Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he was Mahalia Jackson’s paperboy, back in the 1930s when she was still working as a hairdresser. He’d try to hear her sing by putting his ear to her front door, and when that didn’t work, he’d go to her beauty shop and listen to her hum songs while she did customers’ hair.
Later on, he moved into the home of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of soul legend Aretha Franklin, who was then 9. He helped the younger Franklin learn to sing gospel. And years later, after she became a big-time pop star, he produced her Grammy-winning gospel album, “Amazing Grace.”
But the Rev. James Cleveland has hardly been dwarfed by the queens of gospel music he’s served. After all, he’s the king.
For decades, if Cleveland hasn’t been referred to as “the crown prince of gospel,” he’s been called “the king of gospel music.” Or simply “King James.”
He has a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. Now 58 and in ill health, he’s lost count of how many gold records he’s received, but there are 15 of them framed and hanging on a living room wall at his spacious home in Baldwin Hills. Three Grammys and other awards hover nearby.
Monday evening at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a host of gospel-music superstars will perform, honoring Cleveland on the occasion of his 50th anniversary in gospel music.
Among those scheduled to appear are Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Andrae and Sandra Crouch, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, Albertina Walker, the Original Caravans, Inez Andrews, Cassietta George, Dorothy Norwood, the Williams Brothers, Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins and Tremaine Hawkins. (Franklin had wanted to appear, but doesn’t like airplanes and didn’t have the time to make it to Los Angeles because of another engagement.)
Cleveland, who has long described his voice as a “fog horn” but has nonetheless sung on many of his records, won’t be performing at the concert.
These days, he can barely talk. Indeed, he’s been so sick for the last two years that he is able to sit up for only short periods of time.
During a recent interview at his home, for instance, Cleveland spoke despite a temporary tracheotomy, holding his fingers to his throat when he wanted to talk in order to close the bandaged hole in his wind pipe that allows him to breathe.
(Earlier this year, he was rushed to a hospital in Washington D.C. with severe respiratory problems. A few weeks later, the tracheotomy was performed. He was working in D.C. at the annual convention of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, an organization he founded 22 years ago and that has grown from about 400 to 20,000 participants each year).
“Last year, I was sick the whole year (with esophagitis, an acutely inflamed esophagus), and as soon as I’d recuperate from one thing, I’d get another. This is my third knockdown,” he continued, referring also to a heart attack. “But I’m determined to pull back.”
As he talked, Cleveland propped himself up on the ebony grand piano in his living room, which is lavishly furnished in shades of gold, white and black. As a result of his illnesses, he’s lost a great many of the extra pounds he carried around for years. But his spirits were high: “The last couple of years, I haven’t been able to sing. I’ve been battling with my throat. Hopefully, my doctor will take this (tracheotomy) out soon if he feels I’m well enough. I yearn and desire to be back in the race with the others. I still direct. I write music and I play it.”
Cleveland plans not only to be present for the Music Center concert in his honor, but according to his associates, he expects to preside at the sound checks before it starts.
He has a reputation for being a perfectionist, overseeing details on many levels.
Joe Ligon, the Grammy-winning lead singer of the Mightly Clouds of Joy, credits Cleveland with inspiring countless gospel artists over the years--not only with his musicianship, but with such endeavors as seeking proper recognition for gospel stars.
“He’ll tell you the things he had to do to get recognized,” said Ligon, who won a Grammy for a recording Cleveland produced. “One thing he told me and I’ve heard him tell many people is that when he first started singing, he’d go to churches on Sunday morning, churches where they may not have known who he was in those days. He’d write a note himself and give it to an usher. It would say, ‘Would you please tell the preacher that James Cleveland is in the audience and we want him to sing a song.’ It was smart when you think about it.”
Edwin Hawkins, the Grammy winner best known for the song “Oh Happy Day” (recorded by the Edwin Hawkins Singers), thinks Cleveland has probably inspired every gospel singer working today.
“We’ve all been influenced by him,” he said. “I grew up with his music. . . . We all bought his records as children. That’s how we learned to sing gospel music.”
Hawkins’ sister-in-law, gospel star Tremaine Hawkins, also grew up listening to songs by Cleveland and his various groups, from the Original Caravans to the James Cleveland Singers to the Southern California Community Choir.
“There was a time about five or six years ago when I put out a controversial album on A&M; records,” she recalled, referring to an album criticized in the gospel music community because it was played in discos and its words could be interpreted as secular as well as religious. “A lot of my gospel audience misunderstood and turned their backs on me in the music industry. Rev. Cleveland stood up for me (at a performance) and put his arms around me. He brought me to the front and said, ‘Let’s put our arms around Tremaine. Let’s pray for her.’ I will never forget that.”
The up-and-coming artists Cleveland has helped also are unlikely to forget his generosity. Ask those who have been around Cleveland for a long time, and they will tell you that he has routinely helped all sorts of people.
For instance, Annette Thomas, Cleveland’s manager for 21 years who also serves as the administrator of his church (Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church in South Central L.A.), reveals that her boss regularly has helped unknown singers and groups.
“He is a gospel singer’s gospel singer and friend. He goes all out to give support, playing for singers, rehearsing them, helping them get record deals, even to the point of helping them prepare for their auditions,” said Thomas.
But Cleveland’s generosity has extended beyond musical considerations. “He’s paid rent for people. He’s put people in houses who were totally homeless,” noted Cleveland’s 24-year-old daughter, LaShone Cleveland. “He’s helped people out with their hospital bills. He’s a man of his word. If he says he’ll do something, he’ll definitely do it.”
And he definitely has more work to do--such as reforming the Grammy Awards for gospel music. He still lashes out periodically at what he believes to be narrow-minded Grammy nominating committees, arguing that input from black radio stations and black record stores should be considered so more artists can be recognized.
Cleveland still doesn’t know where he gets the persistence and determination to keep pushing for improvements. As he explained: “I don’t know where the boldness comes from, but I have been determined to treat gospel as an art form.”