As evangelical Christianity became a face of the far right in 1950s America, its expanding reach and authority used against enemies internal and external, rock ‘n’ roll was singled out as a primary danger, a threat to the moral fabric of the nation. It is thus ironic that this music held responsible for disrupting the norms of race, gender, and politics largely emanated from the gospel music performed every Sunday in churches, especially the Pentecostal and Charismatic ones. As much as far-right groups—including evangelicals—have historically co-opted popular music for their own purposes, when it comes to the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, that process was inverted.
Gospel and popular music have been intertwined since long before rock ‘n’ roll, each periodically borrowing from and co-opting the other. Historian Beth Fowler traces spiritual music meeting the secular to the early 20th century when blues musicians took up traditionally gospel roles, singing stories about good versus evil in personalized songs of coping and relief. She cites Ray Charles, who told Rolling Stone in 1973, “Gospel and blues are…almost the same thing.” Conversely, gospel, as scholar Randall J. Stephens points out, “borrowed instruments and melodies from the secular scene,” washboards, guitars, and fiddles finding their way into both black and white Pentecostal churches.
The two traditions grew closer as R&B interacted with gospel during the ’40s, both travelling northwards with the Second Great Migration. Gospel music grew louder and more expressive, punctuated by blues shouts and percussive rhythms, while R&B integrated vocal patterns based on preachers engaging with their congregants in song. Rock historian Glenn C. Altschuler speaks of the “jubilation, steady beat, hand clapping, and call and response” that characterized both forms, each providing “a dress rehearsal” for the upcoming rock ‘n’ roll explosion. Such interconnectedness reflected the nature of music at the time, when “Learning from, borrowing, and copying came with the territory in music”, and mutual co-option was a natural practice of artistic development.
Stephens asserts that “musical influences crossed back and forth over the thresholds of church doors” such that “The leap from unbridled sanctified music to rock was not a great one.” Thus, when songs like Gloria Mann’s “A Teenage Prayer” (1955), The Crew-Cuts’ “Angels in the Sky” (1955), and The Platters’ “My Prayer” (1956) began to populate the charts, their religious overtones were unremarkable as the public had been primed for such secular-spiritual fusions in a nation where their separation was becoming increasingly blurred.
What do Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash all have in common? Besides being musical artists from the American South responsible for early formations in rock ‘n’ roll, they all frequented Pentecostal churches in their youth—and some into adulthood.
An offshoot of the southern evangelical tradition emerging from the late 19th-century holiness movement, Pentecostalism—and its Charismatic cousins—was always different in personality and practice than more mainline denominations. Although subscribing to fundamentalist beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible and the primacy of a “personal” relationship with their god, Pentecostals inclined more towards a congregation of the poor and disenfranchised.
Proud outsiders, they were not as beholden to traditions and conventions as their evangelical peers. As a result, informality was embraced, and personal communication with their holy spirit was given such free reign that eccentric behavior such as faith healing and snake handling became common in-house practices.
Common, too, were personal expressions of faith through music and dancing that often manifested in physical displays of ecstasy, passion, and—apparently—possession. In the process, gospel singing was irreparably altered, instruments introduced for rhythmic accompaniment as hymns went up-tempo, congregants responding as participant singers, shouters, foot-stompers, hand-clappers, and full-body gyrators. Johnny Cash recalled the wild worship that ensued amidst the musical frenzy, “the writhing on the floor, the moaning, the trembling, and the jerks.” Elvis Presley, too, often recounted how he would sneak into the local black Pentecostal church to take in its uninhibited and raucous performances.
Building the main bridge from the spiritual to the secular that many rockers subsequently crossed was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a favorite singer of the young Elvis. The so-called “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” originally hailed from Arkansas, where she attended the black Pentecostal Church of God in Christ. There, she learned the “whooping, stomping, frenetic, ecstatic manner” of playing that would become the essence of her musical style and performance.
Successors like Presley and Little Richard inherited this essence, similarly infusing gospel techniques learned within and exported from the church. Such co-options were not just one-way traffic, though. Journalist Elle Hardy pointed out that after witnessing Tharpe translating vocal-based black gospel into guitar-based R&B, white churches started enlivening their own gospel choirs by adding instrumentation. The end product of such back-and-forth appropriations was “The thing we now call rock ‘n’ roll,” says Hardy, “the record-friendly version of the music being played in the South’s Pentecostal churches.”
Nowhere is this transition more evident than in Elvis Presley, who started out singing along with the choir as a toddler at the local East Tupelo Assembly of God. Later, when his family moved to Memphis, he attended the tent services provided by the First Assembly of God. Author Bobbie Ann Mason writes of how the young Elvis was transfixed by his preacher, Frank Smith, who played guitar and swayed to the rhythms of the choir. Indeed, before being drawn to the bright lights of fame and fortune, Presley had ambitions to sing in a gospel quartet like his heroes in the Blackwood Brothers.
Despite choosing the secular path, Mason comments on how “[Elvis] imbibed and saved inside every sound he heard—hymns at church, the popular gospel quartets.? He even “imbibed” their style, copying his pompadour hairstyle and “loud” outfits from J.D. Sumner of the Stamps Quartet. The animated Sumner taught him the art of showmanship, too, as did Jim Wetherington from the Statesmen Quartet, who elicited the screams of rapt female observers when he jiggled his legs inside his baggy Lansky pants.
Lively Pentecostalism sparked new ideas in the young Elvis, and their co-option did not go unnoticed, nor did the singer deny their derivation. “I just sing like they do back home,” he explained, then “goose it up”. Although denunciated by preachers for his “dirty” dancing and charged with misusing religious music by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Presley was unapologetic, claiming his style merely reflected his upbringing. He was reverent to those influences, too, returning to gospel singing throughout his career, even risking his own rebel brand by performing “Peace in the Valley” on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 and later releasing gospel albums during the heyday of the youth counter-culture in the ‘60s.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, two other rock ‘n’ roll architects, also derived many characteristics from their Pentecostal roots. Both from devout families located in the southern gospel belt, the young Lewis tested the tolerance of the Assemblies of God attendees by performing sacred songs in his patented fast boogie-woogie piano playing style; Richard, when not singing in the church choir, performed with his Penniman Family gospel troupe. Both, too, were, says Altschuler, “torn between the hellfire-and-damnation fundamentalist Christian values of family and the temptations of the flesh”, both unsuccessfully attempting to suppress their voracious sexual appetites by enrolling in Bible boarding schools.
While tortured by their inability to meet the demands of their churches’ commandments, both owed much to those institutions in the development of their craft. The rapturous stage performances we associate with Lewis and Richard were procured from them witnessing similar behavior from preachers and congregants in church. There is, arguably, a fine line between Pentecostal speaking-in-tongues glossolalia and “A-wop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-lam-bam-boom” in Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”.
In no one was the co-option of gospel more apparent than in Ray Charles, who employed the form as the foundation for not only his R&B but subsequent soul styles, too. Like many of his ‘50s peers, Charles often secularized gospel standards by merely changing a word or two. Foreshadowing a tradition in which “Jesus” and “baby” became interchangeable depending on the intended market, Charles turned the gospel “Talking About Jesus” into “Talkin’ ‘Bout You” in 1958, and crafted his hit “I’ve Got a Woman” (1954) from “It Must be Jesus”.
His use of repetitive lines punctuated by periodic “yeah”s came straight from the church, so blatantly so that blues legend and pastor Big Bill Broonzy—amongst others—accused Charles of “bastardizing God’s work”. Like Presley, Charles brushed off the charge, but unlike him in less restrained terms, later saying, “I really didn’t give a shit about that kind of criticism.”
In attempting to distance themselves from the insidious musical menace, some preachers made their complaints intra-denominational in nature. Evangelical turned on evangelical as fundamentalists distinguished themselves from their Pentecostal brethren. Long considered the black sheep of the evangelical movement, Pentecostals were criticized as a sect that pandered too enthusiastically to the underclass and people of color. Associating with these dregs of society, the argument went, and you are likely to encourage the kind of unruly, undisciplined behavior from which decadent sub-cultures like rock ‘n’ roll can spawn. For evidence, the Pentecostals’ proclivity towards fainting, speaking in tongues, and spasmodically shaking one’s body were cited.
Black Pentecostal churches (not surprisingly) bore the brunt of these criticisms, which sparked further denominational squabbles. Long seeking to be seen as middle class and respectable to counter racist stereotypes and foster racial uplift, many black preachers distanced themselves from the undisciplined goings-on in both Pentecostal and music venues. Some, like the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed common complaints that rock ‘n’ roll was sacrilegious and/or degrading to women. Others, though, were more upset at the debasement of gospel music taking place, that “The rock ‘n’ roll revolution was counterfeiting the gospel sound.”
Altschuler, Glenn C. All Shook Up: How Rock ‘N’ Roll Changed America. Oxford University Press. August 2003.
Fowler, Beth. Rock and Roll, Desegregation Movements, and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era: An “Integrated Effort”. Lexington Books. April 2022.
Hardy, Elle. Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World. Hurst & Co. November 2021.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Elvis Presley: A Life. Penguin. January 2003.
Stephens, Randall J. The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll. Harvard University Press. March 2018.