Look, if you can handle the key change in “Oceans,” you can handle the rigors of pop music. That seems to be the general attitude of the music industry, which has long viewed church choirs as a testing ground for the next star. Icons as venerable as Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston began singing church music before transitioning to pop, and that road has continued to be well traveled until today. Here are some church music veterans who have moved on to much bigger (and better? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder) things.
Sheeran grew up in Suffolk, England, and started singing in the church choir when he was just four years old, playing guitar when he was 11. Apparently everything he had was pretty obvious, even from those tender years. His classmates voted him “most likely to be famous” when he was 13, a prediction that turned out to be pretty on the nose.
Usher is Texan by birth, but he spent most of his childhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, singing in the church choir led by his mother. Once again, his onstage abilities deserved enough attention that the family moved to Atlanta, where he could rub shoulders with more music industry types. It paid off.
The story goes that Lavigne’s mother first realized her daughter’s vocal abilities when she heard young Avril sing “Jesus Loves Me” in the back of the car. Sadly, no recording of this rendition has survived, but it led to greater collaboration between Avril and her father, who played bass for their local cult band. Soon she started learning to play the guitar too. Can we make it more obvious?
JT is the son of a Baptist church choirmaster and therefore has church music in his blood. Most everyone knows the story of how this kid from Memphis sailed through the Mickey Mouse Club to fame alongside fellow stars Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, but it all started on the stage from the church. Hey, speaking of Britney…
Before #FreeBritney, before Kevin Federline, before she knew she was toxic, got lost in this game, or even admitted her loneliness was killing her, Britney Spears was a Louisiana girl who accompanied her parents to their Southern Baptist Church , where she sang on stage . Her very first solo performance was for her kindergarten graduation, where she performed “What Child Is This?”
One of the more interesting elements of the CCM trivia is that Katy Perry’s musical career actually began as Katy Hudson, the daughter of Pentecostal preachers whose songwriting instincts and honed vocal abilities caught the attention of CCM’s Jennifer Knapp. Hudson released a self-titled Christian rock album and toured as an opening act for Phil Joel. She dated Relient K’s Matt Thiessen and the two even co-wrote a few songs before Hudson renamed herself Katy Perry, finding a candy-coated niche in the secular music her parents had forbidden her to listen to when she was child. The rest is a teenage dream.
Long Beach’s Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.’s first exposure to music was playing piano at Golgotha Trinity Baptist Church, where he would also join the choir. The rapping came later, as did the nickname and, ultimately, the friendship with Dr. Dre that would make Snoop a star. Since then his career hasn’t been regularly conflated with the gospel music he grew up with, but in 2018 he returned to his roots for Love Bible, a collection of 32 songs of the type of music he grew up singing in church.
OK, not exactly a pop star, but still worth noting. Jonathan Kimble Simmons grew up in a very musical family, first in Detroit, then in suburban Ohio. His father is a retired music teacher who led the church choir and for much of his working life Simmons was interested in musical theater and said his “first plan was to be Leonard Bernstein when I was growing up”. It didn’t work, but it gave us Whiplash.