Doris Akers at 100: the ‘Miss Gospel’ who helped to bridge cultural gaps
Posted on 15th May 2023 at 17:15
In May 1923, a new talent was born who would change the face of gospel music and bridge the gap between black and white musical cultures. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Doris Akers – known to many as ‘Miss Gospel’ – we take a look at her musical career and influence.
Doris Akers was born in Missouri on 21 May 1923, as the eighth of 10 children. Her parents, Floyd and Pearl Akers, had an interracial marriage at a time when segregation was still commonplace. The pair divorced when Doris was three, and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, John Lawson.
Floyd, Pearl and John all had their own musical talents, and at the age of six, Doris taught herself to play piano by ear. By the time she was 10, she had written her first song, Keep the Fire Burning in Me. Her first musical group – Dot and The Swingsters – consisted of Doris, her sister Marian and her brothers Edward and Donald.
As the name of her first group suggests, Doris had a love of swing music but she also gravitated towards gospel, a genre with roots in 18th and 19th century Afro-American culture, and which has strong religious elements.
From these amateur beginnings, at 22 Doris moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a musician. She found a home as a singer and pianist with the Sallie Martin Singers, and was encouraged by Martin, who helped her to publish her first song as a professional – A Double Portion of God’s Love – in 1947.
Following this success, Akers joined forces with Dorothy Simmons and Hattie Hawkins to form the Akers and Simmons Trio. The membership of the trio changed over the years, with the group touring extensively and recording many singles.
At the same time, Akers was writing and recording as a soloist, and even producing a number of records where Akers herself sang all the parts. She wrote songs that became hits for other artists too, such as Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain, co-written with the great Mahalia Jackson in 1958 and made famous in the 1960s by gospel star Inez Andrews.
'Bridging the gap' between black and white
In 1957, Akers was invited by the Sky Pilot Radio Church to develop and direct a new choir in LA. The Sky Pilot Choir, which featured around 100 vocalists, is widely regarded as the city’s first integrated choir, and Akers’ arrangements helped to bring new worshippers to the church, with attendance increasing hugely.
Organist Nancy Harmon describes the effect of hearing the choir perform during a trip she made to the city:
“I had never heard a choir like this one. It was so inspiring and anointed. …When we arrived at the church on Sunday morning, the choir entered from the back of the auditorium and proceeded down every aisle, singing, It’s a Highway to Heaven. I was overwhelmed and began to weep as they marched forward.”
As well as their live performances at the church, the Sky Pilot Choir performed regularly for TV and radio, and recorded a number of albums.
Having inherited her father’s light skin, Akers was able to straddle the gulf between black and white gospel. According to gospel historian Clarence Boyer, her compositions drew on European culture and American popular music as much as they were rooted in black gospel traditions. She was also able to publish her music with a white-owned publishing house, Manna Music, helping to bring the sound to a wider audience.
A prolific songwriter
Across the course of her career, Akers wrote hundreds of songs, and this prominence as a songwriter earned her the nickname ‘Miss Gospel’. Her most famous song, Sweet, Sweet Spirit, was reportedly inspired by a prayer session of the Sky Pilot Choir before they were due to perform. It’s been given different arrangements by countless artists over the years, and appears in many hymnals.
In fact, many of her songs are considered standards today – for example, Lead Me, Guide Me, which found a new audience when Elvis Presley performed the song for the documentary Elvis on Tour. Some music historians have argued that her use of harmony and counterpoint helped lay the foundations for later soul and R&B trends. Within the gospel tradition, she is celebrated as one of the form’s most important artists, who had the admiration and respect of her peers across the industry.
In later years, Akers moved from LA to Minneapolis, where she served as Minister of Music at the Grace Temple Deliverance Center. In 1992, three years before her death, she was honoured by the Smithsonian for her contributions across her career. In 2001 she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame – finally claiming her rightful place in music history.
The California African American Museum examines Akers’ musical career: https://caamuseum.org/learn/600state/black-history/blackhistory-on-may-21-1923-gospel-music-composer-arranger-and-singer-pioneer-doris-mae-akers-was-born
Mark Burford, writing for the Women’s Song Forum, looks at the way Akers straddled boundaries: https://www.womensongforum.org/2021/05/16/doris-akerss-sweet-sweet-spirit/
In this piece for LA-ist, Austin Cross argues that Akers ‘changed the game’ for church music: https://laist.com/news/essays/doris-akers-gospel-los-angeles-evoke-la
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