Tony Cummings ponders the history of seminal gospel group the GAY SISTERS
In his groundbreaking book The Gospel Sound, Anthony Heilbut referred to the Gay Sisters as "one-time darlings of the Church Of God In Christ, whose repertoire included intense Baptist hymns and sanctified shouts, right out of the 1920s," while Horace Clarence Boyer's study The Golden Age Of Gospel reminded readers that "the Gay Sisters sang with Mahalia Jackson on Joe Bostic's annual Carnegie Hall concert bill in 1954 and made several tours throughout the United States in the 1950s and 1960s." Yet despite their importance in gospel music history Mildred, Evelyn and Geraldine Gay haven't had a single compilation on CD. As Bil Carpenter's Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia puts it, "Two generations of gospel fans have grown up with no clue as to the impact and beauty of their 1950s Savoy sides."
In 1922, Fannie Lewis (1907-1999) married Jerry Gay (1897-1978) in Atlanta. They later moved to Chicago where they raised their five children: Evelyn, Robert, Mildred, Geraldine and Donald. A solid Christian, Jerry ran two successful furniture shops and a scrap metal business during the Great Depression. He was able to feed and clothe not only his family, but also other families in his segregated, underprivileged neighbourhood on Chicago's West Side. The family attended Elder Lucy Smith's All Nations Pentecostal Church, which was renowned in black church circles for the singers in its Sunday morning worship services. Fannie once asked professional musician Rosetta Nubin (who also attended the church) to pray that God would endow her daughters with the same musical skills. Nubin - who later gained fame as Sister Rosetta Tharpe - prayed the prayer and eventually the girls did develop musical gifts. They started by playing the piano. Evelyn developed a firm, traditional style of playing, while Geraldine cultivated a spontaneous style with dissonant chord progressions and creative passion. Evelyn was more ambitious. She accompanied Mahalia Jackson in live appearances in the 1940s and later played on recordings with the Soul Stirrers.
Mildred and Evelyn formed a duo in 1946. After Pastor Smith died, the family left her church and joined the COGIC denomination, which through their music department, had become a major force in gospel music. The Gay Sisters sang throughout the Midwest and soon developed a name for themselves. The duo went to New York to sing for the one time president of the National Baptist Convention, T S Harden. Harden booked them at his church and churches throughout the East Coast. From time to time, Geraldine would join them but wasn't a permanent member at the time for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, she wasn't interested in gospel music. She longed to play jazz like her brother Robert (a trumpeter who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, who lived with them awhile), but her strong-willed mother kept her from making the transition. Secondly Jerry was extremely protective of his spoiled baby girl and didn't want her travelling on the road since she was newly married and expecting a child.
Around 1948 the Gay Sisters recorded versions of "Have A Little Talk With Jesus" and "The Old Rugged Cross" in Los Angeles for Dolphin's Of Hollywood but sales of the 78 were poor. It was to be in 1951 that the Gay Sisters met with major recording success when as The Famous Gay Sisters the duo recorded for Herman Lubinsky's New Jersey-based Savoy Records, fast becoming a powerhouse in jazz, R&B and gospel music. A New York recording session in March 1951 produced a gospel classic, "God Will Take Care Of You". Horace Clarence Boyer has written, "Gospelising standard Protestant hymns has been a part of the gospel movement since the Azusa Street Revival, but at no time was it more popular than in the 1950s. The Ward Sisters produced a hit with 'I Need Thee Every Hour'; the Caravans scored with 'Think Of His Goodness To Me'; and Alex Bradford made his recording debut with a gospel-waltz version of 'Everyday And Every Hour'. None of these recordings could match the popularity of the gospelised version of the 1905 white Protestant hymn 'God Will Take Care Of You'."
Bil Carpenter also wrote about the Gay Sisters' seminal hit. "At the time, more traditional black church music wasn't considered sacred unless the tempo was slow and the words were drawn out. Evelyn rearranged the song by speeding the tempo a bit and not drawing the words out, a musical statement as revolutionary and controversial as Kirk Franklin's hip-hop flavoured 'Stomp' was to the black gospel world in the 1990s. In spite of those who found the song sacrilegious because of its bluesy rhythm, many embraced the new sound and it became a spectacularly successful hit upon its release. It sold an easy 100,000 units (an astounding amount of records for any genre to sell at the time), which in today's sales would be equal to the popularity of a platinum record. Although they were a duo on stage, there were songs led by Geraldine on the 'God Will Take Care Of You' LP.
"Donald spoke about his sister: 'Geraldine had a great left hand on the piano. And Evelyn had a great right hand. Geraldine was more jazz and Evelyn was more bluesy.' Geraldine loved jazz musicians. She hung out with Miles Davis and followed her brother to his recording sessions. As the group forged on, it seemed like they were always running into roadblocks to further success. Evelyn wrote a song called 'Is It Well With Your Soul?' which the sisters sang at All Nation's Church. 'So who's sitting in the audience but [songwriter] Kenneth Morris,' Donald Gay recalled. 'He took it and said he wrote it. Evelyn was young and didn't know about copyrights.'"
As well as "God Will Take Care Of You" that initial Savoy session produced two more gospel radio hits, "The Little Old Church" and "I'm A Soldier" while another Savoy session in May of 1951 resulted in a further success, the 78 "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away". As Bil Carpenter wrote, "Older audiences like them because they sang hymns, and young audiences liked them because they were young and sang jazzy, modern gospel."
The Gay Sisters were also prepared to tread potentially troublesome theological waters, recording the song "I'm Goin' To Walk Out On His Name" which affirmed the doctrine of the Apostolic Church (the "Jesus only" denomination which doesn't believe in the Trinity). As a result many Apostolic church music ministers booked the Gay Sisters. The duo continued to travel the Gospel Highway but after their 1951 sessions recorded no more for Savoy Records, Herman Lubinsky's company being notoriously bad at delivering any kind of royalty cheque. In 1955 it looked like the group had made the right recording connection when they signed a six month contract with an option with the giant Decca Records. The group recorded the song "Oh Lord Won't You Have Mercy" with a revolutionary (for gospel) accompaniment which included Peter Engle on harp and William Petty on violin. Despite a rather unwieldy artist credit of The Gay Sisters With Fanny Gay And Preacher Gay, "Oh Lord Won't You Have Mercy" immediately began to pick up sales.
But then, at least according to the account Donald Gay gave Bil Carpenter, gospel star Mahalia Jackson moved in to detrimental effect. Remembered Gay, "Mahalia Jackson heard it and the song was doing very well, especially in the East. She was a funny person and she said, 'Nobody comes up over me.' The reason she became the queen of gospel singers was that she worked at keeping everybody else from being heard. In all honesty, she was very, very selfish. That's a fact. Mahalia got to the musicians' union in Chicago and she told Harry Gray, who was the local union president, to block the record because Petty wasn't a member of the union and Decca was a union label. Leonard Joy, the vice president of Decca, called Evelyn and told her there were too many issues with the record and that they would not be able to promote it any further." The recording then died a quick death.
Another recording, this one for Chicago's P.E.A. Records, "I Shall Not Be Moved (Now Let Me Tell You)"/"Lord My Faith Looks Up To Thee" was issued, this time billed simply Evelyn Gay. But it didn't sell. The hits stopped coming though the Gay Sisters' 'God Will Take Care Of You' was for years a steady selling album for Savoy. In 1960 an obscure recording for B And F passed without notice as the Gay Sisters' star gradually waned. For a brief time, their father went on the road with them in much the same manner that Aretha Franklin used to open with a song before her father, C L Franklin, would minister. Jerry Gay copied the format. The Gay Sisters opened for him with a concert that was followed by his soul-stirring sermon.
Tragedy struck in 1964 when Geraldine confronted her womanising husband about his fidelity. Remembered Donald, "He beat her up really bad. He had already beat her and was coming at her again and Geraldine told him to back up. He didn't stop and she shot him." She spent several months in jail, where she gave birth to her youngest child, before a court inquest ruled the case as a justifiable homicide.
In 1966, with Donald drafted in to join his sisters, the group, renamed the Gay Singers, recorded an album's worth of material for Chicago's legendary blues and R&B indie Chess/Checker. But only one single, "Let Me Alone"/"He's Calling Me", was ever released and the Gay Singers went their separate ways. Mildred joined the Clara Ward Singers for a time, Donald became a preacher and Evelyn played piano on a pioneering gospel TV series, Jubilee Showcase on Chicago's ABC television affiliate. The Gay Sisters reformed for a bicentennial event in Washington, DC in 1976. Unexpectedly, Mildred, Donald and Geraldine regrouped in 1993 for a couple of sessions for Shanachie Records' 'Soul Of Chicago' gospel CD, which featured other stars from Chicago's Golden Age Of Gospel. It was a rather inglorious finale. Wrote Bil Carpenter, "Because of Mildred's advancing age and poor health Geraldine slowed down the tempo of their new recording of 'God Will Take Care Of You' because Mildred's breathing was laboured and she couldn't keep pace with the song. It was a poor finale recording for this group, who once shined so brilliantly."
In the autumn of 2004 the Rev Gay and Geraldine reunited for an album 'In The Right Hands' for Sirens Records. And that appears to be the final footnote in the Gay Sisters incident-packed story.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.