Bessie Griffin Sings the Gospel

Air Date: December 9, 1962

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Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls perform two classic American Black Gospel songs, Deep River and Walk in the New Jerusalem on the Dinah Shore Show, December 9, 1962

A Classic Contribution

Television is a marriage of art and social reflection. TV relies on art and artists to entertain and ingratiate itself ensuring we invite it into our homes nightly and let it become part of our family. Television’s choices about what to show, and to whom, reflect the industry’s beliefs about American families; both what they will enjoy and what they will tolerate in their homes. Broadcasters, and society at large, recognize television’s enormous power to shape what audiences enjoy by introducing them to new artistic forms and genres, and what they will tolerate by introducing them to new concepts and ideas.

On December 9, 1962 the Dinah Shore Show on NBC at 10:00 PM, quietly took a small, but meaningful, step toward shaping American tastes and tolerance. In a show subtitled, Music of America, Shore, one of America’s most popular entertainers of the time, invited Frank Sinatra, Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster, and Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls to represent different aspects of that American music.

Sinatra was a huge star and audience draw for the show. Mulligan and Webster challenged the audience with cool jazz, a music format recognized for a generation as a unique American artform. That musical segment was presided over by Gerry Mulligan, an impressive and talented White man. The segment implied that jazz music was a contribution to American culture from both Black and White cultures, an idea that is still debated.

A Talented Performer in Primetime

The presentation of Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls told a different story. The classic TV clip above of Griffin shows a performance that was new and challenging to many white Americans, north and the south, and inspiring to many Black Americans around the country.

Here was strong, powerful Black music presented exclusively by incredibly talented Black performers in primetime. This uniquely American musical format, familiar and beloved by many Black church members, was presented in all its glory and power to all Americans across the country. For many Black Americans, this was the first time they saw their music, their culture, a reflection of themselves, presented respectfully to the whole of America.

The artistic performance is classic, flawless, and uplifting. Griffin’s qualifications for a primetime performance are beyond question. Griffin was born Arlette B. Broil in New Orleans in 1922. She started singing in Junior High with a group called the Southern Harps. She toured with the group in 1947 and recorded two 78’s with them for King Records. In 1951, Griffin met the great Black singer Mahalia Jackson, who recognized Griffin’s talent and made her a protégé. The gospel sound Griffin’s developed under her tutelage is unique and genuine. Music critic Leonard Feather said her voice conveys, “a deep spirituality which can hardly fail to excite with its honesty and power.” Griffin’s recording career lasted through three decades, extending to 1969, with her releasing multiple albums, both with the Gospel Pearls and on her own.

The classic TV clip above documents an impressive artistic performance in a unique American musical genre. The virtuosity of the performance makes it easy for present day audiences, more familiar with the Black gospel music than audiences in 1962, to see only the artistic context of this clip. But social context can’t be ignored when looking for the true  importance of this clip.

Regional Resistance

The television industry in 1962 was quite different than the current environment. Television was still in its infancy. Television broadcasting had come to the state of Mississippi less than a decade earlier and penetration into households was slow. Network content was limited, and local broadcasters were sometimes affiliated with multiple networks, had a supply of syndicated content available and produced much of their own programming. This lead many to feel free to defy both network and governmental standards.

In 1962, a struggle over the narrative to inform America about the civil rights movement was fully engaged. In the American South, tensions between networks and many southern local affiliates was at an all-time high. Southern members of the National Association of Broadcasters expressed discontent with network content that was “integrationists” or “provocative.” Regional groups such as Monitor South sprung up to track national content that might upset the current state of southern society, and pressure local broadcasters to preempt network content supportive of civil rights activism. Suggestions arose suggesting the formation of a Southern regional alliance to combat the NAB and the increasing proliferation of programming that was unfriendly to the Southern way of life.

A Nation on Edge

Nationally, 1962 was a highly contentious year in the American Civil Rights Movement. Gains and losses were had by both those insisting on integration and by pro-segregationist forces. Outcomes were highly uncertain. The Albany Movement, begun at the end of 1961 and joined by Dr. Martin Luther King in ’62 had ended without serious concessions or changes. Many expected more after King’s successes in Montgomery the year before. Gains through concessions from the business community in Augusta, Georgia were in jeopardy as white segregationists reneged on agreements, raising tensions prior to the 1962 Masters Golf Tournament. The 1962 NAACP annual convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia where delegates were confronted by Klansmen picketing outside the convention center. However, on December 9 of 1962, the night of this broadcast, the most important civil rights event on American minds was James Meredith’s attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi in Oxford in September of that year.

On September 30, 1962, just slightly over 2 moths prior, more than 2000 students, faculty and citizens formed a blockade to stop Meredith, escorted by Federal forces, as he attempted to register at the University of Mississippi. A segregationist riot ensued, lasting into the night. In the morning, two were dead and scores were injured. Attorney General Robert Kennedy increased the Federal presence, eventually federalizing the National Guard in Mississippi to ensure peace. Meredith was enrolled the following day, but peace was tenuous, and outcomes and safety were far from certain. Regionally, Governor George Wallace was voicing resistance to integrating the University of Alabama, threatening to send that state into chaos like Mississippi’s. New challenges to integration arose daily as anti-segregationists fought to uphold barriers to Blacks’ full acceptance as American citizens.

In 1962, the FCC reprimanded 8 Mississippi television and radio stations for biased coverage of the incidents at the University of Mississippi. In this era, the “Fairness Doctrine” was in effect to ensure local television provided balanced coverage of controversial issues. Yet in that year, Fred Beard, general manager of WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi sent a memo to all staff emphasizing that programs referencing racial integration or segregation would not be aired.

Boycotts were being organized in some Mississippi towns, including Jackson, to pressure business into acceding to segregationist demands in treatment and hiring. Advertising revenue was being threatened by both segregationists’ intransigence and the economic losses being felt as a result, causing local media to double down on its efforts to defy America’s integrationist trends.

A Meaningful Decision

Into this atmosphere the Dinah Shore Show, on December 9, 1962, made a small choice to include among its celebration of American Music, a performance by a gifted American singer in a genre that would challenge America’s taste and tolerance. This inclusion was especially important coming from Shore, a talented and respected performer herself, and an acknowledged daughter of the South. The inclusion of Frank Sinatra, worldwide star, and a supporter of integration, ensured a sizable audience tuned in. Decisions like the one to have Bessie Griffin perform two American Black Gospel songs on primetime TV in celebration of American contributions to music may seem small today, but the cumulative impact of decisions like this made them important contributions to America.

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