albertina walker

'Her Music Was a Healing Balm to Those Who Struggled for Justice'

Albertina Walker
August 29, 1929-October 8, 2010
By David McGee

Albertina Walker, a gospel music giant, died on October 8 of respiratory failure at RML Specialty Hospital in Chicago. Ms. Walker, 81, had been hospitalized since August 29 when she experienced breathing problems stemming from emphysema. She was 81.

At the start of her career, her friend and confidante Mahalia Jackson told the young Ms. Walker, "Girl, you need to go sing by yourself." Ms. Walker, who had been singing with another gospel giant, Robert Anderson—the male counterpart to Mahalia—took her seriously and formed what became one of the most important gospel groups in history, The Caravans, which not only launched her into legend, but also gave birth to other gospel titans, including the Rev. James Cleveland, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Bessie Griffin, Dorothy Norwood, Delores Washington and Inez Andrews, among others. Earning the nickname given her, "Star Maker," Ms. Walker and the Caravans cut a wide swath through gospel history with monumental hits on the order of "Mary, Don't You Weep," "Walk Around Heaven," "Lord Keep Me Day by Day" and "Sweeping Through the City." According to gospel music authority Tony Heilbut, writing in his definite study of black gospel, The Gospel Sound, "from 1958 to 1966 (The Caravans) were the most successful gospel group on the road."

Delores Washington, now 72, who joined the Caravans in 1958, likened Ms. Walker to the big sister who kept the younger Caravan singers on the straight and narrow when they were touring, especially in the south.

"There was name-calling. We'd have to go in through the back door (at restaurants) if we wanted something to eat," Washington said. "It came as a total shock to me. I was born in Illinois. I was not familiar with all this hostility toward black people" elsewhere.

But Ms. Walker, she said, demanded the Caravans rise above the hatred and bigotry. "We held our heads up high and kept pushing," Washington said. "We were on a mission: To sing for God."

'If I Perish," Albertina Walker with the Rev. James Cleveland and choir at the 'Save the Children' benefit concert in 1972, as seen in the film The Brothers and Sisters Live in Concert.

Disbanding the Caravans in the late '60s, Ms. Walker inaugurated her solo recording career in 1975 with Savoy Records and later recorded for Word, A&M, Benson, and other labels, sometimes solo, sometimes with choirs (including her own church choir, The West Point Choir), on a few occasions with the Rev. Cleveland—more than 60 albums, all told. In 2006 she reunited the Caravans for a glorious outing, Paved the Way, with Walker, Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews, and Delores Washington, which charted for 16 weeks. Her many awards include: a 1994 Grammy Award for the Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album (Songs of The Church—Live in Memphis); 10 Grammy Award nominations; five Gold records; three Stellar Awards; three Dove Awards; several Gospel Music Workshop of America Excellence Awards; an induction into the 2001 Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2005, the Grammys honored her contributions to the Gospel music industry. She was also the recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship. President George Bush honored Ms. Walker for her contribution to Gospel music on May 31, 2002.

Tina Nance, Ms. Walker's granddaughter, recalled a typical moment for her grandmother, although it occurred in atypical circumstances—not in a church, but on a movie set, for Steve Martin's Leap of Faith. An extra in the film, Nance said Ms. Walker brought the production to a halt when she sang a solo in one scene that reduced the other actors on the set to tears.

"It was like the spirit of the Lord came into that place. They had to take a break because everyone was crying," Nance said. Later, Martin sent Walker a bouquet with a card that read, "You are truly the greatest gospel singer in the world."

In recent years other honors came Ms. Walker's way. Receiving keys to cities became commonplace; the Chicago Gospel Festival placed a bench bearing her name in Grant Park; the City of Chicago renamed 35th and Grove "Albertina Walker and The Caravans Drive"; and the Chicago Theological Seminary, affiliated with the University of Chicago, honored her with an honorary Doctor of Letters Degree.

In addition to co-founding the Gospel Music Workshop of America with James Cleveland, Ms. Walker was active in numerous charitable organizations such as United Negro College Fund, American Cancer Society, National Council of Negro Women, Nation of Islam's Million Family March, One Voice "A Fight Against AIDS," NAACP and Operation Push. In 1988 she founded The Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts. Her foundation offers financial assistance to college students in the form of scholarships (totaling $10,000 a year, according to her granddaughter, Ms. Nance) to further their music education.

The Caravans, 'Lord Keep Me Day by Day,' a gospel monument from 1958

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) said in a statement that Walker was a voice for the civil rights movement whose music was "a healing balm to those who struggled for justice."

Rep. Rush's complete statement:

"On behalf of the people of the first Congressional District of Illinois, my wife Carolyn and I extend our deepest condolences to the family, admirers, fans friends and supporters of Albertina Walker-she was not only a gospel music legend to millions around the world she was the voice of the Civil Rights Movement and her music was a healing balm to those who struggled for justice.

"'Tina was always available for counsel or concert and she often visited churches throughout the city to sing her songs of worship and praise. She was a strong woman with a gentle spirit-a born leader and a great Chicago ambassador. Tina has left a huge imprint on gospel music and she now joins Mahalia Jackson, Father Thomas Dorsey, Rev. James Cleveland, and others, in God's heavenly choir; and every time the thunder rolls I will know she just stepped to the microphone."

Ms. Walker, a lifelong Chicago resident, was a member of the West Point Baptist Church.

Albertina Walker in a house wrecking performance at the Grammy Awards. She won a Grammy in 1994 for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album, Songs Of the Church—Live in Memphis.

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