As one of the most prolific and popular religious composers of the 20th century, the Reverend W. Herbert Brewster gave the gospel world several of its first million-selling records and, alongside contemporary Lucie E. Campbell, made Memphis a city second in prominence only to Chicago during gospel’s golden era. Brewstere’s songs also commented on and informed African-American struggle and progress in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. A true church polymath, Brewster was pastor, composer, playwright, vocal group founder and coach, poet, radio show host, and more. Brewster’s songs propolled the careers of the most famous singer and group in black gospel at the time – Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward Singers respectively – and he is remembered as a pioneer in the development of the black gospel music pageant.
He attended Howe Institute in Memphis before graduating from Nashville’s Roger Williams University in 1922. He returned to Memphis shortly after with the intent of helming a new African-American seminary sponsored by the National Baptist Convention (for which he later chaired the NBC education board), but when Bluff City politicians quashed the idea, Brewster instead assumed pastorship of East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church, where he remained until his death (and where frequent visitor Elvis Presley got much of his love for black gospel). At East Trigg, he founded the Brewster Theological Clinic, a religious training center that had at one point several branches nationally.
He formed several vocal ensembles, including the Brewster Ensemble, the Brewsteraires, and, most notably, the Brewster Singers, which featured alto singer Queen C. Anderson (1913-1959). Given the name of a Biblical Ethiopian queen by Brewster, “Queen Candace” Anderson debuted many of his songs. It was at the invitation of Lucie Campbell, in fact, that Queen C. Anderson found herself singing “Move On Up a Little Higher” in a Chicago program attended by Mahalia Jackson.
Brewster created many of his songs as vehicles for his religious pageants. “Move on Up a Little Higher,” for example, came from his 1941 religious drama, From Auction Block to Glory, which was a milestone in black sacred song as the first nationally staged black religious play to feature gospel songs specially written for that production (black pageants up to that time typically used preexisting music such as spirituals).
Brewster also emceed several radio programs that showcased his various ensembles and helped create a regional demand for his songs. In the morning he could be heard hosting the “Gospel Treasure Hour” on WDIA, while at night he moved over to WHBQ for the immensely popular “Camp Meeting of the Air.” That latter program aired from 1949 into the mid-1960s and was broadcast live from East Trigg 11 p.m. to midnight on Sundays. While Brewster’s morning services at East Trigg had an open-door racial policy, the evening radio show was the real groundbreaker, according to Dr. Samuel L. Turner, who succeeded Brewster as East Trigg pastor and theological clinic president.
As Brewster himself later observed: “I wrote these songs for these common people who could not understand political language, common people who didn’t know anything about economics … I was trying to inspire black people to move up higher, don’t be satisfied with the mediocre. That was 1946, before the freedom fights started, before Martin Luther King days, I had to lead a lot of protest meetings. In order to get my message over, there were things that were almost dangerous to say, but you could sing it.”Brewster received an honorary doctorate from historically black institution Bennett College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and in 1982 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. held a symposium on his life and music. More recently, Memphis named an elementary school in his honor. He died in 1987, shortly after his wife of more than 50 years, Julia Brewster, passed away, and is buried in New Park Cemetery.