After a few delays, it looks like The Chicago Gospel Music Heritage Museum will finally open in Chicago this fall, possibly in October. It will be in the Bronzeville neighborhood, where the City took a chance and moved the Gospel Fest last month. The neighborhood embraced the festival and attendance was strong. So this museum in the neighborhood makes sense. Plus, it will be close to Pilgrim Baptist Church where the great Thomas A. Dorsey changed the world of gospel music. He is considered the father of modern gospel music. We often think of Chicago as a great city for the blues, but it also was home to many great soul, R&B, jazz and gospel artists. Think Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, The Staple Singers, Otis Clay, Inez Andrews, Jessy Dixon and others. At my history of rock and soul class at Columbia College, we don’t start with Elvis. We spend time on the foundation of rock and soul. Those building blocks include jazz, folk, blues, country & western, classical, rhythm & blues, and gospel. You look at the bios of all the great soul and blues singers, and they all started singing in the church. Some started in gospel like Sam Cooke, and crossed over to secular music. Some like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin have one foot in each genre. Some sing exclusively in the gospel world.
When I was doing the all night show on WCMF in Rochester, New York in the early 70′s, I was followed by a one hour gospel music show. I’d stick around to listen to the music, and several times the DJ over slept, and I didn’t mind one bit doing the first twenty minutes of his show. I learned so much going through his excellent collection of gospel records. That’s where I first heard Rance Allen, Jessy Dixon, Shirley Caesar, Rev. James Cleveland, The Swan Silvertones, Dorothy Love Coates, Marion Williams, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and the great Inez Andrews. I never got to see Ms. Andrews in a church or concert hall for decades, but finally heard her as one of the singers at Koko Taylor’s funeral three years ago. Gospel music has a deep connection with our history, dating back to the time of slavery in the United States. One of Dorsey’s compositions was Precious Lord, Take My Hand. This was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King. He’d have Ms. Jackson sing it at civil rights meetings. She sang that hymn at Dr. King’s funeral, and Aretha sang the same hymn at Mahilia’s funeral. There’s a rich history here, and I look forward to learning more at this museum. We’ll keep you posted.