Roberta MartinJun 30th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1907-1969 Roberta Martin played a crucial role in the evolution of gospel music and in the development of the broad popularity that the form enjoys to this day. She combined classical piano training with profound spirituality to create a unique sound, while launching the careers of many gospel greats.
Martin was born in 1907 in Helena, Arkansas. She was one of six children, and received early piano lessons from an older brother’s wife at the age of six. The family moved to Cairo, Illinois, when she was eight, and then on to Chicago in 1917. She continued piano lessons there with an aunt and at Wendell Phillips High School, playing at Sunday School and for several choirs. She then continued her studies in classical piano at Northwestern University, but the foundation of her career had already been laid.
During high school, Martin became the pianist for the youth choir at Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. This brought her into contact with Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the “Father of Gospel Music,” a Chicago-based composer and performer who influenced many of the early gospel singers. Martin joined with another Dorsey affiliate, Theodore Frye, and with Dorsey’s help, they formed the Martin-Frye Quartet in 1933. At that time, gospel groups were either all-male “quartets” (which could have anywhere from four to eight singers) or all-female “choirs.” True to its name, this first group was composed of six male singers: Robert Anderson, Willie Webb, Norsalus McKissick, Romance Watson, James Lawrence, and Eugene Smith, many of whom became well-known artists.
In 1935, Martin and Frye parted company, which left her in charge of the group. She subsequently made the first of her many innovations, adding female singers to create the first mixed gospel group in a small ensemble format. The renamed Roberta Martin Singers then included Bessie Folk, Delois Barrett Campbell, Myrtle Scott, and Lucy Smith Collier, all of whom would go on to enjoy widely recognized careers. Other well-known protégés who began with Martin include James Cleveland and Alex Bradford. For the rest of the decade, Martin worked tirelessly and the group became one of the most popular gospel ensembles in the world, touring the United States and Europe and recording extensively. Martin accompanied the singers, composed songs, and arranged them for the unique vocal style they employed. Guided by Martin’s exceptionally sensitive piano, the group could move from a sweet slow tempo number to a rousing explosion of jubilee-style joy, always maintaining distinctive lead vocals backed by individually recognizable voices in the choir.
The classical influence of Martin’s training, which could be heard in her playing, fit well with the development of gospel from its roots in slave spirituals to church-based music, then on to secular venues such as concert halls and clubs, growing more polished and mature in its musical styling. At the same time, the genre was merging in many ways with the related sounds of jazz and blues, and finding new audiences outside its African American church-based roots. This audience growth extended internationally, and the Roberta Martin Singers were as popular and well known as any gospel group of their era. Later additions to the roster included Myrtle Jackson, Gloria Griffin, Romance Watson, Archie Dennis, and Louise McCord. Among the group’s recordings are “Try Jesus,” “He Satisfies” (written by Martin), “Certainly Lord,” “Only a Look,” “He Knows How Much We Can Bear,” and “No Other Help I Know.”
At the end of the 1940s, Martin ceased performing with the group to focus on composing, arranging, and publishing gospel music. The Roberta Martin Studio, initially founded in 1939, became one of the most successful of the several Chicago-based gospel publishing companies. The Roberta Martin Singers continued as one of the most recorded and widely traveled gospel groups through the 1950s and 1960s, with a total of more than 100 recorded songs on a variety of labels including gospel stalwart Savoy Records. The popularity of the music grew enormously at this time, giving rise to gospel radio stations and even a Chicago-based TV show, while civil rights demonstrators sang spirituals like “We Shall Overcome.” Martin married James Austin in 1947, with whom she had one son. She remained selflessly active in her spirituality as well as her music, singing at storefront churches, teaching Bible classes, helping other singers as well as the elderly and unfortunate, and praying with her band. She was music director of the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church from 1956 until 1968. In 1963, she was honored with an appearance at the prestigious classical music festival at Spoleto, Italy.
The Roberta Martin Singers joined Martin in prayer as she reached the final days of a terminal illness for which she refused strong medication. Martin died in 1969 in Chicago, at which point the group officially disbanded. It is estimated that more than 50,000 people attended her funeral. She had composed more than 100 songs in her career. Some of the Roberta Martin Singers’ recorded output has been re-released, and her influence on generations of gospel singers, and on other forms of African American musical and spiritual expression, will always be remembered.