Gospel music, one of the greatest gifts to America, emerged from the same emotional depths as the Negro spiritual, jazz and the blues. In fact, its originator was a Georgia-born blues writer and pianist, Thomas Andrew Dorsey.
Inspired by a new form of evangelical music he had heard in churches in the South that blended spirituals and hymns with a soulful blues-like sound, Dorsey penned his first gospel song, “Some Day, Some Where,” in 1922, shortly after he moved to Chicago. He built into its melody such jazz and blues elements as strong percussive beats, the blue note, syncopation, call and response and intense emotion.
His next attempt, “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me,” later in the decade, helped to establish him and this new religious music — which he named gospel — among the urban church community. Dorsey’s extensive body of work in the 1930s, which included classics such as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “There’ll Be Peace in the Valley,” earned him the title of the “Father of Gospel Music” and hastened the spread of the genre.
By the late 1940s, blacks were flocking to concerts and buying the recordings of gospel greats such as the Clara Ward Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers.
Since its inception, gospel — or “good news” — music has brought joy, inspiration, encouragement and hope to millions of Americans of all colors, ages, cultures and faiths. Today, gospel (also called Contemporary Christian and Inspirational) is the fastest growing genre and sixth most popular form of music in the record industry. Contemporary gospel’s popularity among young people has been mushrooming since the early 1960s, and has reached record proportions with the arrival of the new “urban” forms that blend it with hip hop, rap and modern jazz.
Since 1984, one of gospel music’s most successful fusions has been with the McDonald’s Corporation and the McDonald’s Owner/Operator Association in the Tri-State area.
The Early Years — From L.A. to Tri-State
The first McDonald’s Gospelfest was held in Los Angeles, the result of a collaborative effort between the McDonald’s Corporation and the Los Angeles McDonald’s Owner/Operator Association. Bringing together the very best gospel choirs and groups from the local community to compete for recognition and prizes proved contagious. Other cities quickly followed in Los Angeles’ footsteps, including San Diego, St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago and Cleveland.
The Tri-State area was soon to join the list, thanks to McDonald’s owner/operator Lee Dunham, who opened the very first McDonald’s Restaurant in New York City in March 1972. Dunham, president of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association in the early 1980s, and fellow McDonald’s Owner/Operators visited Cleveland’s Gospelfest during the finals. Inspired, they came away with what they felt was the perfect vehicle to build ties to their own communities.
Dunham brought the concept back to the New York-New Jersey Association of McDonald’s Owner/Operators, seeking a consensus on financing the competition. “We felt sure that Gospelfest would appeal to a broad segment of our customers and serve to bind the community closer together,” he said. Dunham, who now owns six stores in New York and New Jersey, also had another inspiration — to help build self-esteem among young people by giving them an opportunity to perform on a major concert stage like Carnegie Hall.
The 80s — Off to a Solid Start
By 1984 the Tri-State owner/operators had given an enthusiastic nod to McDonald’s Gospelfest. A production team worked closely with the McDonald’s Gospelfest committee, which in the early years comprised key owner/operators such as Lee Dunham, Ormond Skeete, Jim Henderson and William Richardson.
Initially, each stage of the competition — preliminaries, semi-finals and finals, also called the Gala — was its own community event. “In those early years, we traveled throughout the tri-state area, setting up a mic every Saturday in May and June for the preliminaries. The contestants supplied the music, the Owner/Operators supplied the food,” said Bobby Banks, a member of that early team. “We had God’s music and McDonald’s, what more could we ask for?”
The first Tri-State Finals Gala took place at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Manhattan in 1984. Gospel artist Shirley Caesar was the headline act, performing along with 15 local groups vying for the title of “Best Overall Performer.” The winners that year were Carl and Pastor Earl, better known as the Jenkins Brothers, who went on to play a major role in Gospelfest for the next 13 years as judges and hosts.
By 1986, the McDonald’s Gospelfest Finals had outgrown the Apollo Theater. The only venue large enough to hold the crowds was Carnegie Hall, Dunham’s dream. The first time he stood on the Carnegie Hall stage with some of the finalists, Dunham was overcome by their joy and what it had taken for them to get there.
“I asked the young people to really think about where they were standing that night, to appreciate how long it had taken a black person, for instance, Leontyne Price, to perform on this stage,” Dunham said. “We should always remember our history and those who sacrificed to make things possible for us.”
The 90s — The Evolution of a Winner
The Tri-State McDonald’s Gospelfest entered the 1990s with a stronger community following than ever. Now chaired by Ron Bailey, the McDonald’s Gospelfest Committee took steps to simplify the judging process and encourage more diversity in the event. One choice was to increase the number of competition categories to better accommodate youth groups aged 18 or younger, groups of 15 or fewer adults, and larger groups or choirs.
This year, a category has been added for soloists. The winners in each category of the finals are now invited to perform along with headliner acts such as John P. Kee, Richard Smallwood and Vickie Winans at the culminating event, the McDonald’s Gospelfest Gala.
A member of the Gospelfest Committee since 1992, Laura Vega, McDonald’s Tri-State regional marketing manager, has been most impressed over the years with the high level of talent and professionalism associated with the event. “No matter what logistical changes have been made the Gospelfest talent has always had a strong commitment to excellence,” she said. “That is one thing I know will always be constant.”
To help keep the quality of the performances high, Mary Sharpe, who has served as a McDonald’s Gospelfest judge for three years, offered simple advice to all entrants. “To get to Carnegie Hall takes practice, practice, and more practice,” she said. Sharpe applied the standards to her own group, The Voices of Hope Choir of the Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Long Island when it entered in 1994 and again in 1997, and walked away with the first prize at Carnegie Hall.
Since 1984, hundreds of local choirs and groups have been showcased at McDonald’s Gospelfest. A passion for gospel and a commitment to long hours of practice have paid off for many dedicated contestants, including The Voices of Hope Choir, the Rev. Hezekiah Walker, Last Appeal (now called Seven) and The Youth Ensemble of St. John’s Deliverance Tabernacle in Nyack, NY, under the direction of David Ash.
In an eventful celebration of one of Ron Bailey’s restaurants in 1995, The Youth Ensemble, now called the Anointed Praise Ensemble, gave a two-hour concert for customers, performing a repertoire that ranged from traditional to contemporary.
“We wanted to give something back to McDonald’s — to thank them for the wonderful opportunities they had given us,” said Ash.
And therein, perhaps, lies the true beauty of the Tri-State McDonald’s Gospelfest. This unique concept has successfully built a bridge from the corporation to the restaurants to the community and back again. “McDonald’s is extremely pleased to have identified a cultural bond that really resonates with those who support our restaurants,” said Laura Vega.
15 Years of Joyful Noise — and Counting
Ageless and timeless, gospel music is entering the 21st century imbued with the same energy and fervor it was born with more than 70 years ago. This means a bright future ahead for the Tri-State McDonald’s Gospelfest and those who look forward to it each year.
“Gospel, McDonald’s and the community have formed a strong emotional bond that we hope will remain in place for years to come,” said Bailey. “As we make a joyful noise on the 15th Anniversary of the best Gospelfest event in the nation, let’s do it — as we always have and always will — in the spirit of hope, goodwill and fellowship.”