Ward, Clara Mae (1924–1973)

views updated

Ward, Clara Mae (1924–1973)

African-American singer whose career with the Ward Trio and the Clara Ward Singers popularized gospel music in the mainstream music industry . Born on April 21, 1924, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on January 16, 1973, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of George Ward and Gertrude May (Murphy) Ward.

Clara Mae Ward was born in Philadelphia in 1924, the second daughter of George Ward and Gertrude Murphy Ward . The family had moved from South Carolina in search of a better life, but during the Great Depression, Gertrude supported her family by serving wealthy white families as a domestic. Following a revelation in a dream, Gertrude began singing gospel music in 1931, and performed in churches throughout the Philadelphia area. In 1934, she added her daughters Clara and Willa Ward to the act to create the Ward Trio. Clara Ward had been singing since the age of five and had started piano a few years after. Considered a gifted musician, she was especially regarded for her singing talent.

In 1943, while performing with the Ward Trio at the National Baptist Convention in Philadelphia, Clara was officially introduced to the national gospel circuit. The Ward Trio experienced phenomenal success at the Philadelphia Convention, and they began to tour extensively. Although a popular group, they received little money for their efforts. This situation improved in 1949 when the Ward Trio added Marion Ward and Henrietta Waddy to the group. It was also during this time that they met their lifelong friend, preacher and songwriter W. Herbert Brewster.

Although she was just 5'3" and weighed only 103 pounds, Clara Ward's small stature belied her powerful performances. She possessed enormous energy, and her skillful artistic direction enthralled those who saw her perform. Ward assumed control of the group and gave them a more sophisticated image through striking gowns and new, mature hair-styles. As a result, the Ward Singers were ranked among the most successful female gospel groups of the 1950s. As their popularity grew during that decade, they also established a lifelong relationship with the Reverend C.L. Franklin. His daughter Aretha Franklin was profoundly influenced by her exposure to Clara Ward. (It was at the funeral of her aunt that the 12-year-old Franklin, transfixed by Ward's exuberant singing, decided to become a singer herself.)

Clara Ward was considered an emotional singer who produced a long list of bestselling gospel records, including "Surely, God Is Able," "How I Got Over," "Come in the Room" and "The Day Is Past and Gone." Ward's popularity filled auditoriums and churches wherever she performed. Her affinity for writing and performing new music led to the establishment of Ward's House of Music, a successful publishing company. The business published not only music, but booklets and song collections, including many of the over 500 songs written by Ward herself.

From 1943 to 1957, the Ward Singers traveled more than a million miles throughout the gospel circuit. In 1955, they performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but "The Big Gospel Cavalcade of 1957" took them to a different city each night of the week but Saturday. Their success with the Cavalcade tour earned them an invitation to perform at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival on an all-gospel matinee program.

The Ward Singers grew from performing free concerts to receiving $5,000 for single performances. Although 1958 brought unrest within the group due to personnel changes and a shift in artistic direction, "Mother" Gertrude Ward was able to draw the group back together, and they continued their upward climb. In 1959, they went on an immensely successful Scandinavian tour. And with Clara Ward's 1961 decision to perform at the Village Vanguard in New York City, the group began to expand their following. Ward's Vanguard audiences were captivated by what they saw and heard, and engagements at other clubs—such as the Elegant, Birdland, and the Blue Angel—soon followed. A 2-week engagement at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1961 turned into a highly publicized and profitable 40-week gig. Repeated the following year, it was the longest consecutive booking at the time for any performer in Las Vegas history.

The name of the group changed from the Ward Singers to the Clara Ward Specials and finally to the Clara Ward Singers. In 1962, the Clara Ward Singers first appeared in Disneyland. After that performance, they became a regular attraction. Their rigorous travel schedule included worldwide performances as far away as Vietnam and the Far East. They appeared with Jack Benny at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, and myriad television hosts, including Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, Danny Thomas, Steve Allen, and Tennessee Ernie Ford, sought them as guest performers. Continuing to break barriers, the Clara Ward Singers performed at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1967—the first gospel group do so. They also recorded with other groups, such as the Isley Brothers. As well, Ward's career took her to Broadway as musical director and co-star with Lou Gossett, Jr., of Langston Hughes' God's Trombones.

Ward's progression from traditional gospel to pop-gospel had taken nearly 20 years. Despite her musical transition from "Precious Lord" to "Zippety-Dooh-Dah," she never lost her spiritual center or her concern that her early supporters would misunderstand her motives. Although she permitted no serving of alcohol during her performances, her appearances in nightclubs remained a point of contention between her and her good friend of many years, Mahalia Jackson .

While performing in a Florida hotel, Ward suffered a stroke, which left her temporarily unable to sing. Yet her drive to perform was so strong that she took on the role of accompanist for the group. Five weeks after her first stroke, Ward suffered a second stroke and died on January 16, 1973, in Los Angeles. Her mother Gertrude organized two funerals. The first, a "service of triumph," took place in Philadelphia on January 23, 1973, at the old Metropolitan Opera House. Aretha Franklin sang "The Day Is Past and Gone," one of Clara Ward's greatest hymns. The second service was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. More than 4,000 mourners appeared and the performance included former Ward Singers Marion Williams singing "Surely, God Is Able," and Gertrude Ward singing "When the Storms of Life Are Raging." Clara Ward was buried in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland