By now, everyone knows this is the final week of Oprah Winfrey’s iconic talk show. And anyone who saw Aretha Franklin sing during yesterday’s broadcast of Oprah’s farewell celebration from Chicago’s United Center knows that spirituality is inextricably tied to the Oprah experience. In recognition of her last week on the air, Christianity Today has re-posted journalist LaTonya Taylor’s classic, 2002 “The Church of O” feature story about this Oprah’s undeniable spiritual impact on our culture. A few compelling pieces from the article:
Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began “Change Your Life TV,” Oprah’s most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality.
“Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope,” noted a 1994 Vanity Fair article. Indeed, much like a healthy church, Oprah creates community, provides information, and encourages people to evaluate and improve their lives.
Oprah’s brand of spirituality cannot simply be dismissed as superficial civil religion or so much New Age psychobabble, either. It goes much deeper. The story of her personal journey to worldwide prominence could be viewed as a window into American spirituality at the beginning of the 21st century—and into the challenges it poses for the church.
Albertina Walker leaves behind an incomparable legacy of gospel music artistry and unselfishness.
One of my favorite ways to entertain myself involves a combination of music history and network theory (the field of study that introduced the idea of “six degrees of separation” into popular culture). Basically, I like to think about an artist or musician, then figure out how many degrees of connection it takes to connect that person to another of a different generation, genre or style.
For example, here’s one way of connecting praise and worship artist Mary Alessi with the Clark Sisters:
Mary Alessi’s twin sister Martha Munizzi . . .
. . . has co-written songs with Israel Houghton . . .
. . . who was a member of Fred Hammond’s Radical for Christ . . .
. . . which Hammond founded after Commissioned . . .
. . . whose sound was patterned after the Clark Sisters.
So it’s possible to connect these artists within five degrees of separation. (Bonus points if you knew that Karen Clark-Sheard recorded Munizzi’s “Glorious” on her 2003 album The Heavens Are Telling, which gets you there within four degrees.)
I like this parlor game because it’s a great way to push the limits of gospel geekery in the company of fellow gospel music lovers. It’s a reminder of the different relationships and influences that exist between seemingly disparate artists and sounds. But it’s also a great way to identify the figures who had a genre-shaping, cross-generational influence on a musical form. Those names are the ones that come up, time after time.
Albertina Walker will certainly be remembered as one of those key figures.
Walker, who died last Friday at the age of 81, was known as the “Queen of Gospel Music.” No doubt one reason is her lifelong commitment to the music. Walker started singing at her Chicago church, West Point Missionary Baptist, at the age of four. As a 17-year-old, she joined “the Gospel Caravan,” a group of female singers who provided backing vocals for gospel singer Robert Anderson. A few years later, Walker formed the Caravans, one of the most influential groups of gospel’s golden age.
“Robert was retiring, and . . . I didn’t want to record by myself,” Walker said in an interview taped for Malaco’s Gospel Legends DVD Collection. “I always wanted to sing with a group.” So she convinced her record label to allow her to record with a group of young women who she called “The Caravans.” James Cleveland, later to be known as “the King of Gospel Music,” accompanied the group for many years.
The Caravans’ “Tell Him What You Want,” “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day,” “You Can’t Hurry God,” “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power,” “No Coward Soldiers,” and “You Can’t Beat God Giving” are the kinds of songs that become deeply rooted in church life, whether or not members of a congregation are aware of their origins. (Gospel music historian and radio announcer Bob Marovich recently dedicated a special broadcast to Walker and the Caravans that is an excellent introduction to their discography.)
As a soloist recording after the Caravans disbanded, Walker brought her easy contralto to widely known songs like “Please Be Patient with Me,” (1979) “I Can Go to God in Prayer” (1981), and “I’m Still Here” (1997). A slew of honors, including a Grammy, 11 Grammy nominations, four Stellar Awards and multiple Hall of Fame inductions testify to her impact on the industry. And no one will forget her regal, rhinestone-studded sunglasses — emblematic of a distinctive level of church-lady fashion sense many will attempt, but few will attain.
While all of these honors make a strong case for Walker as gospel royalty, I’m most intrigued by something that leads back to network theory: Almost all of the biographical information I’ve read about her — and many of the obituaries that have been posted since Walker’s passing — note that she is known for developing others through the group. Indeed, in addition to Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood and Delores Washington were all part of the Caravans before they disbanded in the late 1960s. One of gospel’s early “supergroups” came about because Walker was willing to step back, and let someone else shine. And those gospel stars made room for others, with the result that all of their musical legacies — built through webs of connection — have grown by degrees.
In his entry on the Caravans in his book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, Bil Carpenter writes that “Walker, a shrewd leader, recognized that her voice wasn’t always the best fit for every song and she routinely showcased the talents of others.” Historian Horace Clarence Boyer notes the distinctive way the Caravans employed the “swing lead” technique in an early performance of “Stand By Me”: While in most performances soloists might trade lead during each verse, in this one, the women of the group shared the lead role, switching between leads to complete a line.
It isn’t wise to idealize anyone, and Ms. Walker certainly wasn’t perfect. But I think there’s something instructive about her story.
She was a magnificent singer, but she felt no need to hog the spotlight or impose her considerable talent on a song the way some artists might these days. Her Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts, with its annual benefit concerts, raised lots of money to help young people achieve their dreams. And though she battled asthma and emphysema, she continued performing until the end. “The Lord lets me sing,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “The only time I’ll stop is when the Lord says.”
Walker will be remembered as one of the greats, the “Queen” indeed. But she was much more than a gospel diva. She was a servant to her art, to her community, and to her God. She didn’t just sing “I’m Willing“; she was. She wasn’t just entertaining audiences when she declared, “You Can’t Beat God Giving“; she gave.
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