James Cleveland (1931-1991)

James Cleveland
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Gospel music composer, conductor, pianist, and singer James Cleveland was born James Edward Cleveland on December 5, 1931, on the south side of Chicago, Illinois to Benjamin Cleveland, a retired Army sergeant, and Rosie Lee. He was introduced to gospel music at an early age by his grandmother. He sang soprano at the Pilgrim Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side under the direction of composer Thomas A. Dorsey. In 1950, Cleveland became a member of the trio Gospelaires, and arranged their music. After they disbanded, an associate hired him as a composer and arranger.

In 1951, 20-year-old Cleveland began teaching then-nine-year-old Aretha Franklin the methods and techniques of gospel singing. Franklin later became a legendary R&B performer, but she never abandoned her gospel music roots.

While Cleveland was talented and gifted and could reproduce music without viewing its notation, he was formally trained in classical music at Roosevelt University. He resided briefly in New York, where he became Minister of Music at Faith Temple.

In 1963 Rev. Cleveland arrived in Los Angeles, California to become pastor at the New Greater Harvest Baptist Church. Later that year he recorded “Peace Be Still,” a Baptist hymnal standard of the same title, composed by Horatio Palmer and Mary Ann Baker in 1874. The song was released by Savoy Records and dominated Billboard’s Spiritual charts, selling more than 800,000 units and thus being certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). On the strength of this and other gospel recordings, Cleveland was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Rev. Cleveland established the Gospel Music Workshop of America, Inc. (GMWA), in 1967 in Detroit, Michigan. There are now 200 chapters with more than 30,000 members. One of GMWA’s functions is to encourage and engage intergenerational Christian global performances.

In 1969 Rev. Cleveland founded the Southern California Community Choir. He and the choir appeared on several recordings by many artists including Aretha Franklin, Olivia Newton-John and Elton John. The next year, 1970, Rev. Cleveland was the founding pastor of Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church in LA with 10 members. Over time its membership rose to several thousand.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter invited Rev. Cleveland to perform Gospel music at the White House. Two years later in 1981, Cleveland became the first gospel artist to receive a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. Three years later, in 1984, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1989 and 1992, he received the Soul Train Awards for “Best Gospel Album” for Inspired and Reverend James Cleveland and the L.A. Gospel Messengers.

Rev. Cleveland has won four Grammy Awards, including one at the 34th Annual Grammy Awards in New York City in 1992 for the “Best Gospel Album by a Choir or Chorus” for Rev. James Cleveland and the L.A. Gospel Messenger.

Rev. James Cleveland, the father of LaShone Cleveland, died on February 9, 1991, of congestive heart failure in Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, California. He was 59. He recorded more than 100 albums and was the recipient of 16 gold records. He also received 13 honorary doctorates, including one from Temple Baptist College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and another from Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, North Dakota.