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A great gospel music voice is silenced


Philadelphia -- SHE HAD to sing from a chair this night. For the past couple of years, she didn't always know if she'd be well enough to sing.

Her friends at the Gospel Music Preservation Alliance asked Marion Williams to sing at an Action AIDS benefit at New Bethlehem Baptist Church.

The diabetes -- that later took both legs and eventually her life on July 6 -- and the drain of dialysis three days a week weren't going to be enough to shut her up on this night.

So she eased herself into a chair near the altar, took her time with the microphone. She thanked the Lord, "who is first in my life," and she called her crew.

Willa Moultree, Kitty Parham and Frances Steadman came up and surrounded her. For a few minutes, I was in a different church on another night many years earlier.

I was about 11 and the Clara Ward Singers were "performing" that night.

Clara was alive then; Kitty Parham may have been in the group, or perhaps Henrietta Waddy, Willa Ward-Moultree, Frances Steadman or one of a half-dozen other great singers who were with the Ward Singers at the height of their fame.

The Ward Singers were a gospel spectacle, something to see as well as hear. They wore long, flowing pony tails, heavy makeup and gaudy costume jewelry.

Their emerald-green stretch limo, the first I had ever seen, was parked outside the church, ready to take them to the next stop. When they sang their signature hit, "Packing Up, Getting Ready to Go," they'd break out suitcases.

But Marion Williams was the star that night. They sang "Surely God is Able," one of the Ward Singers' biggest hits. But it was always Marion Williams' song.

It started out as kind of a mid-tempo, call-and-response between the opening lead and the group in their typically tight harmony, singing against the heavy backbeat of the late Gladys Gordon or one of their other pianists.

They built to a refrain when the group sang "He's able, He's able, He's able, God is able, He's able to caaaarry you through."

And then in an almost belligerent tone, Marion Williams would break in with her lead line, "Don't you know God is able."

She'd be singing full out from the opening note. She'd hit that first syllable so hard, it took the song to a new level.

Her voice set tempo, as well as tone. A lot of the strongest gospel groups seem to push their lead singers, but for all their great voices and great volume, Marion Williams seemed to pull hers.

Whether it was the Ward Singers or later her own group, "The Stars of Faith," made up largely of Ward Singers alums, Marion Williams carried the mail.

When she began a solo career years later, she was already able to command large and loyal audiences on concert tours in Europe and Australia, where gospel aficionados already knew her.

But she was like that prophet in her own land. Except for a relatively few gospel insiders, most Americans, even most Philadelphians, hardly knew she was alive.

That's why it felt so good to see the world discover her again last year. For fans like me who have been listening to and loving this singer for a generation or more, it was overdue but so satisfying.

It was like our own taste had been confirmed the night we watched Aretha Franklin and Little Richard sing to her, saw the president hug her when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at Lincoln Center.

She won a $360,000 "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation without even knowing who had nominated her.

How many miles of one-night stands would their driver, Randolph "Rudy" Scott, have had to drive the Ward Singers before they could gross $360,000?

Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed her as perhaps the greatest singer -- not just gospel singer -- of all time.

"Where were all those people 10 years ago?" Anthony Heilbut, her last record producer, asked at her funeral.

He didn't sound bitter. And the years of relative obscurity didn't seem to make her bitter either.

She continued to record her songs and made the overseas concert stops, where her star shined brightest, whenever she could.

And she'd come out when she felt well enough, as she did that night two years ago at the Action AIDS benefit at New Bethlehem.

What a thrill it must have been for her to finally receive the acclaim she'd earned for so long.

But it wasn't about acclaim. Gospel music wasn't an option for Marion Williams. It was a mission.

If a pocket full of money or the acclaim of presidents could have turned her around, a lot of people in Europe or Australia or even West Philly might have missed the message God gave her for us.

Elmer Smith is a columnist for the Philadephia Daily News.

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