Dorothy Love Coates

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Dorothy Love Coates

Dorothy Love Coates (born Dorothy McGriff on January 30, 1928 in Birmingham; died April 9, 2002 in Birmingham) was an influential gospel singer who rose to stardom in the 1950s as a member of the Gospel Harmonettes. With her "raggedy" voice and preacher's fire she could outsing the most powerful hard gospel male singers of the era. She was also a notable composer, writing songs such as "You Can't Hurry God (He's Right On Time)", "99 and a Half Won't Do" and "That's Enough".

Coates, born Dorothy McGriff in Birmingham,had a tough childhood, although she dismissed it as "the same old thing". Her minister father left the family when she was six, divorcing her mother thereafter. Dorothy began playing piano in the Baptist Church at age ten, then joined her sisters and brother in the McGriff Singers several years later.

Harmonettes

Dorothy quit school to work "all the standard Negro jobs" available in Birmingham in the 1940s: scrubbing floors and working behind the counter in laundries and dry cleaners. She formed another singing group, "Royal Gospel Singers" in her teens. In the early 1940s she was discovered on the radio by Evelyn Starks, and was invited to begin singing with the Gospel Harmonettes—then known as the "Gospel Harmoneers".

Coates performing with the Original Gospel Harmonettes

Soon later, she married Willie Love of the Nashville's Fairfield Four, one of the most popular quartets of the early years of gospel, but divorced him shortly thereafter. She subsequently married Carl Coates of the Sensational Nightingales over a decade later.

Love left the Harmonettes in 1947 to care for her daughter who was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Meanwhile, the group made their first recordings, for RCA in 1949. 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 the group had a series of hits in the years that followed before disbanding in 1958.

Dorothy was 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 Odessa 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.

Civil Rights Movement

During the years of her retirement, from 1959 to 1961, Dorothy Love—now Dorothy Love Coates—became active in the Civil Rights Movement, working with Martin Luther King, Jr. As she was fond of telling church audiences, "The Lord has blessed our going out and our coming in. He's blessed our "sitting in", too." While many other gospel artists were slow to address political issues head-on, Coates spoke out against the Vietnam War, racism and other evils.

Coates was just as plain-spoken when criticizing the exploitative treatment that she and other gospel singers received from gospel promoters, both white and black. She reformed the Harmonettes in 1961 with her sister, Lillian McGriff. Later, when that group disbanded after several years, Coates continued touring with a group known as the Dorothy Love Coates Singers. She recorded, both individually and with her group, on Savoy Records, Vee-Jay Records and Columbia Records in the 1960s and made occasional appearances but no recordings after 1970. She appeared in the films "The Long Walk Home" (1990) and "Beloved" (1998) at the end of her career.

While Coates vigorously rejected all offers to cross over to pop or soul music, a number of artists, including Little Richard, imitated her sanctified singing style. Other secular songwriters drew on her songs for inspiration, sometimes simply taking the title, as in the case of Wilson Pickett's wholly different soul tune "99 and a Half Won't Do", and sometimes adapting both lyrics and title, as in the case of The Supremes's hit "You Can't Hurry Love".

Coates died in Birmingham in April 2002, of heart failure, at the age of 74. She is buried at New Grace Hill Cemetery.

References

  • "Dorothy Love Coates" (August 30, 2006) Wikipedia - accessed September 10, 2006
  • Heilbut, Tony (1997) The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Limelight Editions. ISBN 0879100346
  • Boyer, Horace Clarence (1995) How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. Elliott and Clark. ISBN 0252068777
  • Garrison, Greg (January 19, 2007) "Birmingham's Gospel Harmonettes being inducted into hall of fame." The Birmingham News