During a fiery performance Thursday night at the Academy ' s first GRAMMY Salute To Gospel Music, Christian music legend Shirley Caesar entreated the crowd to join her in prayer.
"God touched [The Recording Academy's] heart," Caesar said, strutting the stage of the cavernous West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, "-¦[and] brought gospel right here tonight."
Indeed, God had moved the heart of The Recording Academy, not to mention the hearts of everyone attending this historic event. Demonstrating its commitment to gospel music, the Academy honored four of the genre's greatest living artists: Andraé Crouch, Bill and Gloria Gaither and Albertina Walker . All four singers and songwriters received the Academy's President's Merit Award.
Co-hosted by actress Angela Bassett, singer/songwriter Kirk Franklin and Pauletta Pearson Washington, The gala at times seemed more like a backwater hallelujah service than a simple awards presentation. The event highlighted the rich diversity of contemporary gospel music, from the pop-injected sounds of Kirk Franklin and Nicole C. Mullen, to the energetic country gospel of the Crabb Family, and the R&B-tinged stylings of Donnie McClurkin, CeCe Winans, Kurt Carr, Smokie Norful, Byron Cage and Donald Lawrence.
During his presentation speech, Academy President Neil Portnow invoked the names of gospel innovators, including Thomas Dorsey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, the Edwin Hawkins Singers and others. He then noted gospel music's tremendous influence on secular entertainment legends such as Ray Charles, James Brown, the Isley Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, and Elvis Presley.
"The voices that created R&B and soul in the '40s and '50s all got their start in church," Portnow said. "Gospel music soared out of the churches and spread its wings all over the world."
Known as the founding member of the Caravans â€” the group that launched the careers of Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Cassietta George, James Cleveland and others â€” Albertina Walker was the driving creative force behind many of the group's biggest gospel hits, including "Mary Don't You Weep," "Soldiers In The Army," "The Solid Rock" and "Blessed Assurance." She later established the Albertina Walker Foundation for the Creative Arts, which provides scholarships to gospel musicians and singers.
Walker proudly recollected becoming an Academy member in the '80s, and how she conducted a membership drive in her native Chicago. "I am just so thankful that my work hasn't been in vain," Walker said. "I am so glad I have lived long enough-¦to see the GRAMMY Awards honor gospel music."
Hailing from Indiana , five-time GRAMMY winners Bill and Gloria Gaither have published more than 700 songs, including the hymnal standards "Because He Lives," "He Touched Me" and "The King Is Coming." The d uo have recorded more than 40 albums, are eight-time winners of the Gospel Music Association's Songwriter of the Year honor, and were named Christian Writers of the Century by ASCAP. Their TV shows, "The Gaither Gospel Hour" and "Gaither Family Music Hour," have been perennial favorites of Christian networks, drawing 75 million faithful viewers each week.
"Songs for us have come out of the fabric of real life," Gloria Gaither said during her acceptance speech. "I am always amazed that something so personal could mean something to somebody else. But I'm glad it has."
Patriarch Bill Gaither explained how, growing up in Indiana, all he wanted to do was write a song. "To think here tonight that it started in the cornfields and hayfields of Indiana, and came all the way to West Angeles Church of God In Christ," Gaither said. "I really have a tall cup here tonight."
Credited with contemporizing the sound of the black gospel church, Andraé Crouch is the composer and performer of such modern Christian hits as "My Tribute (To God Be The Glory)" and "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power." The recipient of seven GRAMMYs and an Academy Award nomination, Crouch has collaborated with such acclaimed pop artists as Elvis Presley, Quincy Jones and Madonna. He also composed film scores to such movies as The Lion King and Free Willy.
Crouch recalled an attempted childhood abduction that left him so traumatized he developed a potentially stifling speech impediment. The singer went on to praise his parents, his twin sister Sandra and Jesus Christ for rehabilitating him. "When the Lord gave me the gift of music, I didn't even know how to say one sentence," Crouch said. "The Lord healed me."
Proceeds from the event will benefit Save Africa's Children, a Pan-African children's fund designed to provide medicine and build shelters for orphans affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Portnow took the opportunity Thursday to announce the introduction of a new gospel GRAMMY category, Best Gospel Performance, marking seven total awards for gospel and Christian music.
The GRAMMY Salute To Gospel Music is one of numerous events held in the Los Angeles area during GRAMMY Week. For a complete list of events, click here .