Call it what you will--influence, crossover, exploitation--but it is by now a familiar tale: how gospel music's tunes, language, gestures, forms, styles, instrumentation and performers influenced or even transformed American secular pop giving rise to rock and soul.
How an obscure R&B singer and pianist, one of dozens of Nat Cole wannabes on the chit'lin' circuit, rose to national prominence in 1955 by raiding the gospel highway, transforming this 1954 regional gospel hit by The Southern Tones out of Houston:
into this proto-rock and roll R&B classic:
"I Got a Woman" opened the flood gates. The year following its release, gospel music's hottest young star, Sam Cooke, would leave The Soul Stirrers for crossover super stardom.
Cooke was both ahead of his time and behind it. On the one hand he blazed a trail from one world to another that would be trod by dozens of gospel performers in the 1950s and early 1960s; and, as one of the first artists (not to mention first black artists) to own his own record label and publishing business, he created a new business model for all musical performers. On the other hand Cooke's crossover model was a creeping and self-conscious one in which he all but outsmarted himself by blanching his sound. His plan worked, making him a star, but it was only years later later, in 1964, hearing The Rolling Stones' version of his friend and (fellow gospel crossover singer) Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now" that Cooke realized that the white record buying public was ready for music that had the full bore gospel sound.
In the generation since the rock and soul explosion, the formal lines between the sounds and styles of secular and religious music have blurred as a cultural feedback loop has developed giving rise to everything from the sacred funk of contemporary gospel to white Christian rock formally indistinguishable from secular rock.
Still, examples of the reverse transformation of the "It Must Be Jesus"/"I Got A Woman" sort are rare. Rare, but not unheard of. And I offer one of my favorite gospel records of all time as an example, this 1980 transformation of Luther Ingram's 1972 hit "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" by the Reverend Julius Cheeks' Four Knights.
Julius Cheeks was one of gospel music's most famous and influential shouters, his only rival for husky, cracked, fervent hollering in the 1950s and 1960s was Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and his influence resounds in many of the major sold singers of the 1960s--James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. Although at various points he sang with The Soul Stirrers and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, it was the the records he cut for Decca with The Sensational Nightingales that made Cheeks, well, a sensation. Later in the early 1960s, Cheeks formed his own group, the Four Knights with whom he would record, albeit infrequently, until his death in 1981.
This transformation of secular soul back into gospel was recorded live in Florida during a congregational performance by the Knights backed by the Shining Light Mass Choir at the very end of Cheek's life and released posthumously in 1981, when I first heard it on a gospel radio station in South Florida. In those final years Cheeks was sharing lead vocals with protege George McAllister who still leads a version of the Knights. It is reportedly McAllister singing lead this, but channelling Cheeks' shouting preaching style so effectively you'd be forgiven for thinking it's Cheeks himself testifying.
For a taste of Cheeks himself with the Knights in the early 1960s, this version of "Last Mile of the Way", which Cheeks had a hit on with the Nightingales, is well worth a listen