Cleveland, James

Cleveland, James 2017

The Reverend Dr. James Cleveland was born on December 5, 1931 (to February 9, 1991). He was a celebrated gospel singer, arranger, composer and, most significantly, the driving force behind the creation of the modern gospel sound, bringing the stylistic daring of hard gospel, jazz and pop music influences to arrangements for mass choirs. Cleveland is popularly known as the King of Gospel.

James Cleveland was a native of Chicago, Illinois who began singing as a boy soprano at Pilgrim Baptist Church, where gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey was their minister of music, and Roberta Martin was pianist for the choir. His parents were unable to afford a piano, so Cleveland crafted a makeshift keyboard out of a windowsill, somehow learning to play without ever producing an actual note. He strained his vocal cords as a teenager while part of a local gospel group, leaving the distinctive gravelly voice that was his hallmark in his later years. The change in Cleveland’s voice led him to focus on his skills as a pianist, and later as a composer and arranger. For his pioneering accomplishments and contributions, he is regarded by many to be one of the greatest gospel performers to ever live.

In 1950, Cleveland joined the Gospelaires, a trio led by Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk, who were associated with Roberta Martin. Martin hired him as a composer and arranger after the group disbanded. Cleveland’s arrangements of songs such as “(Give Me That) Old Time Religion” and “It’s Me O Lord” transformed them, giving a rocking lilt and insistent drive to old standards.

Soon after, James Cleveland went to work for Albertina Walker—popularly referred to as the Queen of Gospel—and her backup group, the Caravans, as a composer, arranger, pianist, and occasional singer and narrator. In November 1954, Walker provided Cleveland with the opportunity to do his very first recording. He continued to record with The Caravans until States Records closed down in 1957. Cleveland left and returned to the Caravans a number of times to join other groups, such as the Gospel All-Stars and the Gospel Chimes, where he mixed pop ballad influences with traditional shouting. In 1959, he recorded a version of Ray Charles’ hit, “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” as a solo artist.

James Cleveland signed with Savoy Records in 1962, going on to release a huge catalog of Black gospel recordings, many of which were recorded in a live concert setting. His first big gospel hit was his version of the Soul Stirrers’ song, “The Love of God,” backed by the Voices of Tabernacle from Detroit. Rev. Cleveland migrated to California to become Minister of Music at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ in Los Angele, and worked with keyboardist Billy Preston and the Angelic Choir of Nutley, New Jersey. Cleveland’s recording of “Peace Be Still” (1963), an obscure 18th-century madrigal, sold hundreds of thousands of copies thanks to Cleveland’s comforting growl and emotional command.

His popularity grew to great acclaim, causing him once again to return to the road, this time with the newly organized James Cleveland Singers, along with Billy Preston. From the 1970s until 1990, Cleveland would bring together a number of artists to back him on appearances and records. He backed acts as well, contributing to one of Elton John’s songs, “Boogie Pilgrim,” Cleveland would also continue to appear and record with some of the greatest gospel choirs of that time. As he toured around the country, his reputation in the nation’s Black, gay and Christian enclaves grew as well, providing him with a social life and fan base outside of the church.

Cleveland capitalized on his success by founding his own choir, the Southern California Community Choir, as well as a church, the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church. As his church grew, Cleveland’s influence stretched even further. Like Thomas A. Dorsey before him, he taught others how to achieve the modern gospel sound through his annual Gospel Singers Workshop Convention, put on by the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), an organization that Cleveland founded along with Albertina Walker.

James Cleveland won many awards for his groundbreaking compositions, including four gospel Grammy Awards. The gospel style he pioneered paved the way for the emergence of the mass choir that is so popular today. Cleveland toured extensively throughout his life, and became a fixture at gay parties in the cities where he performed. While not publicly out, his sexual orientation was a poorly kept secret in the entertainment world, and within Black, gay circles.

The Reverend Dr. James Cleveland died on February 9, 1991. According to his foster son, Christopher Harris, he died of complications from AIDS. Cleveland is interred at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

As for Cleveland’s sexuality, Harris told the “News Journal” in Wilmington, Delaware that “people in [Cleveland’s] inner circle knew, people at church knew, but they pretended it didn’t exist. I guess what you don’t see you can’t say. But I can.”

Throughout his career, Cleveland appeared on hundreds of recordings, and received a star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also was awarded an honorary Doctorate degree from the Trinity Bible College.

We remember Reverend Dr. James Cleveland in in recognition of his many contributions to gospel music and to our community.

Ellis Haizlip

Haizlip, Ellis 2017

Ellis Haizlip was born on September 17, 1929 (to January 25, 1991). He was a pioneering broadcaster, television host, theater and television producer, and cultural activist.

Ellis Haizlip was born in Washington, DC. Details of his early life are elusive, but rumors have persisted that his father was a diplomat who once served as the ambassador to the Court of St. James from Antigua (other accounts claimed Trinidad) and he may have spent many of his formative years in London. He told friends that he grew up in segregated Washington DC, and had had witnessed contralto Marian Anderson’s legendary 1939 concert on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial. We do know that he attended Howard University and graduated from there in 1954.

While at Howard, Hazlip served as a producer for the Howard Players, the acclaimed performance art troupe of Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts, during their summer season. After graduating, he left for New York City, where he began producing plays with Vinnette Carroll at the Harlem YMCA. One of their productions was “Dark of the Moon,” with Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III, Isabel Sanford, Calvin Lockhart, James Earl Jones, and the Alvin Ailey Dancers.

Through the 1950ss, Ellis Hazlip produced concerts and performances in Europe and the Middle East. These included “Black New World” by dancer Donald McKayle; “The Amen Corner” by his friend James Baldwin; and “Black Nativity” by Langston Hughes. He also produced a concert tour by Marlene Dietrich.

In 1972 and 1973, Haizlip and Lincoln Center produced “Soul at the Center,” an acclaimed 12-day festival of Black expression through the performing arts. Other groundbreaking Haizlip productions were the first Congressional Black Caucus Dinner in 1970, “Welcome to the World Saxophone” in 1980, and “Watch Your Mouth!” in 1978 for WNET Channel 13, New York’s flagship Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station, where he served from 1967 to 1981.

Ellis Hazlip was encyclopedic in his knowledge of the world of African-American arts and letters, and he knew hundreds of key players. He used his wealth of knowledge as the coordinator of cultural activities for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Hazlip is best known as the host and producer of a unique and radically Afrocentric program for PBS simply called “Soul!” which ran from 1967 through 1973. As executive producer, Hazlip is credited with helping to advance the careers of singers Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and Roberta Flack and Novella Nelson.

“Soul!” was the brainchild of Haizlip, the first Black producer at WNET (then WNDT), who joined the station in the mid-1960s. He was approached by the station’s white director of cultural programming with the idea of launching an arts program for Black audiences. Haizlip’s vision was for a program that would use the variety show format to display the breadth and variety of Black culture. The mission of “Soul!” mission would be not merely to entertain African American viewers, but to challenge them to ponder the possible meanings of Black culture and Black community at a time when African Americans were driving America’s social transformation.

Initial funding for “Soul!” came from a combination of public and private sources, including a startup grant from the Ford Foundation. With money in place, Ellis Haizlip pulled together a creative team of camera operators, set designers, and producers, the majority of whom were African Americans. Alice Hille, the first associate producer of “Soul,” and one of the first Black women to hold such a position, became Haizlip’s close collaborator and, through her connections to Harlem’s Apollo Theater, his link to the rhythm and blues world. For Haizlip, opera singers, funk musicians, lyrical poets, and political revolutionaries were equal participants in the Black cultural project. Haizlip’s philosophy was “it’s all our culture,” recalls Anna Maria Horsford, who worked as an associate producer at “Soul!” “It was a celebration. Look what we’ve produced in spite of.”

Perhaps more than any other television show before—or since, “Soul!” insisted on representing the heterogeneity of Black culture. It embraced cultural nationalists, Muslims, and feminists—occasionally on the same show. It flouted the conventional wisdom that ballet dancers and blues singers could not share a stage, let alone an audience. In addition to championing emerging acts, such as Ashford and Simpson, who appeared on the show before they issued their first album, “Soul!” embraced radical and challenging improvisatory music from multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, jazz drummer Max Roach, and the genre-defying Last Poets.

“Soul!” also gave artists a chance to go beyond their usual roles, and relished the unexpected juxtaposition. Among the most intriguing “Soul!” pairings: Bill Withers, the hit-making singer-songwriter, with poet Mae Jackson; Reverend Jesse Jackson (then best known for his work with PUSH) with former Raelette (Ray Charles’ backup singers) Merry Clayton; award-winning author Toni Morrison with Junior Walker and His All-Stars; Louis Farrakhan with musicians Mongo Santamaria and the Delfonics; singer Jerry Butler with boxing champ Muhammad Ali; and Sidney Poitier with Stevie Wonder and poet Nikki Giovanni. Most importantly, “Soul!” was unapologetic about aiming its diverse and self-critical weekly affirmation of Black culture and politics to African American viewers, a group that had previously not had the pleasure of seeing itself widely, or truthfully, represented on television.

“Soul!” was “taped as live,” which allowed its camera operators to capture reactions of a modest studio audience made up of local New Yorkers. Indeed, in making the audience part of the spectacle, Haizlip brought to television the aesthetic principles he had imbibed in the churches of his youth, and he was able to represent Black music as a conversation, an exchange, between the musicians and show’s audience.

In an era when “being out” had yet to catch on, and previous to the Stonewall riots which would catalyze the gay and lesbian liberation movement, Ellis Haizlip was a Black gay man and an important public figure in America’s Black cultural landscape. He was not “out” as we understand the concept today, and his presence was said to be “tolerated” by executives at Channel 13 who were uneasy with Haizlip’s presence, and worried that a gay man wasn’t an appropriate or fitting on-camera embodiment of Black masculinity. While not out to the general public, neither did he shy away from gay community issues. When Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan appeared on “Soul!,” Haizlip boldly asked him whether the Nation of Islam welcomed Black gays and lesbians, and reminded Farrakhan that many Black people had experienced conversion to the Nation while in prison.

As the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, Ellis Haizlip and others at “Soul!” came under increasing pressure to tamp down the show’s message of Black pride. From the beginning, “Soul!” had to fight for its survival. In 1970, with viewers pleading for the show to stay on the air, a three-year, $3.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation saved the program. But the January 1969 transfer of presidential power from Lyndon Johnson—whose administration had created PBS—to Richard Nixon, meant a new set of priorities for public broadcasting. By the end of 1972, Corporation for Public Broadcasting officials had deemed Black shows such as “Soul!” hindrances to racial progress. Haizlip was given a choice: integrate “Soul!” or see it cancelled. The last episode aired on March 7, 1973.

For reasons unconnected with Haizlip’s sexuality, “Soul!” ran out of funding before he could be replaced, despite its popularity among audiences. From the beginning, critical reviews of the show had been strong, and “Soul!” had been quick to develop a following, first locally in New York, then nationally when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting picked the show up for syndication. Even though it only aired for five seasons, “Soul!” never lacked popular support.  Ironically, perhaps, the defunding of “Soul!” made room for the commercial Black television shows of the 1970s. The existence of those shows and of more Black television characters would generate new questions regarding the relationship between visibility and Black “progress.”

In the 1980s, Ellis Hazlip was diagnosed with lung cancer, and then a brain tumor; his friends, guests and colleagues were devastated. A year before his death, there was a benefit to help pay his medical expenses, attended by Ashford and Simpson, Betty Shabazz and Roberta Flack, and dozens of other notables and close friends. He lost his battle against cancer at the age of 61, on January 25, 1991. His memorial service was held at Harlem’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he was eulogized by his friend, Amiri Baraka, and New York City Mayor David A. Dinkins, with a special performance by Alvin Ailey’s dancers.

Ellis Haizlip and his groundbreaking program “Soul!” were honored with a documentary celebrating the contributions of this pioneering PBS program. “Mr. Soul! The Movie” was directed by Samuel D. Pollard and Melissa Haizlip. A special thanks to Melissa Haizlip for her input in correcting errors in a previous edition of this biography.

You can read more about Ellis Haizlip here (which contains material used for this biography).

We remember Ellis Haizlip in appreciation of his promotion of Black culture and the arts, his uncompromising advocacy for America’s Black history, and for his many contributions to our community.

Gilbert Price

Price, Gilbert 2017

Gilbert Price was born on September 10, 1942 (to January 2, 1991). He was an accomplished baritone singer and award-winning actor.

Gilbert Price was born in New York City, one of three children born to Leon and Carmen Price. His father had had some experience in show business, having worked with Redd Foxx as a comic. His maternal grandmother was from St. Kitts. When Price’s parents separated, his father moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he fathered three other children with his new wife.

Price was educated first in New York City public schools, but his Protestant parents transferred him to a Catholic elementary school, believing he would get a stricter education with nuns as teachers. In elementary school, he reportedly converted to Catholicism. As a teenager, he was educated at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where he stood out for both his talent, and his gentle, easygoing manner. Price became a lead singer in the school choir, along with fellow member Barbra Streisand. Price graduated in 1960.

Price went on to formal voice and theatre training at the American Theatre Wing. After touring in the early 1960s with Harry Belafonte and the Leonard de Paur Chorus, he became a protégé of Langston Hughes, and played a lead role in Hughes’ pioneering gospel musical, “Jerico-Jim Crow,” which appeared off-Broadway in 1964. It was based on a book written by Hughes, and was co-directed by Alvin Ailey. Price won a Theatre World Award for his role, and received widespread acclaim from critics for his first professional appearance, including a “Life” magazine article, “Stages Fill with Anger and Eloquence, A Burst of Negro Drama.”

A review of his performance in “The New York Times” noted, “When he appeared on stage, I saw a fellow of fairly small frame, strikingly handsome, with dark brown eyes, a winning smile, and shining white teeth. But the moment he started to sing, I was hardly conscious of anything else except The Voice. From that modest physique issued a radiant stream of ravishing beauty and expressivity, which, when the occasion demanded, expanded to so enormous a size as to seem almost a physiological impossibility.”

Langston Hughes reportedly fell in love with Price, and the two were inseparable throughout the musical’s run. Unpublished love poems of that time by Hughes were addressed to a man he called “Beauty,” believed to be Price. Warren Allen Smith called Price his “paramour” and were a couple for nearly thirty years.

In 1964, at the age of 22, Gilbert Price ran onto the stage and electrified audiences with a single song, “Feeling Good,” in the second act of “The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd.” A “Variety” reviewer singled out Price’s “lusty, full-voiced” rendition of the song as the production’s “real musical click.” “That’s Price’s only song, but it indicates well a little of what he can do.” The show’s two stars each wore a body microphone to be heard, but Price was said to neither use, nor need one to reach every corner of the Shubert Theatre. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical for his remarkable performance.

A life member of The Actors Studio, Gilbert Price was nominated three times for Tony Awards: for “Lost in the Stars” in 1972, “The Night that Made America Famous” in 1975 (for which he received the 1975 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical), and a 1978 adaptation of “Kismet,” renamed “Timbuktu!,” for which Price appeared alongside Eartha Kitt, and received the Lorraine Hansberry Award as well as the Tony nomination for his role as Mansa. His appearances at the 27th, 29th and the 32nd Annual Tony Awards were especially memorable.

Price made guest appearances on several television talk and variety shows, including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Red Skelton Show,” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was also known for his exemplary oratorios, and was invited by Leonard Bernstein to perform his acclaimed “Mass” in 1971. Price performed at Bernstein’s request for the opening at the John F. Kennedy Center.

Gilbert Price continued to tour and perform occasionally around the world. His exceptional voice was especially in demand in Europe, but he also appeared in Australia, Canada, and in the former Soviet Union. After “Timbuktu!” and its weekly paycheck of around $2,000, Price was unable to find employment. He had never before had a regular job, not even temporary work. For a decade he tried, always complaining about agents, and about the dearth of jobs for blacks on Broadway and concert halls.

In 1987, he made an unpublicized trip to Cuba to sing for political prisoners. He was entertained at a party where Castro appeared, and he was surprised that the revolutionary Cuban was graying. The first American entertainer to be allowed into a prison for political prisoners, Price performed and talked with many, but avoided political subjects. When one prisoner gave him a wad of paper that he took from inside his shoe and placed in Price’s hands, he requested that the note be given to a relative of his near Hartford, Connecticut. The prisoner’s family was never located.

Receiving an offer to teach at a school in Vienna, Price left the United States and told friends he was happy to be in such an artistic and music-appreciating environment. He recorded one CD in Vienna, but it was difficult to market, and sold poorly. In 1991, when Price did not show up at his classes for several days, students went to his apartment and found him lifeless. He had died unexpectedly of accidental asphyxiation, due to a faulty space heater. Price, who was 48, had long suffered from diabetes, but it was not believed the illness contributed to his death.

Gilbert Price was buried at Feuerhalle-Simmering cemetery in Vienna. A memorial service was held on February 5, 1991, at the Actors’’ Chapel at St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan. He was survived by his father, Leon, of Charlotte, North Carolina, and a sister, Jeanette Stargill, of New York.  His papers are held in the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

We remember Gilbert Price in appreciation of his transformative contributions to music and theatre, and his lifelong support for our community.