Every Sunday morning, Anna DeLoach, a retired school bus driver from Carson, puts on an elegant three-piece suit of deep navy blue, slips into matching rhinestone-studded pumps, and perches a felt hat with iridescent feathers on her coiffed hair. She checks a full-length mirror.
“I’ve got to look good,” she says emphatically. Pleased with what she sees, the 62-year-old divorcée is ready for church — and some good, L.A.-style gospel music. She slides into her Lincoln Mercury Town Car for the 12-mile drive up the 110 freeway to Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist, the church she has attended every Sunday for 38 years.
The voices that rise on Southern California Sunday mornings, from neighborhood houses of worship like Mount Moriah to megachurches like First A.M.E., are imbued with more than four decades of gospel history — a Los Angeles heritage that is “underappreciated and unrecognized,” says Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje M.A. ’72, Ph.D. ’78, chair of the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology and an expert on gospel.
But UCLA has embarked on a project to document and preserve L.A.’s role in the gospel story and detail the enormous influence this music, powered by the faith of millions, has had on a pantheon of other musical styles. Called Gospel Archiving in Los Angeles, or GALA, the project is a partnership between the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive and the Heritage Music Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit.
GALA received funding support from UCLA in LA, an initiative operated by the UCLA Center for Community Partnerships in which faculty, students and staff work with community-based nonprofit organizations to find ways to address issues facing Los Angeles. Since its launch in 2002, UCLA in LA has partnered with 90 community organizations of all kinds in many different parts of the city.
DjeDje saw the need to preserve and celebrate L.A. gospel as a perfect task for the Ethnomusicology Archive, one of the top three such collections in the country. “Historically, the archive’s focus was on collecting material in faraway places, Asia and Africa and all parts of the world other than California,” she recalls. “So five or six years ago, when I became director of the archive, the department decided to establish a California collection. We have a world right here in Los Angeles, and we need to [preserve the] traditions here. Devoting attention to California is one way of making our holdings distinctive, making us different from other archives in other parts of the world.”
“This was really a model partnership, because it is an exemplar of engaged scholarship,” says Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., associate vice chancellor of the Center for Community Partnerships. “When you think about gospel, you don’t necessarily think about L.A., but when you think about the recording industry, you do connect it with L.A. So the notion of archiving that work and making it available to future generations also carried with it the prospect of Professor DjeDje doing some scholarship around the role of gospel music in L.A. Here was a very highly regarded senior scholar who has found a way to blend her scholarly interests with community interests in the Los Angeles area. And that’s what we want: projects that might otherwise not get done that allow us to make a contribution to Los Angeles with the input of the community.”
From the Midwest to Mount Moriah
Gospel music generally calls to mind the Midwest and the South, and in particular Chicago, the home of Thomas A. Dorsey, the “father of gospel music.” Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1899 but resettled in the Windy City to make his living as a blues pianist and composer. In 1932, Dorsey’s wife died in childbirth and the newborn succumbed soon after. Believing that God was punishing him for his wayward lifestyle, Dorsey vowed to give up secular music and commit himself to sacred songs.
Dorsey’s gospel music — redolent with what he called that “blue moan” and “low-down feeling” — borrowed so heavily from his blues that it initially caused a stir among African-American churchgoers in Chicago. Their counterparts in Los Angeles didn’t much care for gospel either, preferring the more familiar anthems, hymns and spirituals, DjeDje writes in California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West. But in the late 1930s and ’40s, L.A. gospel began to flourish with support from churches like Mount Moriah and radio stations that suddenly found audiences hungry for this new musical style.
Mount Moriah sits on the corner of Figueroa Street and West 43rd Place, south of the Los Angeles Coliseum in a neighborhood of stucco houses with tidy lawns and barred windows. The church was founded in 1946 by the Rev. Earl Amos Pleasant, a native of New Orleans. Pleasant was a gospel singer of considerable reputation before his call to the ministry, having toured with gospel’s first superstar, Mahalia Jackson, a childhood friend from the Crescent City. Pleasant’s influence was such that the biggest gospel stars of the day came to Mount Moriah to sing.
Other transplants, among them the prolific songwriter Doris Akers and the great Clara Ward, helped put Los Angeles on the gospel map. In 1962, the arrival of gospel legend James Cleveland — known as “King James” and “The Crown Prince” — marked the beginning of gospel’s shift to Los Angeles as its primary focus of activity, according to DjeDje.
Cleveland died in Los Angeles in 1991, but his gospel work lives on through an important organization he founded in 1968 — the Gospel Music Workshop of America. Today, the workshop has more than 75,000 members in 185 chapters throughout the United States, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. DjeDje says the workshop has played a huge role in globalizing gospel. For example, many of the young Japanese students who sign up for UCLA’s African-American Music Ensemble, which focuses on gospel music, first learned about this uniquely American art form back home, in no small part due to Cleveland’s workshops.
Other stars, like Andrae Crouch, son of a Pacoima preacher, achieved crossover fame by mixing gospel with rock and R&B. In the mid-1990s, Crouch gave up pop stardom to take over his late father’s church, the New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ, which he co-pastors with his twin sister, Sandra.
Southern California’s gospel history-makers also include UCLA alumna Vicki Lataillade ’80, who started the Gospo Centric label with a $6,000 loan from her father’s civil-service pension. In the early 1990s, Lataillade signed an up-and-comer from Texas named Kirk Franklin, who was pushing the boundaries of Christian music by mixing gospel and hip-hop. Franklin’s first single, “Why We Sing,” tore up the gospel charts and then the R&B charts. James Roberson, a UCLA professor who directs the African-American Music Ensemble and runs his own Los Angeles-based gospel label, JDI Records, said the success of Franklin and Gospo Centric had an immediate impact. “It turned heads toward the West Coast as the place where good gospel music is coming from,” Roberson says.
Today, Franklin is arguably gospel’s biggest star, but his goals go beyond making hit records. Franklin is on a mission to save young people from Satan, and he has chosen Los Angeles as the stage from which to carry out his work. Twice a month, he flies here from Dallas to minister to youth at Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood. The service is called “The Takeover” and is held in a 1,100-seat hall at Faithful Central’s sprawling complex on Florence Avenue. Teens by the hundreds — spiffed up as if for Friday night and clutching Bibles — pour into Franklin’s service, which features urban-flavored gospel music and hip-hop dancers. Franklin is there to preach and not sing, but he borrows from his in-concert persona, leaping and gyrating on stage.
Singing the Praises of Gospel in L.A.
Earl Amos Pleasant’s wife, Olga, taught all of her six children to sing and play piano, but daughter Margaret Pleasant Douroux, born in 1941, took to music in a special way. In the early 1960s, Douroux wrote a song called “Give Me a Clean Heart” that launched her career as a great gospel composer.
Douroux is founder of the Heritage Music Foundation and music minister at Greater New Bethel Baptist, a small Inglewood congregation that her brother, Earl, pastors. Her consuming passion is to build for gospel music a home befitting an art form that has contributed so mightily to American culture.
Douroux envisions a hall of fame, concert hall, library and educational wing rising from the pavement in the heart of black Los Angeles. “As I travel around the country, everyone has a concert hall or an educational institution that black America identifies with,” she says. “But not Los Angeles.”