A few definitions are in order here:
Best: Over the last few months I’ve offered excerpts from several interviews conducted by Paul Zollo in his Songwriters on Songwriting, and I’ll use aspects of those to discuss the following writer’s excellence.
Contemporary Worship Music: I’m talking about music that would not be out of place on secular radio stations of some ilk regardless of whether or not the adjective contemporary means “absolutely up-to-this-very-minute current”–since music meant for corporate worship derives from that which has come before to establish a foundational reference (which is why you can decry contemporary Christian music [ccm] not meant for congregational singing for being behind the times, if you want, while not getting your underwear in a bunch that contemporary worship music [cwm] also lags behind the cutting edge).
Songwriter: Though known as a great performer/worship leader, I celebrate my choice for his songcraft.
All time: Many consider the dawn of cwm to be the Jesus People Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, while others put it a few decades earlier. Either way, “all time” for our purposes here encompasses the last 60-80 years of congregational song in America.
Without further ado, the best contemporary worship music songwriter of all time is Andraé Crouch. Beginning in the mid-60’s, Crouch, the son of a pastor, began combining the joyous sounds of traditional gospel (even then much closer to the mainstream thanks to the work of Thomas A. Dorsey and others a few decades prior) with the sophisticated Sound of Young America coming out of Detroit and the hard-driving soul coming from the south, the two primary African-American contributions to pop-rock of that era.
Like the best of Motown, Crouch’s most popular songs had immediate crossover appeal and were soon being sung by young Christians of all races and church affiliations. Like Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., Crouch appreciated the value of songs sophisticatedly crafted, hard-swinging up-tempo tunes and luxurious ballads, the best of which could be digested after one or two hearings and sung effectively by millions soon thereafter. In between 1966-1976, Crouch recorded scads of original songs with his group The Disciples and became the major figure in contemporary gospel music, winning seven Grammys, six GMA Dove Awards, and numerous other accolades.
Who knows what hymnals will look like post-COVID? It will be very interesting to see how the pandemic affects various aspects of church life moving forward. That said, one of the reasons I celebrate Crouch in this post comes from his prominent place in most recently published hymnals, still a good indicator of universal appeal even in the age of projected lyrics on screens. For years, if Protestant hymnals featured any African-American composers, they might have had Dorsey, whose “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” shows up frequently; a few hymnals also have his “Peace in the Valley” (perhaps because it was the title track and a popular hit for Elvis Presley on one of his several religious albums).
Prior to Crouch, though, that typically was it. On the other hand, the wildly popular The Celebration Hymnal–a 1997 joint effort by two behemoths of ccm, Word Music and Integrity Music–features five Crouch songs, a staggering number for all kinds of reasons, including race. I have about 25 hymnals in my personal collection, and many of those have at least four Crouch-penned songs. (As you would expect, the excellent African American Heritage Hymnal, published by GIA in 2001, features seven. If you are looking for an excellent resource to help your congregation expand its horizons for the purposes of racial reconciliation, you can’t go wrong with this collection, nor with its sister publication Total Praise [GIA, 2011], which features even more fabulous congregational songs from the African-American church.)
It would not be an exaggeration to use MLK-like adjectives to modify any nouns related to Crouch’s efforts in segregated Protestant America, another reason his contribution to cwm is so significant. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the American Church was still feeling the aftershocks of civil unrest in the streets a few years before, Crouch’s Disciples were the first major ccm/contemporary gospel band to integrate racially–and sexually, with women playing equal-footing roles, not relegated to eye candy or background vocals alone–a Christian version of Sly & the Family Stone. A few years later, Disciple Sherman Andrus left Crouch’s band to join The Imperials, more popular in white churches than Crouch’s, who carried a similar mantle, a real rainbow of a group with the African-American Andrus and Hispanic bass singer Armond Morales, as well.
Others who might deserve the title mantle here? Bill Gaither, of course (17 entries in The Celebration Hymnal), but I consider what he was doing to be more on the traditional end of the (horribly reductive) traditional-contemporary continuum, his efforts more Middle of the Road (MOR) than contemporary, by the very limited connotations of those categories that were en vogue a few years ago. If Keith Green had not tragically died so young, he’d have likely amassed enough material to qualify, the same for Rich Mullins. Michael W. Smith was heading in this direction for a while, and if the Gettys keep on their current pace, they might be considered down the road.
But I’ll take Andraé Crouch for now, with specific-to-the-songs rationale next week, along with reasons the current crop of hit-makers won’t qualify any time soon.
The Lord be with you!