My fascination with the late Albertina Walker’s life story began about six months ago, as I began to listen more and more to my YouTube gospel channel. I listen to “Oh Lord Remember Me,” a song I have watched over and over again, along with two other of my favorites, “Please Be Patient with Me” and “Lord Keep Me Day By Day.”
Walker sang with the choir at the church she attended as a child as long as she could prior to her travels as a gospel singer.
She was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, one of nine children in a hardworking Baptist family.
“I grew up going to church,” Walker recalled in the Chicago Tribune. Her mother was a member of the West Point Baptist Church, and Albertina and her sister Rose Marie both sang in the choir there.
After listening to her music for months, over and over again, enjoying that wonderful contralto voice, I began to do lots of research on her, and discovered that she was a member of a gospel group called the Caravans, traveled the world with them and made hit after hit! Let me share some of what I learned about the singer who became known as the “Queen of Gospel”!
The Caravans were an American gospel music group which was started in 1947 by Robert Anderson. The group became a phenomenal group during the 1950s and 1960s, launching the careers of a number of artists.
One by one, the various vocalists left in order to pursue solo careers, and in 1967 the Caravans disbanded. Walker, “the woman who launched more gospel careers out of one group than anyone else,” to quote Broughton, began to perform as a soloist as well.
Walker helped promote the careers of many gospel legends, including Delores Washington, Bessie Griffin, Cassietta George, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews, Shirley Caesar, Josephine Howard, Rev. James Cleveland and others, as each moved on to become solo artists. Several are still singing gospel around the world, especially Shirley Caesar. It was my pleasure to have Pastor Caesar as a guest on my radio show seven years ago.
The performers inevitably faced their share of trials and troubles, despite the jubilation of their performances. Walker told the Chicago Tribune that their meager pay often bought little more than “sardines and lunch meat and crackers and bread,” as well as the gasoline for the next trip out of town.
Hotels and restaurants discriminated against them, and in some places they visited, even the restrooms were segregated. Nothing destroyed Walker’s conviction to deliver God’s message through music, however.
“We wanted to sing,” she said. “It didn’t make any difference how we got where we were going, just so we got there.”
A star in her own right, many of the lead singers from the Caravans who worked with Walker helped popularize traditional gospel, a message of salvation for Christians. The group also made frequent TV appearances during this time on shows such as “TV Gospel Time” and “Jubilee Showcase.”
In the book “Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound,” Viv Broughton wrote: “The superabundance of talent in the Caravans took them into the very front rank of gospel groups in the early sixties but it also generated an impossible pressure within the group itself. Eventually the constraints of the group proved too frustrating.”
As years passed by, her time spent with the group did not dim the luster of Walker’s voice nor did it clutter the spirit of her message.
In 1993 she received a Grammy Award nomination for “Albertina Walker Live,” and that same year she performed a concert for Nelson Mandela during his visit to the United States. From her base in Chicago, she was active in politics, working with the Reverend Jesse Jackson to organize the Operation PUSH People’s Choir.
Every summer the city of Chicago hosts a gospel festival, sometimes featuring Caravan “reunions” in which Walker would shine. The singer was also featured in the 1992 film “Leap of Faith” as member of a spirited gospel choir.
Walker, who lived in Chicago as her busy schedule allowed, told the Chicago Tribune that her Christian faith has provided her with a full and happy life.
“All the good things that have happened to me are because of my affiliation with the church,” she said. “I’d like to encourage young people to stay with the Lord, because if they do, he will surely stay with them.”
Contemporary gospel groups have incorporated pop music instruments and stylings into their songs, but traditionalists such as Walker relied on piano, tambourine and the occasional guitar accompaniment, while the vocal harmony carried the performance. Chicago Tribune arts critic Hoard Reich calls this an “undiluted form of gospel singing” an uncorrupted and “pristine” sound.
For Walker, as for many gospel superstars, the message is as important as the delivery.
“What’s from the heart reaches the heart,” Walker explained in the Los Angeles Times. “And if you’ve got a heart and you listen to what we’re doin’, you’re gonna feel something —white, black, yellow, green, red, it don’t make no difference, you’re goin’ to feel something.”
Walker became a driving force in the gospel music industry, by making her first recordings as a part of Robert Anderson’s ensemble. When Anderson retired, the record producers tried to persuade Walker to make records as a solo artist. Walker simply did not want to sing alone. Instead, she approached some of her colleagues in the Robert Anderson group about starting a new ensemble.
They agreed, and a key element of their success was added when keyboardist James Cleveland agreed to work with them.
“When the producers asked me what to call the group, I thought ‘Caravans’ would be nice, since we gospel singers were forever traveling on the road,” Walker noted in the Chicago Tribune.
From the group’s founding in 1951 until virtually the end of the 1960s, the Caravans dominated traditional gospel, performing all over America and Europe and in such celebrated theaters as New York’s Apollo, Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden.
“The Caravans represented a high point in female ensemble singing,” Reich said. “Here was a group in which every backup singer had the technique and the vocal equipment to stand as a soloist.”
The earliest Caravans recordings — including “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance” — feature Walker as lead vocalist. The savvy artist soon stepped aside in favor of some of her Caravan recruits, including the likes of Bessie Griffin, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews and Imogene Greene.
During a 1958 tour of the south, the group attracted a teenager named Shirley Caesar who was invited to join them, first as an opening act and later as the principal vocalist.
“The Lord used the Caravans as a bridge to bring me to where I am today and I praise Him for that,” Caesar explained in “Black Gospel.” “They were happy days.”
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.