Tony Cummings pays tribute to the late, great "Queen Of Gospel" ALBERTINA WALKER
The news of the death at the age of 81 of Grammy Award winning gospel pioneer Albertina Walker has brought into sharp relief the vast contribution made by a singer and vocal group organiser who was one of the giants of the gospel field. Her accolades included a 1995 Grammy Award for the Best Traditional Gospel Album ('Songs Of The Church: Live In Memphis'); 10 Grammy Award nominations; five Gold Records; three Stellar Awards; three Dove Awards; several Gospel Music Workshop of America Excellence Awards and an induction into the 2001 Gospel Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville. In 2005, the Grammys honoured Albertina's contributions to the gospel music industry. She was also the recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship. President George Bush honoured Walker for her contribution to gospel music on 31st May 2002.
Albertina was featured in the book entitled Who's Who In Black America and received several keys to various cities. She was honoured at the Chicago Gospel Festival where a bench bearing her name was placed in downtown Chicago's Grant Park. The City of Chicago paid tribute to Albertina by renaming 35th and Cottage Grove "Albertina Walker and The Caravans Drive". Albertina was also conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree by the Chicago Theological Seminary, an institution of the University of Chicago.
Albertina was born in Chicago, Illinois on 29th August 1929, the youngest of nine children. She grew up on the South Side and began singing aged four in the children's choir of the West Point Baptist Church. Her home church was a magnet for the top gospel stars of the time such as Roberta Martin, Sadie Dunham and Professor Thomas Fry. Possessing a rich contralto voice, Albertina sang with a number of gospel groups including The Pete Williams Singers and the Willie Webb Singers. But it was her time with the Robert Anderson Singers which was to serve as a foundation to Walker's professional career.
Albertina recounted The Caravans' early history to journalist Gregory Gay, "I was a part of The Robert Anderson Singers. Robert Anderson was retiring and disbanding the group and Mr Allen, the guy from the States Record Company, wanted to record me. I told him I didn't want to record by myself, I wanted to record with a group. Mr Allen replied, 'Well, you don't have a group.' So I asked the girls from Robert's group to sing with me and they said yes. I went back to Mr Allen and told him that I now had a group, and he asked me what I was going to call them. I thought about it. Elyse (Yancey) was from Gary, Indiana and Nellie (Grace Daniels) was from East Chicago, Indiana, and then Ora Lee (Hopkins) was from one side of Chicago and I was on the other, so we came up with the name, The Caravans. That's how it was. Everybody came from somewhere else. Dorothy (Norwood) from Georgia, Shirley (Caesar) from North Carolina, Inez (Andrews) from Alabama. James (Cleveland) and I were the only ones that grew up in Chicago."
On the 18th April 1952 the newly formed Caravans had their first recording session with States issuing "Think Of His Goodness To You" backed with "Tell The Angels". Later that same year in June and August more recording sessions followed. By 1953 The Caravans had begun to change to a group of soloists with the new addition to the group, Bessie Griffin, taking many of the leads on the nine songs recorded for States in December, 1953. But as Bessie told author Anthony Heilbut, times were hard for the group, recounting, "We used to sleep all day, not to be hungry." By 1954 Bessie had left the group but another fine lead singer had joined, Cassietta George. Also beginning to tour and record with The Caravans was a young singer and pianist by the name of James Cleveland. Recalled Albertina, "James was really fun to be around and work with. We grew up together. James played for my sister and me when we were kids growing up on the south side of Chicago. I had been on a tour with The Caravans and at the end of the tour our musician left us. We got back to Chicago and as usual, we would go by Mahalia (Jackson)'s house. These were the days when the singers congregated for fellowship. There were no big I's and little U's. We were all the same. Mahalia was just a down to earth person, a wonderful singer and very personable, and what a comedienne! Mahalia would cook and we would sing and eat and carry on."
She continued, "James came over that day and as we were eating asked, 'Who's playing for you?' I told him I didn't have a musician. So he asked, 'You want me to play for you?' I immediately said yes. I enjoyed James' singing and we could always work together. When we went on the road, I would let him sing and the people would respond. James had such an anointing on his voice and his playing. I don't care how great your voice is, if the anointing isn't there, you don't have nothing. You can get all the pretty singers with the great voices, but they don't hold anything to an anointed singer and that is what James was. The Lord blessed me to know the difference. After we came off the road again, Mr Allen called me to tell me the people were calling us to do another album. I told him I wanted to record James. Mr Allen said, 'That young man? Oh no, he sounds like a frog.' I told Mr Allen, 'You don't know the response he gets from the people when we are on the road because you're stuck behind the desk. The people really like him and he has something that people really need to hear. I want him to record with us and if he doesn't record with us, then we are not recording.' I stayed out of the studio a long time. Mr Allen was in need of a new record so finally he called. He told me, 'I need a new album and if you still have to have that boy, I will let you record him.' We did."
By 1956 Cassietta George had left the group but Albertina continued to demonstrate her unerring ability to spot vocal talent by bringing into The Caravans exceptional new singers. Dorothy Norwood was a singer with a burnished alto of a voice capable of great warmth with a preacher's growl who was to go on to find great gospel popularity with her story songs like "Johnny And Jesus", "The Boy And The Kite" and "The Denied Mother". Equally fine was Inez Andrews, a soulful contralto who in the '60s, with her group The Andrewettes, helped take gospel music to Europe as part of the Spiritual And Gospel Festival touring review. But it was the addition to The Caravans' ranks of a one time child protégé Shirley Caesar that The Caravans acquired possibly their best lead vocalist.
After graduating from high school, Shirley enrolled in North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) seeking a major in business education. In 1958 she attended a concert by The Caravans and was so mesmerised by their singing that she wanted to join the group. Though a strange set of circumstances, and with the assistance Dorothy Love Coates, Caesar withdrew from college in 1958 and joined The Caravans.
Wrote Horace Clarence Boyer in his book The Golden Age Of Gospel, "Caesar has a light alto voice with a rapid vibrato marked by its agility. She possesses an extensive range, the upper part of which she uses at the climax of a song. Her songs are delivered in a style not unlike that of a preacher (which she is), and she can energise an audience. Indeed, most audiences are on their feet several times during a Caesar concert. She first demonstrated her ability to completely mesmerise an audience in 1961 with her rendition of 'Hallelujah, It's Done'. During the choruses of the song she ad-libs in the style of African American folk preaching tantamount to a short sermon or sermonette. This song and sermonette form was also practiced by Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith and Edna Gallmon Cooke. In later years Caesar would perfect this practice to such a degree that she had no peer."
With the Clara Ward Singers departing the Gospel Highway to go and find middle America paydirt in Las Vegas, there was an opportunity for The Caravans to become the most popular group among black gospel audiences. Wrote Bil Carpenter in his book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, "The highlight for many was to see Shirley Caesar and Inez Andrews out-sing each other. They had a dozen radio smashes as well. Andrews led 'Mary, Don't You Weep', 'I'm Not Tired Yet' and 'A Friend'. Caesar shone on 'No Coward Soldier' and 'Sweeping Through The City'. Walker put her stamp on 'Show Me Some Sign' and 'The Lord Will Make A Way'."
The Caravans' albums for Gospel (1958-1962) and Vee Jay (1962-1965) kept the group's name in the spotlight but with their lead singers leaving to launch successful solo careers The Caravans' star was slowly waning. An exciting new lead singer, Lolita Holloway, joined the group in 1967, yet despite more Caravans albums for Gospel and Hob (1967-1968) it was only when Lolita became R&B and dance artist Loleatta Holloway in the '70s and '80s that the singer saw the big time. Albertina finally decided to retire The Caravans in 1969 and instead recorded and toured solo as one of gospel music's matriarchs. Albertina recorded her first solo project 'God Is Love' in 1975 for Polydor Records. Later she signed with Benson Records followed by stays with Word Records, A&M Records and other record companies. She often recorded with big church choirs including The Evangelical Choir, The Cathedral Of Love Choir, The Metro Mass Choir and her own church choir, The West Point Choir.
Albertina also recorded several projects together with Rev James Cleveland who, by the '70s, had become one of the best selling artists in gospel music history. It was Albertina's recording with James Cleveland in 1979 of "Please Be Patient With Me" which became a huge gospel hit. Recalled Walker, "We recorded 'Please Be Patient with Me', with me, James and John McNeil (Albertina's longtime keyboard accompanist) doing a trio on the lead. We had church in the recording session, and the Lord really blessed that album. It was a turn-around." The album did so well it was nominated for a Grammy. The singer continued, "God just opened the doors and I was able to walk on through. That led to the album 'Sweet Sweet Spirit' that featured 'I Can Go To God In Prayer', written by Calvin Bridges. That album was recorded in Chicago with Rev Jerry Goodlowe's Lighthouse Baptist Church Choir."
Albertina continued, "Calvin also wrote 'Spread The Word', which I recorded with the Chicago Chapter Choir of the Gospel Music Workshop Of America. There are places today that I cannot go without singing 'I Can Go To God In Prayer'. When we get to 'He Can Work It Out', the people get so excited that they want to take the song from me. I just let them have it. I know for myself that God can work out any situation, no matter what the problem may be. The song is over 20 years old and people still want to hear it. I thank the Lord."
By the '90s, Albertina was acknowledged by everyone as one of the key figures in the development of gospel music. She was asked to sing for US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton, and South Africa's president, Nelson Mandela. In 1995, Walker joined Thelma Houston, CeCe Peniston, Phoebe Snow and Lois Walden to record a gospel album in common, 'Good News In Hard Times', as the quintet The Sisters Of Glory. Albertina appeared in the feature film Leap Of Faith with Steve Martin and in the Off Broadway play, The Gospel Truth. Over the years she appeared on dozens of TV programmes including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and Bobby Jones Gospel. In 2006 Albertina amazed the gospel world by announcing she was reforming The Caravans. Bringing together three of the singers who had left to enjoy solo careers - Dorothy Norwood, Deloris Washington and Inez Andrews - the newly assembled Caravans made their first album for 40 years with 'Paved The Way' for Malaco Records. Albertina told Billboard magazine, "Dorothy called me and said, 'Since both of us are still here, why don't we go back and do another album?' So she contacted the rest of the girls and all us consented."
'Paved The Way' featured six new songs and seven gospel classics, among them the Caravans' hit "Mary Don't You Weep". The album was recorded at Chicago's West Point Baptist Church where Walker made her debut age four, singing in the children's choir. Among the new songs, Walker took lead on "He Fixed It", penned by Milton Biggham, and Washington stepped out on "Lord, Let Your Will Be Done". "We did what God gave us to do," Walker said of the new tunes. "The songs that we did were our kind of songs. That's the bottom line."
The album was named by Billboard magazine as one of the most memorable releases of 2006 and entered the Billboard Gospel Charts remaining there for 16 weeks as well as being nominated for a Grammy, Dove, Soul Train Music Award and two Stellar Awards.
Finally, after the last few years of being seen at public events with an oxygen tank, Albertina died of respiratory failure on the morning of Friday 8th October at the RML Specialty Hospital in Chicago.
In one of the final interviews given by the matriarch with Chicago Defender columnist Effie Rolfe, Albertina gave credit to the gospel singers who preceded her, "I don't care who you are, you didn't start nothing. Somebody was always before you. I don't care who you are and how great you are you didn't make it on your own, you didn't make it by yourself. . . somebody laid the foundation. We all standing on somebody's shoulders. I'm standing on the shoulders of Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, Sallie Martin, Professor Fry and they stood on somebody else's shoulders."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.