Marion Williams  
The genius of Gospel
By Robert Santelli

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 1999


Monumental moments in American music history—the kind that proclaim a brand-new sound, alter our culture or announce that a great new star has been born—are spread through this century like so many trees in a forest.

Some of these major milestones come to mind easily and early: The first jazz recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917, John Hammond's groundbreaking Spirituals to Swing concert in 1938, Marian Anderson's poignant performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Elvis Presley's historic recordings at Sun Studios in 1954, Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport in 1965, Otis Redding celebrating southern fried soul at Monterey Pop in 1967, Woodstock, the advent of MTV, the introduction of MP3.

Other moments are not as large or as obvious in our collective consciousness, yet when you come across one, it is like finding a footpath in a forest that leads you where you want to go. Take, for instance, a memorable moment in the gospel world, when Marion Williams, one of the truly great voices ever to praise Jesus in song, arrived on the scene.

It happened in 1950 in Chicago, the center of the gospel universe at the time. Chicago was the city that Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin, the Roberta Martin Singers, Mahalia Jackson and so many other black sacred singers called home, where on Sundays deserving souls were saved and sinners were given the hope of salvation—all because of music.

The Ward Singers were from Philadelphia, not Chicago. Yet they had been booked to sing in Chicago churches for six weeks, a startling length of time given the fact that Chicago was territorial and partial to its own artists and a notoriously difficult place for visiting gospel groups. Some thought the Ward Singers were brazen. Gertrude Ward called it confidence.

It wasn't that the Ward Singers were gospel nobodies. Seven years earlier, mother Gertrude and daughters Clara and Willarene, whom everyone called Willa, sang at the National Baptist Convention as the Ward Trio. With one dazzling performance, the group began a steady rise toward the upper echelon of the gospel performing circuit, extending their reach beyond Philadelphia by playing at churches and religious conventions all over the country.

Conquering Chicago was another matter, however. It was no secret that the Wards wanted very much to be accorded the same respect that the city gave its own gospel stalwarts. But in 1947 Willa Ward married and started a family, making it impossible for her to tour with any regularity. Willa's exit from at least the touring portion of the group meant that Gertrude needed to find a replacement. It would be difficult to do, given the vocal intimacy that the daughters enjoyed with their mother. But searching for a new singer enabled Gertrude to do something that she had been wanting to do anyway: add more depth to the Ward Singers' sound and, as gospel historian Horace Boyer has written, acquire "a much-needed physicality" in order to overpower congregations—and the competition. To accomplish this, Gertrude replaced Willa with not one singer, but two: Henrietta Waddy from South Carolina, and Marion Williams, a relative unknown from Miami.

That same year, the Ward Singers, as they were now called, began their recording career. Progress was slow until the group heard a song called "Our God Is Able" sung by the Original Gospel Harmonettes. Fascinated by the tune, Clara restructured it to better fit the singing style of the Wards and renamed it "Surely God Is Able." As Boyer explains in his book, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Elliott & Clark, 1995), "The arrangement [of the song] was unique and completely new to gospel." Repetition, improvisation, choruses that ran high and low, and references to old Negro spirituals gave the song a rich vitality. Rather than sing it herself, Clara shared the lead with Williams, the newcomer in the group, whose powerful delivery helped make the song a huge hit.

In Chicago, though, a hit gospel recording was one thing, a hit gospel performance another. The air was heated that evening in church when the Ward Singers began their set. The group worked its audience without pause, steadily raising the temperature in the pews and setting the stage for "Surely God Is Able," the song that everyone in the audience was poised to hear and the one that the Wards believed would turn their set into triumph.

Clara opened the song and prepared to turn it over to Williams. No one, perhaps not even Marion, knew what would happen next. Singing as if what came out of her mouth might turn the tide of the great earthly battle between good and evil, God and the Devil, Williams hit notes, created phrases and carried on with awesome power.

And then suddenly she "got happy." Unable to control herself, she left the group's fold and raced down the aisle, singing and shouting as she went. It was the ultimate demonstration of what happens when the body and the soul become so electrified with music and joy and Jesus that the only thing to do is run.

As Marion ran down the aisle, first one woman and then another threw their pocketbooks, as if to say, "You're singing your all, we're giving our all." The church was in glorious chaos. Pronouncing "surely" as "showly," Marion kept singing, kept counting her blessings, kept sanctifying everyone in that church and maybe in all of Chicago, for that matter. She wailed, she screeched, she shouted, she searched her soul for the strength to send out a message from God Almighty.

And what did the Lord say? That Marion Williams had arrived. Praise Jesus! Marion Williams, God bless her soul, had arrived.

Accolades are dangerous. Used sparingly, they might not do justice to an artist. Used in exaggeration, they can catapult that same artist into an atmosphere in which reality is but a haze and history is nothing but myth. So how to accurately describe Marion Williams? Few critics or gospel fans ever seem to underestimate her genius.

Not surprisingly, her producer, Anthony Heilbut, considers Williams to be the greatest gospel singer ever, due mostly to the strength of her musicianship.  He considers her even better than gospel's biggest icon, Mahalia Jackson. New York talk show host Leonard Lopate, who knew Williams well and who had an acclaimed gospel radio show on WBAI in New York from 1977 to 1984, calls her the greatest gospel and the greatest blues singer the world has ever heard.

And then there is Dave Magee, a critic and music historian whose view I respect. Magee has written this about Williams in the Rolling Stone Album Guide (Random House, 1992): "One will come away from her recordings believing she was nothing less than the greatest singer ever."

Wow. Was Marion Williams that good? And if so, what made her so good? And why is it that her name is rarely mentioned in the same sentence with that of, say, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, or Big Mama Thornton and Big Maybelle, or Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin? All giants of American vocal music, these great ladies—but giants of secular American vocal music. When it comes to gospel, are we clueless or just plain uninterested?

Probably a little of both.

Gospel has been the main source of vocal inspiration for American popular music in the twentieth century. Nearly every great black vocalist, male or female, first learned to sing in church. Many left the sacred world for the economic opportunity and stardom that beckoned from beyond the pews and altars, but they took the gospel vocal tradition with them. Sam Cooke, Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston—the list is long. Yet many others stayed in the church, preferring to sing praise to Jesus than to cross over and become a pop singer. Mahalia Jackson was one such gospel singer. Marion Williams was another.

The sacred themes and religiosity of gospel music were, and remain, removed from the more wide‑open issues of carnal love, material gain and other earthly delights that fill popular music. But the manner of singing, the way that gospel singers celebrate the path to Heaven, has so infiltrated pop music that sometimes it's impossible to distinguish one singing style from the other. That is why Williams, for one, has been called "the equal of any blues singer alive" by Jon Pareles of the New York Times and "among the greatest of jazz singers" by esteemed jazz critic Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker.

Gospel music critic Lopate believes Williams' close connection to blues and jazz came from her need to go beyond the norm. "Marion always flirted with danger when she was really improvising," says Lopate. "She might not have had the pop sensibility of, say, Aretha Franklin, but Marion could take a song and remake it so that the lines that exist between gospel and the blues, or gospel and jazz, were totally erased. In that respect, she was an absolute vocal genius."

Producer Heilbut agrees. "I'd watch Marion again and again play with the rhythm of a song and change it in a way that made absolute musical sense. There was a blues essence in her style, particularly her phrasing, which, in my opinion, was unequalled."

Williams also had such a wide vocal range, adds Heilbut, that she could hit soprano notes and growl like a blues woman, practically at the same time. "Her range of musical colors was remarkable, and she would never sing a number the same way twice. Marion used to say, 'If you want someone to repeat herself, I'm the world's worst.' Well, that had a lot to do with why she was the world's best."

All of this is true. But if you've never heard Marion Williams sing, most likely the sheer drama of her vocal style will touch you first. The fact that Williams could hit the highest notes and then suddenly drop two octaves or intonate with strains of deep blues or turn her voice into a wildly improvisational instrument the way Louis Armstrong did with his trumpet all added up to an intensely dramatic redemption of spirit and soul.

She was born in Miami, Florida, on August 29, 1927, into a deeply religious and poverty‑stricken family. Before she was five, she had begun to sing in the church choir. At school, she learned old spirituals. By her early teens, Williams had been introduced to such popular gospel singers of the day as the Sallie Martin Singers, the Smith Jubilee Singers, Mary Johnson Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as the inescapable sounds of blues and jazz; and both the sacred and the secular entered into her still‑forming singing style.

As important as her obvious vocal gift, Williams also had, according to Heilbut, "the fiery temperament cultivated in sanctified churches, where women displayed a passionate authority and expressive freedom denied them elsewhere." Williams was unafraid and unashamed to let her passion for singing get physical. Though young, Williams seemed unusually seasoned as a gospel singer and as an entertainer.

By the time she turned twenty in 1947, Williams was considered to be the best gospel singer in Miami. There were those who tried to convince her that a career singing jazz or blues would prove more lucrative, but Williams was determined to stay the gospel course. That same year, she visited an older sister in Philadelphia, who took her to hear the Ward Singers, the city's top gospel group. During the performance, Williams was invited to sing with the Wards. Again Heilbut: "Marion performed two solos, tore up the church and prompted Madame Ward to offer her a job. But with a kind of peasant slyness, Marion kept her waiting—'I was trying to act grand'—for six months before accepting."

Heilbut says it wasn't necessarily ego that kept Williams from saying yes to Gertrude Ward and joining the group. It was lack of a suitable wardrobe. Williams was so poor that she didn't own even one dress nice enough to sing in a northern urban church. She eventually borrowed one, joined the Ward Singers and helped make them one of gospel's biggest groups in the 1950s.

From the start, Williams gave the Wards two things: a voice that could turn the most typical gospel number into a climax of uncommon faith, and an exploding physical expression with each and every song that left the audience emotionally exhausted. The records that Williams cut with the Wards, beginning with How Far Am I from Canaan and continuing with the modern gospel classics, Surely God Is Able, I'm Climbing Higher and Higher" and Packin' Up practically defined gospel music in the post-war period. The Ward Singers were a group: Clara Ward was a great arranger and the true leader of the group, mother Gertrude provided the guidance and wisdom, and Henrietta Waddy and Willa Ward, along with additional Ward Singers Frances Steadman, Thelma Jackson and Kitty Parham, were apt background singers who could come forward when called on. But Marion Williams was the magnet, the star, the centerpiece.

Williams remained with the Ward Singers until 1958, some eleven years. During that time, her influence on gospel music and rhythm & blues was powerful. Case in point: Take a listen to Little Richard. Hear his falsetto "whooo!"—the one the Beatles co‑opted in the '60s. It's right out of Marion Williams, his acknowledged inspiration. According to Heilbut, so is his sense of syncopation and showmanship.  And you know those soulful screams that made Stax‑Volt the equivalent of Motown during that same decade? They might not have been created by Marion Williams, but they were passed on through her. Then there are the Isley Brothers and their monster hit "Shout!" which borrows heavily in substance and style from Williams. And finally, the run up the vocal scale and right back down, a strategy that's employed by Mavis Staples and just about everyone else with one foot in gospel and the other in pop, well, that's Marion Williams, too.

Williams left the Ward Singers to form her own group, the Stars of Faith. Though Williams was still in top vocal form, the things Clara and Gertrude Ward offered her —good songs, great arrangements and a business acumen that was the envy of the gospel world—were sorely missing in the Stars of Faith. Fortunately, the chance to star in Langston Hughes' Black Nativity in New York gave Williams and the Stars of Faith the break that they needed. The show, the first of its kind ever to get to Broadway, was a huge success. Williams and her group took Black Nativity beyond New York, touring throughout the United States and Europe, where the acclaim was across the board.

By the mid‑'60s, black popular music and gospel were in the midst of a transformation in America. On the secular side, soul music had replaced rhythm & blues, and the emphasis had turned to the sounds of Motown and Memphis. In the sacred world, gospel music had become politicized, moving to the front of the line in civil rights marches and demonstrations, and contemporized, with a new generation of singers owning a sound ripe with complex harmonies and elaborate arrangements. Williams sought to find her place in such change. In 1965, she left the Stars of Faith and went solo.

Musically, it was a good move, one "long encouraged by those who felt no group, no matter how practiced, could keep up with her ceaseless and audacious improvisations," wrote Heilbut in the liner notes to the Williams album Can't Keep It to Myself. Working as a solo gospel artist enabled Williams to enjoy supreme freedom, and she took full advantage of it, although her career was none the better for it. She sang in church, performed in concerts, appeared at jazz and gospel festivals, recorded and continued to carry God's name in song. But her star was fading. The pop and gospel music scenes were speeding through the '60s, sometimes tumultuously, and Williams had a hard time keeping up.

Williams' personal life also experienced setbacks. A son, Robin Williams, had been born out of wedlock, and Williams suffered the stigma that surrounds an illegitimate child in inner church circles. There were money issues, and her health was suspect. Later on in her life she'd be diagnosed with diabetes.

Aware of the money and acclaim that Aretha Franklin was enjoying in soul music, an artist whose vocal style could be traced, at least in part, back to her, Williams signed with Atlantic Records with the hope of getting her piece of the pie. But her renditions of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," though riveting, failed to leave their mark, and albums such as The New Message and Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go were not commercial triumphs. The title of the latter album seemed to sum it all up for Williams as the '60s gave way to the '70s.

Throughout all her struggles, Williams continued to record. Heilbut first took her into the studio in 1973. He had met her in 1958 at the Apollo Theater, where he was taken by her immense talent. As a graduate student at Harvard University in 1962, Heilbut produced a Stars of Faith concert there.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Heilbut arranged a concert with Williams in Boston. Three years later, he published The Gospel Sound, which established him as a gospel authority and led him to produce records by Williams and many others, including Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coates.

"I wasn't happy with the pop‑gospel material that Marion cut with Atlantic," says Heilbut. "I thought I could do better." He did. The collection of albums that Heilbut recorded with Williams over a twenty-year period which ended in 1993, a year before her death, represent some of the finest gospel recordings in the modern period. Works such as I've Come So Far, Born to Sing the Gospel, Surely God Is Able and Strong Again, all recorded for the Spirit Feel label in the '80s, get five stars, the highest possible rating, from David Magee in the Rolling Stone Album Guide. My Soul Looks Back, a compendium of Williams material from 1962 to 1992 on the Shanachie label, is equally essential, as are two other Shanachie releases produced by Heilbut, Through Many Dangers, which collects classic performances from 1966 to 1993, and The Gospel Soul of Marion Williams. The 1959 Christmas album, Oh Holy Night, and If We Ever Needed the Lord Before from Columbia /Legacy will fill out your Marion Williams CD library—at least until Heilbut completes his latest Williams recording project. "This one details the bluesy side of Marion Williams," says Heilbut excitedly from his New York apartment. "Of twenty-three songs, nineteen were never released, yet they are some of the best performances Marion gave me."

On June 11, 1993, Marion Williams was pulled away from her church duties in Philadelphia to take a phone call. The caller was from the MacArthur Foundation, a prestigious entity that awards the title "genius" to deserving American artists as well as grant money to be used to continue to create great works. Williams was awarded a five-year grant totaling $374,000. She stopped cooking and tried to regain her composure. Then she thanked Jesus and shed tears of happiness.

In August came another award: the Kennedy Center Honors. During the event, Billy Preston, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and others paid tribute to Williams and her nearly fifty years of devotion to gospel music. During her performance, Franklin, who sang "Packin' Up," left the stage to work the audience, heating it up in the aisles just like Williams did in her prime. Williams was touched—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Less than a year before she'd make her way to Heaven, rising up from this here troubled Earth for God's eternal kingdom on July 2, 1994, Marion Williams had arrived—again.