Gospel Harmonettes

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The Gospel Harmonettes in the late 1950s

The Gospel Harmonettes were an influential gospel singing group.

The Harmonettes were founded in the early 1940s as the Gospel Harmoneers by Mildred Miller, Odessa Edwards and Evelyn Starks. Willie Mae Newberry and Vera Kolb joined the group early on. Dorothy Love Coates was invited to join by Starks after she heard her singing on a local radio program.

Starks led the group from the piano. She also served as composer and arranger. Miller, a mezzo-soprano was the lead singer. Her "down home" style was the early signature of the group. Edwards sang alto and served as the spiritual leader, delivering impassioned sermonettes that created a spirited fervor in audiences. Kolb was an natural soprano whose style influenced contemporaries like Marion Williams. Newberry balanced the group with a throaty alto.

The Harmoneers achieved some fame in an early appearance when the National Baptist Convention came to Birmingham in 1940. Before long, the group had a regular half-hour radio show on WSGN-AM sponsored by A. G. Gaston. Love left the group in 1947 to care for her daughter who was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

The Harmoneers made their first recordings, for RCA, in 1949 after appearing on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television program. Those recordings include the songs "In the Upper Room" and "Move on Up a little Higher".

Rechristened the "Gospel Harmonettes'" in 1950, and rejoined by Love, they cut their first sides for Specialty Records—"I'm Sealed" and "Get Away Jordan"— in 1951. These recordings were far more successful, and Coates became the driving force behind the group's success, both on record and in person, singing with such spirit that the other members of the group would occasionally have to lead her back to the stage—a device that James Brown copied and made part of his act in the 1960s, but which was wholly genuine in Love's case. She also took over the role, particularly after Edwards' retirement, of preacher/narrator, directing very pointed criticisms from the stage of the evils she saw in the church and in the world at large.

The group had a series of hits in the years that followed. Miller left the group to become a teacher in the mid 1950s. Inez Andrews joined in 1952 as Coates' understudy, but left to become a member of the Chicago-based Caravans in 1957. The group, in its original form, ended its run in 1958. Coates reformed a group by the same name with her sister, Lillian McGriff in 1961. That group lasted only a few years. The last performance by any associated group calling itself the Gospel Harmonettes was in 1977.

The Gospel Harmonettes were inducted into the American Gospel Quartet Hall of Fame at the 2006 American Gospel Quartet convention at the East Birmingham Church of God in Christ in Woodlawn.

References

  • Garrison, Greg (January 19, 2007) "Birmingham's Gospel Harmonettes being inducted into hall of fame." The Birmingham News
  • Hardy, Evelyn Starks and Nathan Hale Turner Jr (2009) The Sweetest Harmony: Evelyn Starks Hardy and the Original Gospel Harmonettes. GrantHouse Publishers ISBN 1935316044
  • Sims, Bob (August 15, 2009) "Birmingham's Evelyn Starks Hardy recalls the sweet harmony of The Original Gospel Harmonettes." The Birmingham News