Review: ‘A City Called Heaven’ by Robert Marovich

Categories: Chicago Tribune


Chicago gospel had an unexpected moment this Grammy season when, late into the awards telecast, Beyonce and an all-male choir reprised “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a song Mahalia Jackson recorded in 1956, the lyrics of which were written by Thomas Andrew Dorsey, the showman and composer who is a pivotal figure in creating what we know today as the modern gospel songbook.

The televised performance was designed to connect recent police shootings of unarmed black men and the 50th anniversary of the marches in Selma, Ala. In “Selma,” the awards season film that dramatized that struggle, Jackson appears in a scene singing over the phone to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Portrayed by Ledisi Young, Jackson’s voice was one to be counted on for strength during that tumultuous era and she has been associated with that struggle ever since.

Chicago music historian and record archivist Robert Marovich brings to life Dorsey, Jackson and countless others in “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music,” his exhaustively researched history of this important Chicago musical export that seems to always remain on the sidelines of blues and jazz. Unlike those two popular musical forms, a big bang of personality and star power didn’t create the modern gospel sound, but instead it came to be through a slow-burning evolution in local churches, auditoriums, storefronts, revival tents and community centers, from the first gospel chorus organized by Dorsey in 1931 to the commercial recording boom of the 1950s and 1960s that produced crossover stars on labels such as Specialty and Vee-Jay.

Like the blues, gospel was populist — all you needed, Marovich notes, was an “amen” and maybe a tambourine — and it crossed many borders. Where blues originated from the country and, upon arrival in the city splintered into different directions, gospel, too, developed in different pockets: Storefront congregations and sanctified churches saw opportunities for attracting followers who yearned for the informal worship of their Southern birth homes while traditional churches held firm to the more formal congregational singing that signaled an elevation in class and status.

This involves a wide cast of figures and local congregations that all contribute to this slowly unfolding story, and Marovich pinpoints them on his cultural map so deftly the reader can begin to understand, not just why gospel became such a necessary expression of faith for Southern migrants to Bronzeville, Morgan Park, and other near South Side neighborhoods, but also why Chicago was so critical. While Chicago’s promise of jobs and new freedoms created the Great Migration from the South, the city was also a commercial center to industries that promoted gospel in its earliest days: sheet music publishing and radio broadcasting. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the big-time music business entered the picture, enabling worldwide success for stars including Jackson — so popular that when she died in 1972, she had no less than three funerals in two cities, Marovich notes. Until then, however, the music was largely a live phenomenon for true believers.

Pioneering groups such as the Pace Jubilee Singers, The Sunset Four and The Gay Sisters, among others, all get their due here, but there are also relative unknowns including Arizona Dranes, a blind singer and pianist from the Dallas-Forth Worth area whose recordings in Chicago are considered the earliest sanctified recordings known to date. Marovich describes her rollicking barrelhouse piano and booming singing style in her 1926 recording sessions as creating a watershed moment, not just for gospel, but the looming world of rock ‘n’ roll: “Three decades later, Dranes’ muscular command of the keyboard and her physical transformation while singing in the spirit could be heard in the rock-and-roll riffs and performance techniques of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis,” he writes.

But by that time Dranes had long since stopped recording and returned to the church. The divide between secular and spiritual music is an unavoidable theme throughout this book: In 1928 Dorsey dropped the blues for religious music after a local bishop “reportedly pulled a live serpent from Dorsey’s throat.” The intensity of that image suits the emotional lock the music created in its earliest advocates. By the time the second generation appeared, the money was more lucrative, as was the temptation to add popular instrumentation such as guitars and drums.

But the stories of crossover groups sanctifying rock and soul music are already well-told. Here, in Marovich’s important work, are the lesser known stories of the originators who created a wholly original sound of holiness in Chicago that reverberates today.

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