The Black church has forever been home to some of the world’s best vocalists, and it has birthed generations of singers longing to be heard beyond the pews. Although some church-going folk may call it secular, rhythm and blues has its roots in gospel music. Over the decades, R&B has transcended far beyond its origins, but you can still hear the constant homage to the church in the instrumentation and vocal stylings.
Many of today’s most recognized R&B artists had humble beginnings singing in their home church, and it laid the foundation for the rest of their lives. Here are 13 R&B artists who started singing in the Lord’s house:
1. Toni Braxton
R&B songstress Toni Braxton is known to be from a strict God-fearing family, but she has always said her escape was singing in the children’s choir at her church. Toni and her talented siblings all sang together there and eventually formed a band called The Braxtons.
The sisters ended up releasing tunes with Arista Records, but the music did not perform as well as they hoped. However, there were labels who were interested in Toni individually. This led to her getting a solo deal with LaFace Records, releasing her self-titled debut album in 1993. The LP reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts and cemented her place in the music industry.
2. Whitney Houston
The late, great Whitney Houston has a rich history of gospel singers in her family. Her mother, Cissy Houston, a Grammy Award-winning vocalist, sang in her family gospel group, The Drinkard Singers. They were known for launching the careers of not only Cissy, but Judy Clay and Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. The group also sang background for Aretha Franklin.
At age 5, Whitney joined the New Hope Baptist Church in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Her first solo performance in the venue was at age 12, singing the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” Whitney went on to become one of the best-selling music artists of all time and is widely referred to as “The Voice.” Throughout her career, she paid homage to her church roots, singing gospel songs live and on many of her albums. Whitney passed away in February 2012 at age 48.
3. Sam Cooke
Legendary soul singer Sam Cooke, born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, was the son of a reverend. Cooke sang in the choir of his father’s church and began his career in a group called the Singing Children with his siblings at age 6. He later joined a gospel group in his early 20s called The Soul Stirrers. Cooke eventually crossed over into the pop charts, where he garnered 30 U.S. Top 40 hits. Cooke was killed in Los Angeles in 1964 at age 33.
Usher Raymond, born in Dallas, Texas and raised in Tennessee, got his start in his church choir in Chattanooga at age 9. The budding star’s mother and grandmother realized his singing ability early on and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to further his career. Raymond was eventually discovered by LA Reid’s LaFace Records at age 13. The Grammy Award-winning singer has since sold over 80 million records worldwide and become one of the most successful R&B artists of our generation.
5. Diana Ross
The legendary Diana Ross, born in Detroit, also had humble beginnings in the Lord’s house. According to her 1993 autobiography, she first sang in her grandfather’s church, Bessemer Baptist in Alabama, where 7-year-old Diana, along with her siblings, were raised by her grandparents while her mother healed from tuberculosis.
Brandy began her singing career early, performing her first solo in a church choir at the age of 2. Brandy’s father, Willie Norwood, was a gospel vocalist and choir director, which made the transition to music easy for young Brandy. The rising star went on to become a teen sensation and fully stepped into her artistry in adulthood, being dubbed “The Vocal Bible.”
7. John Legend
John Legend started his career early as well within the church. Legend, born John Roger Stephens, began playing piano at age 4. His father was a drummer and his mother sang and directed the church choir. His grandmother was even the church organist. When Legend was 7, he began performing with the choir. The young crooner went on to become the first Black male EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner, with 12 Grammys under his belt.
8. Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul began her legendary career in her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist. Her dad, Minister C.L. Franklin, encouraged her to sing in the choir, and she began performing solos at an early age. At 12, Aretha’s father began managing her and took her on the road for his “gospel caravan” tours.
She signed a record deal with independent label JVB Records and cut gospel tracks in her early teens. Aretha went on to become one of the world’s best selling artists, and Rolling Stone named her the greatest singer of all time. The legend died in 2018 at age 76.
9. Faith Evans
Faith Evans’ upbringing in a Christian home led to her singing in church at age 2. The “Soon As I Get Home” vocalist was only 4 years old when she sang in Emmanuel Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. She began performing with jazz bands in her teen years, and ultimately signed with Bad Boy Entertainment in 1994.
10. Anthony Hamilton
The soul singer began his journey in music in his church’s choir at age 17. Hamilton, born in Charlotte, NC, also sang in his high school’s award-winning choir. In 1992, he was encouraged to leave North Carolina for New York City to further his career. Hamilton ended up signing to Uptown Records and co-writing Donell Jones’ hit “U Know What’s Up.” He went on to become a platinum-selling recording artist with a Grammy under his belt.
The Georgia native was born to a former church-singing mother and followed in her footsteps by performing at the Jones Hill Chapel United Methodist Church in Newnan, Georgia. At age 10, Monica became the youngest member of a traveling gospel choir called Charles Thompson and the Majestics.
A year later, the “Don’t Take It Personal” singer was discovered by producer Dallas Austin in Atlanta. She was offered a deal with his label and he began producing her debut album, Miss Thang. The Grammy Award-winning singer has gone on to sell over 5 million albums in the United States.
12. Kelly Price
Kelly Price began singing in church at an early age in her hometown of Queens, New York. At age 2, she joined a children’s choir and sang her first solo at age 3. Price was raised in a strict Pentecostal household, and was restricted from wearing jewelry and makeup.
As a teen, the young star sang background on many projects, including multiple songs for Mariah Carey. The Grammy-nominated artist went on to become a platinum-selling singer with several successful albums to date.
13. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye was born to a minister father and began singing in church at 4 years old. He and his dad also played piano together. As a boy, he fell in love with singing and began participating in school plays and glee club. In his teenage years, Gaye joined a slew of doo-wop groups and boy bands — until 1960 when the last one disbanded.
The Grammy winner ended up performing at Berry Gordy’s house during the holiday season that year, and Gordy signed Gaye shortly afterward. In 1984, he was shot and killed by his father in Los Angeles after an argument. Gaye is regarded as the Prince of Motown and has won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other posthumous honors.