Incorporating jazz phrasing and technique into gospel music long before it was common, Daryl Coley was part of a vanguard of ‘70s and ‘80s contemporary gospel music pioneers that included Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Richard Smallwood, Commissioned, The Clark Sisters, The Winans, The Hawkins Family, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and Rev. James Cleveland, the latter two with which he was perhaps most associated early in his career.
Gifted with a powerful four-octave range, Coley can sing from bass to first tenor with astonishing ease. Born and raised in the East Bay, California and trained in a home filled with jazz, gospel, and classical music, Coley began singing with Helen Stephens and the Voices of Christ before landing a performing role with Edwin Hawkins and the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1977, where he stayed for six years playing keys and singing. Mentored by such legends as Dr. Mattie Moss Clark and Thomas Dorsey, Coley would go on to work with James Cleveland, Andrae Crouch, and Tramaine Hawkins on the gospel side and with secular artists like Sylvester and Pete Escovedo on the pop and R&B side. Never one to pigeonhole himself, Coley would also go on to work with jazz great Nancy Wilson, jazz artist Rodney Franklin, and R&B icon Philip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire.
But, it was Coley’s solo career as a gospel singer that would grant his ample talents the most shine, beginning with his Grammy-nominated debut, Just Daryl, in 1986. His next two albums would be Top 3 hits on the Billboard Gospel Chart, including the #1 When the Music Stops in 1992. With the exception of 2006’s Praise & Worship (peak position: #47) every Daryl Coley album released has entered the Billboard Gospel Top 40, with 10 making the Top 20, including every compilation and greatest hits package.
Signed to CGI and Sparrow Records at various points in his career, Coley went on to influence a generation of tenor and baritone voices who imitated his melisma heavy and jazz-infused approach in both the worlds of R&B/Soul and Gospel music. Several of Daryl Coley performances have become gospel standards, featured repeatedly on innumerable gospel compilation packages, including: “Real,” “I’ll Be With You,” “When Sunday Comes,” “Worthy Is The Lamb,” “He’s Preparing Me,” “Beyond The Veil,” “I Will Bless Your Name,” and “Don’t Give Up On Jesus (featuring Vanessa Bell Armstrong and the Thomas Whitfield Singers). His a cappella cover of “Even Me” has gone on to be considered a master class in phrasing and vocal performance. In 1992, Coley also performed with frequent collaborator Vanessa Bell Armstrong on the Mervyn Warren produced, Grammy- and Dove Award-winning Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration on the song “Comfort Ye My People” and as a member of the all star chorus for “Hallelujah!”
By L. Michael Gipson