Gospel Music (African American)


Long an important center of African American musical life, Philadelphia played a key role in the development of Black gospel music. One of the seminal figures in developing the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the early twentieth century and became a well-known gospel songwriter. As the region’s African American population grew and Black churches flourished, Philadelphia served as home base for many of the music’s biggest stars who settled in the city during the mid-twentieth century “golden age” of gospel.

A black and white portrait of Richard Allen.
Richard Allen, founder of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, published the first American hymnal compiled for a Black congregation in 1801. The hymnal and its later editions featured primarily traditional Protestant hymns, but also several songs composed by Allen. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Gospel music emerged from urban African American churches in the early twentieth century, growing out of longstanding sacred Black music traditions. In colonial Philadelphia, African Americans sang sacred songs from their African homelands as well as European-derived psalms and hymns that they infused with African elements. The music became more formalized in the city’s first Black churches in the 1790s, particularly Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1794 by Richard Allen (1760-1831). In 1801 Allen published a hymnal for his congregation titled A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected From Various Authors by Richard Allen, African Minister, the first American hymnal compiled for a Black congregation. Allen later issued expanded editions of the hymnal, which included primarily traditional Protestant hymns along with some he wrote himself.C

While gospel music first developed in urban Black churches in the North, its roots lay in the rural South. Prior to the Civil War, the harsh conditions of slavery in the South produced two major African American vocal traditions: the blues and the Negro spiritual—the former secular, the latter sacred. Spirituals, the great body of African American religious folk songs, served as the foundation for gospel.

Following the Civil War, African Americans migrating from the South brought their musical traditions to northern cities, where the urban environment gave rise to a new kind of worship music, the gospel song. In contrast to spirituals, which were improvisatory folk songs passed down orally, gospel songs were composed, formally structured tunes that incorporated elements of popular music and blues. Their lyrics reflected the new realities of urban Black life.

a black and white portrait of Rev. Charles A. Tindley
Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, sometimes called the “Father of Gospel Music,” moved to Philadelphia in 1902 to become pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Pictured here in 1910, he wrote several hymns that became gospel standards, including “I’ll Overcome Some Day” which served as the basis of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” (New York Public Library)

Charles Albert Tindley

One of the creators of the gospel style, Charles Albert Tindley, moved to Philadelphia during the increasing wave of African American migration from the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Born into a slave family in Maryland and largely self-taught, Tindley became pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church (later renamed Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church) in South Philadelphia in 1902. Under his leadership, the congregation expanded significantly and in 1906 moved to its longtime location at Broad and Fitzwater Streets (where it was later renamed Tindley Temple). Tindley wrote gospel hymns, which he began publishing in 1901, the first such songs in the new style to be published. He later issued several gospel hymn collections, published by companies he helped to establish. Through preaching and singing, songwriting, publishing, and radio broadcasts, Tindley became an important figure in gospel music in Philadelphia and beyond. Several of his hymns became gospel standards, including “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which served as the inspiration for the well-known civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Six of his hymns appeared in Gospel Pearls, a collection published in 1921 that was the first hymnal geared toward African American congregations to use the word gospel in the title.

Tindley sometimes has been called the “Father of Gospel Music,” but most historians give this title to Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), the Chicago-based pianist and songwriter who originally worked in blues before turning to gospel in the early 1930s. Following in Tindley’s footsteps, Dorsey became a prolific gospel songwriter and promoter. An astute businessman as well as musician, he successfully marketed his songs, founded gospel choirs and conventions, and promoted the career of Mahalia Jackson (1911-72), the most famous gospel singer of the twentieth century. Dorsey and other gospel songwriters of the period, most of whom acknowledged Tindley’s influence, helped to usher in the “golden age” of gospel in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when Black congregations across the nation sang gospel music in their worship services and gospel recording artists and performers enjoyed great popularity.

Several distinct musical styles developed within Black gospel. More-traditional Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal congregations generally took a reserved approach. Their performances, while spirited, retained traditional song forms and harmonies and they rendered the songs in a dignified manner. Conversely, in Pentecostal or “holiness” churches, the music was highly charged and improvisatory, with exuberant shouting, hand clapping, and dancing. The Church of God in Christ, a denomination founded in the 1890s, became the chief home of the Pentecostal style. The repertoire of these churches varied, from centuries-old Protestant hymns, to Negro spirituals, to the gospel songs of Tindley, Dorsey, and others. The use of instruments also varied. Some congregations and performers sang a cappella, eschewing instruments as too secular. Others employed instrumental accompaniment, from just a guitar or tambourine to a full band.

One of Philadelphia’s preeminent churches in the Pentecostal style emerged under the leadership of Ozro Thurston Jones (1891-1972), who moved from Arkansas to Philadelphia in 1925 to assume the pastorship of Holy Temple, a small Church of God in Christ congregation located in West Philadelphia. Holy Temple was originally located at Fifty-Seventh and Vine Streets before moving to Sixtieth and Callowhill Streets in 1935. For a time, the congregation included Elizabeth Dabney (c.1890-1967), a Virginia native who became a leading figure in the Church of God in Christ. She later helped her husband, a singing preacher, establish another prominent Church of God in Christ congregation, Garden of Prayer, in North Philadelphia. Gertrude Ward (1901-81), who moved to Philadelphia from her native South Carolina around 1920, attended the lively services at both Holy Temple and Garden of Prayer regularly, bringing her daughters Clara (1924-73) and Willarene (Willa, 1920-2012). The three later formed the nucleus of the Ward Singers—also known at various times as the Famous Ward Singers and Clara Ward and the Ward Singers—one of the most popular gospel groups of all time.

Singers Drawn to Philadelphia

By the mid-twentieth century, gospel emanated from the numerous churches in the growing Black neighborhoods of South, North, and West Philadelphia, as well as other cities in the region with significant African American populations. Some of the biggest names in gospel music moved to Philadelphia from the South in this period, including the nationally popular male quartets the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Sensational Nightingales. Soon after settling in the city in 1942, the Dixie Hummingbirds secured a daily program on radio station WCAU, laying the groundwork for a long, successful career. In the mid-1940s, Hummingbirds singer Ira Tucker (1925-2008) began staging gospel shows at the Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets in North Philadelphia. Featuring his own group and other local and national gospel acts, these very successful shows made “the Met” an important gospel venue.

Philadelphia became known especially for its female gospel groups, including the Ward Singers, Davis Sisters, Stars of Faith, and Angelic Gospel Singers. Of these, the Ward Singers achieved greatest success. Performing in elaborate gowns and hairstyles, they took gospel into nightclubs and jazz festivals, which enhanced their popularity but alienated more-conservative gospel adherents. Marion Williams (1927-94) moved to Philadelphia from Florida in 1947 to join the Ward Singers and sang with them for eleven years before breaking away to form the Stars of Faith and later embarking on a solo career. Considered one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, Williams was honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1993. Mary Johnson Davis (1899-1982), an influential singer and group leader who moved in the 1950s from her native Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, maintained an active performing career and, with her friend Gertrude Ward, nurtured gospel talent in the area.

A black and white photograph of Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing in 1944. She is holding a guitar and singing into a microphone. A group of three men in suits sing behind her.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pictured in 1944, became successful in both gospel and secular music styles. Her distinctive guitar style earned her the title “Godmother of Rock and Roll.” (New York Public Library)

Singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), perhaps the most successful—and unusual—female gospel artist of the period, moved to Philadelphia in 1957 after years of touring and living in other cities. Major gospel artists routinely received tempting offers to cross over to the more lucrative secular world of jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular music. While a number of prominent gospel singers refused to abandon sacred music, many did make the transition, to the consternation of their more traditional audiences. Uniquely, Tharpe moved back and forth between secular and sacred music several times in the course of her career, enjoying great success in both realms. Tharpe also developed a distinctive virtuoso guitar style, earning her the title “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”

Changes in society, musical tastes, and the music business in the 1960s signaled an end to the golden age of gospel, as well as other Black music styles. While traditional gospel remained popular, a new “contemporary” gospel style began to emerge, incorporating elements of modern popular music and often featuring elaborate musical arrangements and sophisticated recording techniques. Gospel music, both contemporary and traditional, remained an active, thriving tradition into the early twenty-first century in the Philadelphia area. It formed an integral part of the services of Black churches throughout the region and gospel artists continued to enjoy the support of loyal audiences who listened to local gospel radio stations and attended concerts at churches and major venues such as the Robin Hood Dell and Temple University’s Liacouras Center.

Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who specializes in three areas of Philadelphia history: music, business and industry, and Northeast Philadelphia. He regularly writes, lectures, and gives tours on these subjects. His book In the Cradle of Industry and Liberty: A History of Manufacturing in Philadelphia was published in 2016 and he curated the 2017–18 exhibit “Risk & Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia” for the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. He serves as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann Music Center and directs a project for Jazz Bridge entitled Documenting & Interpreting the Philly Jazz Legacy, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Richard Allen

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The founder of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen (pictured here), published the first American hymnal compiled for a black congregation in 1801. It featured primarily traditional Protestant hymns but also several spiritual songs composed by Allen. The distinctive style of worship music in urban black churches such as Mother Bethel in the early nineteenth century evolved into gospel music a century later.

Allen, born in Philadelphia in 1760, spent his early life as a slave to lawyer Benjamin Chew. His next owner, Delaware plantation owner Stokeley Sturgis, allowed Allen to join the Methodist Society and invited preachers into the home. One of those circuit preachers, Rev. Freeborn Garrettson, influenced Sturgis to allow Allen to buy his freedom in 1780. Allen returned to Philadelphia, home to a large free black community, and began preaching at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. With fellow preacher Absalom Jones he formed the mutual aid Free African Society to meet the community’s social and economic needs. Frustrated by racial segregation at St. George’s, Allen and Jones left and founded separate black churches.

Charles A. Tindley

New York Public Library

Charles Albert Tindley’s hymns were among the first gospel songs to be published, beginning in 1901. Tindley, shown here in a photograph published in 1910, was born in Maryland to a slave family and came to Philadelphia in 1875. He worked as a custodian for the Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church while taking correspondence courses to become a minister. After serving as pastor for churches in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey, he returned to Philadelphia in 1902 to become the pastor of Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal. Several of his hymns in the new gospel style, including “Stand By Me” and “I’ll Overcome Someday,” became very popular. The 1921 hymnal Gospel Pearls, the earliest African American hymnal to use the word “gospel” in its title, included six of his hymns.

In 1906 Tindley and his congregation moved to South Broad Street to a building later renamed Tindley Temple. The church featured a Moller organ with over six thousand pipes and seating for 3,200 worshippers. At the new location, the congregation swelled to about ten thousand. Tindley continued to preach until his death in 1933. The church, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, remained in operation in 2019.


The hymnal Gospel Pearls, published in 1921 by the Sunday School Publishing Board of Nashville, Tennessee, was the first hymnal written for African American congregations to include the word “gospel” in its title. This page from the hymnal shows one of the six songs by Charles A. Tindley to be included. Tindley began publishing hymns in 1901 and a year later became the pastor of the Bainbridge Street Methodist Episcopal Church. Several of his hymns, including “Stand By Me” and “I’ll Overcome Someday,” became gospel standards.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

New York Public Library

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, shown in a photograph published in Cue magazine in 1944, began performing at a young age at the encouragement of her mother, a preacher in the Church of God in Christ. Born in Arkansas and considered a child prodigy, by age six she was performing in a traveling gospel troupe and advertised as “a singing and guitar-playing miracle.” In 1938 she signed a contract with Decca Records and recorded four highly successful gospel singles, making her the first artist to reach commercial success in the genre. She also began regularly performing for secular crowds with jazz legend Cab Calloway at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, which featured some of the biggest names in African American entertainment for an exclusively white audience.

Tharpe moved to Philadelphia in 1957 and continued to work in both gospel and blues music, frequently collaborating with Muddy Waters and other prominent blues musicians. Her 1968 record, “Precious Moments,” earned her a Grammy nomination. She continued to record and perform, despite increasing health problems. In 1973 she died of a stroke in Temple University Hospital near her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Tharpe’s guitar stylings, particularly her work on the electric guitar in the 1940s, inspired early American rock and roll musicians, including Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. A 1964 tour of Europe with Muddy Waters was later cited as an inspiration by guitarists Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. She has been called the “Godmother of Rock and Roll” for her wide-reaching influence on the genre.

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Related Reading

Boyer, Horace Clarence. “Charles Albert Tindley: Progenitor of Black American Gospel Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn 1983): 103-32.

___________.  The Gospel Song: A Historical and Analytical Study. Ph.D. Diss., University of Rochester, 1964.

Heilbut, Anthony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Turner, Diane D., ed. Feeding the Soul: Black Music, Black Thought. Chicago: Third World Press, 2011.

Wald, Gayle. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Zolten, Jerry. Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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