If you’re asked what genre of music carries the most powerful of voices, the answer might be opera. They are trained for years to project their voice. They have to be able to do that under the circumstances of the performance.
But, if you were to wonder who might come next, then it would probably have to be gospel singers. Over the years, there have been some outstanding gospel singers. So, I decided to take a closer look at the most famous gospel singers of all time.
Origins of Gospel Music
They go further back than you might imagine. Workers have always used songs to help them cope with the working day. How long that has been a part of their lives, we don’t know. But, the origins of gospel music can be traced back to Scotland and the Celtic countries around the 17th Century.
Africa had its own musical culture that also may have existed for centuries. And we see it manifested as a result of the slave trade in the American South. Combining the two, you get what is known as Gospel Music.
Slaves created “spirituals” to help deal with the harshness of life. Most songs also promised a better tomorrow.
When you get swept away by the passion and the emotion of music, it does something to you. One of the ways that passion can show itself is through the volume of your voice.
It isn’t only music, of course…
In everyday life, we get angry and shout. We raise our voices to get a point across. We might scream if we are surprised. And, our voices might go very quiet when being gentle. If there is one obvious thing that we can observe in those that sing gospel music, it is their passion. The music seems to unleash in them a power that might not normally be there.
It doesn’t matter whether you happen to believe in what they do; it is the music that is the thing. And, through the music comes the emotion. So, let’s take a look at some of the best gospel singers of all time.
Top 18 Most Famous Gospel Singers Of All Time
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Starting this list of the most famous gospel singers of all time is who had plenty of influence on those around us today. In many ways, she was unique, and in some ways still is. Born in 1915, her parents were cotton pickers in Arkansas. She started to travel around and perform from the age of six, and by 1930, was an established act. She was probably gospel music’s first star.
But it wasn’t only the voice. She was the first gospel singer to cross the bridge into Blues, Soul, and early Rock & Roll. In that way, she was able to attract a whole new audience to her music. But there was something else about her, something extra. We will look at that a bit later.
That Something Extra
Sister Tharpe played guitar and played it well. Furthermore, she was the first guitarist to use a distorted, overdriven sound. She also played a resonator guitar. She influenced some of the great guitarists of today with her sound and style, Jeff Beck being one. Some of them caught her act in 1964 in the UK when touring with Muddy Waters.
Later in life, she was asked about Elvis Presley. She said, “These kids play rock ‘n’ roll. It’s just speeded up R&B, and I’ve been doing that for years.” Without a doubt, one of the most iconic gospel singers ever.
Gary Davis, also sometimes known as “Blind Gary Davis,” was, as you might guess, blind from birth. For some, that could be a life-destroying disability, but not for him. In some ways, he even used it to his advantage.
Born in 1896 in South Carolina, he was one of only two children of the eight his mother bore to survive. He began to learn guitar and harmonica and first performed as a busker on the streets. His first ‘real’ performance was in North Carolina amongst other “Piedmont Blues” musicians. It was here that he became a Christian and a local minister.
He relocated to New York in 1940…
There he became part of the rebirth of the local folk and blues scene. He played guitar and banjo with a finger-picking style that impressed Bob Dylan, and he also played harmonica.
Some of his most inspirational songs were a cross between R&B, Blues, and Gospel. “Samson and Delilah” was one, also covered by Grateful Dead. “If I Had My Way” was one of his better-known songs, as was “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”
If you haven’t heard much of his music, a good selection is Rev. Gary Davis: The Video Collection.
Sallie Martin was born at about the same, 1895 to be exact, as Blind Gary Davis, but in Georgia. Like the vast majority of gospel singers, she sang in church from a very early age and honed her style at those meetings.
She has what could be described as a rough-around-the-edges-style and, at times, what was a ferocious appearance. This became even more apparent when she was singing.
She was known to some as the “Mother of Gospel”…
But she nearly missed her chance. Her performances were recommended to Tommy Dorsey, a prominent gospel singer of the time. She did a series of auditions for him, but he thought she was just out of control.
Another problem for him was that she didn’t read music. However, he hired her, reluctantly, to work with a trio of singers. She proved him wrong, as her passionate style was loved by her audiences.
She made some notable recordings using the name the Sallie Martin Singers, including “It Don’t Cost Me Very Much” and “God Is A Battle Axe.” Over and above her successes, she also had a profound effect on jazz singer Dinah Washington who was influenced by her style.
Some people do like to attach titles to artists. Sallie Martin was known as the “Mother of Gospel,” and now we have the “First Lady of Gospel.”
Shirley Caesar was born in North Carolina in 1938. She was the tenth of thirteen children and was very close to her father. She picked up her early singing skills from her father, who was also a gospel singer. He died young, which only inspired her more. From there, she became closer to her mother and cared for her until she died in 1986.
Initially, she started singing for friends and family…
But, the quality of her voice was soon recognized. She recorded her first song at the age of 12 in 1951. Later, she auditioned for and joined the Caravans, a popular gospel group of the time, leaving school to join them.
While with them, she recorded “Sweeping Through The City.” She was with them for eight years before leaving to forge her own career.
She was also known as “Pastor Shirley”…
And she devoted herself to a life of worship and recording. She has plenty of awards for her services to gospel music and was invited to sing at the White House for George Bush.
Not all Gospel music is in America; you will find it all around the world. Sinach is a Nigerian gospel singer, songwriter, and worship leader. Her first studio album, Chapter One, was released in 2007. But she is probably best known for her song “Way Maker.”
This topped the American Christian chart for 12 consecutive weeks, the first singer-songwriter to do so. Over a few short years, she has managed to attract the attention of the mainstream in gospel music.
She is a singer who has created a more modern approach to gospel music that has received plenty of praise.
Here is a singer that performed across a range of genres, including Blues and R&B. But she also sang some gospel songs.
One of the great singers of her generation, her voice perfectly suited the gospel style. She produced several gospel albums, including Blowin’ In the Wind – The Gospel Soul of Etta James and I’ll Fly Away – Gospel & Inspirational Favorites.
Coming from a deprived, abusive, and problematic childhood and adolescence, it isn’t surprising that she hung on to her gospel roots all her life. Etta isn’t often mentioned among the most famous gospel singers of all time, but she should be.
These are two sisters, Erica and Trecina Campbell, who perform under the name of Mary Mary. Their first album, released in 1998, Thankful, was a springboard to a career that brought them national acclaim.
They might be better described as a gospel crossover. They try to combine their music and popularity to include just enough gospel sound and lyrics to keep everybody happy. A good example of that is their song “Shackles (Praise You).”
It is a gospel and R&B hybrid…
One that was successful on the American chart. Some may be critical of this approach to making music. But no one says you can’t make gospel music with today’s sound, rhythms, and styles. And, if it brings what you do to a wider audience than just a gospel song would do, that has to be a good thing. Isn’t that one of the reasons it exists?
What has given them plenty of kudos in the gospel world is that Yolanda Adams recorded two of their songs, “Time to Change” and “Yeah.” Mary Mary have their own sound. They do things their way. Not a bad thing.
On the subject of Yolanda Adams, let’s consider her for this list of famous gospel singers. After all, it wouldn’t be complete without her. She has been called by Billboard magazine the Gospel artist of the decade. She was also the first gospel singer to be given an American Music Award.
After graduating from University in Texas, she began work as a teacher. But, she was soon spotted as one of the lead singers in a gospel choir in Houston, Texas. She recorded the song “My Liberty” with them as the lead vocalist in 1982.
Her big breakthrough to a wider audience came with the release of the album Mountain High…Valley Low in 1999. Since then, she has made numerous albums. So, in some ways, a compilation of the best she has done is a good way to listen.
Yolanda is a bit more than just a singer, though…
She has written Christian books and also presented her own radio show, “The Yolanda Adams Morning Show.”
But, more than all this, is the voice, and we shouldn’t get sidetracked by her other achievements. One of the best gospel voices you will hear.
Thomas A. Dorsey
Are we ready for another title? Thomas Dorsey is known as the “The Father Of Gospel Music.” There are, of course, times when these titles are fully justified. And, with Dorsey, that is the case.
Dorsey was born in 1899…
His parents were sharecroppers, his brother would teach poor African-American kids in the area, and Thomas would sit in and listen. The family owned an organ which was very rare in communities such as this.
He had plenty of exposure to gospel music as his mother played it at church services. Religion and music were, therefore, central points of his youth.
He moved to Chicago armed with a certain amount of musical knowledge gained in the “barrelhouse bars” in Atlanta and became involved in the jazz scene. It was here that he became a well-respected arranger and composer of Jazz and Blues, just as the latter was gaining importance.
That is certainly what you could call him. He wrote over 3000 songs, a third of which were gospel songs.
The Choir Convention
Dorsey worked hard in other areas of gospel music, as well as just performing. He co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
You may remember when we looked at Sallie Martin earlier. Dorsey rejected her at first for one of the choirs, later changing his mind.
He helped to develop what became known as the ‘Gospel chorus.’ Influenced heavily by Blues, this led to what might be called “modern” gospel music. The music that even today is most associated with African-American church services.
He had some well-known admirers…
One of which was Dr. Martin Luther King. King especially loved Dorsey’s song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The story goes that it was the last song he heard before his assassination in 1968.
Hiram, or as he was better known, Hank, is mostly associated with Country music. But, whilst writing a stream of Country hits for himself and others, he also wrote Gospel songs under the name of “Luke The Drifter.”
In many ways, he led a sad life. His alcoholism made him unreliable and severely damaged his health. He died before his 30th birthday but left his mark on music, Country as well as Gospel.
Nat King Cole
Many of the finest Gospel singers had other influences on the way they sang their songs. With some, it was Blues or R&B, but with Nat King Cole, it was jazz.
In his performances…
Cole regularly included gospel songs that had vivid interpretations and meanings. And some of those songs included one-hundred-year-old slave songs. One, in particular, was “Down By the Riverside.” We already included the song by Sister Rosetta Sharpe earlier.
It is a well-known African-American’ spiritual that has been known by other names such as “Gonna Lay Down My Burden” and “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” But, it was under the name “Down By The Riverside” that most know it.
The song is full of stark biblical imagery and has been recorded by several well-known artists. Including some who performed the song in a very modern-day Gospel/blues style, Van Morrison being one on his album, Tupelo Honey, released in 1971.
Famous Gospel Singers – Honorable Mentions
Let’s give some brief credit now to three singers who, shall we say, are “out of the box.” They may not be considered the most famous gospel singers of all time; nevertheless, they are great singers. And they sang gospel occasionally and made an impact.
“Sinnerman” is a song Nina Simone probably heard at her local church growing up. Some gospel songs began life years outside of the church environment, and this was one.
“Sinnerman” was a traditional African-American spiritual that was originally a Scottish folk song. Nina’s live versions often lasted over 15 minutes.
We all know about the “Man in Black.” County singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Blues, and at times, Rock N Roll. Respected by everyone, his career lasted over 50 years.
He was also a man who loved gospel music. For every ten Country or other songs he wrote, one would be a gospel song.
He was born into humble surroundings in a church environment and developed a love for the Bible which stayed with him all his life. He wrote several gospel classics, including “He Turned Water Into Wine,” “Lead Me Father,” and “It Was Jesus.”
A singer who recorded one of the best gospel albums, which is a little bit of a surprise in some respects. She may be best known for being the lead singer of the 70s group La Belle. They had a hit with “Lady Marmalade,” which was about as far away from Gospel as you can get.
However, she also recorded an album that demonstrated her love of Gospel music – The Gospel According To Patti LaBelle. Released in 2006, it was a huge success for her and a rather unexpected one.
An interesting character in many ways, and not all good. Patti is an astute lady that has gone on to create many successful businesses. But, it is her voice we are interested in here, and that was exceptional.
Known in some circles as the “Queen of Soul,” she made an enormous mark on a variety of music genres. But, it was in gospel music that her story started. That is why she is among the most famous gospel singers of all time.
She was born in Memphis, her mother was a pianist and singer, and her father was a Baptist minister. It may have been her father that had the most influence over her despite the family splitting up. He was known for his animated sermons in church and became quite wealthy because of it.
At just 14, she released her first gospel album, Songs Of Faith. Eventually, the call of the secular took priority, and she signed a new record deal which moved her away from her gospel roots.
She didn’t forget it, though…
In later years, her album Amazing Grace sold millions. And there were several gospel albums she compiled from time to time. She did become an icon in Blues, R&B, and, of course, Soul. But, it was gospel where it all started.
Born in 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Sam was the son of a minister at the local church. As a result, he was exposed to plenty of gospel music at a young age.
His first singing experience came with local gospel groups. But, his profile was raised when he joined the gospel group Soul Stirrers in 1950. His first recording with them, “Jesus Gave Me Water,” was a major success.
There were plenty more successes…
Including a song that became iconic at the time, “Peace In The Valley.” It was clear that he was developing as a great singer, and inevitably, he would go solo. Especially as it was noticeable that more and more young girls were turning up to the gigs.
When he did go solo, it was a surprise that he abandoned his gospel roots and turned more to Soul music. His persona and great voice, though, had attracted a younger audience than the other gospel acts around, which was something important.
As his fame increased, he became very involved with Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali and the Civil Rights movement. His murder and the circumstances surrounding it were strange, to say the least. And it certainly didn’t happen as the local authorities claimed.
His gospel recordings were mostly made at the beginning of his career. But, he was still an important gospel singer who perpetuated the genre and brought it to a wider audience.
Possibly not as known for being a gospel singer as some we have looked at, but he did something that forged the style of modern gospel songs. More on that soon.
There is very little that can be said about Ray Charles that hasn’t been said already. Born in Georgia in 1930, he became a legend not only in African-American music but all genres. He was known as “The Genius” but preferred just “Brother Ray.”
He wasn’t born blind like some artists here. His sight went at a young age, possibly because of glaucoma that went untreated.
Did He Change Modern Gospel Music?
You could say that. In 1953, he had his first hit record, “I’ve Got A Woman.” This was a song that fused the basic elements of gospel music and the Blues. The basic two-beat rhythm normally reserved for gospel music was given a bluesy feel.
It changed the way that gospel music was played and thought of. And it certainly brought it to a wider audience.
It is fair to say…
Ray Charles didn’t consider himself a gospel singer. But only because he was an “everything” singer. Blues, Pop, Country, R&B, and even Rock n’ Roll came under his influence. And gospel music too. His recording of “Amazing Grace” with the London Symphony Orchestra is legendary.
He might not be the first name on your list of the greatest gospel singers. But, he changed the face and the style of it, and for gospel music to evolve, that was necessary. For that, he deserves his place on this list.
Another of these “titles” is given to Mahalia Jackson, who is known as the “Queen Of Gospel.” She enjoyed a career that lasted over four decades and was one of the greatest inspirations for those that came behind her.
Mahalia was born in poverty in New Orleans in 1911, and her younger years were spent during a period of extreme racial prejudice. She was the granddaughter of slaves, but despite this, she had a level of success that she might not have expected.
A Hard Life
Her younger years were hard due to constant conflicts with her aunt. She dropped out of school at ten and started taking in laundry. Life was not easy. But she loved to listen to Blues legend Bessie Smith, and there is something in Jackson’s voice that is reminiscent of her.
She had a soulful voice that captivated people…
And throughout her illustrious career, she sold over 20 million records. Perhaps her biggest single success was in 1947 with the song “I Will Move On Up a Little Higher.” It sold over a million copies and entered the American chart.
She was often featured in TV shows and performed for heads of state and presidents. She was invited to sing for John F Kennedy at his inaugural ball in 1961.
Possibly motivated by her own experiences, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement and knew Martin Luther King’s family.
What Was Important To Her?
She was offered many lucrative recording contracts by secular record companies but refused them all. Preferring to remain known only as a gospel singer. What she sang was that important to her.
She did later sign with Columbia records but was allowed to pursue her own style of music. If you are looking for a legend of Gospel music, then Mahalia Jackson is probably it. Fitting then that, she closes our look at the most famous gospel singers in history.
Looking for More Great Gospel, Soul, or R&B Music?
Well, have a look at our detailed articles on the Best Gospel Songs, Easy Worship & Christian Songs to Sing, the Best 2000s R&B Songs, the Best R&B Songs of All Time, and the Best Bluegrass Songs for more fantastic song selections.
Of course, you’ll want to hear them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, and the Best Cheap Earbuds Under $100 you can buy in 2023.
Most Famous Gospel Singers Of All Time – Final Thoughts
The best term to describe the relationship between Christian and Gospel music is partners. They serve a similar function but, in many ways, are light years apart from each other.
In most cases…
The music in both styles has vastly different derivations, and they also operate in different ways. Christian music tends to be rather staid and serious, and much of it has its roots in centuries-old classical styles.
Gospel, on the other hand, far from being staid and serious, tends to become a celebration of belief. It sings to the hearts and souls of people, and it does it powerfully.
Some of the singers on this last came through poverty, personal afflictions, and prejudice. Yet, they still found a way to uplift themselves and others through their music. Gospel music is powerful and as we have seen from my list, so are those that sang and still do sing it.
Until next time, happy listening.