CHICAGO — Albertina Walker, the Grammy-winning vocalist known around the world as the “Queen of Gospel” who helped launch some of the biggest names in traditional gospel through her vocal ensemble the Caravans, has died. She was 81.
Walker died Friday morning at RML Specialty Hospital Chicago of respiratory complications, said Pam Morris, who coordinated the Chicago Gospel Music Festival for 20 years through 2009. The singer had been hospitalized since Aug. 29, her 81st birthday, having long suffered from emphysema.
Gospel music icons such as Dorothy Norwood, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Bessie Griffin and James Cleveland established their careers in the Caravans, who achieved wide fame in the late 1950s, headlining at Carnegie Hall and other high-profile venues.
Through the Caravans, Walker popularized the music she heard growing up on the South Side of Chicago; and the celebrated ensemble in turn made her a legend.
“She was the starmaker,” said Norwood, who joined the Caravans in 1954. “She was a great singer — one of the greatest.”
Walker played her last major performance with a reunited version of the Caravans last June at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival.
The youngest of nine children, Walker was born in Chicago and raised in the heart of the city’s Bronzeville community, where generations of African-Americans converged during the Great Migration. This vast demographic wave made the South Side of Chicago an epicenter of jazz, blues and gospel, with Walker — and uncounted others like her — absorbing black cultural traditions through prayer.
“I grew up going to church,” Walker said in 1993. She heard the greatest singer in gospel history, Mahalia Jackson; the founder of modern gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey; and choirs of such magnificence as to persuade her to pursue the music as her life.
She learned early on that the pay would be slight, or nonexistent. Nevertheless, Walker flourished in Chicago gospel singer Robert Anderson’s group, taking over the ensemble when he retired and christening it the Caravans (because “we had people from Gary, East Chicago, South Side, West Side, all over,” she said in 2003).
By the mid-1950s, the Caravans began to acquire a national following, setting a new standard for female gospel singing. Never before had so many women who towered as soloists met up in a single ensemble.
Yet it was Walker’s decision to yield the spotlight to her charges that propelled these careers.
By the late ’60s Walker was married and retired from touring, but she eventually returned to the road, singing and recording prolifically. She was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, winning best traditional soul gospel album in 1995 for “Songs of the Church: Live in Memphis.”
“The Lord lets me sing,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “The only time I’ll stop is when the Lord says.”