Gospel music director, composer, publisher
In the liner notes to the 1979 album The Best of the Roberta Martin Singers, gospel music historian Clayton Hannah wrote, "Although Thomas A. Dorsey is credited as the originator of gospel music, and Mahalia Jackson received the highest acclaim, Roberta Martin unequivocally made the greatest contribution. She created and left a dynasty of gospel singers and a portfolio of unduplicated gospel music." Indeed, the sound Martin created defined an entire era in the story of gospel, and profoundly influenced the musicians who have carried the gospel torch into its more recent days.
Roberta Martin was born Roberta Evelyn Winston on February 12, 1907, in Helena, Arkansas, a Mississippi River Delta town with a rich and colorful musical history. She was one of six children of Anna and William Winston. As a toddler, Martin would pick out melodies on the piano, and she began taking piano lessons with her oldest brother's wife at age six. Her early piano instruction was entirely in the classical repertoire; she never heard the inspirational music now known as "gospel" until years later. When she was eight years old, her family moved north, settling first in Cairo, Illinois, then in Chicago two years later. At Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School, Martin continued to study piano with the school's choral director, Mildred Bryant Jones. She also began performing regularly at Sunday school and church events. After graduating from Phillips, she began studying music at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston, Illinois, with the hope of launching a career as a concert pianist.
Began as Accompanist in 1930s
In 1931 Martin was hired as accompanist for the Young People's Choir of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where she worked under the guidance of Thomas A. Dorsey and Theodore Frye. Dorsey and Frye would go on to become mentors of a sort to Martin, helping establish her as a leading practitioner of gospel in the early phase of her career. She had still never heard gospel music up to this time; her work at the church consisted of traditional hymns and spirituals, religious choral music, and secular songs. In 1933 Martin finally heard gospel music for the first time when gospel pioneer Bertha Wise and her group came to perform at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. It proved to be a life changing experience. Dorsey and Frye, who were as impressed as Martin was by the Wise ensemble's performance, convinced Martin that gospel was the way to go for music in church, and later that year the Martin-Frye Quartet was formed. The group, an all-male vocal ensemble, originally consisted of Eugene Smith, Robert Anderson, Willie Webb, and Norsalus McKissick, with Martin accompanying them on piano and contributing the occasional vocal solo. Other early members included James Lawrence and Romance Watson. The Quartet was renamed the Roberta Martin Singers in 1936.
In 1939 Martin became a businessperson, launching the Roberta Martin Studio of Music. One of the Studio's primary functions was as publisher of Martin's original compositions, and it soon became one of the largest publishers of gospel music in Chicago. Over the next several years, Martin and her ensemble essentially defined the sound we now know as "gospel." In the mid-1940s, Martin changed the formula by adding women to the group, the first being Bessie Folk and Delois Barrett Campbell, becoming the first prominent small gospel ensemble to include both male and female voices. By creating a mixed-gender group, Martin forged a distinct sound that successfully melded the ranges and textures of male and female voices. They were able to produce more complex and subtle harmonies than gospel audiences were accustomed to hearing in the past. This effect was further supported by Martin's piano prowess, which because of her advanced classical piano training was more sophisticated than the accompaniment behind most gospel groups.
Established Classic Gospel Sound in 1940s
The sound created by the Roberta Martin Singers stood out in other ways as well. Author Anthony Heilbut, in his liner notes for a 1973 Martin album, described the sound as combining "the Baptist moan of her Arkansas childhood with the Dorsey bounce, the sanctified church's syncopation, and a smidgeon of semiclassical pretension." This blend gave rise to what has come to be called classic gospel music. More than a sound, however, Martin and her group introduced a school, or approach, to religious music that laid the foundation for the development of a musical genre that was then in its infancy. The wide range of voices available created opportunities for innovative voicings and harmonies. Martin taught her singers to sing slightly behind the beat, creating a subtle "swing" to the timing. She preached a smooth, nuanced style with varied dynamics and dramatic surges of power. While her arrangements featured close harmonies that showcased a skilled blending of voices, Martin was also interested in highlighting the unique identity of each individual voice, allowing the singers to express themselves with semi-improvised freedom at times.
These elements were then bound together by Martin's piano accompaniment. Martin essentially invented gospel piano playing; there was no standard gospel piano style or technique before she came along, though gospel scholar Bil Carpenter has written in the on-line All Music Guide that she copied her style from blind pianist Arizona Dranes. The style she pioneered incorporated rhythmic octaves played with the left hand underpinning complex, colorful chord progressions, played in less rigid rhythmic patterns with right. This foundation provided the perfect backdrop for the group's rich vocal harmonies. But rather than merely providing that backdrop, the piano part was integral to the vocals, responding to and interplaying with the melodic lines and vocal counterpoints. The piano also set the mood for the song, with introductory licks, often played while a narrator provided verbal setup. Horace Clarence Boyer wrote in his chapter of the book We'll Understand Better By and By that "Roberta Martin played gospel with the nuances of a Horowitz, the inventions of an Ellington, and the power of an Erroll Garner, all the while playing 'straight from the church'."
Demand for performances by the Roberta Martin Singers was strong throughout the 1940s and onward, and they were among the most often recorded gospel groups in the country. During the 1940s, they recorded on the Apollo label. Much of this early material was later reissued by Kenwood Records on the 1979 album The Roberta Martin Singers: The Old Ship of Zion. In 1947 Martin married James Austin. The couple had one child, son Leonard Austin. Martin continued to sing, play piano, and travel with the Roberta Martin Singers through the late 1940s. Around that time, she decided to stop performing regularly with the group in order to concentrate her attention on music composition and arrangement, and to tend to the operation of her music publishing business. Martin's role as accompanist was taken on by Lucy Smith Collier, whose style was similar to Martin's and therefore did not disrupt the unique sound the group had established over the years.
Recorded Gospel Classics in 1950s and 1960s
The Roberta Martin Singers' heyday lasted from about the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, after Martin herself had already stopped performing with the group. During this period, the group's most prolific, the Singers appeared on the Savoy label, recording many of Martin's most famous and enduring compositions.
At a Glance …
Born Roberta Evelyn Winston on February 12, 1907, in Helena, AR; died on January 18, 1969, in Chicago, IL; married James Austin, 1947; children: Leonard Austin. Education: Attended Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Ebenezer Baptist Church, Youth Choir accompanist, 1931; Martin-Frye Quartet, co-founder, 1933 (name changed to Roberta Martin Singers, 1936); Roberta Martin Studio of Music (publishing company), founder, 1939; Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, music director, 1956–68.
Awards: U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp, 1998.
Altogether, Martin composed about 70 songs over the course of her career. Her lyrics tended to reflect personal testimonies of the benefits of turning to Jesus for comfort and consolation in an everyday sort of way. This message, that religion was available to help you with anything you might need, was sometimes given a modern (for that era) twist with references to new technology like the telephone and other machinery.
Martin's emergence as an important gospel artist was perfectly timed from a business perspective. Gospel grew up along with both the recording and music publishing industries. Gospel sheet music became common in the 1940s, replacing the hymnals such as the Gospel Pearls, which was first introduced at the National Baptist Convention—the key place for the dissemination of new Black sacred music at the time—in 1921. Martin's mentor Thomas A. Dorsey is credited with inventing the concept of marketing gospel sheet music. He and other songwriters traveled widely to promote their songs via performances at churches and other venues. The Roberta Martin Singers' business manager, Eugene Smith, regularly hawked Martin's music through annual trips to the major conventions of the various Christian denominations.
Touched Countless People Through Publishing Venture
When songwriters traveled to sell their sheet music, they usually presented the music sonically as well as on the written page, combing gospel's oral tradition with the new visual representation of the music. Martin took this combination to a new level, bringing the printed music alive for her potential customers with subtleties that could not be captured on paper. When the Roberta Martin Singers showed up in a town to perform, hundreds of people would typically end up buying the group's sheet music.
Between her career as a performer and arranger and her career as a publisher, Martin's music reached untold thousands of gospel musicians and listeners across the United States. By the middle of the 1950s, the vast majority of black church choirs in the country were mimicking the style of the Roberta Martin Singers, using the group's sheet music and recordings as a blueprint.
From 1956 to 1968, Martin served as music director of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Chicago. While she did not perform regularly with the Roberta Martin Singers during this period, she remained active as an occasional performer. In 1963 she participated in a European tour, the highlight of which was her performance at the Spoletto Festival in Italy. Martin became ill in 1968, and died on January 18, 1969. More than 50,000 people participated in her memorial service, one of the largest funerals Chicago had ever seen. As gospel musicians and listeners well know, her sound lives on in the music being made in churches across the United States to this day. Martin was honored with a commemorative stamp in 1998, along with other gospel greats—Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Rosetta Tharpe.
The Best of the Roberta Martin Singers, Savoy, 1979.
Boyer, Horace Clarence, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel, Elliott and Clark, 1995.
Heilbut, Tony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Limelight Editions, 1997.
Johnson Reagon, Bernice, ed., We'll Understand It Better By and By, Smithsonian Institution, 1992.
Jet, December 29-January 5, 1998, p. 6.
"Roberta Martin," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:hifexqq5ldke (September 5, 2006).
Their Stamp on History, www.stamponhistory.com/2003/10/13/0001 (September 5, 2006).
Hannah, Clayton, L., album notes to The Best of the Roberta Martin Singers, Savoy, 1979.