The gospel genre has a fascinating and complex history that arose from other genres such as blues, jazz, and African-American spiritual music. Throughout the 20th century, it would go on to influence everything from pop to rock ‘n roll, soul, R&B, and more. These 35 best gospel singers of all time were instrumental in the development of the genre and are still popular to this day!
1. Mahalia Jackson
No list of the best gospel singers is complete without Mahalia Jackson. She was the pioneer of the “Golden Age of Gospel” and a driving force behind the rise of the genres of modern gospel and gospel blues. She was wildly successful during a time of heavy racial segregation and performed for audiences of all kinds, including integrated crowds.
Jackson’s signature style came from adapting blues vocalization to older hymns. She quickly gained personal, if not professional success, and sang in church services and at rallies. It wasn’t until 1947 that she recorded “Move On Up a Little Higher,” breaking records with the first gospel song to hit the top 100. She refused to embark on a career in secular music, instead making a name for herself with her rich vocals and intensely emotional performances.
2. Andraé Crouch
Andraé Crouch was a pastor and gospel singer who earned the title “the Father of Modern Gospel Music.” He was a powerful singer who covered traditional hymns and also composed his own songs, many of which made their way into the secular music industry as well. Crouch’s music was extensively covered by other artists, including Paul Simon, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, and many others.
While he is widely remembered for songs such as “Soon and Very Soon,” “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” and “My Tribute (To God Be the Glory),” he also collaborated with many artists and even composed music for films such as The Lion King and The Color Purple. Crouch won seven Grammys and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
3. BeBe and CeCe Winans
BeBe and CeCe Winans are a brother-and-sister duo who have made extensive inroads in the gospel music genre. They were originally members of the Winans Family singing group, which consisted of themselves and their eight siblings, before setting off as a duo. The rest of the members had successful solo careers.
Together, this duo has won three Grammy awards. They are best known for their songs “Heaven,” “With My Whole Heart,” “Addictive Love,” and “Up Where We Belong.” In addition to their Grammys, they have also won nine GMA Dove Awards.
4. James Cleveland
James Cleveland was a gospel singer and composer who earned the title “the King of Gospel.” He played a vital role in the development of contemporary gospel music, which fused many other genres including pop, soul, and jazz.
Cleveland’s music was extraordinarily popular, and he earned four Grammy Awards over the course of his career. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the first gospel singer to receive this honor) and is in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. His style influenced many other great gospel singers, including Aretha Franklin.
5. Marvin Sapp
Marvin Sapp is a contemporary gospel singer who has strongly influenced the development of the genre through the 21st century. He has seamlessly crossed genres from gospel to R&B and hip hop, with his songs placing on the Hot 100 in each of these categories.
His album, Thirsty, was certified gold after selling more than 500,000 copies and appearing on the top charts for the US Billboard 200, Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums, and Top Gospel Albums. Sapp is one of the highest-placing and best-selling gospel artists of all time.
6. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash was one of the most famous country singers of the 20th century. But in his later years, he experienced a strong reversion to his Christian faith. This would go on to influence his musical focus and style. He had already released several gospel albums by the time he became a practicing Christian once again, the first as far back as 1959.
He recorded both original hymns and covers, fusing the country and gospel genres with his twangy voice and acoustic guitar. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the genre, most notably “I Was There When It Happened,” “Belshazzar,” and “He Turned Water Into Wine.”
7. Marvin Winans
Marvin Winans is a member of the extensive Winans Family, which includes other well-known gospel singers such as Ronald Winans and BeBe and CeCe Winans. He began his career with several of his brothers and other partners in the 1970s under the name The Testimonial Singers. His time with the group—eventually changing their name to The Winans—continued into the 1990s.
Winans has also had an extensive solo career, both as a singer and an organist, though he did not release a solo album until 2007. He won a Grammy for Best Male Soul Gospel Performance for 1985’s “Bring Back the Days of Yea and Nay.”
8. Israel Houghton
Israel Houghton is one of the most acclaimed musicians of the modern gospel genre. Since his career beginnings in the late 1990s, he has consistently placed high on the gospel charts, including several No. 1 for Best Contemporary Christian Album and Top Gospel Album. He has been nominated for many Grammy Awards and has won six in categories including Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album, Best Contemporary Gospel Song of the Year, and Best Traditional Gospel Album.
9. The Clark Sisters
The Clark Sisters are a modern family gospel group that was instrumental in bringing gospel music into mainstream music and helping develop the contemporary Christian music genre. The group consists of sisters Jacky Clark Chisholm, Denise Clark-Bradford, Elbernita Clark, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Karen Clark Sheard.
Their ensemble music has sold more albums than any female group in gospel history and earned them three Grammy Awards. They also received the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the Black Music and Entertainment Walk of Fame. They are known for tracks such as “You Brought the Sunshine,” “Is My Living in Vain,” “Jesus is a Love Song,” and “Expect Your Miracle.”
10. Chandler Moore
Chandler Moore is a modern gospel and contemporary Christian music singer whose accolades early in his career have already earned him a reputation as one of the greatest gospel singers of modern music. He has become widely known across the industry for his solo work as well as his collaborations with other highly-regarded CCM artists, as well as mainstream pop artists like Justin Bieber and Tori Kelly.
He began his career as a music director at his church, then provided background vocals for Tye Tribbett and Travis Greene. In 2019, he became a leading partner of Maverick City Music, a music conglomerate that aims to bring the gospel music industry into the 21st century.
11. Shirley Caesar
Shirley Caesar is one of the most influential gospel singers of all time, helping develop the musical style of the genre throughout the 20th century. Her work has earned her 11 Grammys, as well as many other awards, and the titles “the Queen of Gospel Music” and “the First Lady of Gospel Music.” Caesar’s career began in 1951 when she was only 12 years old. She would go on to record 40 albums, many compilations, and three gospel-style musicals.
Among her other honors and awards are an RIAA gold certification, an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a spot in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Caesar remains active in the industry, helping educate others about the role of gospel music in mainstream music and African-American culture. Her most famous songs include “Hold My Mule,” “God Will Make a Way,” and “It’s Alright, It’s OK.”
12. Gary Davis
Gary Davis, also known as Blind Gary Davis, was one of the earliest gospel singers. His work throughout the middle of the 20th century profoundly influenced the development of modern gospel music, as well as blues and the American folk music revival. He was an accomplished guitar player who was known for his unique style of fingerpicking. This, as well as his other musical styles, would go on to influence musicians across many genres, including Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Davis’ career began in the 1930s on the blues scene, where he showcased his adept skills in guitar, harmonica, and banjo. After his conversion to Christianity, he became a pastor and began playing gospel music. He found a unique niche and a second chapter to his career in the rise of new American folk music in the 1960s. Davis was widely known for his songs “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Samson and Delilah.”
13. Mary Mary
Mary Mary is a more contemporary gospel group. It consists of two sisters, Erica and Trecina Atkins-Campbell. The group rose to fame in the late 1990s as a fusion of gospel and urban music, which gained recognition across genres. Throughout the 2000s, they continued in popularity thanks to their innovative incorporation of musical elements of hip hop, funk, jazz, and soul.
The sisters have won numerous awards, including four Grammys (two for Best Gospel Performance and Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album, respectively). They are among the best-selling gospel groups of all time, with more than eight million records. Mary Mary is known for the songs “Heaven,” “God in Me,” “Get Up,” “Yesterday,” “The Real Party,” and “Shackles (Praise You).”
14. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is inarguably one of the most famous and influential female singers of the 20th century. Her vocals and musical style influenced the development of countless genres, including rock n’ roll, funk, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and pop music. But like many other mainstream artists of the time, Franklin was also an accomplished singer of gospel music.
She recorded a live album, Amazing Grace, in 1972, accompanied by James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. While it is not as widely known as many of Franklin’s pop hits throughout her career, the album was extraordinarily successful. It received a double platinum certification and sold more than two million copies in the US, remaining the best-selling album of her career (as well as the best-selling live gospel performance in history). Franklin also won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance for the album.
15. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the earliest pioneers of the gospel genre. Her career began in the 1930s when she became widely known for her unique use of electric guitar in traditional gospel songs. Tharpe’s work combined genres of rock n’ roll, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Her musical influence was so widespread that she has been called “the Godmother of Rock ‘n Roll,” influencing musicians such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Tharpe consistently straddled the line between spiritual and secular music throughout her career, with her use of electric distortion and her love of playing in nightclubs. Her music has even been called proto-rock n’ roll, and Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 for her influence on the development of the genre. Her songs were hits among audiences of all kinds, and her 1945 song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” rose to No. 2 on the R&B chart.
16. Hank Williams
Hank Williams was one of the most famous and influential musicians of the 20th century. While he is best remembered for his contributions to the development of modern country music, he was also a talented gospel singer and is considered one of the best in history. While he covered many traditional hymns and spiritual songs, he also penned several of his own, most notably “I Saw the Light.” He was known for his unique fusion of country and gospel genres, which would later be replicated by Johnny Cash. He was also known for his gospel songs “House of Gold” and “Angel of Death.”
17. Travis Greene
Travis Greene is a contemporary gospel and CCM singer whose music has earned him acclaim across genres, with JET Magazine calling him “The Future of Gospel” in 2016. His songs have consistently placed on the Billboard Top Gospel 100 throughout his career, most notably “Still Here,” “Prove My Love,” and “Intentional,” which reached No. 1 in 2015. He won an astounding seven awards at the 2017 Stellar Gospel Music Awards, more than any other artist that year. His widespread success and many awards have brought him to the forefront of the gospel genre, and he is widely considered one of the most talented gospel singers of the 21st century.
18. Kim Burrell
Kim Burrell is a well-known contemporary gospel singer who has been nominated for many Grammy awards. She began her career in the late 1980s while she was still a teenager, performing with her church choir. She released her first album in the mid-1990s and gained widespread popularity after her second album placed at No. 10 on the Billboard Gospel charts. In the early 2000s, her song “Higher Ground” was included on R&B singer Missy Elliott’s album as a bonus track. Burrell has also collaborated with other gospel artists including Karen Clark Sheard.
19. Tye Tribbett
Tye Tribbett is a modern gospel singer who first came to prominence after working with many secular artists during the early 2000s, most notably Will Smith, Justin Timberlake, Sting, Faith Hill, and Usher. He went on to found the gospel group Tye Tribbett and the G.A., which rose to prominence after they were nominated for several Grammy Awards and won several Stellar Awards. Tribbett has won two Grammy Awards for his solo work, particularly his album “Greater Than.”
20. Jonathan McReynolds
Jonathan McReynolds is a contemporary gospel and CCM singer whose music has become widely acclaimed throughout the industry. Despite his young career, he has already been nominated for five Grammy Awards and won one for his Best Gospel Performance/Song with “Moving On.” Gospel singer Kirk Franklin has referred to McReynolds as “the future of Gospel music.” Many of his songs have placed high on the gospel and mainstream charts, earning him attention from mainstream pop singers such as Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. McReynolds is known for his skillful fusion of other musical genres such as pop and R&B.
21. Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley is known to history as one of the most vital figures in the development of rock ‘n roll, but he was also an accomplished gospel music singer. During his career, he released three gospel albums, including His Hand in Mine, How Great Thou Art, and He Touched Me, as well as many singles and EPs. Many of his gospel songs reached the charts, and two of them—“Crying in the Chapel” and “(There’ll be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)”—sold 20 million copies each. He was well-known as a lover of the gospel genre, so much so that a gospel compilation was released posthumously in his honor, featuring vocals from many of his former singing partners as well as his daughter, Lisa Marie Presley.
22. Thomas A. Dorsey
Thomas A. Dorsey was one of the most central figures in the development of early gospel music. His songs and instrumental compositions drew inspiration from genres such as blues and jazz, and he was known for his talent for musical improvisation. Dorsey was a prolific composer, producing more than 3,000 songs during his lifetime. He had success not just in the gospel genre but also in mainstream music during the early 20th century.
Dorsey’s career started in secular music during the early blues era when he accompanied blues singer Ma Rainey. His influence on the development of modern gospel music was so extensive that he has been called the father of the genre, and he worked with most of the best-known gospel singers of the century, including Sallie Martin, Mahalia Jackson, and James Cleveland. He is also credited with developing the performance style of modern gospel music, which often includes shouting, stomping, dancing, and clapping.
23. Yolanda Adams
Yolanda Adams is an award-winning gospel singer who is widely considered instrumental in the development of modern urban gospel music. She has been nicknamed the “First Lady of Modern Gospel” and the “Reigning Queen of Urban Gospel.” Adams was the best-selling artist of the genre during the 2000s and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Her other accolades include four Grammy Awards, six Soul Train Music Awards, and induction into the Black Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame. She also made history as the first singer in the gospel genre to receive an American Music Award.
Adams is best remembered for her songs “I’m Gonna Be Ready,” “Let Us Worship Him,” “Open My Heart,” “The Battle is the Lord’s,” “Fragile Heart,” and “Someone Watching Over You.”
24. Donnie McClurkin
Donnie McClurkin is one of the most highly-awarded musicians of modern gospel music and has sold more than 10 million albums around the world. He is known for his ability to cross genres, and his tracks “We Fall Down” and “Stand” placed highly on both the gospel and urban charts. McClurkin is also known for performing in many languages during his live shows, which he says is due to his desire to spread his message to people all over the world. His first LP, released in 1996, drew the public attention of Oprah Winfrey and was soon certified gold. His many accolades include three Grammy awards, including Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. He has also won two BET Awards, ten Stellar Awards, and much more, and has two platinum-certified albums.
25. Fred Hammond
Fred Hammond is one of the most popular and well-known musicians of the contemporary gospel genre. He gained attention for his use of many musical styles in his compositions, fusing elements of hip-hop, disco, and R&B. His career began in the 1980s as a bass player for the family group The Winans. In 1985, he joined the group Commissioned, then left to found his own group Radical for Christ. The latter was extremely successful and propelled Hammond to the forefront of the industry. His three decades as a professional musician have earned him many accolades, including several Grammys, Dove Awards, and Stellar Awards.
26. Tamela Mann
Tamela Mann is one of the most widely-known singers in the modern gospel music genre and has also entered mainstream media as an actress. She first gained attention as a member of Kirk Franklin and the Family after she provided solo vocals on “Lean on Me” and “Now Behold the Lamb.”
Her solo career launched in 2009, with several more quickly following; these became hits on the Billboard Gospel albums chart. Her third album was certified gold and featured the song “Take Me to the King,” which received a Grammy nomination for Best Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music Performance. She was again nominated for her next album and won the Grammy for the song “God Provides.” Mann has also received a BET Award and a Billboard Music Award and was inducted into the Black Music and Entertainment Walk of Fame.
27. Koryn Hawthorne
Koryn Hawthorne is one of the youngest musicians in the modern gospel and CCM genre, but that hasn’t stopped her from being highly influential. She came to national attention when she was a finalist on The Voice when she was only 17, finishing at No. 4. Her first album was highly praised, earning two Grammy nominations (among other accolades).
Though Hawthorne’s career is still in its early days, she is widely considered one of the most promising gospel singers of the 21st century. She is known for her first single “Won’t He Do It,” which received a gold certification.
28. Albertina Walker
Albertina Walker was a pioneer of the gospel music industry who paved the way for countless other singers throughout the 20th century, including James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar. She became known as the “Star Maker” for her ability to recognize talented musicians. She began a gospel group called the Caravans in the 1950s, which she led for nearly 20 years before embarking on a solo career.
She often collaborated with other gospel singers and choirs, including several collaborations with James Cleveland. Her career produced more than 60 albums, most notably her reunion album with The Caravans, Paved the Way, which was nominated for countless awards. Walker is best remembered for her songs “I Can Go to God in Prayer,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Joy Will Come,” “Impossible Dream,” and “Please Be Patient With Me.”
29. Karen Clark-Sheard
Karen Clark-Sheard is a solo gospel singer and member of the group The Clark Sisters. She has had a profound influence on the development of contemporary gospel music and CCM and has won several Grammy Awards for Best Gospel Song, Best Gospel Album, and Best Gospel Performance.
She first began her career as a solo artist while The Clark Sisters took a hiatus and gained much attention for her rendition of “Balm in Gilead” and tracks that fused elements of R&B with gospel sounds. Her first solo album earned her multiple awards, including a Soul Train Lady of Soul Award. Her career as a solo gospel singer has influenced singers across the music industry, including Beyonce and Mariah Carey.
30. Marion Williams
Marion Williams was an early gospel singer who helped set the direction of the genre by combining elements of African spiritual music, blues, jazz, and even Caribbean calypso music. She began her career singing in church and busking on the street before joining the group The Ward Singers in 1947. She toured with them until the late 50s, drawing an enormous fanbase.
She started her solo career in 1965 after a brief slowdown at the beginning of the decade and released her most beloved song, “Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go.” Throughout her career, Williams was repeatedly encouraged to start singing secular music such as blues or even opera, but she was adamant about continuing to sing religious music.
31. Kirk Franklin
Kirk Franklin is widely considered one of the most influential gospel singers of the modern era, influencing countless other musicians and helping combine elements of spiritual and urban music. He has been nicknamed the “Reigning King of Urban Gospel” and has become known as a leader of urban contemporary gospel choirs, which perform modern worship songs influenced by mainstream music. Franklin was also one of the first people to be inducted into the Black Music and Entertainment Walk of Fame and has won 16 Grammy Awards.
32. Sallie Martin
Sallie Martin was a pioneer of the gospel genre who not only revolutionized the genre but also helped spread the music of Thomas A. Dorsey and other early gospel singers. She has been called the “Mother of Gospel.” Martin is remembered for her rough, throaty vocals and enthusiastic performance style. Her vocal and musical styles had a significant influence on gospel music well into the middle of the century.
Her gospel group The Sallie Martin Singers included her daughter, among others. Martin toured with them until the 1950s when her advancing age made the lifestyle too strenuous. After her retirement, Martin remained active in the music industry and the Civil Rights Movement. She was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1991.
33. Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was a highly influential artist in the development of both soul and gospel music in the early 20th century and has been called the “King of Soul.” However, like many of his contemporaries, he got his start as a gospel singer in the group The Soul Stirrers. He eventually became one of the lead singers and began to compose his own songs for the group. Cooke’s youth, self-composed music, and compelling stage presence brought the music to a younger audience.
The Soul Stirrers also had a profound influence on the development of doo-wop and Motown. In the late 1950s, Cooke also composed a protest song for the Civil Rights Movement entitled “A Change is Gonna Come.” Both Cooke and the group as a whole are remembered for their songs “Peace in the Valley,” “Jesus Paid the Debt,” “One More River,” “How Far Am I From Canaan?” and “You Send Me,” which has been called one of the great R&B hits of all time.
34. Larnelle Harris
Larnelle Harris is a giant of the gospel genre, having won countless awards over the course of his 40-year career. He began his professional career in the early 1970s as a drummer with the group The Spurrlows, then headed the group First Gear. He has won five Grammys and 11 Dove awards and has performed in the White House for President Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush. He is best known for his songs “I’ve Just Seen Jesus,” “I Miss My Time With You,” the No. 1 hit “In It After All,” and the Grammy-winning duet with Sandi Patty “More Than Wonderful.”
35. Tasha Cobbs Leonard
Tasha Cobbs Leonard is a gospel singer, songwriter, and pastor. She is widely known in the gospel industry for her reinventing of the genre as contemporary music. Her first album, Smile, was released in 2010. Her 2013 EP “Grace” reached No. 2 on the Top Gospel Albums and also placed on the Billboard 200. She has had a number of other No. 1 singles, including “For Your Glory” and “Break Every Chain.” Cobbs Leonard won a Grammy in 2014 for Best Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music Performance. The next year she won Gospel Artist of the Year.
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