The ‘Heaven 11’: Gospel Music Expert Lists 11 Most Influential Black Gospel Songs

Baylor University journalism professor and former editor gospel music editor for Billboard Magazine, is celebrating African American Music Appreciation Month in June by leading a national movement to preserve the fast-disappearing legacy of African American sacred music on vinyl.

Robert F. Darden, founder and director of Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, has compiled the “Heaven 11” – a list of the 11 most influential black gospel songs, from Freedom Songs to hit singles to the great old spirituals.

“There is no way to quantify the ‘greatest’ gospel song of all time, but certain songs have been more influential than others through the years,” said Darden, who selected songs from the 1940s through the 1980s.

(Listen to the “Heaven 11” on this Spotify playlist, created by Baylor Proud.)

The list includes Darden’s comments about each selection:

1. “I Will Move on Up A Little Higher”

“The Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson’s first big hit, and one of the best-selling gospel songs of all time. It was also understood to be an early ‘Freedom Song’ in the African-American community.”

2. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”

“Perhaps the best-known, most beloved of all gospel songs. Written by Thomas Dorsey after the loss of his wife and infant child, it is still sung today at virtually every African-American funeral service in the country.”

3. “Oh Happy Day”

“This song by Edwin Hawkins was the first gospel song to be a hit single in the 1960s, and had a revolutionary combination of gospel choir, stirring chorus and a thoroughly modern beat.”

4. “The Reason Why We Sing”

“Kirk Franklin did to the ‘80s and ‘90s what Hawkins did to the ‘60s and Andrae Crouch did to the ‘70s, combined straight-ahead gospel with the beat of the day, while paying tribute to the old gospel classic, ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow.’”

5. “People Get Ready”

“This tune by Curtis Mayfield is not really a gospel song, but it was so compelling that it was adopted by both the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American church. There are a number of great versions, including the Chambers Brothers, the Blind Boys of Alabama and even Rod Stewart.”

6. “We Shall Overcome”

“This is the ‘signature’ song of the Civil Rights Movement, an adaptation of an old gospel tune that has been honed by the fire and blood of a thousand movement events and is still sung by oppressed people around the world.”

7. “Peace Be Still”

“This song by the Rev. James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir of the First Baptist Church of Nutley, New Jersey, is the song and the arrangement that made young black people want to join mass choirs and sing. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, ‘Peace Be Still’ was the gospel anthem that the black church turned to.”

8. “Through It All”

“Andrae Crouch and the Disciples forever changed gospel music, opening it up lyrically and musically. He was also a brilliant composer – you could just as easily substitute “My Tribute,” “The Blood,” “Soon and Very Soon” and any one of several other enduring classics here.”

9. “Touch the Hem of His Garment”

“This song by the Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke, helped invent the hard-charging gospel quartet sound. The popularity of this song helped convince Cooke, the writer and featured singer, to launch a mainstream performing career.”

10. “Mary, Don’t You Weep”

“The great old spirituals often make great gospel songs. This is one by the Caravans, featuring Inez Andrews, and is one of my personal favorites.”

11. The next great gospel song

“We haven’t heard it yet. Few people still alive even know of its existence. But it could be in the next batch of long-lost gospel classics by a hitherto unknown gospel artist donated to the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.”

Search-and-rescue mission to preserve black gospel music

Darden founded Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP) more than a decade ago in a search-and-rescue effort to identify, acquire, preserve, digitize and catalog recordings from the black gospel music tradition. This music, from the Golden Age of Gospel from 1945 to 1975, was quickly vanishing as albums made the transition to CDs.

“Thousands of at-risk songs have been saved for future generations,” Darden said. “These recordings are priceless, irreplaceable and historic in a way that scholars are only now realizing.”

Through the work of the Baylor Libraries’ Digital Projects Group, recordings from the BGMRP are available online in the Baylor Libraries Digital Collection, and in some cases includes other materials, such as taped interviews, photographs, press packets, tour books and programs, newspaper and magazine clippings and sheet music.

Darden hosts a weekly radio feature – “Shout! Black Gospel Music Moments” – during which he tells stories and plays recordings from the BGMRP, exploring the distinctly African-American sound of a fertile musical period in American history from 1945 to 1975 and revealing the depth of a people, their community and the influence they have had on the rest of American music. “Shout!” – which is produced by KWBU-FM, Waco’s NPR station – airs weekly on several NPR stations throughout the country.

Music from the BGMRP also has been included in a permanent exhibit featuring African-American musical history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 in Washington, D.C. The interactive exhibit, “Musical Crossroads,” has featured these key recordings from the BGMRP:

  • “The Old Ship of Zion” by The Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland (1972)
  • “Amen” by Wings over Jordan (1953)
  • “I Won’t Be Back” by The Caravans (1962)
  • “Over My Head” by Wings Over Jordan (1953)
  • “There’s a Tree on Each Side of the River” by The Davis Sisters (1957)

Visit Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project website to learn more and to listen to the collection of digitized recordings.

Image copyright: FanartTV

Written by: Lori Fogleman

First published: