The Rev. Maceo L. Woods, a longtime pastor on Chicago’s South Side and an influential gospel musician, has died at age 87. A musical celebration, viewing, and funeral are being held this weekend for Woods, the recipient of a Legends awards from gospel music’s Stellar Awards and a Lifetime Achievement award from the Chicago Gospel Music Awards.
Upon hearing news of Woods’ death, colleagues, congregants, and listeners have been reflecting on the spiritual and cultural impact of the pastor-musician’s lengthy, multifaceted career.
Music Was Vital to Pastor Maceo Woods’ Ministry
Maceo Leon Woods was born in 1932 in Mississippi, and when he was a child, his family moved to the Morgan Park neighborhood of Chicago, on the city’s South Side. They joined Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where Woods began serving as organist by age 12. Eventually he formed a singing group, the Maceo Woods Singers, which went on tour and recorded a successful album titled Witness.
By 1954, Woods’ musical career took off with his organ rendition of “Amazing Grace.” According to gospel music historian Robert Marovich, that release from Vee-Jay Records remains the top-selling gospel instrumental. More than 200,000 copies sold in the first year alone.
Wood’s version of “Amazing Grace,” as well as other classics such as “Hello Sunshine” and “Jesus Can Work It Out,” continue to sell today. Pam Morris-Walton, a radio host at Chicago’s WVON, says of Woods, “His music has no expiration date.”
Woods played as house organist for Vee-Jay Records, and the popularity of his “Amazing Grace” recording drew greater attention to his choral ensemble. The sharply dressed group went on the road for live performances, with Woods playing an organ that lit up on stage.
In its obituary of Woods, the Chicago Sun-Times notes that he “shared friendships and concert stages with legends who made Chicago a center of gospel, including the Barrett Sisters, the Caravans, the Rev. James Cleveland, the Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson.” Woods performed on venerable stages such as New York’s Apollo Theater and Madison Square Garden.
Eventually Woods branched into producing live gospel music programs, a radio show, and an annual musical extravaganza in Chicago called Gospel Supreme. In the early ’60s, he asked Detroit pastor C.L. Franklin to appear at one of his programs, and Franklin brought along his daughter Aretha—who joined in to sing “Amazing Grace.”
‘He was a preacher that played the organ’
For all his musical accomplishments, Pastor Woods also is being remembered for delivering powerful sermons. After studying at the Moody Bible Institute and briefly serving as music minister at Chicago’s Hyde Park Bible Church, he founded Christian Tabernacle Church in 1959.
The congregation, which grew from 11 members to more than 800 within the first year, recently marked its 60th anniversary with a Founders Day celebration. Church elder Julius M. Jackson says of Woods, “He was not an organ player that could preach; he was a preacher that played the organ.”
Rev. Mack Mason, who helped Woods publish an autobiography titled A Graceful Journey, remembers him as a “great mentor, pastor, and friend.” In a Facebook tribute, Mason writes: “I learned so much from this great man of God, watching him pastor all types of personalities.” Despite Woods’ musical fame, Mason says, the preacher was “amazingly humble, down to earth, and believe it or not, at times shy.”
In a 2004 interview, Woods emphasized that his choir “paid attention to the message of our songs” and performed to minister to people, not to entertain them. Yet Woods also admitted to enjoying some crowd-pleasing flourishes, such as walking around the organ as final musical notes resonated, dusting off the instrument with his white handkerchief.
Singer Mahalia Jackson once warned Woods against charging a bit more for tickets than other gospel music programs did. But turnout never suffered; in fact, fans reportedly came from as far away as China to hear Woods and his choir. Over the year, notable members of the Christian Tabernacle Choir included Doris Sykes, Pearl McCombs, and George Jordan.