You don’t need to be a music aficionado to know that the music industry’s most powerful voices often belong to gospel singers.
Perhaps it’s the passion they feel toward the subject they sing about, or it’s the music that unleashes these voices that sound like trumpets, tubas, and foghorns with wings.
Gospel music falls under the Christian music umbrella, but it doesn’t do so lightly or quietly. It seems that gospel singers have something even more powerful to rejoice over. Here are some of the most famous gospel singers that have ever graced the music industry. Let’s start!
1. Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson is the undisputed “Queen Of Gospel” of the 20th century. Her incredible career spanned over 40 years, and she peaked during a challenging time in history when racial segregation was rampant throughout the US.
Despite this, Jackson’s soulful voice captivated audiences not just in the US but also worldwide. Often faced with pressure to record secular and more lucrative opportunities, she remained loyal to gospel.
When Jackson released “Move On Up A Little Higher,” she became the first gospel singer to sell a million copies and opened the gateway for gospel music.
She sold 22 million records and remained dedicated to serving God with her voice throughout her performing career.
2. Shirley Caesar
“The First Lady of Gospel” Shirley Ann Caesar started singing very young and recording at age 12 in 1951.
Caesar was highly influenced by her father, who is also a gospel singer and died when she was young. She began her career singing for friends and family, and later on, she joined the legendary Caravans.
During her eight years with the group, she recorded several hit songs as the lead vocalist, including “No Coward Soldier” and “Sweeping Through the City.” She rose to popularity, and in time, she bagged a contract with Hob Records.
She is the first black female gospel singer to receive not just one but 11 Grammy awards, and she also garnered several accolades during her seven-decade career. Some of her most memorable songs include “God’s Not Dead, He’s Yet Alive” and “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away.”
Also known as Pastor Shirley Caesar, one of her greatest achievements as a singer includes performing at the White House for George Bush and delivered a speech at the US Treasury Department.
3. Elvis Presley
The “King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and a screen icon, Elvis Presley, actually had other singing talents. After reinventing himself in 1972, his gospel album, He Touched Me, won him a second Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance.
His 14-stop tour for that album even started with an unprecedented four-night sell-out at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The live recording of the Madison Concert became one of Elvis’ biggest-selling albums.
Presley’s recording of “How Great Thou Art” also won him his third and final competitive Grammy Award. Receiving 14 Grammy nominations, three were for his gospel records before his untimely death in 1977.
4. Kirk Franklin
The “Reigning King Of Urban Gospel” Kirk Franklin crossed the boundaries with his revolutionary talents as a renowned gospel singer, songwriter, musician, and producer.
If those gifts weren’t enough, Franklin is also a sought-after choir director. He has also collaborated with many celebrity gospel singers like Shirley Caesar, Yolanda Adams, and CeCe Winans.
In 2002, he released The Rebirth Of Kirk Franklin to critical acclaim and topped the gospel charts for a record 29 weeks.
Known as a child prodigy, Franklin has numerous Grammy and Stellar Awards and still influences gospel music up to this day as he continues his blooming career.
5. Andraé Crouch
“The Father Of Modern Gospel Music” Andraé Crouch is a popular eight-time Grammy Award winner and pioneer in Urban Contemporary Gospel music.
His influence is far-reaching. His résumé includes working on a list of over a thousand songs, producing, arranging, and writing.
During his long career, Crouch worked on projects with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Paul Simon, Elton John, and the gospel group the Winans.
A choir even performed a rendition of Crouch’s song, “Soon And Very Soon,” at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in 2009.
His songs have also been featured in several movies including “The Color Purple,” “Free Willy,” and the television show “Amen.”
6. Gary Davis
Gospel music has its beginning, and Gary D. Davis is perhaps the anchor.
Performing as a self-taught street busker, Davis sang meaningful songs that accented his spiritual voice. Blind since infancy, Davis is also known as “Blind Gary Davis,” which did not hinder his career but instead made it all the more inspiring.
He is known to proficiently play the banjo and guitar with a fingerpicking style that caught the eye of his famous fans like The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, who recorded several of his songs.
The Rolling Stones also credit Davis with two songs from their Sticky Fingers album. Aside from his work with other artists, some of his most notable songs are “Samson and Delilah,” “If I Had My Way,” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” to name a few.
7. Thomas A. Dorsey
Having the distinct honor of being called “The Father Of Gospel Music,” Thomas Andrew Dorsey is an influential Christian evangelist who is also the co-founder of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses.
Dorsey, whose roots are in jazz, was instrumental in developing the original gospel chorus, highly influenced by tabernacle songs and touches of blues.
Dorsey’s blues influence on gospel music led to the birth of modern gospel music that is associated with “black churches” and American music for generations to come.
Throughout his six-decade career, Dorsey wrote over 3,000 songs, and several of his hits sold millions of copies.
One of his hit songs “Take My Hand” was actually the last song on Martin Luther King Jr.’s mind before his assassination in 1968.
8. Sallie Martin
Hailed as the “Mother of Gospel,” Sallie Martin’s unique singing style initially got the attention of iconic gospel singer Thomas Dorsey but didn’t leave a favorable impression.
Three auditions later, Martin who was also a savvy entrepreneur, was reluctantly hired by Dorsey to organize his trio of singers. The reason behind Dorsey’s reluctance is that Martin could not read music, as well as her knack for singing in a rough, shouting style.
However, she proved him wrong and soon formed a profitable partnership with the legend.
Martin’s booming voice also supported the Martin Luther King Jr. movement after retiring from her music group, the Sallie Martin Singers. Some of her most notable songs include “God Is A Battle Axe,” “He’s So Wonderful,” and “It Don’t Cost Me Very much.”
Martin also influenced many singers beyond the gospel genre, including jazz vocalist Dinah Washington.
9. BeBe and CeCe Winans
This legendary gospel duo, Benjamin and his sister Priscilla Marie Winans, are credited with pushing gospel music beyond mainstream barriers. BeBe and CeCe are also the younger siblings of the renowned Winans Gospel Singers.
Televangelists Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker catapulted the duo and their contemporary sound to fame during the heyday of their Christian TV program in the 1980s.
The siblings were able to record several hit songs, including “I’ll Take You There” and “Lost Without You.” They also won three Grammy awards among many accolades they have received.
While CeCe and BeBe performed mainly as a duo, they also enjoyed tremendous success as solo artists.
CeCe performed with Whitney Houston on a song for the movie “Waiting To Exhale,” and BeBe starred opposite Denzel Washington. BeBe also contributed his production skills to Whitney’s soundtrack for the film “The Bodyguard.”
10. Mary Mary
Their debut album Thankful launched them onto a stellar career starting in 1998. Mary Mary has since released seven albums, earned many Grammy and Stellar Awards, and became the top female gospel duo.
Their hit song “Shackles” is a crossover gospel, and as an R&B song, it charted on the Billboard Hot List. Their crossover music style also made them famous beyond the gospel and Christian audiences.
Aside from their work in the Christian gospel scene, they also recorded soundtracks for two films, “Dr. Dolittle” and “The Prince Of Egypt.” Their songs “Yeah” and “Time To Change” also received acclaim when Yolanda Adams re-recorded them.
11. Yolanda Adams
Award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams has set several records throughout her career.
Billboard Magazine has hailed her as the #1 Gospel Artist of the Decade and the first gospel singer honored with an American Music Award.
Adams opened the Super Bowl LIV with her rendition of “America The Beautiful” and has received countless music awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award, bestowed by the then-president Barack Obama for her volunteer efforts.
She has five albums that charted at #1 on Billboard‘s Top Gospel Albums, and she also lent her voice to Sponge Bob Square Pants, for which she received a Tony.
For ten years, Adams hosted the Yolanda Adams Morning Show in 26 radio markets, showing that she is more than just a singer but an all-around artist.
12. Sam Cooke
Samuel Cook, with the professional moniker Sam Cooke, is a music legend who transformed gospel music, R&B, and soul. He is also known as “The King Of Soul.”
As a young boy, Cooke initially performed with a gospel group, Highway QCs. He then joined another gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, this time as a lead singer. During the mid-1950s, he crossed over to pop, and 29 of his singles charted the Top 40, catapulting his fame.
He was also more than just a huge name in the music industry. A staunch Civil Rights Movement advocate, he formed friendships with Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
Cooke’s blossoming career, however, came to a tragic end in 1964 when he was shot and killed at the young age of only 33.
Despite only singing professionally for less than ten years, he left us with many hit songs, including “You Send Me,” “Good News,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
13. James Cleveland
Endearingly called the “Crown Prince Of Gospel,” James Cleveland was an acclaimed gospel performer with a trombone baritone voice. He is credited with writing and arranging over 400 gospel songs.
Famous for teaching Aretha Franklin to sing gospel, he collaborated with her on the historic, award-winning album Amazing Grace.
He’s also the first gospel singer to receive a Hollywood star, and is credited with blending traditional black gospel with soul, pop, and jazz sounds for mass choirs.
Aside from his success in the music industry, he also founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America in Detroit.
14. Aretha Franklin
The iconic singer Aretha Franklin set the world on fire with her 1972 album Amazing Grace, which firmly planted gospel onto the music scene, shoving the rock era over a notch.
Franklin’s career started at age 14 when she released and recorded “Songs Of Faith.” She was also included twice by Rolling Stone Magazine in the top ten of their “100 Greatest Artists Of All Time” list.
Her musical performances and contribution to gospel, soul, R&B, and jazz have influenced countless stars as well. She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame!
Franklin’s list of awards and achievements as an artist and activist are endless.
15. Donnie McClurkin
The “Reigning King Of Urban Gospel” Donald McClurkin had a turbulent and tragic childhood. However, he found solace in the church and God.
When he was a teenager, he formed his first singing group with his four sisters, but their careers didn’t last long. He eventually went on to form another gospel group yet they had only minimal success.
He soon launched his own debut self-titled album in 1996, which featured one of his most popular songs “Stand” and catapulted his fane. He has since become a best-selling gospel singer, selling more than 12 million albums and winning three Grammy awards.
In 2001, he became an associate minister for Marvin Winans and was ordained as a pastor. Currently, he draws five million listeners to his McClurkin radio program and continues to perform and record.
16. Larnelle Harris
Best known as one of the vocalists of the gospel group Gaither Vocal Band, Larnelle Harris is a tenor who has won five Grammy awards, among many other accolades.
His career didn’t begin as a singer but instead as a drummer. He was part of the gospel group The Spurrlows before joining the Gaither Vocal Band.
Soon, he explored a solo career and collaborated with other well-known singers, including Christan music star Sandi Patty and gospel singer Wintley Phipps. His duets with Sandi Patty, “More Than Wonderful” and “I’ve Just Seen Jesus,” are among his most popular hits.
He has since recorded 18 albums with many #1 songs on the gospel and spiritual charts, including “Amen,” “I Choose Joy,” and “Take The Time.”
In 2018, Harris published a book and is famously known in the gospel music industry for putting his family commitments above his music career.
17. Marvin Sapp
Ordained Pastor Marvin Sapp has been crooning at his church since a young age. During his teens, he sang and performed with several gospel groups, including the urban contemporary gospel ensemble Commissioned.
His beautiful vocals, reminiscent of Luther Vandross and Billy Ocean with trumpet overtures, have graced the gospel music charts since his debut album in 1996.
Aside from his collaboration with Fred Hammond of Commissioned, he also worked with Christian singer-songwriter Israel Houghton. His song with Israel, “The Best In Me,” was a hit on both the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop and Gospel Songs charts.
In 2010, Sapp ranked as the highest-charting gospel artist in its 54-year tracking record. Sapp has also earned 13 Grammy nominations and is a prolific author of books on faith.
18. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
At six years old, Rosetta Nubin, best known as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, started traveling and performing for The Church of God in Christ.
At age 23, she recorded her first professional songs with Decca Records. Several songs from her debut became instant hits, including “The Lonesome Road” and “That’s All.”
She rose to fame not soon after, and she released several more hits. Her song “Strange Things Happening Every Day” reached the R&B Top 10, which was the first gospel record to do so.
Tharpe’s unique guitar playing style and iconic voice influenced legends like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and crossed boundaries between Rock ‘n’ Roll, R& B, and traditional gospel music at the time.
Her approach pioneered the emergence of the electric guitar style that influenced British Blues. In fact, singers like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards consider her their role model.
19. Fred Hammond
Renowned inspirational figure on the contemporary gospel music scene Fred Hammond blends his music effortlessly with hip-hop and R&B, as well as disco.
Hammond is a multi-talented singer, producer, and writer with an accomplished career as a member of the gospel group Commissioned. He also performed with the Winans as their bass guitarist before joining the music group Radical for Christ.
With Radical, they sold millions of albums, and some of their hit songs were sung by him as a soloist. Their songs “Let The Praise Begin” and “Power” won awards for Best Contemporary Gospel Song.
His résumé also includes working with Chante Moore and Sean Combs and receiving many Grammy, Dove, and Stellar awards and nominations.
20. Tasha Cobbs Leonard
A star among legends, Tasha Cobbs Leonard made her first singing appearance in a church choir when she replaced an absent member.
Years later in 2010, she launched a self-released album, which debuted her solo career. Her performance earned the attention of EMI Records.
Her first EP with EMI, Grace, was an instant success. Grace reached the Top Gospel Album, and two of her singles in that album “Break Every Chain” and “For Your Glory” reached #1 on the Hot Gospel Song charts.
As of this writing, she currently co-pastors a congregation with her record producer husband, Kenneth Leonard.
21. Johnny Cash
“The Man In Black” Johnny Cash probably doesn’t need an introduction or confirmation of his status as an accomplished country, rockabilly, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll star. His hits and awards are countless, and his prominent career spanned for 50 years.
True Cash fans know that for every ten songs he wrote, one had to be a gospel song that proudly linked him to his humble beginnings. Cash always had a reverence for the Bible since he was young, and this carried on to his music career years later.
In the 1950s, Cash joined the Air Force, and while serving, he bought his first guitar while stationed in Germany. After being discharged, he signed a contract with Sun Records, spurring his music career.
Aside from performing and composing hit songs that rocked every listener, he also wrote gospel songs whose lyrics are as deep and moving as his voice. His songs “He Turned The Water Into Wine,” “It Was Jesus,” and “Lead Me Father” are testaments to his continued commitment to God.
22. Hank Williams
Hiriam Williams, more popularly known as Hank Williams, is one of the most influential singers of the 20th Century. A star that shone brightly for a short time, Williams influenced a host of superstars that followed in his rather large shoes.
He wrote gospel songs under the alter ego, Luke the Drifter, and though many of the songs were only performed on his radio show, some 40 gospel songs exist. Some of these include “I Saw The Light,” Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul,” and “A Home In Heaven.”
Known mainly as a country singer, he’s been inducted into the Country Music Hall, as well as the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Songwriters Music Hall of Fame. Williams is also a Pulitzer Prize recipient for his songwriting skills and pivotal role in defining country music.
However, Williams battled demons. His many vices, which included alcohol and drug abuse, severely compromised his wealth. He died in 1953 at only 29 years old, but his legacy lives on.
23. Tamela Mann
Contemporary gospel singer Tamela Mann had an auspicious singing start as a performer with the “Kirk Franklin and the Family” gospel group.
Some of the group’s most popular songs were sung by Mann as a soloist, including “Lean On Me” and “Don’t Take Your Joy Away.” She also went on to star in a gospel musical “He Say. . . She Say . . . But What Does God Say?” before exploring her solo career.
In 2005, Mann and her husband, who is also a gospel singer, established their own record label. That same year, Mann released her debut album, and the lead single “Speak Lord” hit the Gospel charts, peaking at #4.
She went on to release several other albums, which were also met with much success. Mann’s third studio album, Best Days, is certified Gold, and the single “Take Me To The King” is a melodious Grammy-nominated song in the Best Gospel category.
She has also performed and collaborated with other top-notch artists like Yolanda Adams, Al Green, and Celine Dion. Mann is best known for her role as Cora Simmons in “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” an American sitcom.
24. Marvin Winans
Best known as a member of the iconic gospel group the Winans Family, Marvin Winans is an ordained pastor who went on to be a gospel singer.
Winans began his musical career in his teenage years as part of a gospel group, The Testimonial Singers. He was joined together with his two brothers. Years later, they renamed their group The Winans, marking the beginnings of The Winans Family gospel group.
Along with his group, Winans caught the eye of record producer Andrae Crouch, and this spurred their professional singing career.
Though hard to separate from the success of his family group, Winans is an accomplished organist, pianist, songwriter, performer, and producer. He also had a recurring role on the TV series “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
He was able to release a solo recording in 2007, “Alone But Not Alone.” However, this did not lead to a solo career. He, instead, is currently focusing on his pastoral career and married life.
25. Travis Greene
A rising star on the gospel music scene, Travis Greene is a pastor and co-leads his congregation with his wife.
He began his career in 2007, launching his first album The More but didn’t meet much success. It wasn’t until his second album Stretching Out that he rose to fame. Greene’s music has also ranked on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums and Top Gospel song charts. His joyous song “Intentional” rose to #1, as did his album The Hill.
Though his career is still in the fledgling stages, he’s already amassed five Grammy nominations and 13 Stellar Awards.
26. Chandler Moore
Contemporary worship and gospel singer Chandler Moore is a relatively new performer with huge ambitions to break unspoken barriers within the gospel music world.
Moore is deeply involved in the Maverick City Music collective. This collaboration catapulted him to the recognition of every purveyor of contemporary gospel music, and it transitioned him into the CCM segment.
The singles “Man Of Your Word,” “Voice of God,” and collaborations with other notable gospel singers rose on the charts, crossing the boundaries set within the industry.
Moore also collaborates with other well-known singers like Justin Bieber and Tori Kelly, establishing himself as a singer worth mentioning. He has four Grammy nominations for the 2022 season alone, which speaks volumes for a newcomer.
27. Albertina Walker
The founder of the gospel music group, The Caravans, Albertina Walker is a key player in the Golden Age of Gospel Music in America.
Walker’s nickname is “Star Maker” in the industry, and celebrity gospel singers like James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, and Bessie Griffin owe their start to Walker.
Walker also recorded many solo projects with world-renowned church choirs like The Evangelical Choir, The Cathedral of Love Choir, and The Metro Mass Choir.
Her repertoire in the music industry is also lauded by many well-known names. As a young girl, Walker toured with Mahalia Jackson, and the legend considers Walker as a friend and confidante. Walker has also performed for George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Nelson Mandela.
28. Karen Clark Sheard
Gospel singer Karen Clark Sheard is the youngest member of the gospel group, Clark Sisters. She is also the wife of Bishop J. Drew Sheard of the Church of God in Christ.
Although much of her musical success was shared with her sisters in their gospel group, Clark also made a name for herself as a soloist.
Her solo album Finally Karen became a tremendous hit in 1998, spurring hits like “Just For Me” and “Nothing Without You.” Finally Karen also won the “Lady of Soul Best Gospel Album” award.
She released several albums after that, but her album All in One was the most notable one. After a 13-year absence, Clark’s music debuted at #2 on the Billboard Gospel Chart and #98 on Billboard‘s Top 200 album.
Summing Up Our List of Inspirational Gospel Singers
Christian and gospel are strong partners in devotional music. The Christian music genre may praise the word of God; Gospel, however, sings to people’s hearts and souls.
Gospel singers deserve our listening attention. Their soulful vocals and devotion to their beliefs and talent are inspirational, and they are well-deserving to have more attention in the music industry.