On this day in 1932, James Cleveland, known as the “King of Gospel” was born in Chicago, Illinois.
As a child, Cleveland began singing at Pilgrim Baptist Church. After severely straining her vocal cords, which left him with his distinctive voice, he turned to focusing on his skills as a pianist.
In 1950, he joined a trio led by Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk, called the Gospelaires. The group modernized traditional tunes such as “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion” and “It’s Me O Lord”. However, the trio disbanded not long after, and Cleveland was hired by Roberta Martin, an associate of the group, to work as a composer and arranger.
Cleveland then began working for The Caravans as an arranger, composer, pianist, and occasional singer. In 1954, he was provided with the opportunity to do his first solo recording. He recorded with States Records until their closing in 1957.
Two years later, Cleveland began experimenting with mixing pop with traditional gospel, recording a version of the Ray Charles hit, “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” He signed with Savoy Records in 1962 and went on to release a large compilation of black gospel recordings.
Shortly after, he moved to Los Angeles, California in order to serve as Minister of Music at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ. There, he worked with Billy Preston and the Angelic Choir, recording the 1963 hit “Peace Be Still,” which sold over 100,000 copies.
He then returned to touring, performing in all major venues throughout the United States. Capitalizing on his success, Cleveland founded his own choir, called the Southern California Community Choir. Additionally, he created the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church, which quickly grew to tens of thousands of members.
Cleveland received several awards and honors throughout his career, including four Grammy Awards, in 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1990, respectively.
Cleveland died on February 9, 1991 at the age of 59 in Culver City, California. The cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure. His estate was estimated to be worth $5 million.