Bessie Griffin: A pioneering, and largely forgotten, giant of black gospel music

Friday 24th September 2010

Tony Cummings remembers the soulful contralto of the late, great BESSIE GRIFFIN

Bessie Griffin
Bessie Griffin

Bessie Griffin was one of the GREAT voices of gospel music. In his 1985 book The Gospel Sound gospel expert Anthony Heilbut wrote, "thirty years ago, singers began announcing that she could outsing Mahalia Jackson, and Bessie has never lived it down. Her contralto is huge and lustrous worthy of comparison with Bessie Smith's or Mahalia's, but successors to great singers seldom make it. So, forced to follow in Mahalia's footsteps, Bessie has known nothing but trouble. Her whole life sounds like one long blues, but Bessie won't sing Devil's music."

Despite Heilbut devoting a whole chapter to Bessie in The Gospel Sound both material success and tangible recognition from the black church community continued to elude Bessie and when she died in 1989 her passing was given little publicity. The entry on Bessie Griffin in Bil Carpenter's 2005 book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia began with the phrase "although she is virtually unknown today". Yet anyone who has heard the compilation by Shanachie Records of Griffin tracks 'Even Me' will know that whether she was whipping a congregation into a frenzy as on the 1954 classic "Too Close To Heaven" or demonstrating the blue moans of her stately contralto on the '80s "I Can Put My Trust In Jesus", hers was a voice of sublime, spirit-lifting quality.

Bessie was born Arlette B Broil in New Orleans, Louisiana on 6th July 1922. She was the daughter of Enoch Broil, a sanitation worker, and Victoria Walker Broil. She told Heilbut, "My mother was what we call Creole. On the plantation, she only spoke a broken French. She was companion to this white girl, Arlette Cox, that's where I got my name." Her father drank, but her mother belonged to a small Baptist church. "My mother was one great moaner."

When Bessie's mother died she was raised by her "grandmother", Lucy Narcisse, actually her mother's cousin. Lucy's relative Louis B Narcisse found fame as a controversial gospel singer and preacher who mixed New Orleans voodoo with Pentecostal fire and as King Louis Narcisse became a Spiritualist luminary in Oakland.

Bessie's upbringing was poor and packed with backbreaking household chores. But growing up in the church her extraordinary singing talent was soon noticed. Singing with conviction was a habit Lucy Narcisse had drummed into her. "She'd tell me shouting's all right, but when you shout make sure you're not playing, because if you're not sincere, you might break your neck. Do what the Spirit of God leads you to do." Once, at a friend's funeral, Bessie sang "I'm Bound For Canaan Land" and the Spirit led her to jump off the balcony. When she came to, she rose without a scratch - confirmation of the Spirit's wisdom and protection. Twice, the power of Bessie's singing literally killed people. Once, in New Orleans, she wailed "I Want To Rest" and laid one lady to rest. Another time, in Texas, she sang "Just Over The Hill" and a lady went over. "I didn't pay it no mind, because people were screaming and carrying on so. Later they told me she had a heart condition and they'd poured cold water over her, and it brought on the seizure. I never got over it."

Bessie formed the all female acapella group the Southern Harps. They toured all over the Southern States and recorded two 78s for Syd Nathan's King Records in 1947 and the following year four 78s, under the name The Southern Revivalists Of New Orleans for Bob Shad's Sittin' In With Records. As Sister Bessie Griffin the singer also recorded three or four solo singles with Sittin' In With with guitar accompaniments provided by bluesman Brownie McGhee. But nothing really sold.

Bessie's quartet, patterned on male groups, with women singing tenor, baritone and bass parts, had plenty of tough times travelling the Gospel Highway. On the strength of their radio broadcasts they'd travel from town to town, usually earning enough to stay in one hotel room, all four sleeping in the same bed. But, except for "Baby Helen" (first tenor Helen Melinda Mathews who was to find R&B success in the '60s as Linda Hopkins), the Southern Harps were built like cellos. "We'd lie crossways, and you know our leader, Alberta Johnson, weighed over three hundred pounds. So when she'd be pressing too much on the rest of us, somebody's say, 'Okay, everybody ready, one, two, three, shift.'" One typical incident was to become Bessie's favourite anecdote for television appearances and was recounted to Anthony Heilbut. "We were driving in Mississippi on these maypop tires, you know what maypop tires is, may pop any moment. It was real late and our car was stopped by this cracker sheriff. He ask the boy who's driving, 'Where you taking these girls?' He told him we were gospel singers. So the cracker says, 'Oh good, I just loves to hear niggers sing. Wake 'em up, girl.' So I tell them, 'Wake up, Alberta, wake up, Helen, wake up, Lucille, this man wants to hear us sing.' 'Oh shoot,' says Lucille, 'go back to sleep.' 'You better wake up, he's got a gun.'" And what did the Harps sing? "What A Friend We Have In Jesus".

Bessie's marriage to Willie Griffin had ended after two years. In 1951 the young gospel singer finally got a break when gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson invited her to sing at her anniversary at Chicago's gigantic Coliseum. Bessie drove north with her husband-to-be, Spencer Jackson, and the car crashed en route. Her friends had chipped in to buy a white velvet robe with black satin fringes and as soon as she hit Chicago, the robe was stolen. "Spencer knew I was discouraged and nervous. So the night before the programme, he took me to the Coliseum, walked me all around the building, stood me on the stage and told me, 'You look around, 'cause, girl, tomorrow you're really gonna be out there.'" The next night, on an all-star programme before 42,000 fans in the New Jerusalem of gospel music, the awkward New Orleans girl stole the show. She sang the old hymn "Come Ye Disconsolate" and Reverend Brewster's "How I Got Over".

Bessie Griffin: A pioneering, and largely forgotten, giant of black gospel music

In November 1953 at Memphis' Mason's Temple, Bessie recorded her classic two part rendition of "Too Close". Unfortunately, released on the tiny Starmaker label it didn't even begin to make Bessie a "star". So the singer returned to the security of a group, the Caravans. The Caravans had been founded by Albertina Walker, a former lead singer for Robert Anderson's group. Robert Anderson was the top male soloist in Chicago, with a deep, husky voice and he read a lyric with the amazing grace of his teacher, Roberta Martin. Albertina absorbed Anderson's style and went on to form her own group from ex-Anderson singers. In later years the Caravans featured a good dozen name talents and from 1958 to 1966 were the most successful gospel group on the road. But the glory came years after Bessie had left. While she sang lead, the group knew only hard times. "We used to sleep all day, not to be hungry," she remembered.

Bessie recorded nine tracks (seven issued) with the Caravans for States/Gospel, one of which "Blessed And Brought Up By The Lord" was a "Baptist blues" today considered one of the Caravans' finest recordings. Tony Heilbut wrote, "Bessie ends [the recording] with a raspy, hoarse yell, 'Hey-hey-hey-hey, by the Lord', then drops an octave to the richest contralto tones, 'Sho' nuff, by the Lord'. She often cracks at such moments and the effect is, as Wordsworth said, 'too deep for tears'. Such solos with the Caravans won Bessie the respect of everyone on the road. But again, no money. 'I had one pair of patent leather shoes, and my feet was tapping the ground. The Caravans used to be so embarrassed, there my shoes'd be crooked over and I was out there singing and shouting, sweating like a dog. In Cleveland, somebody threw those shoes away, the group must have been ashamed, and Spencer had to go out buy me some new ones.' As Heilbut observed, the story would be very funny, if one didn't remember that the singer with the worn our shoes "was one of the best black singers in America."

Bessie stayed with the Caravans for about a year then moved to Chicago where she soon built a reputation tearing up Chicago's churches as the city's finest soloists. She recorded a single for Al Benson's Parrot label then toured for a year with Reverend W Herbert Jr, the son of gospel's most brilliant songwriter. Brewster Jr was an excellent songwriter too and a powerful preacher. In admiration of his singer he dubbed her "Good Queen Bess". But Mahalia was still the Queen Of Gospel and at the tour's end Bessie's earning were far from regal. She moved back to New Orleans, working both as a soloist and disc jockey. This double strength earned her the title "Queen Of The South" without any change in her estate. By 1958 Bessie had relocated to Los Angeles signing with Art Rupe's Specialty Records.

In 1959 Bumps Blackwell, the legendary record producer who had catapulted Little Richard to rock'n'roll fame, conceived Portraits In Bronze. Adapted from the famed black author Langston Hughes' Sweet Flypaper Of Life, Portraits In Bronze was the first gospel musical. It starred, of course, Bessie, accompanied by a local quintet, the Gospel Pearls.

Portraits signalled the first move of gospel into clubs and coffee houses. The production was pop gospel - "We didn't know how people would react to us shouting 'Jesus' so we'd sing 'My Saviour' or 'Master' - yet Bessie always threw in a few down home gospel numbers. If the drunks wanted "Saints" she'd make them sit through "The Old Rugged Cross". Portraits In Bronze packed them in. "We had Steve McQueen, Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lawford, Bette Davis come to see me in Chicago. Baby, we had a time."

The exposure of Bessie's gospel music to a mainstream, largely white audience brought her appearances on national TV and opportunities to record albums. She recorded an album on the Decca label with an orchestra, 'It Takes A Lot Of Love'; she made 'Portraits In Bronze' on Liberty with an accompanying band that included a young Billy Preston; and joined the lucrative nightclub circuit singing and recording gospel albums in night clubs in the 1960s. Yet despite her introduction into the mainstream and some high profile exposure like a show at Disneyland and an appearance on Pat Boone's TV shows, big earnings always eluded her. Bessie recorded a solo album for Savoy which was unremarkable except as a great example of her voice, and an album with the Gospel Pearls entitled 'Gospel Soul' on Sunset, a subsidiary of Liberty. The Nashboro label released an album recorded live in concert and Griffin continued to tour and record as her health allowed.

In 1974 she appeared in the 20th Century Fox thriller Together Brothers, which was filmed in Galveston, Texas. She played a female preacher, Reverend Brown, who conducts a funeral service for a murdered policeman. The only witness to the crime is a little boy who is stalked and his "brothers" pull together and help apprehend the killer. The soundtrack for the movie was scored by Barry White.

In 1975 Anthony Heilbut went to Bessie's home and recorded the gospel matriarch singing an intensely powerful acapella version of "The Lord Will Make A Way". It was released on the various artists album 'All Of My Appointed Time'. Even such a crude, impromptu recording showed the sheer quality of her soulful contralto and the recording was subsequently sampled for the 1996 dance single "I Know The Lord", released as by The Tabernacle and then again in 1999 for the Shaboom track "Bessie".

By then of course Bessie had gone to be with the Lord. Bessie died of breast cancer aged 67 on 10th April 1989 at Brockton Memorial Center in Culver City, California. CR

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.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Deborah Owens in New York, NewYork @ 12:33 on Apr 8 2012

I'm trying to find an album That Ms. Griffin recorded that I use to listen to with my grandmother so that I can keep the memories that I have of us listening to it together alive in my heart; I think one of the songs was" Crying in the Chapel. Around the early 1970's

Posted by Gloria Watkins in Los Angeles @ 05:00 on Jul 26 2011

I first heard Bessie Griffin in September or October 1953. I was ill and in the hospital in Memphis. My Mother brought a radio to keep me company. I heard Bessie sing "Too Close", and the song and her voice tore me up. I heard her on WDIA, but I had never heard her, or heard of her. She became my favorite woman gospel singer even untuil today. I wish that I could find that recording. I am now 74 years old. I was not able to find the single, or album that has been revised. Thank You

Posted by Emma in England @ 18:49 on Mar 8 2011

I'm at school and studying gospel music. I never knew that these people can be so inspiring. Thanks for the info.

Posted by George Kovats in Kansas City @ 21:31 on Jan 6 2011

I saw Bessie Griffin in Portraits in Bronze half a dozen times at the Ashrove in Los Angeles. Her reading of "That Old Rugged Cross" was the most powerful outpouring of pure emotion I had ever heard in my young life. It made a lifelong gospel lover out of me and I'm not a religious person. I've heard many great singers in my time, but never one to equal that long ago gift. It lives on in my bones and I'll never forget it.

Posted by Stephon in Omaha, NE @ 16:09 on Oct 15 2010

Thank you for this article about Bessie Griffin, I never know much about her. I didn't even know she had recorded with the Caravans. Thanks for the history

Posted by John in italy @ 16:22 on Oct 8 2010

We'll miss you Albertina Walker, your music will always remain inspirational, emotional, and enjoyable.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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