The Roberta Martin Singers, circa 1949. Rear L-R: Eugene Smith, Bessie Folk, Delois Barrett Campbell, Norsalus McKissick. Front and center: Roberta Martin
By: Joseph Middleton
Forty-two years ago this month, the Golden Era Gospel community lost a pillar. Roberta Evelyn Winston Martin Austin (commonly known as Roberta Martin), died at Mercy Hospital in Chicago on the morning Monday, January 13, 1969 after a long battle with cancer, just one month shy of her 62nd birthday. That's young by today's standards. Ms. Martin was a quadruple threat in the gospel world as she served in the capacity of singer, songwriter, arranger and accompanist. In addition, Ms. Martin was also a savvy businesswoman, operating the Roberta Martin Music Studio. Ms. Martin was such a trailblazing figure that on the cold and snowy Sunday evening when her funeral was held at Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church on the then newly renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in Chicago, at least 50,000 people from all across the nation and world came to pay their respects to the grand lady of gospel. Now, 42 years later, Ms. Martin seems to be all but forgotten and overshadowed by contemporaries like Mahalia Jackson. A faithful few still listen to her songs, and even today, choirs sing some of the 200+ songs composed by her, likely not knowing who the writer was, or how large an impact the writer had on gospel music, an impact which still resonates today.
"What impact?" you may say. Well, let's take a look at the current trend of Praise and Worship teams. Most teams consist of four to nine vocalists total, and have at least two vocalists singing each part (2 altos, 2 tenors, 2 sopranos) instead of simply singing in unison, allowing each part to be easily identified by the listener. In the early 1930s, Roberta Martin was one of the first people to assemble a mixed ensemble to sing gospel music with vocalists arranged in that fashion. During their heyday, the Roberta Martin Singers would have 2 tenors , 2 altos and 2 sopranos occasionally adding a bass/baritone register male, or adding or removing an extra singer from the tenor, alto or soprano section. Today, such arrangements are commonplace among Praise and Worship groups and small mixed ensembles, but it wasn't until Roberta Martin came along that such groups gained widespread acceptance and popularity in the church.
Here are a few of my favorite Roberta Martin led songs, in no particular order (though I am quite partial to #8 and #4 on my personal playlist). They encompass nearly her entire recording career, from the jubilee inspired sound of the 40s, to the height of the Golden Era sound of the 50s, to the almost contemporary sounds that would characterize gospel music from the late 60s and early 70s.
1. What a Friend We Have in Jesus (1950)
2. Ride on, King Jesus (1958)
3. Didn't It Rain (1947)
4. From Out of Nowhere (1963)
5. Try Jesus (1960)
6. One Step Away (1966)
7. I Have Hope (Her final recording from 1968)
8. No Other Help (a 1962 duet with Gloria Griffin)