By Brenda C. Siler
Author Cheryl Wills poured her soul into “Isn’t Her Grace Amazing!” a book that tracks the impact of women in gospel music.
We have heard about how women in gospel music were held back by unsupportive families and the church. We also know how many women in faith music crossed into other music genres, were sidetracked by the recording industry, and then finally revered. Wills, a veteran journalist, uses her research and reporting skills to shine a light on 25 women in gospel who struggled but never gave up.
Subtitled “The Women Who Changed Gospel Music,” chapter one in “Her Grace Amazing” is an homage to “Queen Mothers” of the music. Mahalia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Inez Andrews, Albertina Walker, and Willie Mae Ford Smith are featured. I learned about Smith when she was featured in the documentary “Say Amen Somebody,” an important film giving an inside look at gospel music. Clear on her mission, Smith also moved past the sexism she endured.
Many female solo artists started out in gospel groups. Some were all-female groups. Andrews and Walker were in the Caravans along with Dorothy Norwood and Shirley Caesar. Wills gives details about how classic gospel girl groups were formed and how they broke up. She also breaks down nuances in the music arrangements of each group.
Featured in the “Sisters in Song” chapter are the Davis Sisters, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, the Drinkard Singers where Cissy Houston got her start, and the Barrett Sisters, also featured in “Say Amen Somebody.” It was Clara Ward who coached Aretha Franklin in her gospel style, putting her on the path to becoming “Queen of Soul.”
Wills wrote, “Her Grace Amazing” from a deep foundation in gospel music stemming from the family storefront church in Queens, New York. Her grandmother Opal was a pianist and choir director. Her grandfather Fred was the guitarist and pastor, and her dad Clarence was also a guitarist and deacon. It was all rooted in Southern traditions.
Dedicated to her grandmother, Wills thought Opal could have been a recorded gospel singer like those featured in this book.
“Before I entered kindergarten, our Sunday morning rituals taught me about the power of gospel music,” Wills wrote in the book’s introduction. “It was unlike anything I saw on Sesame Street.”
A cursory look at the five chapters in “Her Grace Amazing” might be perceived as a coffee table book. There are so many wonderful photos. We see backstage, full glam, and tour pictures accompanied by short bios and paragraphs about the selected 25 singers.
Other chapters are “Architects of the Melody,” “Crossover Queens,” ending with “And Still She Shouts.” The last chapter profiles women currently on the gospel scene like Tamala Mann, Dottie Peoples, Yolanda Adams, Tramaine Hawkins, and Kim Burrell.
Readers may feel their favorite ladies of gospel music were omitted. That only means the talent is plentiful and Cheryl Wills is waiting in the wings with volume two of “Isn’t Her Grace Amazing!”
“It is my honor to shine a spotlight on the legacy of these extraordinary women who elevated gospel music, each in her own way,” Wills said in her book. “They didn’t just sing a song, they left an indelible mark.”