If the Blues is arguably the most celebrated "root" music of Rock and Roll, Gospel is perhaps the one that most deserves greater celebration. In some times and in some places, pre-Rock and Roll Gospel sounds as much like Rock and Roll as anything that came before Elvis. To this point, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, the man who coined the term "Rhythm and Blues" while working at Billboard Magazine, has said that he wished he had called it not "Rhythm and Blues," but "Rhythm and Gospel."

In this chapter, lesson plans explore a number of issues, covering Gospel from the early part of the 20th century to the years of Soul Music's emergence. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an artist well-loved by Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard equally, is looked at as a kind of case study. Vocal groups like the Soul Stirrers and the Dixie Hummingbirds offer a view into the singing and performance styles that would prefigure Rock and Roll. And, lastly, Sam Cooke is studied as an example the "crossover" experience and its paradoxes.

The case of American Gospel music and its place in the development and sound of Rock and Roll remains among popular music's most important stories. Rock and Roll's emotion, its groove, its exchange between performers and between audience and performer: all can be traced back to Gospel's example. But what this all speaks to is perhaps the most engaging aspect of the cultural exchange: the great degree to which the black church left a lasting mark on the mainstream of American life.

View More


View Lesson

Gospel Music and the Birth of Soul

How did Gospel influence American popular music?