The black church has given America its most powerful, expressive, and inspirational singing, whether it comes directly from church-trained singers like Aretha Franklin, or indirectly in the harmonies and emotional crescendos found in pop music (think Boyz II Men or live Bruce Springsteen). The influence of African-American church music--gospel music--is everywhere.

But many listeners, especially musically deprived whites who didn't grow up with the gospel sound, don't know where to begin to discover the richest voices of the tradition. Fortunately, a few key recorded anthologies and some useful websites have appeared in recent years.

Gospel is especially rewarding for anyone who loves the great soul singers of the '60s and early '70s, such as Al Green, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. Little in pop music is quite as joyous or transcendent as their work and that of numerous other soul singers, and all of them were inspired and influenced by gospel. Internationally known figures such as Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke were their musical forebears and teachers, as were lesser-known but extraordinary artists from R.H. Harris of the Soul Stirrers to Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones to the astounding Dorothy Love Coates--billed by critic Dave Marsh as "the greatest singer you never heard."

Harris, Coates, and Jeter are all still alive, largely ignored and living modestly, when they deserve instead to be showered with honors and treated as musical heroes. Their music inhabits the major gospel anthologies, like Rhino Records' recently released "Testify!: The Gospel Box." This comprehensive overview of 50 years of gospel music, from the 1940s through the mid-90s, sets a new mark for gospel compilations. The remarkable three-disc collection, packaged in a red box resembling a Bible and accompanied by an erudite, thoughtful 68-page gospel history, shows the diversity and depth of gospel.

Rhino's box features almost all the greatest singers and songwriters in the field, from Mahalia and Coates to influential quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds to modern stars like Andrae Crouch and the Winans. The music evolves from the gentle, close-harmony "jubilee" singing of groups like The Trumpeteers to a harder-driving, more syncopated gospel by groups like the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. It reaches an apogee with the awe-inspiring singing of the Swan Silvertones and other quartets of the 1950s and 1960s.

Later decades saw a movement toward choirs (Edwin Hawkins' "Oh Happy Day" is here) and a gospel sound influenced by everything from jazzy vocalizing (Take 6) to funk and hip-hop (Donald Lawrence). While there remains great singing in every decade and style, the music in recent years too often no longer blazes the way but instead follows the latest pop (and pap) trends in an overeager effort to lasso an audience to hear the Good News of gospel.

To my ears, some of the modern songs also lack the swing and tunefulness of songs from earlier eras. Unfortunately, Rhino couldn't obtain the rights to the Soul Stirrers, led variously by Harris or Cooke--but you can hear a track of Harris' Stirrers on Rhino's excellent single-disc anthology, "Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances, Volume 1." For my money, that's the best single CD introduction to the music, hitting on most of the high points--but missing Coates and Cooke, who do appear on Volume Two.

No anthology is perfect, alas, but Specialty's "Greatest Gospel Gems" comes close, a budget 24-track twofer featuring some of the Golden Age's greatest singers, including Cooke, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Swan Silvertones. The fatal flaw of "Great Gospel Gems" is that there's no Mahalia.

It was in the golden years of gospel through the early '60s, as fertile a period as any in American music, that the great performers barnstormed across America, leaving fainting women and holy-rolling parishioners in their wake. They changed worship and music forever with their power; and, for those who missed those epic services, we can still listen to singers such as Clara Ward (Aretha's main influence) and Claude Jeter, the hauntingly beautiful falsetto singer whose "Mary, Don't You Weep" is captured in both his version and Aretha's in the "Testify!" box.

That legacy lives on in the music, even if to comes to us these days in the homogenized setting of a track from a Disney soundtrack, "The Preacher's Wife," that ends the collection with a pyrotechnic Whitney Houston backed by a choir and strings.

But it's the older songs on this ambitious Rhino set, like the Caravans' "Walk Around Heaven All Day," that will truly make you feel like you're already there.

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