Gospel music has come a long way from the old Negro hymns that fused European and African elements to create one of the few original musical genres to have come out of America. While pioneers like James Cleveland, Andre Crouch and Shirley Caesar made great strides in expanding the appeal black gospel music in the 70s and 80s, it would be from the unlikely state of Minnesota that its biggest modern boost would come.
The Minneapolis/St. Paul area is probably not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about havens for black gospel music, but from this cold clime came The Sounds of Blackness. As a large musical consortium, Sounds of Blackness included a choir, band and orchestra. The group had been together since the late 60s in some form or another but did not record a nationally distributed album until 1991.
They caught the attention of hometown production gurus Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who were already working with Janet Jackson’s on her Rhythm Nation 1814 project. Somehow Jam and Lewis found time to produce three tracks from their debut called The Evolution of Gospel. The rest of the album was produced by Gary Hines and would retain the then fresh New jack swing sound that Jam and Lewis established with the initial recordings.
Billed as the future of gospel music, The Evolution of Gospel came out swinging with three hits that were both prominent on the R&B and the Billboard dance charts. “Optimistic” the first single was the most successful at #3 on the R&B chart, but it would be the final single “Testify” that best exemplify modern R&B elements within a traditional gospel structure. Led by the strong voices of Ann Bennett-Nesby and Andre Shepard, “Testify” remains one of my favorite songs of the 90s. It was as if the music of my childhood apostolic church had been transported 25 years into the future.
The album included a broad spectrum of Black American musical styles including jazz, ragtime and hip hop. These elements were seldom if ever fused together and not since with such commercial success. Not only was music from The Sounds of Blackness all over the radio, they inspired many of ministers of music in churches all over the country to up their game.
Gospel music in the early 90s was still a AM radio affair in most places, but the notoriety of The Evolution of Gospel would rise the profile of the gospel music format and launch or boost the careers of modern gospel stars like BeBe and CeCe Winans, John P.Kee and Kirk Franklin. Suddenly gospel was sounding like contemporary R&B and was getting nearly as much airplay on FM radio.
For all its innovation and experimentation, The Evolution of Gospel still sounds fresh and new, a testament to the restraint and respect for the material by the albums production teams. So if you have ever been curious about modern gospel, The Sounds of Blackness’ “The Evolution of Gospel” is a great place to start.