Gospel queen Albertina Walker dies at 81

Gospel music legend Albertina Walker receives a standing ovation as she steps on stage to sing at the Evangelical Church in Upper Marlboro in 1998.
Gospel music legend Albertina Walker receives a standing ovation as she steps on stage to sing at the Evangelical Church in Upper Marlboro in 1998. (Frank Johnston/the Washington Post)
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 8:46 PM

Albertina Walker, a Grammy Award-winning singer who was crowned the queen of gospel during a career that spanned more than 60 albums and six decades, died Oct. 8 of respiratory failure at a hospital in her native Chicago. She was 81.

As a child, Ms. Walker had been a standout singer at West Point Baptist Church in Chicago. There, she was inspired by entertainers such as Professor Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson, who became Ms. Walker's friend and mentor.

"I wanted to stand up before audiences and deliver the message, win souls for Christ," Ms. Walker told The Washington Post in 2008. "I wanted to touch dying men and slipping women."

In her early 20s, Ms. Walker started an ensemble group, the Caravans, which became one of the country's most popular gospel acts during the 1950s and '60s. The group's early hits included "Mary Don't You Weep," "No Coward Soldier," "Tell the Angels" and "Sweeping Through the City."

The Caravans toured by Cadillac, eventually graduating from performances in churches and schools to theaters and auditoriums. Traveling to venues including Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and Washington's Constitution Hall, they endured low pay, segregated restaurants and discrimination at hotels and restaurants.

In a Chicago Tribune interview decades later, she recalled confronting a truck driver who yelled a racial epithet at her.

"I told him, 'I'll pull my razor out of my pocket and cut your throat,' " she said. "He was so scared of me, and all I had in my pocket was a pencil. I tell you one thing, he apologized and then called me a young lady."

At first, Ms. Walker led the group with her earthy contralto, but she soon stepped aside and allowed others to shine. The Caravans became known as a collection of talented soloists that launched the careers of notable singers including James Cleveland, Dorothy Norwood and Shirley Caesar.

The group broke up in the late 1960s as its members peeled off to launch solo careers. Ms. Walker made her solo debut with the 1975 album "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." She went on to collaborate with Cleveland on "Please Be Patient With Me" (1979), for which she received her first Grammy nomination.

In a 1973 performance with Cleveland of the song "I Sure Do Love the Lord," Ms. Walker sang "slowly and majestically, sometimes moaning and sometimes soaring joyfully," wrote Post music critic Hollie West. "People shouted and swayed to her exacting beat. Walker's performance was a wonderful display of gospel singing as an art."

Ms. Walker was nominated for at least 10 more Grammy Awards, winning the best traditional gospel album award in 1995 for her record "Songs of the Church - Live in Memphis."

Other well-received albums included "Spirit" (1987) and "I'm Still Here" (1997). In 2006, Ms. Walker reunited with members of the Caravans, including Norwood and Inez Andrews, to produce the album "Paved the Way."

Critics seemed in awe of Ms. Walker's voice, still warm and strong despite decades of performances and years of struggle with asthma and emphysema.

Ms. Walker said she believed that the message embedded in her songs was more important than her voice.

"What's from the heart reaches the heart," she told the Los Angeles Times. "And if you've got a heart and you listen to what we're doin', you're gonna feel something - white, black, yellow, green, red, it don't make no difference, you're goin' to feel something."

Albertina Walker was born in Chicago on Aug. 28, 1929, and was one of nine children. "I didn't know I was poor," she told The Post. "I always had something to eat. Wasn't caviar though."

She launched her recording career with the Willie Webb and Robert Anderson Singers, whose live performances at Midwest churches were often broadcast over the radio.

She was a Gospel Hall of Fame inductee and the recipient of a Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1994, the city of Chicago honored Ms. Walker by naming a street after her: Albertina Walker and the Caravans Drive.

In addition to her career in music, Ms. Walker created a scholarship foundation to support students studying creative and performing arts. She also was a key supporter of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, organizing its People's Choir.

She made a well-received cameo appearance in the 1992 movie "Leap of Faith," starring Steve Martin as a con man who begins to question his cynicism after hearing a group of gospel singers in rehearsal.

Ms. Walker had no children. She married Reco Brooks in 1991 after her first marriage, to Lesley Reynolds, ended in divorce. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Reflecting on her craft, Ms. Walker said she most admired the healing quality of her music.

"If you're feeling bad and somebody sings a gospel song, you automatically forget your problems," she told the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Everything about the Lord is sweet," she said. "I don't know how I would have managed if I didn't have a song to sing."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company