Inside The National Museum Of Gospel Music — A Beacon Of American Music Rising From The Ashes
Rendering of the National Museum of Gospel Music

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.

GRAMMYs/Mar 15, 2023 - 04:18 pm

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 "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.

National Museum of Gospel Music

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 "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

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.'"

National Museum of Gospel Music

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Gospel Music.

Speaking to 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 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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12 songs about healing: A feel-better playlist

Photo: Michael Caulfield/


12 songs about healing: A feel-better playlist

Feeling down? The GRAMMY Nurses Week playlist will perk you right back up

GRAMMYs/Oct 22, 2021 - 11:05 pm

To recognize the life of Florence Nightingale, the founder of the modern nursing profession and head British nurse during the Crimean War, the first National Nurses Week was observed from Oct. 11–16 in 1954, marking the 100th anniversary of Nightingale's mission to Crimea. This celebratory week was officially proclaimed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, and in 1981, May 6 was sanctioned National Recognition Day For Nurses.

In 1990 the American Nurses Association Board of Directors expanded the holiday into a weeklong celebration beginning May 6 and ending on May 12 — Nightingale's birthday.

As one of the nation's largest healthcare-related events, this week recognizes the contributions and commitments nurses make and educates the public on the significant work they perform. It may not be a cure for the common cold, but in honor of these notable nurses mentioned below, and nurses everywhere, we present our healing GRAMMY playlist.

The Beatles, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 2008

If there was ever a nurse who offered a little help, it was British nurse Edith Cavell. During World War I she was known for helping all soldiers, but achieved everlasting fame for helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium. The Beatles didn't need much help, as "Help!" reached No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965.

"Survivor" (iTunes>)
Destiny's Child, Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, 2001

In this GRAMMY-winning song the ladies of Destiny's Child vow to never give up or stop, promising to work harder. Clara Barton must have made this same vow when she found herself on a short vacation in Europe due to the toll that helping soldiers of the Civil War's First Battle of Bull Run took on her health. She eventually became the founder and first president of the American Red Cross, which was established May 21, 1881, in Washington, D.C.

"I Will Survive" (iTunes>)
Gloria Gaynor, Best Disco Recording, 1979

As long as she knows how to love, Gaynor declares that she will survive. Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, showed her love and loyalty to the Union when she visited, fed and treated Union soldiers during the Civil War.

"Fever" (iTunes>)
Peggy Lee, GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, 1998

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown could likely cure the common fever and more when in 1979 she became the first African-American woman to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army. "Fever" was the right prescription for Lee, as it ascended to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958.

"Breathe Again" (iTunes>)
Toni Braxton, Best R&B Vocal Performance, 1994

Pioneering nurse Mary Breckinridge probably felt as if she could finally breathe again when she fled to Europe following World War I to join the American Committee for Devastated France after leaving her husband. After returning to the United States, she founded the Frontier Nursing Service in 1925. Braxton was able to breathe easy with "Breathe Again" picking up GRAMMY honors in 1994.

"Help Me Make It Through The Night" (iTunes>)
Sammi Smith, Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, 1971

If there was ever a nurse, not just any nurse, who could help you make it through the night, it was Nightingale. In 1854 she traveled to Turkey, where she cared for wounded British soldiers and checked in on them at all hours of the night, earning her the nickname "The Lady of the Lamp." "Help Me Make It Through The Night," Smith's biggest hit, was written by fellow GRAMMY winner Kris Kristofferson.

"Healing Chant" (iTunes>)
Neville Brothers, Best Pop Instrumental Performance, 1989

The Neville Brothers' "Healing Chant" perhaps serves as an appropriate theme for nurse Jeanne Prentice, who is known for her work in protecting a mother's right to choose a licensed professional to supervise home births in South Dakota.

"Feel Good Inc." (iTunes>)
Gorillaz Featuring De La Soul, Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals, 2005

In her 1966 book The Nature Of Nursing, Virginia Avenel Henderson became famous for her formal definition of nursing: "assisting individuals to gain independence in relation to the performance of activities contributing to health or its recovery." Henderson surely wanted to ensure that every patient of hers felt good, similar to the Gorillaz's musical intentions on the GRAMMY-winning "Feel Good Inc."

"Doctor's Orders" (iTunes>)
Aretha Franklin And Luther Vandross, Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal nominee, 1991

It must have been the doctor's orders that Mary Ezra Mahoney followed when she became the first African-American registered nurse. Mahoney also founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908, which eventually merged with the American Nurses Association between 1950 and 1951. Unfortunately for Franklin and Vandross, the doctor ordered a GRAMMY for Boyz II Men's Cooleyhighharmony album in 1991.

The Healer (iTunes>)
John Lee Hooker, Best Traditional Blues Recording nominee, 1989

Sophie Mannerheim is known for her work in pioneering the modernizing of the nursing profession in Finland. In the early part of the 20th century, she worked as head nurse of the Helsinki Surgical Hospital and later became president of the Finnish Nurses Association. Though his album ultimately didn't make the grade, blues pioneer Hooker picked up a GRAMMY for Best Traditional Blues Recording in 1989 for his collaboration with Bonnie Raitt on "I'm In The Mood."

"Sick, Sick, Sick" (iTunes>)
Queens Of The Stone Age, Best Hard Rock Performance nominee, 2007

American writer and poet Walt Whitman was sick, sick, sick when he read a story about wounded soldiers in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1863. The list included his brother's name and Whitman immediately took a train to Virginia where he worked as a volunteer nurse at more than 40 hospitals. Similarly, the Queens likely felt "Sick, Sick, Sick" when they lost, lost, lost to the Foo Fighters for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2007.

"Heartache Tonight" (iTunes>)
Eagles, Best Rock Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group, 1979

If there's going to be a heartache (or any type of ache), the first person you'd want around is a nurse, or Lillian Carter, the mother of President Jimmy Carter, who in 1966 dedicated her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in India. The Eagles were able to turn their heartache into GRAMMY gold in 1979.

What song best typifies National Nurses Week to you? Or maybe one that makes you sick…. Drop us a comment and let us know.

Poll: From Jennifer Hudson As Aretha Franklin To Jennifer Lopez As Selena, What's Your Favorite Music Biopic?

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in the film, Respect

Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved


Poll: From Jennifer Hudson As Aretha Franklin To Jennifer Lopez As Selena, What's Your Favorite Music Biopic?

Vote now for your favorite music biopic in the latest poll!

GRAMMYs/Aug 24, 2021 - 09:08 pm

In celebration of the recent release of RESPECT (Aug. 13), in which Jennifer Hudson embodies the one and only Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, wants to know: What is your favorite music biopic?

A popular and compelling way to explore the lives of the artists and musicians we love, music biopics have experienced a major spike recently, with at least one major film seemingly released every year. Lady Sings The Blues (1972) saw disco queen Diana Ross embody Billie Holiday, while Andra Day tackled the heartbreaking role in this year's The United States vs. Billie Holiday. 1997 gave us a young Jennifer Lopez as Selena in Selena, 2005 turned Joaquin Phoenix into Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and 2019 catapulted Taron Egerton into superstardom via his starring role as Elton John in Rocketman.

Vote now for your favorite music biopic in the below poll; it will remain open until Tuesday, Sept. 7, after which you can come back to see the final voting results.

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Black Sounds Beautiful: How Aretha Franklin Ascended To Soul Royalty

Aretha Franklin 


Black Sounds Beautiful: How Aretha Franklin Ascended To Soul Royalty

In the latest episode of Black Sounds Beautiful, learn how the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, became a towering figure in Black music—and earned "Respect" every step of the way

GRAMMYs/Jun 26, 2021 - 01:44 am

To understand Aretha Franklin's appeal across decades, genres and color lines, just watch the reactions to her volcanic performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center in 2015.

Carole King, who co-wrote the song, is flabbergasted, animated as her jaw hangs open in amazement. On the other hand, the generally unflappable Barack Obama stoically sheds a tear. Such is the essence of Franklin: At first, her voice may be an electric jolt to the body, but one walks away with a feeling of religious awe.

In the latest episode of Black Sounds Beautiful, take a ride through Franklin's astonishing litany of accomplishments. The quick-yet-dynamic clip begins with her 1967 GRAMMY win for her titanic single "Respect," which became an anthem for racial and gender justice. 

Not merely paying lip service to the civil rights movement, she toured with Martin Luther King, Jr. and singer/activist Harry Belafonte, spreading the gospel of universal equity to every audience she sang for.

All the way up to that earth-shaking 2015 performance, Franklin stayed relevant, a living legend. She received the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Legend Award in 1991 and was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. 

Overall, she has five recordings in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame: "Respect," "Chain Of Fools," "Amazing Grace," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You."

As carries on with its Black Music Month celebrations, check out the above video to celebrate the beautiful life and irrepressible joy of the Queen of Soul.

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Here's What Went Down At "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change"

Yolanda Adams

Photo courtesy of CBS


Here's What Went Down At "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change"

Featuring performances by stars from Patti LaBelle to Andra Day to Gladys Knight, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" was a decades-spanning celebration of the songs that both reflect and alter the course of social justice history

GRAMMYs/Mar 18, 2021 - 09:01 pm

When Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land," he certainly understood he was expressing something important to the world. Ditto John Lennon with "Imagine" and Marvin Gaye with "What's Going On." But could any of them have known we'd still be singing them in 2021? That amid the racial nightmares of George Floyd's killing and the anti-Asian violence that just battered Georgia, we'd return to the well of songs from 50 or more years ago for healing? 

Welcome to "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change," a special that solemnly, respectfully paid homage to the songs that altered the course of social-justice history. But the event, which the hip-hop heavyweight Common hosted, didn't just focus on the great tracks of the 20th century; it filtered them through the musical luminaries of the 21st.

A mix of archival performances and COVID-safe new ones, the special succeeded in showing that our modern horrors aren't so new at all—and that throughout history, brave men and women have risen to address the changing tides of history in song. Thus, the young guard (LeAnn Rimes, Chris Stapleton and Andra Day) rubbed shoulders with the old (Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle), showing these well-worn standards still emanate transformative power.

It's no accident that Common was at the helm of "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change"; check out his socially conscious 1999 classic Like Water For Chocolate if you're curious about how he fits into this puzzle. (Not to mention his poignant performance of "Glory," the theme song to the 2014 film Selma, with John Legend at that year's GRAMMY Awards show.)

After the MC's dignified introduction, the night kicked off with a nocturnal version of John Lennon's "Imagine" by the pearl-covered singer Cynthia Erivo. She ended the rendition with a hair-raising vamp, surrounded by projected imagery of placards reading things like "Close The Camps" and "Unjustified War Is Criminal."

Country titan Chris Stapleton then performed Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," showing how the old chestnut easily transmutes into a variety of American idioms. (To this point: check out Jon Batiste's melancholic version from 2018's Hollywood Africans.) 

In a tonal 180, LeAnn Rimes then performs Loretta Lynn's saucy (and at the time, unspeakably scandalous) 1975 ode to birth control, "The Pill." Her masked, punked-up backing band showed us how the tune essentially invented Bikini Kill. The womens' liberation theme continued with R&B great Patti LaBelle laying into Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me." 

That performance segued into even heavier territory with a version of the "Strange Fruit" by Andra Day—who recently won a Golden Globe for her performance in 2021's The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday. She crooned the anti-lynching classic in a crepuscular, green-screened forest. Showing that times tragically haven't changed in certain respects, "Strange Fruit" segued into Leon Bridges' "Sweeter," a response to George Floyd, featuring Terrace Martin on blazing saxophone.

These issues represent mere facets of human disharmony. But Marvin Gaye's intellect and imagination were keen enough to not only grasp that vastness but channel it into a song for everyone. Enter seven-time GRAMMY winner Gladys Knight, who stepped on stage to perform the immortal "What's Going On" with Sheila E. on percussion, Israel Houghton on guitar, D Smoke on keys and musical director Adam Blackstone on bass.

"Hi, Marvin!" Knight crowed at the outset. "I miss you so much. I love your music—the way you write, the way you sing, the whole thing. You touch my spirit every time you sing a song."

The specter of war was addressed with, well, "War," the Norman Whitfield tune we know from Edwin Starr's version. And after his piano-and-gospel version of his 2021 anti-Trump song "Weeping in the Promised Land"—crescendoing with a collective wail of "I can't breathe!"—John Fogerty rocked things up with Creedence Clearwater Revival's thrilling, outraged, oft-misunderstood classic "Fortunate Son."

Cutting to the essence of the other-ness that feeds racial division, CBS's Gayle King sat down with singer-actor Billy Porter to discuss the struggles of growing up gay and Black—and how music with a social conscience is returning to the forefront in 2021. 

"I'm feeling once again the energy surrounding the power of protest music," Porter said. When asked about his choice to cover Patti LaBelle's "You Are My Friend" for the show, "I just wanted to choose something that was about chosen family," he added. "We talk often in this world about family values, but what happens when your family—your biological family—don't have the tools to understand how to love you?" 

As Porter sang the empathetic ballad on a flower-festooned stage, images of people of all colors, identities and persuasions embracing—often draped in rainbow flags—flashed on the screen. "I want to talk to you a little bit about where I've been in the world!" he crowed midsong.

"A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" also honored and elevated Latin voices. After a brief preamble from Common about the meaning and import of the neologism "Latinx," Gloria and Emilio Estefan discussed how Latin music is woven into the fabric of American social change. Their daughter Emily Estefan then performed "This Is What," a tribute to Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina member of the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor was nominated in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama, and Brad Paisley touches on the legacies of our first Black president and first lady. From the floor of the Woolworth on 5th restaurant in Nashville, the country star performed his ascendant "Welcome to the Future," which he wrote in response to Obama's election. Paisley then strolled to the counter, explaining that the restaurant was a historic spot where John Lewis and his friends took a stand for racial justice in 1960.

The special then homed in on "We Shall Overcome," a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Yolanda Adams laid down a reverent monologue about the tune to the haunting strains of a gospel choir. But then, something unexpected happened. The lights flared up, and Adams upshifted several gears, launching into a raucous take on the soul-strengthening classic. 

It was a joyful capper for a heartening night, conceived and broadcast for all the right reasons. But most importantly, almost every minute of "A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" was stuffed with music, which is usually the loam from where real change springs.

"A GRAMMY Salute To The Sounds Of Change" is available on-demand on Paramount+.

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