In 1961, Clara Ward signed a contract to appear regularly at Las Vegas's New Frontier Hotel and in December performed for the first time at New York's Village Vanguard night club. TIME (April 28, 1961) run a story about The Grandison Singers, a female group who had switched from churches to liquor-serving clubs. »Says Mary Grandison: People in the nightclubs accept the music more than people in the churches. It's more quiet here. It's almost reverent«. In 1962, Clara Ward & her Singers started their long-lasting series of engagements at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon in California's Disneyland (see also here). Meanwhile, Della Reese and the Meditation Singers had taken to the stage of Las Vegas's Flamingo Hotel and graced the platform at New York's Copacabana (read more here). Finally, in 1963, excite- ment about »gospel going pop« peaked when New York's first »gospel night club« opened, the Sweet Chariot on Times Square.
|Billboard ad, June 1, 1963|
The opening of the Sweet Chariot ignited new cash fantasies in the minds of many in the music industry ... and also appealed to a number of gospel outfits. The idea that gospel »had finally made it« was quickly transformed into the strangest of business plans, and the headline in the Billboard May 18, 1963 issue, viz. »Can Gospel Replace The Twist?«, tells it all.
|BB, July 13, 1963, p. 20|
A businessman could well state the bare facts so bluntly. The participants on the other side, viz. the various Gospel outfits, did not dare or think it right putting it this way. Gertrude and Clara Ward (who by 1963 had yielded completely to the lure of secular venues although they never, to my knowledge, appeared at The Sweet Chariot) are often reported with saying that singing spirituals in night clubs »brings the message of the Lord to all«, spreads the Gospel and could be helpful in saving lost souls, thus selling their performances in pretty unholy places as kind of a missionary work. Few did believe them.
|JET magazine, August 8, 1963, p. 65|
On August 31, Billboard declared that »pop gospel as an important trend is dead« (p. 3). Seen in retrospect, the authoritative voice of Mahalia Jackson gave »the Great Pop Gospel Balloon« (Laurraine Goreau), for the next years at least, a mortal blow:
In 1963 when a number of companies tried to develop a pop gospel sound in New York (complete with gospeleers shouting out ditties in nightclubs) the movement failed. Mahalia Jackson had much to do with putting the fear of the Lord into those companies with her strong stand against taking gospel and watering it down. (Eliot Tiegel in Billboard, Nov. 6, 1971, p. RN-40).
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The members of the group you can hear on that LP were the following: Viola Crowley (sadly, she passed away recently in June 2011), Geraldine Jones, Clara Thomas, Vermettya Royster, Mildred Means and Malvilyn (Simpson) Statham. The singer best-known among r&b aficionados will be Vermettya Royster, a once-time member of the Ikettes and the Raelettes and still active. Most of them had recorded and performed with Clara Ward and/or her mother since 1959, but none before 1958 when the famous '50s outfit of the Ward Singers (feat. Marion Williams and others) broke up. There's only one reasonably good photograph that shows, with the unfor- tunate exception of Clara Thomas, all of the above-mentioned singers; it was re- portedly taken in 1969 (with Clara Ward and Elvis Presley in the center):
I'm Getting Nea- rer« and »Something's Got A Hold On Me«. It's those two you can hear below. And notwithstanding the endless discussion about gospel groups performing at secular venues I think these tunes are worth hearing. You can easily pour ridicule over the Ward Singers' engagement in Disneyland, as Anthony Heilbut, for one, has done: »... Disneyland, where the Ward Singers, the cartoons of gospel, joined the wonderful world of Mickey Mouse« (The Gospel Sound, p. 110).
What Is This«). And I believe that notwithstanding the context the message is still there and the artists aren't singing simply to amuse the crowd. At least I can't hear that, can you?
The Ward Singers feat. Geraldine Jones: »I'm Getting Nearer« / »Something's Got A Hold On Me« from the Buena Vista LP »Recorded Live At Disneyland« (1963):
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Some additional items regarding the »Disneyland experience« of the Ward Singers:
(1) From The Afro-American, July 17, 1965, page 11:
(2) From Willa Ward-Royster: How I Got Over. Clara Ward and the World-Famous Ward Singers. As told to Toni Rose, Philadelphia 1997, p. 161 f.:
»... one of the press people asked, "What do you have to say when people object to your singing in places like nightclubs and Disneyland?" Mom's [i.e. Gertrude Ward's] change of heart was clear in her answer:
I don't know if they've accepted it by now or not. They thought that when we went out into the clubs, we'd be singing blues or jazz or even rock-and-roll, but we sing the same songs in the clubs that we sing in church. It's wonderful how they accept Gospel singing, sometimes even more than people in the church. (...) I've heard worse in some churches and from the mouths of the "holy" than I've ever heard in any nightclub.«(3) The Ward Singers were, not the least for their flamboyancy, idols for gays in the black community (and sometimes beyond), somewhat similar to opera divas who are often venerated among gays. Tellingly, there is a chapter on the Ward Singers (this time including Clara) performing at Disneyland in John Edmonds: Called, Justified, Glorified, and Gay. The fictional Memoirs Of Gospel Singer, Josephus Hezekiah Carson, Bloomington 2008, pp. 150-56. The author is overwhelmed by the »five beautifully be-gowned and be-wigged and be-dazzled ladies« that »made their grand entrance« and describes the Clara Ward Sound by the adjectives »shrill, full, force- ful, energetic, harmonious«. Sorry that I can't quote more here. Read it here (not all pages are visible at any one time!) And having done this you might as well look here.
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TIME magazine, Friday May 24, 1963: »Gospel Singers: Pop Up, Sweet Chariot« (Extracts)
Once a year or so, the popular-music business falls into a faint, and the only thing that can bring it around again is a new sound. The new sound quickly becomes every hipster's new groove and everybody imitates it until even little children no longer care to listen. Last year the twist was replaced by the bossa nova, but as things turned out, it was a case of a starving man rescuing one who was merely hungry. Business faded.
For months now (and in the record business, months are decades), despe- rate music hustlers have been searching for the new groove. Experienced huntsmen confined their attention to Negro music, which, with the single exception of country music, has supplied them with every new idea since the blues. Last week, with appropriate fanfare, they proclaimed they had found the sound: pop gospel. Waving contracts and recording tape, Columbia Records moved into a new Manhattan nightclub called the Sweet Chariot and began packaging such devotional songs as He's All Right for the popular market. "It's the greatest new groove since rock 'n' roll," said Columbia Pop A. & R. Director David Kapralik. "In a month or two, it'll be all over the charts."
Yeah! Since gospel music is the root of rhythm-and-blues and "soul jazz," the discovery turned out to be embarrassingly obvious—like eating the hen after stealing all the eggs. (...)
Gospel music may have seemed a surprise a half-block from Broadway, but Pentecostal churchgoers and sinners "out in radioland" have been hearing it for years, sung with devotion by such groups as the Clara Ward Singers, the Stars of Faith and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Recently, its spirit and style and shouts of "Yeah!" (but rarely the rest of the lyrics) have crept into popular music, but only Mahalia Jackson has been popularly successful with the pure version. A couple of years ago, Brother John Sellers and the Grandison Singers became the first to sing gospel in nightclubs. A thin flock of groups followed, some complaining bitterly that cheating preachers had driven them into it by failing to part with a livable share of the church offering.
Wha? Gospel's move into nightclubs (where Negroes call it "ofay gospel") does not necessarily corrupt either singers or songs. But its adoption by the popular-record industry gives good reason for melancholy. To succeed with the predominantly teen-age audience, it will be hyped up and sanitized to the point of becoming grotesque. (...) Having spent so long on the back streets, gospel singers greet the establishment's new enthusiasm with a doubting, puzzled Wha? (...) But even with all the corporate delight at the new groove's financial prospects, the cheerful, sensate piety of the music had already begun to sound like its own requiem by the end of the first week of official enthusiasm. Gospel music is the last remaining unpackaged expression of Negro culture; now that it is being merchandised, where will the new grooves come from?