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* Marion Williams, the pioneering gospel singer...


* Marion Williams, the pioneering gospel singer whose soaring, swooping style influenced such popular artists as Aretha Franklin and Little Richard, has died at the age of 66. Ms. Williams died Saturday of vascular disease at Albert Einstein Medical Institute. She had diabetes and was diagnosed with severe kidney problems in 1989. In 1993, Ms. Williams became the first singer to win a "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation. The same year, she sang for President Clinton as a winner of the Kennedy Center Honors. "She is simply the best we had during the classical gospel era of the '40s and '50s," gospel expert Bernice Johnson Reagon, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution and editor of "We'll Understand It Better By and By," a book on gospel history, said last year. Ms. Williams' influence echoed through pop music as well as the gospel world. Little Richard has called her whoops the inspiration behind his vocal gymnastics on "Tutti Frutti." Aretha Franklin covered Ms. Williams' two biggest hits, "Packin' Up" and "Surely God Is Able." Ms. Williams repeatedly turned down offers to cross over into commercial blues or jazz. "I don't have nothing against other people and what they do, but I don't want no part of singing secular music," she said in 1993. "I was offered $100,000 to make one blues record, and I turned it down. I sing for the Lord, and that's enough for me." Ms. Williams was born in Miami, the youngest of 11 children, only three of whom survived past their first year. She was 3 years old when she started singing with her mother, a soloist in the church choir. As a teen-ager, she joined the Clara Ward Singers, the premier gospel group of the time and the first to sing for audiences outside the church. She formed her own group in 1959, the Stars of Faith, and went solo in 1965. Ms. Williams recorded 10 albums, and her music can also be heard in the movies "Fried Green Tomatoes," which was dedicated to her, and "Mississippi Masala." She was featured in Bill Moyers' PBS documentary "Amazing Grace." "She knew how to move you from one emotion to another without jilting you and, when you least expected it, she would drop a vocal bomb on you," said the Rev. Clarence Blair, operations manager for WDAS-AM, a 24-hour religious station in Philadelphia. "What she did was real; it was not a game," he said. "Her singing was an extension of her religious commitment."

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