Williams, Marion (1927–1994)

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Williams, Marion (1927–1994)

African-American gospel singer . Born on August 29, 1927, in Miami, Florida; died of vascular complications arising from diabetes on July 2, 1994, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; dropped out of school at age 14; married; one son Robin.

Started singing career with the Clara Ward Singers (1947–58); sang with the Stars of Faith in the song-play Black Nativity; her unique traditional gospel style influenced a host of secular artists, including Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, over the course of her career which lasted nearly half a century.

Born in Miami, Florida, in 1927, Marion Williams was the youngest of eleven children, a group that included three sets of twins. Williams was one of only three children, however, who survived past their first year. Her father, who died when she was nine, was a West Indian who worked as a barber and also taught music. Her mother, originally from South Carolina, worked as a laundress and sang in a choir. Because of the family's poor financial circumstances, Williams dropped out of school at age 14 to work as a maid and child nurse. She later found work at a laundry and put in grueling hours to help support her family.

Williams started singing at age three and developed her natural ability with the encouragement of her father in her church's choir. Her roots were in sanctified singing in the Church of God and Christ, a denomination to which she remained faithful throughout her life. From her local Pentecostal church, she branched out to other churches in Miami, and to tent and streetcorner revivals. Her life's ambition was to become a traveling gospel singer, like the many male quartets, the sanctified shouter Rosetta Tharpe , and the Baptist mourner Mary Johnson Davis .

While visiting her sister in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1940s, Williams encountered the Clara Ward Singers, the preeminent gospel group of the 1940s and 1950s, at the Ward African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Upon invitation, Williams sang "What Could I Do (If It Wasn't for the Lord)" at the church. The teenager's stunning performance amazed and captivated the audience. Clara Ward immediately asked Miami's premier gospel soloist to join her group. After about a year, she accepted the invitation. Between 1947 and 1958, Williams, as one of the now-famous Ward Singers, stood out as a backup member and excelled as a vocal leader.

Williams left the group in 1958, taking group members Frances Steadman, Kitty Parham , and Henrietta Waddy along with her to form another gospel group, the Stars of Faith. Williams made her theatrical debut in 1961 in the gospel song-play Black Nativity, the text of which was written by noted black author Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote the song-play especially for Williams, and it enjoyed a three-year run in the United States, followed by even greater success in Europe. During the Christmas season of 1963, Black Nativity was produced for national television.

Gospel diva Williams made her debut as a soloist in 1966 and continued in that capacity until her death. With her flamboyant, innovative style and her clear voicings, Williams incorporated such techniques as deep growls and octave-spanning whoops into the gospel repertoire she performed, influencing both gospel and pop singers, and bringing her brand of music to an international audience. Little Richard once credited Williams for inspiring the leap-frogging vocals and falsetto breaks in his hit "Tutti-Frutti," while vocalist Aretha Franklin paid her colleague the compliment of recording cover versions of Williams' two most popular gospel efforts: "Packin' Up" and "Surely God Is Able." During her career, Williams recorded ten albums of gospel and pop music, and experimented with a number of different musical genres, including blues, folk, and calypso.

During the late 1960s, Williams covered the college circuit, appeared at the Antibes Jazz Festival in France and the Dakar Festival of Negro Arts in Africa, did several television specials, and received from Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly ) one of Europe's top achievement honors, the International Television Award. Though the popularity of contemporary gospel rose in the 1970s, Williams, a gospel traditionalist, performed less frequently. Promoters and producers who envisioned Williams' ascension to the top of the pop charts made efforts to persuade her to sing more secular material and offered her lucrative contracts, but she stayed true to what she considered the purpose of her career: to spread her message of Christian love to her listeners. From the mid-1980s until her death, her concert career thrived, limited only by the physical disabilities she experienced from diabetes.

In addition to recording, Williams performed in churches and nightclubs around the nation, as well as in concert halls. She also contributed her talents as a singer to the motion pictures Fried Green Tomatoes and Mississippi Masala in the early 1990s. The year 1993 proved to be a high point in Williams' professional career: she was honored for her contributions to American culture by President Bill Clinton at New York's Kennedy Center, and also received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for her contributions to American music, the first singer to be thus honored. Unfortunately, her televised appearance at the Kennedy Center was her last public performance; in 1994, at age 66, Williams died near her home in Philadelphia.


Obituary, in The Day [New London, CT]. July 4, 1994.

Obituary, in Time. July 18, 1994.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women, Book II. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Williams, Marion (1927–1994)

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