CLARA WARD SINGERS
Born in Philadelphia on August 21, 1924, Clara Ward is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest soloists in gospel history. Touring the country with her backing group, the Ward Singers, she propelled gospel out of the church and into the nightclub, where glitzy costumes and pop-style performance gave the music glamour and commercial appeal never seen before in gospel music. With the strong promotional savvy of her mother Gertrude who handled the business side of things, and her sister Willa on he piano, the troupe rose from obscurity to become one of the top attractions on the church circuit in the late 1940s. They soon brought on two new performers, Henrietta Waddy and Marion Williams, a Miami teen whose powerhouse voice became the trademark sound of the group. With Williams installed as soloist, the Wards hit their creative peak, releasing such masterful hits as “Surely God Is Able” and “Packin’ Up.”
The Wards were prosperous through the 1950s, touring regularly with the Reverend C.L. Franklin of Detroit; the father of Aretha Franklin-herself an admitted disciple of Clara Ward. In 1958 the bottom fell out of the church music circuit and a revamped incarnation of the group took up the nightclub circuit, playing Las Vegas and even Disneyland, much to the dismay of gospel traditionalists who were already skeptical of their flamboyant performance style. The group continued touring throughout the 1960s, until Ward’s declining health forced her into retirement. She died January 16, 1973.