Almost 57 years later, James Herndon can still remember the first time he appeared on TV. On June 9th, 1963, the singer-pianist made his television debut on Chicago’s Jubilee Showcase as a member of influential gospel group the Caravans. Many artists of that era can say the same thing: The half-hour program, hosted by civil-rights activist Sid Ordower, aired on local television in Chicago for more than 20 years and provided a staging ground for some of the most exciting gospel collaboration and artistry in the genre’s post-war history.
“It was real exciting, because it was so new,” says Herndon, now in his late seventies. “Not too much gospel was being promoted on TV at the time.”
Filmed in the nation’s gospel capital from 1963 to 1984, Jubilee Showcase captured many of the major figures from the tail end of the genre’s so-called mid-century “golden age,” from pioneering groups like the Soul Stirrers, the Staple Singers, Rev. James Cleveland, and the Jessy Dixon Singers to foundational soloists Thomas Dorsey and Albertina Walker, and stars like Andraé Crouch and Shirley Caesar.
Many of those artists are featured prominently on Jubilee Showcase, a new 36-song Time/Life compilation of recordings from the show that marks the first-ever audio release from program’s immaculately preserved archives. The album was compiled by Sid’s son Steve Ordower, who for the past decade-plus has been at work on a feature-length documentary about the show’s under-acknowledged legacy and the life of his father, who passed away in 2002.
“As I did these interviews,” says Ordower, “I was just astonished at the level of impact this show had on the landscape of this country.”
The reconsideration of Jubilee Showcase comes at an opportune time, when gospel music is regularly showing up as a key influence in the pop mainstream. Last year, Kanye West, who grew up in Chicago during the final years that Jubilee Showcase aired, launched his Sunday Service series and released the gospel album Jesus Is King. That record arrived after several years of artists like West and Chance the Rapper exploring gospel influences alongside Kirk Franklin, a modern figurehead in the genre.
“Gospel artists are trying to get more exposure, get discovered by an audience that otherwise might not know they exist,” Los Angeles gospel DJ Aundrae Russell told Rolling Stone last year. “You see it more, and it’s becoming more acceptable.”
In addition to being one of the very first gospel TV shows, the Emmy-winning Jubilee Showcase also was the longest-running for several decades, reportedly garnering several hundred thousand viewers per episode by the end of the Sixties.
The new Jubilee Showcase compilation could help connect younger listeners to their genre’s roots, says the veteran gospel singer Richard Smallwood.
“A lot of people just aren’t aware of the history, and there’s a need to really talk about it,” he says. “These are the people who really laid the foundation of gospel music as we know it today.”
The first-ever episode of Jubilee Showcase aired on January 10th, 1963, just three months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. Sid Ordower met MLK and many civil-rights leaders during his time as a civil-rights and labor activist in the Sixties in Chicago, where he befriended Reverend Jesse Jackson and would later helped Harold Washington become the city’s first black mayor in the Eighties. For Ordower, Jubilee Showcase was simply one of several interests and passions folded into a larger life of activism. “The show was part of my dad’s overall agenda,” Steve Ordower says.
From the beginning, the program provided an unprecedented platform for Chicago’s thriving gospel community. “It was one of the very first gospel music television programs,” says historian Bob Marovich. “If it weren’t for Jubilee Showcase, we would not have any visual documentation, either of more local artists or nationally known artists who were at the top of their game.”
“To put us on television? That was huge,” Mavis Staples said in a previously unpublished interview with Steve Ordower for his planned documentary. “[Until then], gospel couldn’t be heard. If you wanted to hear some gospel on the radio, you’d have to be up at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
The music performed on the Jubilee Showcase show evolved alongside the genre, as gospel progressed and modernized throughout the course of the Seventies and Eighties. After primarily showcasing the classic gospel quartets of the 1950s in the show’s earliest years, Jubilee Showcase featured everything from solo artists to church choirs to electrified bands, “even groups that weren’t necessarily gospel,” says Marovich. While being a distinctly gospel program, Jubilee Showcase defined the genre loosely, featuring artists like the famous Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon, who accompanied acts like the Staple Singers on guitar. Long before a group like the Emotions began scoring R&B and disco hits in the Seventies, they were performing on Jubilee Showcase as the Hutchinson Sunbeams.
That diversity of talent would be presented each Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on the city’s local ABC affiliate. “It was called church before church,” says Steve Ordower. “It was an institution in Chicago, and not just specifically in the African-American churchgoing community.”
For a show that presented the gospel tradition to a larger audience, Jubilee Showcase always resisted making a spectacle of the black church. “[Sid] wanted it to be respectful and dignified,” says Marovich.
The show also provided a forum for collaboration and community in the gospel world of the Sixties and Seventies. “It was always like a big family reunion when you’d go down there,” Mavis Staples told Steve Ordower. Each 30-minute television show would feature an encore with all the show’s guests singing together on a standard.
“To have Willie Dixon on standup bass, Thomas Dorsey playing piano, and Brother John Sellers singing, that just wasn’t going to happen, except on Jubilee Showcase,” says Marovich.
Thirty-six years after the show went off the air, the brand-new Jubilee Showcase compilation finally offers a vivid document of an invaluable, and long-ignored, piece of American musical history.
“When the show stopped, we couldn’t understand,” Mavis Staples once said. “We thought it was going to last forever. You talk about [the gospel song] ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize?’ That was our prize.”