would get pop airplay.

MARCHBANKS: Although Cooke would not live to see it, his prediction came true 14 years after the Great Shrine Concert.

(Soundbite of "O Happy Day")

EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) O happy day. O happy day...

MARCHBANKS: In 1969, "O Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers climbed to number four on Billboard's popular music chart. This unexpected hit was arranged in the large-choir style perfected by James Cleveland. "O Happy Day" remained on the pop charts for 69 weeks.

(Soundbite of "O Happy Day")

EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS: (Singing) O happy day. O happy day, he comes, he comes to wash my sin away.

MARCHBANKS: The Great Shrine Concert influenced contemporary music in another way. An 18-year-old from Chicago named Louis Allen Rawls had already set his sights on joining The Pilgrim Travelers, the concert's opening act.

(Soundbite of concert)

THE PILGRIM TRAVELERS: (Singing) Well, I used to live on Broadway...

MARCHBANKS: Within two years of the concert, Rawls auditioned and won the second-tenor spot in The Pilgrim Travelers. His solo career continues to this day. For NPR News, I'm Jack Marchbanks.

(Soundbite of concert)

THE PILGRIM TRAVELERS: (Singing) Had a very little ...(unintelligible) better move, so I moved...


GORDON: To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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