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Ms. Albertina Walker proudly celebrated her 72nd birthday on August 29th this year, in Chicago, Illinois - the same city that has played as her home base for a remarkable musical career that is storybook in length and tale.
As the youngest of nine children, Albertina was a mamma's child, who studied her mother's vocal delivery and style back in a much touted chorale group called the Dr. Watts Chorus. Slowly but surely, Albertina would nurture her interest and talent in Gospel music watching her circle of friends musically grow and evolve with names like Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland as examples.
With experience under her belt singing in groups like the Willie Webb Singers, Robert Anderson Singers and the Pete Williams Singers and now with her gift in full view and her spirit quickened, Albertina would start off on a course that would forever change the face and power of Gospel music. Miss Walker, at the tender age of 22 years old, would unleash what some would consider to be the greatest Gospel group the world has ever seen - Albertina Walker's Caravans.
With unheralded names like Elyse Yancey, Ora Hopkins and Nellie Grace Daniels in the female group from the launch in 1951, Albertina Walker would slowly build upon this cast to include eventual legends like Bessie Griffin, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, Cassietta George, Loleatta Holloway, James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar.
Over fifty years later, with sixty-three album releases, thousands of concert appearances and enough awards and citations to become the first African-American honorary member of the Royal family, it seems appropriate that Albertina Walker would be anointed the Queen Of Gospel music.
GOSPELCITY.COM considers it an honor to have shared some moments and tales with one of the greatest singers of our century. Her spirit and faith is an inspiration to a new generation. We pray that God will continue to show favor to this extraordinary woman of God as she continues to sing for the Lord.
CHRISTOPHER HERON: When you think back to 1951 and the Caravans, while you were in the midst of performing, writing and traveling, did you have a sense of how special your group would become in the pages of history?
ALBERTINA WALKER: Oh yes, I felt it was special. I thank God for being in the midst of something special. Each of the names you mentioned, each one was special to me 'cause God gave them to me.
CHRISTOPHER: And did they all have a very different identity and presence that collectively made this group the legends they are today?
ALBERTINA: Yes, everybody had their own identity. Everybody sang their own way; they didn't try to sing like each other. All they wanted to do was blend with each other and they did a magnificent job of that.
CHRISTOPHER: What was gospel music like back in the fifties and early sixties? Was it all about the gospel or was it show biz, even then?
ALBERTINA: Oh no, money was the last thing on people's mind; we wanted to lift up the name of Jesus, we wanted to praise Him. We were Christian women and men who wanted to praise the name of the Lord, to lift Him up, not ourselves. We just wanted the Lord to use us, to travel all over the country, to different cities and states to lift Him up. We let blind men and women know there was a reality in serving a true and living God. My Bible tells me, just like it tells you, whatever is right in the Lord will pay; we weren't worried about no money, we just wanted the Lord to use us and that's what He did.
CHRISTOPHER: Was there both on and offstage chemistry with the Caravans; were you all very good and dear friends?
ALBERTINA: Oh yeah, we were closer than sisters and brothers because we "lived" together so to speak. When we went on tour, we used to be away from home like three to four weeks, months at a time and we enjoyed it. I'll tell you another thing; we were never hungry, we were never at a place where we didn't have money to buy food. We didn't have a lot of money but when you give yourself to Jesus and let Him work it out for you; He will give you more than enough. The little He gave us, it multiplied and became much. How did $125.00 become enough for five or six people? With that $125.00, we would pay the room in the house where we stayed, feed ourselves and buy gas for the car. (laughs). We used to really do a whole lot with that $125.00; if we got $200.00 we were really in good shape.
CHRISTOPHER: I get the sense that God commissioned you to guide and oversee the Caravans through the years. Otherwise, it would not have endured so long.
ALBERTINA: This is what the Lord wanted me to do - this is my gift the Lord gave me. To recruit singers; take them across the country; let the world hear gospel music; let the people enjoy gospel music; let people be saved through gospel music. I'm just excited about it because the Lord chose me to do that work for Him, to carry these things all over the country and let the world hear them, see them, experience them.
CHRISTOPHER: So many wonderful gospel artists today gain attention; the world comes at them asking them to sing secular music. Was that the experience for the Caravans, were they solicited to sing secular mainstream music?
ALBERTINA: We were approached to do the same thing many times. We chose to sing gospel, we were dedicated to what we were doing. Out of all the singers that have worked with me I think only one of them went out to do secular music and that was Loleatta Holloway. Other than that, everyone else continued to sing gospel because we were rooted and grounded in this talent the Lord gave us. He didn't charge us anything for it. So ninety-five percent of us chose to sing gospel with the talent He gave us and we are still singing gospel.
CHRISTOPHER: Sister Albertina Walker, you've seen so much talent over the years and being in the heart of what many people call the capital of gospel music (Chicago), you've had the fortune of watching some incredible talent emerge in your circle. I'm going to mention a few names and you tell me what kind of impressions they left you with. The late Reverend James Cleveland.
ALBERTINA: Rev. James Cleveland; we grew up together as children. James used to play with my sister and me when we were kids. We used to go to all the churches, there are a lot of churches here in the city, and we used to go from church to church. My sister and I, we used to sing duets together. James used to accompany us when we were like 12 or 13 years old, even younger than that. He used to play for all the different churches and learn different music from different artists such as Roberta Martin, Robert Anderson and Willie Webb.
James Cleveland was a genius to me. When we would go different places to programs, he would sit at the piano with great musicians and learn those chords and all they played. With the talent the Lord gave him, he worked with other people and learned what the Lord had given to them. He put it all together and that made him even greater than what he was.
CHRISTOPHER: The late Reverend Milton Brunson.
ALBERTINA: Of course, he used to be with James and me all the time; we used to go to all these churches in Chicago where they had radio broadcasts, concerts and programs. We would go and fellowship. Everybody would sing and be glad to sing, not looking for nothing in return. We weren't looking for no payment, we were just glad to be there, glad to be in that number. Milton was the same like James Cleveland, myself and many of the other singers.
CHRISTOPHER: Did you know Mahalia Jackson?
ALBERTINA: Oh yes, I used to work with her, she used to take me with her, we used to travel with her. She would have me singing on different programs with her. I used to go to her house and she would cook, we would eat and sing. Every time I came home after a tour with the Caravans, I'd go to Mahalia's and she'd cook and we'd be eating, singing, having a good time. When I got James into the Caravans, that's where he was: over at Mahalia's. He wasn't working with anybody at that time and I asked him if he wanted to work with the Caravans and he told me yes. That's when James came into the Caravans, all at Mahalia Jackson's house.
CHRISTOPHER: Did you know Mahalia Jackson would become a legend?
ALBERTINA: Yeah, she was the greatest gospel singer at that time. People knew Mahalia, moreso than any of those other singers. Mahalia was the world's, and is the world's, greatest gospel singer. She still is. She was a living legend then and now she's gone on to be with the Lord and she's still a legend. Mahalia opened the door for gospel music.
CHRISTOPHER: Yolanda Adams?
ALBERTINA: Well, Yolanda is one of the greatest singers of our time along with LaShun Pace, Tramaine Hawkins, Vanessa Bell Armstrong - all of these younger singers are artists and are little stars in their own right. All of them are very good, they can sing, are anointed and I just named some of them. There's some we haven't even heard that could outsing all of us put together. I just hope they can stay on board and let the Lord use them. If they stay on, the Lord will use them and I feel they are humble now and that nobody can swell their heads.
CHRISTOPHER: I saw you in Minneapolis at the Gospel Music Workshop of America; it was the last night at the quartet celebration and you seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it, particularly such artists as the Gospel Four, Highway QC's and The Christiannaires. Do you still prefer traditional gospel music?
ALBERTINA: Well, you know I'm a traditional gospel singer, that's my roots, that's what I love, that's what I enjoy. I'm not trying to kick contemporary music at all. This is their time, this is what they like and I don't have a problem with it. I cannot identify with all of it, like I said this is their time, their music. I'm a traditional singer; that's what God gave me and that's what I do and enjoy.
CHRISTOPHER: It took nearly forty-five years before you finally won your first Grammy Award. It appears as though the industry, and the public at large, is finally giving you all the attention you rightfully deserve. Is it good to finally be acknowledged for your contribution to Gospel music - even being dubbed the Queen of Gospel music?
ALBERTINA: As I said earlier, whatever is right the Lord will pay. He knows when to bless, He knows when to do whatever needs to be done or has to be done. I'm so thankful, so grateful I've lived long enough to receive the Grammy
award. I'm thankful the Lord has given me my flowers while I can smell them. It took a long time but I'm still here and appreciate all of the good, nice things the Lord has given me. The reason why I say the Lord because He is my keeper, He is my all in all and whatever good that happens to me - God did it. The Grammy nominations all those times, almost 9 or 10 times. I truly can say I earned it; it was no gift, I worked for it, I earned it and I appreciate it. It was given to me while I can look at it and see the works I've done.
Whatever is right the Lord will pay, but you want to receive some of these things while you're here and I just want to thank God that I received so many nice things, so many awards, so many citations - they named a street here in Chicago: Albertina Walker and the Caravans Drive; Grant Barkley named a bench in Grand Park here in Chicago with my name on it. People don't have to be nice to you and I appreciate every good thing people do for me.
CHRISTOPHER: You see a new generation of artists surfacing in gospel music. Some would say a lot has been taken for granted: making a living in this gospel industry, receiving national attention for their first or second release. Is there a lesson you've learned that you would care to share with aspiring young artists?
ALBERTINA: Oh yeah, Oh yeah. Seek ye first the Kingdom of heaven and all these other things will get added. Once you seek Him, I don't care what the desire of your heart is, whatever it is, God will give it to you. But you've got to put Him first. You've got to honor and respect that. Once you've honored and respected the Lord Jesus first in your life, giving Him the glory and the praise, there's nothing in your vocabulary, if you ask God for it, He won't give to you. I'm a living witness; I'm 72 years old and I've never seen the righteous forsaken, never seen them begging for bread. I'm doing better than I've ever done in my life because the Lord willed it so. He's given me things I never thought I would have. I'm so grateful, I really am, I appreciate all of His blessings and the care He has stored upon me.