James Cleveland (December 5, 1931 - February 9, 1991) was a gospel singer, arranger, composer and, most significantly, the driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound, bringing the stylistic daring of hard gospel and jazz and pop music influences to arrangements for mass choirs.
Born in Chicago, he began singing as a boy soprano at Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas A. Dorsey was minister of music and Roberta Martin was pianist for the choir. He strained his vocal cords as a teenager while part of a local gospel group, leaving the distinctive gravelly voice that was his hallmark in his later years. The change in his voice led him to focus on his skills as a pianist and later as a composer and arranger.
In 1950, Cleveland joined the Gospelaires, a trio led by Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk, who were associated with Martin. Martin hired him as a composer and arranger after the group disbanded. His arrangements of songs such as "(Give Me That) Old Time Religion" and "It's Me O Lord" transformed them, giving a rocking lilt and insistent drive to old standards.
Cleveland subsequently went to work for Albertina Walker & the Caravans as a composer, arranger, pianist and occasional singer/narrator. Albertina Walker provided James the opportunity to do his very first recording after convincing her record company (by staying out of the studio for a while) to allow her to record James. He quit and returned to the Caravans a number of times to join other groups, such as the Gospel All-Stars and the Gospel Chimes, where he mixed pop ballad influences with traditional shouting. In 1959 he recorded a version of Ray Charles' hit "Hallelujah I Love Her So" as a solo artist.
He became known by more than just the professionals within gospel music with his version of the Soul Stirrers' song, "The Love of God", backed by the Voices of Tabernacle from Detroit. Cleveland attained even greater popularity working with keyboardist Billy Preston and the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey; his recording of "Peace Be Still", an obscure 18th century madrigal, sold hundreds of thousands of copies thanks to Cleveland's comforting growl and emotional command.
Cleveland capitalized on his success by founding his own choir, the Southern California Community Choir, as well as a church that went from a handful of congregants to thousands of members during his life. His influence stretched even further: like Dorsey before him, he taught others how to achieve the modern gospel sound through his annual Gospel Singers Workshop Convention, put on by the Gospel Workshop of America, an organization that Cleveland founded along with "Queen of Gospel" Albertina Walker, and which has over 30,000 members in 150 chapters. The GMWA has produced, among others, Kirk Franklin and John P. Kee.
Other artists began to outshine Cleveland in the 1980s, but the style he pioneered--large disciplined organizations who used complex arrangements and unusual time signatures to turn their massive vocal power to achieve the propulsive rhythms, intricate harmonies and individual virtuosity of the greatest groups of gospel's Golden Age - was still the wellspring for the mass choirs of that era. He died in 1991 in Culver City, California from heart and respiratory problems.