Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Archives Center Home  |  Collections Index



Biographical/Historical Note

Kenneth Morris (1917-1988) and Sallie Martin (1896-1988) were co-owners of the nation's oldest continuously-running Black Gospel music publishing company. Martin and Morris established the firm in Chicago, Illinois and it remained in operation from 1940 until the 1980's. Martin spent most of her time on the road with her singers advertising the compositions published by the firm. Morris remained in Chicago arranging, composing, and notating music. Along with his wife, Necie, Morris also handled most of the company's paperwork.

Kenneth Morris (8/28/1917-1988), Gospel music publisher, arranger, composer, and innovator, was born in New York. Although he began making music in church as a youngster, he commenced his professional career as a jazz musician. In high school, and later while studying at the Manhattan Conservatory of Music, the ever changing Kenneth Morris Band was often billed at hotels, restaurants, and lounges. He and others of his band traveled to the "Chicago World's Fair" in 1934 to perform dance music for the day and evening concerts. Because of the heavy schedule, Morris became ill, and was forced to leave the band. However, he decided to stay in Chicago, and there met members of the Gospel music community. Among them were Lillian Bowles and Charles Pace. He spent six years with Lillian Bowles Music House, and in 1940, partnered with Sallie Martin to form Martin and Morris Music Company.

Kenneth Morris' partner, Sallie Martin (11/20/1896-6/8/1988) was a noted Gospel musician as well. Born in Pittfield, Georgia, her mother was a traveling musician. After her mother's death (ca. 1912), Martin moved to Atlanta, then to Cleveland, Ohio (1917), and finally settled in Chicago, Illinois (1919). In each of these cities, she sang in church choirs. In 1932, she auditioned for and joined the Pilgrim Baptist Church chorus lead by Thomas Dorsey. And in 1933 she began traveling with Dorsey to help promote his songs. Together they founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Martin left Dorsey and toured briefly as a soloist. She partnered with Roberta Martin for a short time, then went on to form her own women's group (The Sallie Martin Singers). She continued with the group and in 1940 she joined Kenneth Morris to form Martin and Morris Music Company.

Martin retired from music in 1970 and sold her portion of the business to Morris in 1973. A pioneering Gospel musician, she was widely known through the tours made by the Sallie Martin Singers. Their performance style influenced musicians across the country and around the world. Among her students were Dinah Washington, Jessy Dixon, Delois Barrett Campbell, and Alex Bradford.

The Martin and Morris Music Company (1940 - ca. 1988) was a long awaited "dream come true" for Sallie Martin. As a frequent attendee of the First Church of Deliverance, pastored by Reverend Clarence H. Cobb, Ms. Martin often relayed her desire to him. A popular minister known as "the preacher," Cobb hired Kenneth Morris as his choir director. Morris became a pioneering and innovative Gospel musician. He is noted for the introduction of the Hammond organ to the Gospel music sound. Sallie Martin often sang with Kenneth Morris's Choir. And Cobb persuaded Morris to go into business with Sallie Martin. Martin was a great natural talent, but had no formal music training. She needed a partner who could write and arrange music.

Morris bought out Martin in 1973. And about 1978, he acquired the Theodore Frye and the Roberta Martin catalogues. The Bowles and the Beatrice Brown catalogues were also added to the firm's inventory before Mr. Morris's passing. When he died, Martin and Morris Publishing was the only surviving Black Gospel sheet music distribution house in the nation. His widow continued the business for some time after his death. There was little interest in the company by other family members, and requests for materials were dropping off. With little help and lighter profits, in 1993 Necie Morris began packing up and disposing of the company's records. For more information see We'll Understand It Better By and By, Bernice Johnson Reagon, ed., 1992, SI Press. Click here to go to scope and content.


Revised: January 5, 2000