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The Great Shrine Concert: A landmark gospel show, 60 years later

Sixty years ago this month, some of the biggest names in gospel music gathered at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles for a concert. The list of acts included groups like the Caravans, the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soul Stirrers, led by a young Sam Cooke.

There was something else notable about the concert on the evening of July 22, 1955 — it was recorded, allowing gospel fans and scholars decades later to get a glimpse into the event that has become known as “The Great Shrine Concert.”

The concert took place in the middle of an era that scholars have called the golden age of gospel.

“We have up until that point very few live recordings of any kind, much less an all-star congregation like that,” said Robert Darden, the director of Baylor University’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project.

Even though the Shrine concert was recorded, it took decades for the music to reach fans. Some of the performances were released in the 1970s, but with additional instrumentation added to the recordings. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the unaltered performances were finally released on CD.

Darden said the recording allows fans to hear some of the biggest names in gospel history at their peak. Sam Cooke was in his final days with the Soul Stirrers before making the switch to pop music. Fans also get a rare chance to hear Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes do an 18-minute-long medley that Darden would rank among the 20 best live gospel performances of all time.

“They were organic, they were frenzied, they were passionate,” said Darden about Coates’ performances. “They were a church service on steroids.”

The lineup at the Shrine also included a high school student named Annette May, the daughter of the famous gospel singer Brother Joe May.

Annette May Thomas (who now goes by her married name) lives in Baldwin Hills, not far from where she took the stage at the Shrine, and is one of the last surviving performers. Her father died years ago, but she commemorates him with a license plate that bears his name. On that July evening, she performed after her father and sang the Mahalia Jackson song “Consider Me.”

“It was kind of an awesome thing to stand on stage and look out at all those people,” said Thomas. “It took your breath away when you looked at them.”

She recalls that the audience was filled to capacity that night, with an estimated 6,000 fans in the seats. Although she became accustomed to it, performing in front of large audiences wasn’t something that came easy for her — as a younger teenager, she used to get weekly shots because of the skin problems she suffered from stage fright.

She particularly remembers fans “falling over” the performance by the Soul Stirrers. Cooke sang with a raw intensity that was very different from the voice that many people would become accustomed to on polished pop songs like “Cupid” and “You Send Me.”

“Falling out” is a term that is used in gospel music for the excitement that can overtake fans at gospel concerts, and it’s something that Thomas says she's seen a lot of over the years.

“Most of the times, people would be saying, ‘Oh were they falling out, what they were doing?’" said Thomas. “And I’d say, no more than what you do when you when you go to your baseball games and your football games. If you haven’t seen how stupidly you look when you’re jumping up and down and screaming and kicking… you go crazy. Well, that’s what they do when they’re overcome by the spirit.”

Thomas would later move to L.A. and work closely with another one of the performers that night: James Cleveland, who was accompanying the Caravans. Cleveland would go on to become founder of the Southern California Community Choir, a group that also included Thomas. The group would become an integral part of the evolution of gospel music with the introduction of large choirs. They would also be featured on another famous live recording: Aretha Franklin’s 1972 album “Amazing Grace.”

The recording of the Shrine Concert was so rare that another performer didn’t know it existed until last year: Herbert Pickard, another one of the last surviving performers, who was the pianist in the long medley by Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes. Pickard and the group almost didn’t make it to the concert — they got into a serious car accident just days before the event while heading to California, but luckily, no one was seriously injured.

Pickard recently listened to the group’s performance for the first time on a 21st century invention. “Somebody told me look up the Harmonettes on YouTube, and there it was,” said Pickard. “I listened more than once because I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it."