Tony Cummings looks at the contribution made to gospel music by matriarch DOROTHY LOVE-COATES
When Dorothy Love-Coates died of heart disease on April 9th 2002, America's best selling Christian music magazines, CCM and HM, made no mention of the gospel matriarch's passing. Maybe that omission reflected the American contemporary Christian music scene's scandalous ignorance of the black church roots of much of its music. Yet this singer, the lead voice of the female gospel group the Gospel Harmonettes, was in the '50s one of gospel music's most revered singers. And even when her fame had passed her gutsy, bluesy voice could still be heard when the Gospel Harmonettes' "No Hiding Place" was featured on the movie smash Ghost. Dorothy Love-Coates was a giant of gospel music. Author Anthony Heilburt wrote in his book The Gospel Sound, "Were gospel to be more publicly acclaimed, Dorothy Love-Coates might have the stature of a Billie Holliday or a Judy Garland. Instead, for thousands of black people, she is THE message singer, the one they can trust."
The gospel great was born Dorothy McGriff in 1928, the daughter of a preacher out of Birmingham, Alabama. First singing with her mother's family group the Royal Travellers, she formed the Gospel Harmonettes who tore up black churches from Bangor to Chula Vista with a fervent firebrand-type of gospel full of jubilation and joy. In the beginning, the group modeled themselves after The Roberta Martin Singers and took as their mentors Robert Anderson and the Rev W Herbert Brewster. The group was first called the Harmoneers, a name changed to the Lee Harmoneers after they started to tour with Georgia Lee Stafford. In the spring of 1949, the group, now billing themselves as the Gospel Harmonettes, appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts programme and won a recording contract with RCA Victor. However, serious illness prevented Dorothy singing on the RCA sessions.
Things were looking bad for Dorothy. Her marriage to Willie Love of the Fairfield Four had failed and she was penniless and vocally weakened by her illness. Her break came when in the spring of 1951 Professor Alex Bradford, singer, composer and gospel talent scout for Art Rupe, had the group signed to Specialty Records. A string of major selling records spanning a five year period ensued and such self-penned classics as "(He May Not Come When You Want Him But) He's Right On Time", "You Must Be Born Again" and "That's Enough" were amongst the finest female gospel records of her or any era.
The Gospel Harmonettes recorded briefly for Andex in 1958, but Dorothy decided the group should retire. The singer married Carl Coates, bass singer and manager for the Nightingales. However, gospel singing was in Dorothy's blood. By the early '60s the Gospel Harmonettes had reformed and the group began a four year stint with Savoy Records followed, amazingly, by a single for hitmaking pop R&B company Motown. Next came a three and a half year stint with Vee Jay Records of Chicago. Then followed an album for both Hob and Okeh before the group signed with Nashboro in 1968. The Gospel Harmonettes at this point included Dorothy Love-Coates (lead), Mildred Miller Howard (lead), Lillian McGriff, Cleo Kennedy and Willie Mae Newberry Garth.
One of the many superb Specialty recordings featured on the Ace distributed 24-track compilation 'The Best Of Dorothy Love-Coates And The Original Gospel Harmonettes' was "When I Reach My Heavenly Home" where the great gospel diva whooped and hollered in anticipation of her heavenly destination. For this gutsy traveller down the gospel highway, the waiting is now over.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.