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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
what did the Lord say? That Marion Williams had arrived.
Praise Jesus! Marion Williams, God bless
her soul, had arrived.
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.
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.
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
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
a little of both.
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.
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
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
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.