Photo: Design: F. Inomata
John Legend Pays Tribute To Aretha Franklin With A Stunning Cover Of "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
"Aretha had a way of covering songs and making them her own," Legend said
GRAMMY-winning vocal powerhouse John Legend—now an EGOT (an Emmy, GRAMMY, Oscar and Tony winner)—truly brought the room to a state of awe with his powerful performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" during Aretha! A GRAMMY Celebration For The Queen Of Soul.
During the concert, as he sat down at the piano, he that shared Paul Simon, half of GRAMMY-winning folk heroes Simon And Garfunkel, who originally wrote and recorded the song, has said Aretha Franklin's version was one of the best covers of his songs he'd ever heard.
At the 13th GRAMMY Awards in 1971 the duo took home two GRAMMY Awards for the song, Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year. Later that year Aretha would record her soulful version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and take home a win for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female at the 14th GRAMMY Awards.
Legend astutely points to Aretha's power to take a great song and make it even better, by making it completely hers.
"Aretha had a way of covering songs and making them her own. And I was happy to do her version of the cover version," Legend shared, smiling.
You can hear his moving performance of the song, along with all of the other special moments from the special honoring the Queen Of Soul by tuning into CBS this Sun., March 10 at 9 p.m. EST / 8 p.m. CT.
Jennifer Hudson On Honoring Aretha Franklin: "I Don't Think Any Singer Would Take It Lightly"
Photo: Max Wanger
Chamber Ensemble yMusic Step Into The Light On New LP: "We've Been In Training For This Moment"
Contemporary chamber ensemble yMusic have backed up GRAMMY winners from Paul Simon to John Legend and St. Vincent. On their eponymous new LP, they reveal themselves to be a self-contained universe.
Over the course of a decade and a half, yMusic have pointed their arrow toward collaborators, happy to exist chiefly as facilitators and augmenters — until Paul Simon had something to say about it.
"Every time we'd work with songwriters and bands, they'd say 'So, when are you guys going to write your own stuff?'" the chamber group's violist, Nadia Sirota, recalls to GRAMMY.com. "And we'd be like, 'Oh no, what are you talking about?'"
If you know classical, you'll know this is par for the course. But when yMusic appeared with Simon on his 2018 album of reimagined deep cuts, In the Blue Light, "He was like, 'You guys have to figure out what your voice is as an ensemble yourself,'" Sirota says. "We took him seriously."
With that encouragement from the 16-time GRAMMY winner under their belts, yMusic partitioned time in their rehearsal schedule for writing — and that built a bridge to their autonomous, eponymous new album of originals, which arrived May 5.
YMUSIC places the young sextet — Sirota, flutist/vocalist Alex Sopp, clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, trumpeter CJ Camerieri, violinist Rob Moose, and cellist Gabriel Cabezas — within a concise framework, emphasizing each composition's innate singability and dramatic arc.
"One organizing principle that we kept coming back to was the idea of song form, because that almost felt foreign to our body of work in a cool way," Moose, who has won two golden gramophones, tells GRAMMY.com. "But also, because we've collaborated with songwriters so much, it felt at home to us."
As you absorb YMUSIC's multivalent highlights like "Zebras," "Three Elephants" and "Cloud," read on for an interview with Sirota and Moose about the group's 15-year creative journey, what they bring to the table for singer/songwriters and how this consolidative work came to be.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The press release for YMUSIC says it finds "the group focused on discovering an artistic voice all their own."
Nadia Sirota: A really important thing to know about the group is that we've been around for 15 years, but every single thing that we've done prior to the album has been a collaboration with another artist.
We have worked with a ton of amazing composers, bands and songwriters, and it's been a joy and a pleasure to work with all those people, but we had never created any original music until we started the process that resulted in this album.
So, it's been really amazing to double down on the creativity within the group. We've always been pretty hands-on in our collaborations with other people — and certainly super-opinionated, and very into editing and honing and re-orchestrating.
The whole time, we had a very creatorly hand, I think, on these collaborations, but we've never really made music ourselves — so that's what this is about.
Was this by design over the past 15 years? To augment other musicians?
Sirota: Yeah, and I think a lot of it, honestly, comes from the fact that we all come from a pretty classical background despite where we ended up in the world. In the classical-music world, it's more common than not that you are either a composer or a performer.
There are some people who do both things in an explicit way, but if you're training as a performer, you're training as an interpreter…. who's working on Brahms and Beethoven and Rebecca Clarke and all that stuff.
Even if you're doing new music, you're working with composers. We took that as we became a young new music ensemble, like so many other new music ensembles.
Rob Moose: I feel like our origin story — our mission from the beginning — was about empowerment.
We were active as freelance performers equally in new classical or classical music, but also in working with songwriters and bands. We had a lot of respect for the groups we were working with outside of classical music, and felt like they were being underrepresented in who was performing their music — or even how they were looking at their collaborative work.
So, I think built into the group's DNA was this idea of helping to — not elevate by our presence, but just lift up these people who were doing great work and give the best possible presentation to it.
We were always interested in underdogs, in a sense, and it just took us a long time to look at ourselves in the same way: Can we help our own voices get out there?
I think we realized that we've been in training for this moment all those years and we're really excited to step into this new role.
Sirota: Another angle of this is that these pieces have really been written collaboratively. It's not like one of us came with a whole bunch of ideas and doled out parts and figured it out.
In the very earliest phases of this, the six of us would get into a room with nothing and just try to create something — and six people is a lot of people to be in that creative space. I think we were all just delighted at how well it worked.
Then the pandemic hit. Everyone had to go our separate ways, but because we had forged this way of working together, we were able to keep that up over digital spaces and figure out how to collaboratively write and hone and record all this stuff.
I'm most intimately aware of your work on Okkervil River's Away and Paul Simon's In the Blue Light, although I've heard yMusic in any number of other contexts. How do you tailor your approach and methodology to each artist you work with?
Moose: I think each collaborator we've worked with has really set a tone for the way in which we'll approach the results we're looking for.
Ben Folds and Bruce Hornsby were two really important people for us that helped us get off the page and encouraged us to do the homework and create the parts — but also find freedom in live shows, or in recording studios, to create in a less conventional way for us.
Paul Simon did too, but also, he was the most meticulous about editing and refining the ideas. Which makes sense, because if you look at his work — his words, the stories, the structures of what he's created, the interaction with different styles and cultures of music — I think thoroughness is something you would never imagine would be a missing ingredient there. I feel in some ways, he pushed us to be in the moment, but also be the most under the microscope.
I think our group always approaches collaborations the same way: with great seriousness and joy and admiration for who we're working with. We take cues from the people we're working with about what's going to work best for them, as well as their audience.
Sirota: We've learned to be adaptable to all different processes, whether it's from audio first or chords first or written notation or just a vibe.
Sometimes, when I'm trying to create something alone, I get mired in my critical brain and it's really hard to work. I think the cool thing about the systems yMusic has built to work with is that they don't start from a critical place — although we get super-critical.
Moose: Being there's so many people in the group, one of the benefits is that we're still able to observe each other and pull ideas out of each other like those collaborators did for us.
A lot of pieces of music that we composed for the record started with almost eavesdropping on our neighbors as they were warming up, like: "What was that sound you just made? What is that technique that you're doing?" We would be able to shine a light on somebody else's idea that they might consider completely insignificant and perfunctory, not the basis of a composition.
To be able to bear witness to that and encourage it, that's something we learned from our collaborators; they helped us see that in ourselves, and I think we also helped them find things in that way. So, we've been really excited to keep that as part of our process.
As the violist and violinist in yMusic, how would you two characterize your interplay and function as cogs in the musical machine — both between you two and the ensemble as a whole?
Sirota: I feel like there's definitely a certain amount of rhythm viola that I sometimes play in the group. There are our most obvious functions, and then our auxiliary functions.
In the group, the only tools we have as a bassline are the cello and bass clarinet, really. So, there are ways in which those guys really end up functioning that way, and then sometimes, we totally subvert that.
The broadest spectrum of the group is piccolo to bass clarinet, kind of. Sometimes, we use that spread to kick it up a little bit. If we want to add some energy, we'll either pull something up or pull something down in a really nice way.
Being a violist is a funny thing, because you're always adding butter to the sauce. You're not necessarily the main thought of it, there's a way in which you can really add an unctuousness to the sound. Usually, I'm just trying to add a little bit of texture and excitement.
Sometimes, Rob and I are in the stratosphere doing light disco string lines or whatever. There's all sorts of flexibility in the way that this group works. Sometimes, we throw viola over to the wind side and have flute and violin do string things. There are really so many different options with the group.
I don't know if you know this, but the [template of] instrumentation that we have hasn't existed before. So, we have had the great luxury of trying to figure out every single thing that it can do, and there's some neat stuff.
Sometimes, the cello is up in the violin and viola range, too, so we have this crazy high-string section for the violin section, but made up of things that are in that register, with timbres that are slightly more exciting, in my mind.
Moose: I think, in some ways, the role that you have, Nadia, is maybe the most diverse in the group.
With cello, you can form that core low-string, warmth, support thing. Then, some of my favorite combinations are when we pair bass clarinet with viola and horn for that warm triadic lifestyle. Then, like you pointed out, you'll be doing high stuff in octaves or unison with me.
Sometimes, two or three of us can represent what the guitar or piano would do. I do love being on this bright team, sometimes, with trumpet and flute. Part of my journey has been to learn how to attempt to mimic the way their notes end, which is so abrupt compared to the way our notes end.
yMusic. Photo: Max Wanger
What were the core ideas that dictated the framework of YMUSIC?
Moose: We didn't start with an intention to write a record, necessarily. It was more of a commitment to figure out what would happen if the six of us, 13 years into our journey, decided to collaboratively compose in real time with no cheat sheets, no prep, no collaborators.
Sirota: Anything can inspire the beginning of something, and then the material itself dictates where it ends up having to go. Oftentimes, we set out to do something that was not where we ended up, but it brought us somewhere else that was really cool. I think that's the nature of writing.
YMUSIC really breathes as a listening experience; it's sequenced rather well, in my opinion, and the drama seems to expand and retract.
Sirota: That was certainly the goal, and I will say we had a lot of material for this album. Pulling it together in a way that felt both exciting and kind to the listener was the goal.
The thing about the six of us is we can get in this hyper twin-language thing where we keep wanting to gild the lily, and keep on wanting to work. We could probably obsessively rewrite every single one of these songs until we die, if we wanted to.
Moose: We have pieces in there that felt like anchors that you want to arrive at in different moments, like "Baragon," "The Wolf" and "Three Elephants" — the structural beams that are [tracks] one, four and seven.
I think it felt important to end with the piece "Cloud" — the last piece that we worked together on in the room before the pandemic started. The idea of that piece was to try to introduce something positive and soothing and nurturing in a moment of uncertainty.
Sirota: Interestingly, "Baragon" is one of the most recent things that we wrote. So, we bookended the album with these two works that were important for us in the process of writing, and figured out a way to get from point A to point B.
As 2023 rolls on, what's in the works for yMusic, and what would you like to eventually do?
Moose: We got to play the entire record for the first time at Carnegie Hall in January, which was really exciting.
I know we're really looking forward to presenting the work more — especially the concert that we did — the first half being music we composed, and then the second half being two premieres from two composers that we really admire.
I think it's important] to hear our work alongside work like that, and not separate them and be like, We did that before, we're doing this now, but be like, All of these things are who we are.
Sirota: We've got some upcoming collaborations we can't quite talk about yet. So, there's the stuff on the songwriter side that will be percolating.
The stuff on the composer side that we can talk about is: we're excited to record this brand-new major work by Andrew Norman soon, and a new piece by Gabriela Smith coming in the next season or so. Alongside this, we're going to carve out more time to write more stuff.
A neat thing about this group, which has always been true, is it's not the only thing that any one of us is supposed to do. We have always treated it like an extremely important part of our lives, but we all also do other creative things, and they're not all in the same realm at all.
So, I feel like a nice thing is that when we do come together, we're always coming with a fresh perspective.
Yo-Yo Ma On His Lifelong Friendships, Music's Connection To Nature & His New Audible Original, Beginner's Mind
Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
5 Memorable Highlights From "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys": Weezer, St. Vincent, John Legend & More
Drawing generation-spanning connections, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," which rebroadcasts Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS and is available on demand on Paramount+, was a world-class tribute to America's Band. Here are five highlights.
Updated Monday, May 22, to include information about the re-air date for "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."
"A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will re-air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
That's a wrap on "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," an emotional, star-studded toast to America's Band — as the core lineup of the legendary group bore witness from a balcony.
From its heartfelt speeches and remarks to performances by John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and other heavy hitters, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" served as a towering monument to these leading lights on the occasion of their 60th anniversary.
If you missed the CBS telecast, never fear: the thrilling special is rebroadcasting on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream on demand on Paramount+.
Below are some highlights from the Beach Boys' big night.
Read More: How To Watch "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," Featuring Performances From John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, Weezer & More
Weezer Gave "California Girls" A Shot In The Arm
The Weez was a natural choice for a Beach Boys bash — the GRAMMY winners have worn that influence on their sleeve throughout their career — from the harmony-stuffed Blue Album. to their love letter to the West Coast, the White Album.
And while Fall Out Boy's transmutation of "Do You Wanna Dance" into supercharged pop-punk was a joy, Weezer's version of "California Girls" was satisfying in a different way.
Therein, frontman Rivers Cuomo threaded his chunky power chords into the familiar arrangement masterfully. His head-turning, song-flipping guitar work in the outro was also gracefully executed.
John Legend Sang A Commanding "Sail On Sailor"
The rocking-and-rolling "Sail On Sailor" leads off the Beach Boys' deeply underrated 1973 album Holland. On that cut, the lead vocal isn't taken by an original member, but one of their two South African additions at the time: the brilliant Blondie Chaplin.
Fifty years ago, Chaplin channeled the stouthearted tune through his punchy midrange; John Legend possesses a similar one. In his hustling, wolfish performance at the piano, the 12-time GRAMMY winner gave this dark-horse Beach Boys classic the gusto it deserves.
Read More: The Beach Boys' Sail On Sailor Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?
Brandi Carlile Stunned With A Capella "In My Room" Verse
Nine-time GRAMMY winner Brandi Carlile is an eminent and versatile creative force; it's easy to imagine her nailing almost any song in the Beach Boys’ catalog — even the weird ones.
That said, this was more or less a night of hits — so Carlile took "In My Room" head on, and the results were spectacular. Even better was when the backing band dropped out for a verse, highlighting the song's proto-Pet Sounds solitude and introspection.
"Now it's dark/And I'm alone, but/I won't be afraid," Carlile sang, only joined by two harmonists. Mostly unadorned, she radiated a sense of inner strength.
Norah Jones Gorgeously Pared Back "The Warmth Of The Sun"
"The Warmth of the Sun" has always been a fan favorite for its radiant vocal interplay, but Norah Jones proved it's just as powerful with one voice front and center.
Sure, the nine-time GRAMMY winner had harmonists behind her. But while Brian Wilson shared the spotlight with the other Boys in the original tune, she was front and center, teasing out its mellow, jazzy undercurrents.
St. Vincent & Charlie Puth Plumbed The Atmosphere Of Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys' most famous album by some margin, 1966’s Pet Sounds, was well represented at "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."
Beck performed a witty "Sloop John B"; Mumford & Sons drew hymnal energy from "I Know There's An Answer"; LeAnn Rimes drew lonesome power from "Caroline, No."
But two performances in particular captured the singular atmosphere of the album — whimsical, hopeful, melancholic, longing, sophisticated, strangely exotic. One was Charlie Puth's "Wouldn't It Be Nice," which strapped on the album's aesthetic like a rocket and took off.
The other was St. Vincent’s captivating take on "You Still Believe In Me," which highlighted the harpsichord melody to spectral effect.
Near the end, when the three-time GRAMMY winner launched into the "I wanna cry" outro, it was hard to not get chills — the kind the Beach Boys have given us for 60 years.
How Brian Wilson Crafted The Beach Boys' Early Sound: A Symphony Of Inspirations, From Boogie-Woogie To Barbershop
Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images
8 Artists Who Were Inspired By Their Teachers: Rihanna, Adele, Jay-Z & More
In honor of Music In Our Schools Month this March, take a look at how teachers made a heartwarming impact on superstars like Katy Perry and John Legend.
Before Rihanna, Billy Joel and Jay-Z became some of the biggest names in music, they were students just like the rest of us. Without some particularly special teachers, they might not be the superstars they are today, and they all remember who first encouraged them.
Within the past few years, Rihanna made a special trip to a cricket match in England to reunite with her old P.E. teacher from Barbados, who she calls her "MVP"; Joel traveled back to his New York hometown to honor the teacher who said he should be a professional musician; and Jay-Z told David Letterman that his sixth grade English teacher made him fall in love with words.
In honor of Music In Our Schools Month — which raises awareness for supporting and cultivating worthwhile music programs in K-12 — GRAMMY.com highlights eight artists who have praised their teachers for making a lifelong impact.
After watching Joel tackle Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, his high school music appreciation teacher Chuck Arnold suggested that he consider music as a career.
"He said to me, you should be a professional musician," Joel recalled of his Hicksville High School mentor during a 1996 event at C.W. Post College. "Now, for a teacher to say that, it's like condemning someone to a life of poverty, drug taking, alcoholism and failure.
"A teacher is telling me this," he added seriously. "It had a huge influence on me."
In 2022, Joel was on hand to congratulate Arnold during the dedication of the Charles "Chuck" Arnold Theatre at the school. "This is for the coolest teacher there ever was," he praised.
.@CBSSunday surprised Lizzo with her high school band director, who encouraged her to apply herself when she was learning to play the flute — and her reaction was priceless: “Wow, I did it, didn't I?” https://t.co/dwffNvYzpb pic.twitter.com/xp5kDK5pWB— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 6, 2019
In 2019, CBS Sunday arranged a surprise visit with the singer and Manny Gonzales, the former band director at her alma mater, Elsik High School in Houston. She told the network that Gonzales helped her get a scholarship to study classical flute at University of Houston.
"You told my ass!" Lizzo exclaimed as she squeezed him. "You were like, 'Get it together, girl, 'cause you are special. Apply yourself!' Those moments meant so much to me."
The Atlanta DJ/producer and king of crunk has done more than take parties to the next level — he has invested in the educational future of children in Africa by building two schools in Ghana with the non-profit organization Pencils of Promise. He credits a mentor at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta for sparking his brain when he was a teenager.
"It was my music teacher [who inspired me to dream bigger]," he said in a 2019 interview with Yahoo! "I wanted to play drums, and if I didn't play drums, I wouldn't make music, and drums are the foundation for what I do."
Roddy Estwick was Rihanna's P.E. teacher in Barbados and is now the assistant coach of the West Indies cricket team. The two had an emotional reunion at the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England.
"He made a lasting impact on my life and he really offered great advice to me and many others when we were at school at Combermere," she told Barbados Today amid their reunion. "I just wanted to let everyone know what he meant to me in my development and what he did for us back at school in Barbados." Essence reported that Rihanna described him as, "My mentor, my champ, my MVP" on her Instagram stories.
The Ohio native credits his English teacher Mrs. Bodey at North High School in Springfield for setting him on the path that culminated in his music career.
"Until her class, I hadn't believed in my ability as a writer," Legend shared in a 2017 op-ed for Huffington Post. "She recognized my potential and showed me that I could write with creativity, with clarity, with passion."
He continued, "Mrs. Bodey, along with a few other teachers, helped me gain confidence in my skills and pushed me to challenge myself. They pushed me to graduate second in my class. They pushed me to deliver the speech at our graduation. They pushed me to earn a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, to hone my writing as an English Major and, ultimately, toward a successful career as a songwriter."
The singer was reunited with the most pivotal teacher in her life during her "An Audience with Adele" concert special in 2021. While the singer took questions from the crowd, actress Emma Thompson asked Adele if she had a supporter or protector in the past.
"I had a teacher at [south London high school] Chestnut Grove, who taught me English. That was Miss McDonald," Adele said. "She got me really into English literature. Like, I've always been obsessed with English and obviously now I write lyrics… She really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us."
Miss McDonald then surprised Adele on stage, and the singer was brought to tears — a touching highlight of the special. She even told her former teacher that she still has the books from her class!
While Perry has admitted that she wishes she had a better overall education, her former music school teacher gave her confidence to pursue singing seriously.
"I'm kind of bummed at this stage that I didn't have a great education because I could really use that these days," she said in a 2014 interview with Yahoo! "There was a teacher named Agatha Danoff who was my vocal teacher and music teacher at the Music Academy of the West. It was very fancy and I didn't come from any money… and she always used to give me a break on my lessons. I owe her a lot of credit and I appreciate that she looked out for me when I didn't have enough money to pay."
Picture a young Shawn Carter — now better known as Jay-Z — with his head stuck in a dictionary.
"I had a sixth grade teacher, her name was Ms. Lowden and I just loved the class so much," Jay-Z said during his appearance on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman in 2018.
He later realized how much Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, who taught him at Intermediate School 318 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, had an influence on his passion for language. "Like, reading the dictionary and just my love of words," he explained. "I just connected with her."
"I knew he was extremely bright, but he was quiet," Rosenblum-Lowden told Brut in 2019, sharing that he scored at the 12th-grade level on a sixth-grade reading test.
"He's been very kind," she added. "Every famous person has a teacher who probably influenced them, and I wish they would all shout out the way Jay-Z did."
Meet Me @ The Altar Reveal The 4 "Badass" Female Artists Who Inspired Their Debut Album, 'Past // Present // Future'
Photo courtesy of Pilgrim Baptist Church
Inside The National Museum Of Gospel Music — A Beacon Of American Music Rising From The Ashes
The Pilgrim Baptist Church — arguably the birthplace of gospel music in America — burned down in 2006. Years later, a tireless consortium is working to establish a lavish, on-site museum that pays tribute to the history of gospel.
For more than a century, Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church stood on 3300 S. Indiana as a beacon of gospel music not only to South Side Chicago, but to America and the world. Until it went up in flames.
On Jan. 6, 2006, it was renovation time for the arguable birthplace of gospel music; as part of the half-million-dollar project, workers were fitting metal coping on the roof with blowtorches.
"And they dropped the torch," Antoinette Wright, the president and executive director of the National Museum of Gospel Music — a museum project centered on its site — tells GRAMMY.com. "When they dropped it, they kind of didn't tell anybody that they had. All they did was scurry off the roof; can you believe that?"
The building committee and assorted congregants alerted the fire department immediately, but it was too late. Congregants like Lakeisha Gray-Sewell, who had wed and planned baptisms for her children at Pilgrim Baptist, were shaken to their foundations. The house of worship where Martin Luther King once offered soaring words — and Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, and other gospel luminaries sent their voices into the rafters — was no more.
"I grew up in this church, my mother grew up in this church, my grandmother grew up in this church," Gray-Sewell told The New York Times upon the Bronzeville fixture's near-total obliteration. "When that smoke clears, I don't know what we're going to see. I'm afraid to see what we're going to see. No matter what, this will always be my church."
The synagogue-turned-church turned out to be completely gutted. Among the remains were those of a baby grand piano — just a charred cast-iron frame and a snarl of melted strings. Gone were the spectacular entry arch, windows, and ornamental panels by cherished Chicago architect Louis Sullivan; gone were boxes of irreplaceable photographs and sheet music by the church's music director, Thomas Dorsey.
Dorsey's legacy at Pilgrim Baptist — and role in gospel's overall evolution — cannot be overstated. Known for his synthesis of sacred music and the blues, the rightly-called "Father of Gospel Music" engendered a form that's central and essential to American music. As Chicago Historical Society curator John Russick told the Times, "he was like the Beatles of gospel music."
The son of a revivalist preacher born in 1899, Dorsey was galvanized early on by blues pianists in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. In the 1910s and '20s, he worked in secular "hokum" music as a composer, arranger, pianist, and vocalist. In 1916, he moved to Chicago and attended the College of Composition and Arranging; the following decade, he toured with Ma Rainey and his own bands.
The poles of the sacred and profane continued to magnetize him. Under the nom de plume "Georgia Tom," Dorsey later wrote the dirty blues "It's Tight Like That" with guitarist Hudson "Tampa Red" Whittaker. While the bawdy, double-entrendred tune was controversial in its day, it proved lucrative for its writer.
From 1929 on, Dorsey worked exclusively within a religious context. He wed blues melodies and rhythms to spiritual concerns; many of his resultant songs, like "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," became gospel standards. Dorsey went on to write and record prolifically in the 1930s, publishing his own sheet music and lyrics. In 1932, Dorsey became the choral director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, a position he maintained until the late 1970s.
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Gospel Music.
Dorsey's legacy — as well as that of his entire milieu — promises to be on full display at the National Museum of Gospel Music. Don Jackson, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based Central City Productions, and his team — including Wright — are in the midst of establishing the 45,000 square-foot structure on the site of Pilgrim Baptist, itself a National Historic Landmark.
"It will present the most expansive history of gospel music — from the spiritual, slavery area to today — of who the artists are," Jackson tells GRAMMY.com. "What were their contributions, how the music itself encouraged folks, and how the churches played a major part in opening their doors — recognizing those faith-based churches who let these artists perform, giving the credit for all they've done to keep the music alive and growing."
All involved stress that the museum in its final form will be encompassing and inclusive, stretching beyond Chicagoland to the regional scenes nationwide — hence the name. Plus, it will underline the music's resonance today. "I call [the gospel singers] the original rappers, because they're constantly telling the story," Wright says. "Gospel music is very vocal, like the blues. They both had kinship in telling the stories of life."
According to the National Museum of Gospel Music's website, the building will eventually feature "multigenerational programming and educational exhibits, auditorium seating up to 350 designed for television production, exclusive video archives and collection of the Stellar Gospel Music Awards programming," and a "listening and research library."
Thomas Dorsey singing in his living room in 1983. Photo: Chuck Fishman/Getty Images
The 2006 fire created "a gaping hole that's being burned out of our community," Bronzeville District Representative Bobby L. Rush told the Times. In 2020, 100 m.p.h. winds damaged the remaining southern and east walls. Today, all that remains are two limestone walls — one facing Indiana Ave., the other 33rd St. — which are braced and holding steady.
Through a web of scaffolding, you can read a passage from the Book of Psalms on the main entrance: "Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them to praise the Lord." Reading those soaring words from the street, they feel bittersweet and poignant. Could this haven for worshippers and hub of musical innovation ever throw open its gates again?
One hint lay in Jackson’s reaction. Instead of viewing the 2020 wind damage as an insurmountable blow he called it a "godsend." "This forces the urgency," he said at the time. "This has been a blessing for the project that says that we need to get started."
The project has already begun. While the interactive museum may not be physically up and running yet, it's open in an abstract sense — Wright calls it "a museum without walls. "It's functioning programmatically," she says, noting that in-person and virtual activities have fired up again. "It is in existence, but we're moving into a permanent home. Instead of saying, 'When is the museum opening?' I have to say 'The museum is open.'"
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Gospel Music.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com back in 2021, when the pandemic was more of a going concern, museum fundraising and construction was in more of a holding pattern; when asked if fundraising was going as Wright hoped, she replied, "Of course not." These days, she has better news to share: they've secured almost enough for the first phase of enclosing the building.
"We're meeting with different foundations; my idea is that you can buy a wall and your name can be on the wall," Wright explains. For the sake of argument: "This is the McCormick wall; this is the ComEd wall. This is the City of Chicago rooftop," she adds. "We want to give people the opportunity to know how important it is to enclose the building."
Like her colleagues, Wright is optimistic about the project's imminent fruition, partly because she's looked around at similar initiatives. "You think about the National Museum of African American History in Washington," she says. "Now, that facility took a hundred years to get there."
Between city, state and federal funding and donations from the public, as well as an accumulation of museum pieces, whose details can't be disclosed yet, the Gospel Museum is moving ahead. This is despite a litany of bureaucratic headaches, and its incremental nature; this is how projects of this scale tend to go.
"For the next 18 months, we'll be working on that building. People will see things being done, and that's going to increase our fundraising as well," the National Museum of Gospel Music's Chairwoman Of The Board, Cynthia Jones, told GRAMMY.com in 2021.
"We're going out to various foundations and benefactors," she continued. "And we just know we're going to be successful this time because they're going to actually see the work that's being done — because we've gotten some of the money we need to restore and preserve that building."
As the National Museum of Gospel Music forges ahead, there are pragmatic ways to engage with and support the institution. You can donate via their website. You can follow them via Facebook to stay abreast of virtual and in-person event programming. Because when the physical building finally culminates, it promises to be a glorious thing.
"I'm hoping, at the end of the day, it would not be just a museum talking about the music, or saying how the music improves life," Jones added. "I want it to stimulate and inspire people to do different things for the betterment of mankind."
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