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Gospel-singing sisters still on a high note

March 26, 2006 12:50 am

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DeLois Barrett Campbell (center) relaxes at her Chicago home March 8 with her sisters, Billie Barrett GreenBey (left) and Rodessa Barrett Porter. lfray1.jpg.jpg

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Marian Anderson

By HOWARD REICH

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO--They don't move as nimbly as they once did, and their performance career mostly has receded into the history books.

But when they begin to sing, the Barrett Sisters--widely considered the greatest gospel trio ever assembled--still give voice to the angels.

Singing as if from a single spirit, caressing phrases with ineffable tenderness and grace, harmonizing as adroitly as perhaps only three siblings could do, they sound like no other ensemble on this Earth.

As if to prove the point, on a recent weekday afternoon they burst into Thomas A. Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," a gospel anthem. They were preparing to mark the 80th birthday of DeLois Barrett Campbell, the eldest of the sisters.

At the moment, Campbell is sitting up in bed, having recently returned home from a hospitalization, her sisters seated on either side of her, beaming.

All at once, that famous sound--sweet chords, honeyed tones, lovely legato lines--resonates throughout Campbell's South Side home, everyone else in the house rushing into the bedroom to savor this music.

Two choruses later, the impromptu audience applauds noisily, struck anew by the enduring, lustrous beauty of this work. Like Campbell, her sisters may be heading inexorably toward octogenarian status, but on strictly musical terms the trio has lost virtually nothing to the passing decades.

"We're some old chicks, but we're still here!" cracks Billie Barrett GreenBey, 77, generating laughter all around.

"And we still love to sing," adds Rodessa Barrett Porter, 75.

A variety of ailments--related to complications from Campbell's arthritis--have left her bedridden, but she and her sisters were determined to mark the 80th birthday in church, with music.

"I want to spend that day giving glory to God," says Campbell, who insisted she be released from the hospital to prepare for the concert.

"A lot of people could have given up. Singing in a wheelchair is no joke," she adds.

Surely it's precisely that kind of grit that enabled sisters who never had the benefit of voice lessons to forge one of the most revered gospel ensembles in the world.

Blessed to have been born to a father who was a deacon and a mother a chorister, the Barretts grew up alongside the founders of gospel music, an art form that first blossomed on the South Side of Chicago, in the late 1920s and early '30s.

Gospel songwriter Dorsey, who essentially invented the genre by applying blues techniques to hymns and anthems, lived in the neighborhood and had frequent contact with the family. And Dorsey disciples such as visionary singers Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin and Clara Ward always were within earshot, inspiring the sisters.

Yet while the Barrett siblings routinely harmonized at home, they didn't see a professional future for themselves until they heard--of all things--a popular white vocal group on the radio.

"We loved the Andrews Sisters," recalls Porter, citing a seemingly unlikely inspiration for a black gospel ensemble.

"They harmonized so well that we started to harmonize with them, when we heard them on the radio.

"We really modeled ourselves on them."

With one notable difference: The Barretts never sang Andrews Sisters hits such as "Bei Mir Bist du Shoen" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" when their father was around. In his presence, and in church, they focused on decidedly more spiritual fare.

By 1941, DeLois and Billie joined with cousin Johnnie Mae Hudson to form the Barrett & Hudson Singers, a precursor to the emergence of the Barrett Sisters, which Rodessa formally joined around 1950. That was the year each of the sisters got married--"Nobody wanted to be left at home," jokes Campbell--and began devoting themselves to music preaching faith and deliverance.

Considering that the Andrews Sisters sold tens of millions of records, why didn't the Barretts try to follow them into the commercial big time?

"I think it's because in the 1930s our brother and three sisters died from tuberculosis," explains Porter. "Because of that experience, because we saw them suffer, we got to know God.

"And because no one else in our family got tuberculosis, we saw that God is good."

The loss, said GreenBey, "taught us that you have to believe. It made us put our trust in God, and it made us want to sing to his glory."

Did they ever. Starting in 1963, they began releasing a series of albums on Savoy and other labels that set a new standard for the art of gospel ensemble singing. "Jesus Loves Me," their first release, set the stage for more than a dozen to come, notably "God So Loved the World" (1972) and "Coming Again So Soon" (1974).

"Their harmony is special, probably the best in female gospel," wrote Anthony Heilbut in his landmark study, "The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times" (Limelight Editions).

Indeed, to anyone who has heard the Barretts live, the trio embodies the meaning of gospel music while imbuing it with unassailable technical virtuosity.

"They always bring the audience out of their chairs," says Morris Phibbs, assistant director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago.

"They express a feeling that kind of relieves trouble," adds Pam Morris, coordinator of the Chicago Gospel Festival and host of a gospel radio show.

"They uplift you."

For the Barrett Sisters, however, a great deal of struggle underlies the unmistakable optimism of their music. Though they have played to cheering audiences around the world, and especially in Europe, their remuneration has been slight, leading GreenBey and Porter to hold day jobs throughout their singing careers, while Campbell often sang funerals to make ends meet.

On some occasions, payment for performances never came through, and record royalties never were significant.

"We were so happy to sing that we didn't handle the business," GreenBey once told the Chicago Tribune. "But at least we were fortunate that we had husbands and families to help support us, so we didn't worry about it."

Moreover, each experienced a measure of pain at being separated from her family during long and grueling tours, they say.

Campbell's late husband often complained that he wanted his wife at his side, not on the road, an argument between the two famously captured in the celebrated gospel documentary film "Say Amen, Somebody" (1982), which brought the Barrett Sisters a new degree of crossover fame, if not fortune.

The latest blow, they say, was the January fire that destroyed Pilgrim Baptist Church, which Dorsey's musical direction had transformed into the birthplace of gospel.

"We grieved over that, because there are so many precious memories and concerts and sermons that took place in Pilgrim Baptist," says Campbell. "There was no other place just like it."

As for gospel music today, the Barretts regret the perhaps inevitable transformation of the music, which now typically includes vast electronic instrumentation and choreography that once would have been considered sacrilegious.

"We used to stand flat-footed and sing--we expressed everything with our hands and our faces and our voices," says GreenBey.

"Now they shake their hips.

"But if the new music still gets people to come to church, then it's all right," she adds.

"That's really all that matters."




The Barrett Sisters recall the musical artists they've most admired:

Marian Anderson

"She was my inspiration. She used to sing such a beautiful 'Ave Maria'--I've got that 78 [rpm] record to this day. I always wanted to sing and project like her."

--Billie Barrett GreenBey

Ray Charles

"Now I know he's not totally a gospel singer, but I loved the way he did that 'I Can't Stop Loving You.' That's what I call great singing."

--Rodessa Barrett Porter

Mahalia Jackson

"I used to try to sing like her. I liked to hear her get down with a song. She moved with it; she swayed with it."

--DeLois Barrett Campbell

Roberta Martin

"I like the way she placed her tone. She was a laid-back singer. Her low tones were as sweet as her high tones."

--Campbell

Thomas A. Dorsey

"He could look at you and smile, and it would warm your heart to see that. He showed you--with his hands--how to sing his music."

--Porter




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