Perfect Sound Forever


Death of a Queer King
by Robin Dunn

(August 2020)

I was a homeless, sixteen-year old runaway when two Black women in long robes and headscarves offered me a place to stay. They brought me home to a shotgun house in East Austin, where they lived communally, sheltered the homeless, and held religious services for hours on end. I'd never spent time in church, and in any case I'd never heard of one like this. With fewer than a dozen members, no sign to mark it, no painted windows, no cross. They said they were holiness, sanctified. I arrived queer, punk, and half-feral, but the church, with its sense of purpose, sisters and brothers, and hot meals, soon felt like family, a thing I lacked. I stayed for ten years, the only white girl in an otherwise all-Black church, trying and failing to be a saint.

When I joined the church I laid sex, drugs, and rock and roll down at the altar. Gospel, the old stuff, helped fill the musical void. I found a wealth of records at the public library-Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Davis Sisters, Clara Ward, the Caravans. I thought it was better than punk. It was the root. I especially loved the Caravans, whose members--Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, Bessie Griffin, Josephine Howard, Cassietta George--were all stars in their own right. When he was just starting out, James Cleveland played with them.

James Cleveland invented the modern gospel choir, taught piano to Aretha Franklin, wrote more than 400 songs, appeared on more than 100 albums, and lost track of how many went gold. By the time he died at age 59, he'd been the King of Gospel for thirty years.

Cleveland was born in the right place--Chicago--at the right time--1931. As a child, he attended Pilgrim Baptist Church, where Thomas Dorsey was minister of music. Dorsey had played with Ma Rainey and had a hit record, "It's Tight Like That." Setting his mind to matters of faith, Dorsey incorporated elements of blues and jazz in a new form he called "gospel," something altogether new.

Sundays at Pilgrim Baptist, Cleveland watched Roberta Martin play piano. Martin, who led the first mixed-gender gospel group, went on to sell Cleveland's songs through her publishing house. He spent time at Mahalia Jackson's beauty shop and listened to her hum while she fixed hair. He debuted at Pilgrim Baptist as a boy soprano, and as a teen sang hard enough to damage his voice. Left with a gravelly tone and a limited range, Cleveland compensated by focusing on composition, arrangement, and piano.

In the 1950's, Cleveland relocated to Detroit, served as organist at C.L. Franklin's New Bethel Baptist Church, lived on and off with the Franklins, and taught nine-year-old Aretha her first piano chords.

By 1960, Cleveland was well known for his work with choirs, incorporating bits of blues, jazz, and soul, then re-arranging it, much like Dorsey had done with spirituals. By reputation, Cleveland could arrive in any town and assemble a 300-voice choir in three days.

In the late 1960's, Cleveland moved to Los Angeles, formed the Southern California Community Choir, opened his own church, Cornerstone Institutional Baptist, and established a national organization, the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA). When it was time for Aretha to make a gospel record, she called on Cleveland and his choir. Their 1972 collaboration, Amazing Grace, remains her best-selling album and recently became an acclaimed documentary.

Cleveland died in 1991, reportedly from heart failure. His funeral was held at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, lasted four hours, was attended by over 4,000 people, and included at least two clothing changes for the deceased.

Within a year of his death, two men filed suit against Cleveland's estate. 34-year old Andre McIsaac and 22-year old Christopher Harris had both lived with Cleveland, McIsaac as a "common law adopted son" and Harris as a foster son. Cleveland died of AIDS, Harris said, and infected him with HIV. The news broke nationally with a March 1992 Jet magazine story headlined, "James Cleveland Infected L.A. Youth With HIV, $9 Mil Lawsuit Claims."

Cleveland's outing after death revealed a paradox. Lesbians and gays contributed greatly to the church, often through music, even while being condemned from the pulpit. As Keith Boykin, author of One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America, wrote, "The church might be the most homophobic and most homotolerant of any institution in the black community."

At the church, being queer was only one of my problems. I prayed earnestly to "get right." I took encouragement from gospel music. "Ninety-nine and a half won't do," Rosetta sang, "you've got to make a hundred." The Caravans sounded so sincere it hurt. Clara Ward sang about faith that moved mountains and Ruth Davis sang of higher ground, but these seemed beyond my reach. Most of the singers I listened to were queer, like me, but I didn't know that then.

As early as 1971, in his book The Gospel Sound, Anthony Heilbut wrote about the gospel church as a refuge for gays and lesbians. "Without lesbians and gay men," he said, "there could be no gospel music."

Billy Preston, a Cleveland protege, said as much to David Ritz, Aretha's biographer. "Inside the church, a lot of the music was created by gay men... along with the preachers, we were the people who kept the church going."

Ray Charles told Ritz the same. "They were wilder than me--and that's saying something... the cats liked it with the cats and the chicks liked it with the chicks."

Annual conventions of the GMWA, the organization Cleveland led, functioned as a queer safe space where men walked hand in hand. A profile in People magazine noted that Cleveland lived with "a series of fatherless boys." In the early 1970's, when three Black religious leaders rumored to be gay were murdered in Los Angeles, Cleveland hired bodyguards.

It was a system of don't ask, don't tell. Queerness was apparent for those with eyes to see, but kept quiet enough that it could be ignored.

Cleveland's condition became apparent before his death. At a 50-year anniversary celebration, he could only sit up for short periods. At his last GMWA appearance, he was thin and frail, collapsed, and was rushed to the hospital.

Acknowledgment of Cleveland's gay life and death from AIDS was a noisy affront to a system of secrecy. Even now, talk of Cleveland's death is often met with stony silence within the gospel community.

I was still with the church when Cleveland died, but I was beginning to see my way out. Leaving took years, but in the same way I remember the first night I knelt at the church's altar, I remember the hour when I finally felt whole, when I met a girl, and we went back to her place. Only then did I feel I'd found home.

When I left the church, I tried to keep the best pieces, pieces that are as much punk as gospel: to keep an eye out for the least and the last, to not follow the crowd. I still listen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (whose possible lesbian encounters were carefully detailed in Gayle F. Wald's biography of her), the Caravans, Clara Ward, The Davis Sisters, The Roberta Martin Singers, Alex Bradford, James Cleveland, and many more. When I do, I celebrate their queer existence, and mine.



The Gospel Sound: Good News in Hard Times (25th Anniversary Edition) by Anthony Heilbut, Limelight, 1997.

The Fan Who Knew Too Much by Anthony Heilbut, Random House, 2012.

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz, Little, Brown & Company, 2014.

I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher's Journey Through Gospel by Carl Bean, Simon & Schuster, 2010.


"The Number That No Man Could Number" by Anthony Heilbut, Harper's, February 2017.

"The Old Prejudices" by Anthony Heilbut, Harper's, March 2017.

"Blacks, Gays, and the Church: A Complex Relationship" by Corey Dade, NPR, March 22, 2012.

"What's Done in the Dark" blog series by J. Matthew Cobb, HiFi Magazine, May 31, 2012.

"Revelations: A Gospel Singer Comes Out" by Kelefa Sanneh, New Yorker, February 8, 2010.

"And the Choir Sings On" by Rhonda Graham, Wilmington News Journal, October 23, 1994.

"James Cleveland Infected L.A. Youth with HIV, $9 Million Lawsuit Claims," Jet, March 2, 1992.

"Man Seeks Share of the Rev. James Cleveland's Estate" by Berkley Hudson, Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1991.

"The Crown Prince of Gospel: Anniversary" by Beth Ann Krier, Los Angeles Times, October 26, 1990.

"The Apostle of Soul Gospel is James Cleveland" by Robert Windeler and Bob Sherrill, People, March 15, 1976.

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