The influence of gospel music stretches far and wide, into soul, rock’n’roll and R&B, and can be found in recordings by everyone from James Brown to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Unsurprisingly, then, the best gospel songs have been recorded by artists from all musical persuasions – and the best gospel singers, too, cover a wider range of styles than you might initially think.
The voices in this list might vary, but they’re never less than impassioned when it comes to singing about their faith. From Reverends to rock’n’rollers, backwoods bluesmen to country ramblers, here’s a list of the 15 best gospel singers of all time.
Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972)
Gospel blues has a long tradition of notable performers – including Son House, Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James – and perhaps the most distinguished was Reverend Gary Davis. Davis, who began as a street musician, was a powerful gospel singer whose simplicity of playing and deep pathos in his vocals brought out the mournful qualities of gospel songs such as ‘I Heard The Angels Singing’. The beauty and spirituality of this blind singer inspired countless musicians, including Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder. Dylan recorded several of his songs, including ‘Jesus Met The Woman At The Well’.
Thomas A Dorsey (1899-1993)
Thomas A Dorsey was widely known as the father of gospel music, writing many of the world’s greatest gospel songs. Moments before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, in 1968, he asked to have Dorsey’s best-known song, ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’, performed. In the following days it almost became the anthem of black America. Dorsey, a former jazz pianist and composer, helped create the first gospel chorus and added tabernacle song material and blues touches to his spiritual material. He would go on to co-found the National Convention Of Gospel Choirs And Choruses. Perhaps his most beautiful song, ‘Peace In The Valley’, was written on a train in 1939 while he was passing through a valley and thinking about the war that had just begun in Europe.
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972)
Mahalia Jackson’s soulful renditions of gospel music thrilled fans the world over, including Presidents and royalty. Her powerful and melodious voice brought tears to the eyes of listeners. With the 1947 release of ‘Move On Up A Little Higher’, Jackson became the first gospel artist to sell one million copies, putting the genre into the mainstream. In 1960, Jackson sang the US national anthem at the inauguration of President Kennedy. She inspired countless singers to take up gospel, including the great Mavis Staples. When Duke Ellington tried to get her to record jazz with his big band, she turned him down, saying, “Duke, my music is the music of the Lord.” (That didn’t stop her from performing with Louis Armstrong in 1970.)
Sallie Martin (1895-1988)
Georgia-born Sallie Martin was a contemporary of Dorsey and Jackson, and her show singing earned her the title of The Mother Of Gospel Music. She started singing in a Baptist church and later teamed up with Dorsey in Chicago. She founded a gospel publishing house and, with the Sallie Martin Singers, helped discover Ruth James, who became better known as Dinah Washington.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
Rosetta Tharpe, raised by her mother, a travelling evangelist with The Church Of God In Christ, was performing from the age of six. She was spotted by John Hammond – who included her with Count Basie in his celebrated From Spirituals To Swing concert at Carnegie Hall – and soon after that she recorded ‘Gospel Train’. In 1945, her song ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ became the first gospel record to reach the R&B Top 10. Though she was also a guitarist and pioneer rock’n’roller, Tharpe’s gospel singing was vibrant and sincere, and had a huge influence on Elvis Presley.
Hank Williams (1923-1953)
Though rightly celebrated as a giant of country music – and songwriting as a whole – Hank Williams was also one of the best gospel singers that country music produced. His lyrics often focussed on sin and redemption, torment and release, shown in masterpieces such as the 1948 song ‘I Saw The Light’, which has become a gospel standard. The gospel songs that Williams recorded, such as ‘When God Comes And Gathers His Jewels’, suited his maudlin, drawled delivery.
James Cleveland (1931-1991)
The Reverend James Cleveland, who taught Aretha Franklin to sing gospel, was hailed as the Crown Prince Of Gospel. As well as his heartfelt baritone gospel singing, he was a pianist, composer, arranger and producer. He won three Grammy awards and was credited with writing and arranging more than 400 gospel songs, including ‘Everything Will Be All Right’, ‘The Love Of God’ and ‘Peace Be Still’, and he was the first gospel artist to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk Of Fame. Cleveland also founded the Gospel Music Workshop Of America in Detroit, which he said was his greatest accomplishment.
Same Cooke (1931-1964)
Like one or two others in this list of the best gospel singers, Same Cooke easily made the leap from spiritual to secular music. He learned his trade as a boy singing with the gospel group The Highway QCs, but he really made his name with The Soul Stirrers, with whom he recorded gems such as ‘Touch The Hem Of His Garment’. Cooke’s smooth and soulful voice suited narrative gospel songs, some of which he wrote. Cooke later moved from gospel to pursue a solo with popular hits such as ‘(What A) Wonderful World’. Yet even some of his solo work was gospel-infused, as with his own song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’.
Johnny Cash (1932-2003)
Country music has always had strong links with gospel, not only in Hank Williams but in a host of performers, including Tennessee Ernie Ford (who ended his weekly television show with gospel songs). One of the most heartfelt gospel songs came from Johnny Cash, who recorded the first of several gospel albums with 1959’s Hymns. Cash said, “Gospel music is so ingrained into my bones; I can’t do a concert without singing a gospel song. It’s what I was raised on. It was the thing that inspired me as a child, growing up on a cotton farm, where the work was drudgery.”
Elvis Presley (1935-1977)
Elvis Presley may have been the rightful King Of Rock’n’Roll, but he could also take his place among the best gospel singers, and even won a Grammy for his version of ‘He Touched Me’, written by Andrea Crouch. Swedish musician Per-Erik Hallin, who toured with Presley for several years, said, “Elvis had a special relationship to gospel music. Elvis was exposed to an idolatry that had no limits, and gospel singing became a refuge for him. I also think it’s pretty touching to think that a person being exposed to so much idolatry likes to just be one of the gang and sing songs like ‘There’s Somebody Bigger Than You And I’.”
Shirley Caesar (born 1938)
Shirley Caesar’s singer father, Jim, died when she was 12. She followed in his footsteps and became a singer. After performing with the legendary Caravans, she launched a solo career that saw her become the first black female gospel singer to win a Grammy. She subsequently won ten more Grammys and landed three Gold albums. As well as a great gospel voice, she is knowledgeable about the music and, in 2008, gave a speech on the evolution of gospel music to the US Treasury Department.
Aretha Franklin (born 1942)
Aretha Franklin was just 14 when she recorded the 1956 album Songs Of Faith at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was the reverend. Before crossing over into the world of mainstream entertainment, Franklin was a talented gospel singer (in the same way as Amy Grant, for example) and her voice was able to cope with the demands of the high and powerful notes needed to become one of the best gospel gospel singers on record. Franklin’s 1972 Amazing Grace album was one of her best-selling albums, cementing gospel’s appeal as a commercial force in a rock era. In 2012 she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame.
Andraé Crouch (1942-2015)
Andraé Crouch was just 13 when he composed ‘The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power’. Known as The Father Of Contemporary Gospel, Crouch was easily one of the best gospel singers of his generation, and was also a successful vocal arranger, songwriter and choir leader. His choral work for Michael Jackson and Madonna – and his work on the soundtrack for the movie The Lion King – brought him global fame. Crouch stammered as a child but said that gospel singing helped him overcome this, and he went on to pioneer a gospel sound with a contemporary feel.
Yolanda Adams (born 1961)
Adams said that, when she was starting out, successful gospel singers – especially Tramaine Hawkins and Shirley Caesar – gave her great encouragement. Adams, who has also gained fame as an actress, used to host her own nationally syndicated gospel radio show. She has sold nearly eight million records worldwide and is known as The Queen Of Contemporary Gospel. Just don’t confuse her ‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me’ with the Whitney Houston gospel hit ‘Jesus Loves Me’.
Kirk Franklin (born 1970)
By merging hip-hop with gospel, Kirk Franklin has created some controversy on his way to becoming perhaps the best-selling gospel artist of all time, with more than 13 million album sales. He has won 12 Grammys and enjoyed success leading urban gospel choirs such as The Family, God’s Property and One Nation Crew (1NC). Franklin is just one example of how spiritual music is evolving at the hands of the 21st Century’s best gospel singers. Stars such as Kim Burrell and Richard Smallwood, and young singers such as BeBe and CeCe Winans, Chance The Rapper, Kanye West, Todd Dulaney and Dorinda Clark-Cole, are all interpreting modern gospel in different and vibrant ways.
Looking for more? Check out our list of the best gospel songs of all time.
Follow our Forever Gospel playlist, for more moving spirituals from the best gospel singers, including Thomas A Dorsey, Kirk Franklin and Mahalia Jackson.