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The Martin and Morris Music Company

from the Chicago Public Library

     The Martin and Morris Music Company, Inc., co-founded by Sallie Martin and Kenneth Morris, became the oldest continuously operating Black gospel music publisher in the United States, and one of the largest. Several African American publishers shared Chicago’s gospel music market during the “golden age” of gospel, including Robert Anderson’s Good Shepherd Music House in Gary, Indiana; the Roberta Martin Studio of Music (1939); Theodore R. Frye (1948); Dorsey House of Music; and Lillian M. Bowles’ House of Music. But Martin and Morris Music Company alone actively solicited and published not only its owners’ compositions but hundreds of songs from both new and established gospel composers. James Cleveland, Alex Bradford, Dorothy Love Coates, William Herbert Brewster, Lucie E. Campbell, and Sam Cooke are just a few of the most well-known. In the 1940s and 1950s Martin and Morris Music installed agents throughout the country to sell music and sent the Sallie Martin Singers on the road to promulgate the music at church choirs and conventions. The Martin and Morris Music Company was also critical to the spread of gospel music because, until the 1960s, white-owned businesses refused to handle Black gospel music

     The firm was located at 43rd Street and Indiana Avenue in the heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, close to many of the other gospel publishing houses. It provided a popular gathering place for gospel musicians both locally based and on tour. Because the company provided an extensive program of music lessons, it was alternately named Martin and Morris Music Studio Teaching School. During its last two decades the company ceased publishing new compositions while it maintained a large mail order business. 
     Related musical literature was added to the catalog. As Kenneth Morris said, “If it’s in music, we have it . . . . We carry everyone’s catalog—if it’s religious.” After Morris’ death in 1989, his wife Necie handled the business until she closed it in 1993.

The Martin and Morris Publishing House on Chicago's South Side at 4312 South Indiana Avenue in 1940

(covers from the RisingWorld collection)

Sallie Martin

     Sallie Martin (1896-1988), often called the “Mother of Gospel Music,” promoted gospel music through her singing career, her gospel music publishing, her civil rights activism, and her international philanthropy during the “golden age” of gospel. A co-founder in 1933 of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, she was the first to tour as gospel soloist throughout the United States, and she formed one of the first all-female gospel singing groups. Martin’s life spans the transformation of popular gospel music from hymn-like jubilee singing in African American Baptist and A.M.E. churches to a “sanctified” gospel sound with clapping, vocal embellishments, shouting, and stepping or dancing. Martin’s evangelistic gospel ministry moved from church choir singing to radio ministry, extensive touring, and recording.

Sallie Martin

      Born on November 20, 1896, in Pittsfield, Georgia, Martin’s short childhood ended before high school when she commenced work as a babysitter, domestic worker, and laundry laborer in Atlanta. Although her family had followed Baptist worship, in 1916 she joined a Holiness church and experienced a new kind of “sanctified” church singing. After moving to Cleveland in 1917 with her husband, she settled in Chicago around 1927; they divorced in 1929. Martin found work in a local hospital and sang as a soloist in a number of church venues, including Pentecostal congregations, where she was received with enthusiasm.

     Martin had heard about Thomas A. Dorsey’s work promoting gospel church choir programs, and in the early 1930s she determined to join his new gospel chorus at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Hearing her audition, Dorsey was moved by Martin’s evangelistic fervor but disliked her rough, untrained vocal style with its shouting, stepping “sanctified” accompaniments. He first refused to feature her as soloist because she could not read music and showed no interest in learning, but he shortly realized that most gospel singers learned all their music by ear. In 1933 Martin sang her first solo with the Pilgrim Baptist chorus. By 1937 she performed regularly on WLFL radio with Dorsey’s University Gospel Singers.

Thomas A. Dorsey and Sallie Martin

     Sallie Martin commenced traveling around the country, establishing dozens, possibly hundreds, of new gospel choirs and selling new Dorsey songs, so prolific that they then were called “Dorseys.” A gifted organizer, Martin co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses along with Dorsey, Theodore R. Frye, and several other gospel musicians. Through annual regional conferences in various regions of the U.S., the Convention promoted gospel music and promulgated the new songs written by Dorsey and his colleagues. In 1932 Sallie Martin became its vice-president and remained in office the rest of her life. In 1933 she turned her energy to assisting Dorsey with his publishing company, Dorsey House of Music. Martin was much more effective than Dorsey at marketing Dorsey’s compositions, primarily by sending gospel groups on tour to sing the new songs in churches and at conventions. She also understood the importance of bookkeeping and inventory control, and quickly both made and saved Dorsey money. However, Martin was outspoken, confrontational, even abrasive, and she and Dorsey struggled to maintain their working relationship.

The gospel chorus at Rev. Clarence H. Cobb’s First Church of Deliverance singing “He Calmed the Ocean” (from blessedover)

     A new opportunity arose when Martin took an interest in Rev. Clarence H. Cobb’s First Church of Deliverance, a spiritualist church that attracted a number of gifted gospel musicians. Rev. Cobb introduced her to Kenneth Morris, who was then director of First Church of Deliverance’s gospel music program and also organist and pianist. Morris was a gospel composer, and he worked as music arranger for publisher Lillian M. Bowles’ House of Music. Like Martin, Morris worked for a publishing company owned by another, and was looking to start his own business. 

     Both Dorsey and Rev. Cobb encouraged Martin and Morris to form their own company, and Rev. Cobb provided financial assistance. In 1940 the Martin and Morris Music Company, Inc., opened its doors and did not close them until 1993 after Martin’s and Morris’ deaths.

     Like Dorsey, Morris needed Sallie Martin to help oversee the business’ financial operation, hire staff, manage the inventory, and especially to market the music. To promulgate Martin and Morris’ catalog she formed the Colored Ladies Quartet, America’s first all-female gospel singing group (soon renamed the Sallie Martin Singers). Her daughter Cora Martin, and Ruth Jones, later known as Dinah Washington, were early members along with Brother Joe May when the group expanded. Martin and Morris’ profits soared, despite the growing competition to gospel publishing by radio and the recording industry.

Sallie Martin during an appearance on the Gospel Time television show. She is backed by the Refreshing Springs COGIC in Washington, DC. (from Rowoches)

     In 1948 Martin moved to California and established an outpost to handle Martin and Morris business on the West Coast. In 1950 the company was renamed Martin and Morris Studio of Music, with more focus on the teaching of music. In the mid-1950s Sallie Martin “retired” from touring but continued her other active roles in the business. In 1959 she purchased the catalog of Lillian M. Bowles’ House of Music and added it to Martin and Morris’ offerings. Martin’s song “Great Day (When Jesus Christ Was Born)” was published in 1961.
     The 1960s saw a culmination of the Civil Rights Movement that had grown out of some of the very churches that created gospel music. Sallie Martin actively supported Martin Luther King in his work and extended her support overseas to Nigeria’s struggle for independence as well. In the 1970s Martin finally retired from publishing. Kenneth Morris bought her out in 1973, and she disbanded the Sallie Martin Singers in 1975. However, she continued to assist Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel ministry in the 1980s.

“God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud” performed by Sallie Martin on the world tour of the Gospel Caravan in 1979. (from The Jazz Singers Channel)

The 1980 film Say Amen Somebody features Sallie Martin reminiscing about her life in gospel music. Sallie Martin died on June 18, 1988, in Chicago.

Kenneth Morris

     Kenneth Morris (1917-1989) was a promoter of gospel music, a prolific composer of over 300 gospel songs, and music arranger of hundreds of gospel songs composed by other musicians. His arrangement of “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” (1940, composer unknown) was his most popular. Morris with Sallie Martin co-founded one of the largest U.S. gospel publishing houses, Martin and Morris Music, Inc. of Chicago. A pianist and organist, he popularized the electric Hammond Organ to accompany gospel singing.
     Morris was born in Jamaica, New York, to John and Ettuila (White) Morris on August 28, 1917. Raised by an older aunt, he received piano lessons at a very early age. By the time he was eleven, he was “always in church” and could substitute for his Sunday School pianist. At thirteen he was jamming with local impromptu jazz sessions and by the time he was sixteen he had put together his own jazz band and was arranging music for it. He attended the Manhattan Conservatory of Music for two years but dropped out at age seventeen due to the expense. Instead, he focused on supporting himself through his popular band playing.

     In 1934 the Kenneth Morris Jazz Band was invited to play at the “Century of Progress” world’s fair in Chicago. But the pressure of outdoor concerts, held day and night, caused his health to deteriorate, possibly into tuberculosis. He withdrew from the band and remained in Chicago to recuperate. Then came a fortuitous opportunity, when Chicago music publisher Lillian M. Bowles (Bowles’ House of Music) lost her company’s arranger, Charles Henry Pace (gospel pioneer, arranger of “Stand by Me,” and founder of Pace Jubilee Singers). Bowles, who did not write music, needed an arranger who could transcribe a creator’s original idea into readable music. Hearing of Morris’ arranging skills, she offered him the job. From 1937 to 1940 Morris worked with Bowles and met such greats as Thomas A. Dorsey and Theodore R. Frye.
     His work at Bowles’ produced a meeting with Rev. Clarence H. Cobb of the First Church of Deliverance. Cobb installed Morris as choir director and organist. Cobb published Morris’ first score, “Heaven Bells,” a jubilee-style song with call-and-response and a simple message and distributed it through First Church of Deliverance. In 1939, when the church needed a new organ, Morris recommended that Cobb acquire the newly developed electric Hammond Organ. The Hammond became wildly popular with gospel choirs and a fixture in the genre.
     By 1940 Morris was eager to leave his position at Bowles’ and form his own company and publish his own songs. Simultaneously, at Pilgrim Baptist Church Thomas A. Dorsey’s business partner Sallie Martin hoped to establish her own publishing business. Rev. Cobb encouraged Morris and Martin to co-found their company Martin and Morris Music and he provided financial help to launch it. Although Morris’ own goal simply was to compose or arrange and distribute the new gospel songs to choirs throughout the country, Martin and Morris Music achieved unheard-of financial success through Sallie Martin’s effective marketing of the company’s extensive catalog.

     Morris arranged and published the work of hundreds of other gospel composers as well as African American hymns and spirituals—a first in Black gospel publishing. His own compositions introduced new musical forms, such as innovative chords and alternatives to call-and-response and a bass line for quartet singing that nodded to Sallie Martin’s renowned deep voice. He understood that many gospel singers had no formal musical training and did not read music, and so his arrangements provided a solid framework for the accompanying pianist upon which singers could interpret, embellish, or improvise.

     Morris also kept busy giving music lessons, an important part of Martin and Morris’ mission and a major source of income. He was active in both the National Baptist Convention and the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses; ironically, he was never granted membership in the Association for Negro Musicians because that body did not recognize gospel in its musical lexicon. Kenneth Morris died February 1, 1989.

      “One of [Morris’] best-known songs is “Dig a Little Deeper in God’s Love”, published by Martin and Morris in 1947. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” was also published by the company. Morris had heard a railroad porter singing the song at a station stop on a train trip between Kansas City and Chicago. After resuming the journey, he began realizing the potential of the song, so he stepped off the train at another station, took a train back to the station where he had heard the porter singing the song, wrote down the words and music, added some words of his own, then published this great song. By 1945, sheet-music sales were in the six digits, and Martin and Morris became the major publisher of black gospel music, publishing the music of the gospel movement into the 1970s.” (DoveSong.com)

"Do You Know Him?"
Cora and Sallie Martin

The song “Do You Know Him?”, composed by Mary Lou Parker, was recorded in 1950 by Sallie Martin and her daughter Cora.

"I Want to Dig a Little Deeper in His Love"
Swan's Silvertone Singers

Kenneth Martin’s song “I Want to dig a Little Deeper in His Love” is featured in this 1948 recording by the Swan Silvertone Singers.

The Collections at the Chicago Public Library

When the Martin & Morris store was closing in the 1990s, gospel music devotees bought up the store’s remaining sheet music stock. This and company papers are located in the Chicago Public Library: Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

Collections relating to Chicago gospel music include:
– Martin and Morris Music Company Papers
– The Martin & Morris Collection (1,500 scores is almost exclusively gospel vocal music representing nearly the complete catalog of the publisher)
– Lucy Smith Collier Papers
– Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church Archives
– Arthur Logan Papers
– Loudella Evans Reid Papers
– Addie and Rev. Claude Wyatt Papers

Also, more materials are located at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. These include: Correspondence (1941-1980), Business and Financial Records (1940-1978), and sheet music and songbooks (c.1930-1985)