Clara Ward (1924 - 1973)
It would not be hyperbole to say that Clara Ward was a gospel revolutionary. The Ward 's "sound" changed gospel music. Her songs are still sung in churches throughout the country today. Influenced by the Chicago gospel of Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin, she and her singers helped to put Philadelphia on the musical map.
Clara's mother, Gertrude Ward (originally from South Carolina, later moving to Philadelphia), was the catalyst that began she and her daughter's (Clara and Willarene) musical ascent. Mrs. Ward was tenacious and determined. After only four years singing gospel, Mrs. Ward got Thomas Dorsey, Sallie Martin and Ruth Jones (Dinah Washington) to perform at her anniversary event (Boyer, pg.104)She knew that she wanted to be a gospel star and she imparted the same drive in her daughter Clara.
The Ward Trio consisted if Mrs. Ward, daughters Willarene and Clara on the piano. They developed a local reputation for being able to bring a house down with their sophisticated but powerful vocal delivery. By 1943 they became nationally known. " They chose the 1943 National Baptist Convention as the venue for their debut. With Clara playing the piano and leading one of the oldest Baptist lining hymns so dearly beloved by the congregation, the ward Trio became the sensation of the convention. From that single appearance they were able to schedule a year of concert and revival dates throughout the National Baptist Convention Network." (Boyer, pg. 105)
Willa later left the group to start a family. Mrs. Ward added two new singers to the group Henrietta Waddy and Marion Williams. These two singers helped to create what we now know as the Ward singers "sound." Ms. Waddy brought with her an enthusiastic song delivery and Ms. Williams brought with her powerhouse vocals. " Williams was well grounded in singing shout songs at fast tempos, using fill-in words at points where the melody called for rest, repeating words and melodic motives for intensity...her unique and most outstanding talent, however, was her ability to soar effortlessly into the top of the soprano register with purity and volume. It was not unusual for Williams to sing eight or nine consecutive high C's and then drop to the bottom of her register and deliver a growl in the manner of sanctified preachers." (Boyer, pg. 105, pg. 107)
The Ward singers began recording in 1947. In 1949 they recorded one of the most popular gospel songs ever "SURELY GOD IS ABLE. " Clara took a song she had heard the Brewster Ensemble (led by W. Herbert Brewster, prolific gospel music composer) peform and totally re-worked it. This song was revolutionary in itself, adding musical elements that had never been done before, but have become standards in gospel music. (To find out more about the Clara's musical theoretical innovations, please read the below referenced book by Horace Boyer, pg. 107-110)
During the 1950's, the Ward Singers were gospel superstars. They were the first to wear sequined gowns to perform in and large, ornate wigs. They did not believe that they had to compromise a look in order to sing gospel music. In fact, what other genre deserves more? In 1951 the Clara Ward Specials were formed and in 1954 Mrs. Ward and Clara opened the Clara Ward House of Music publishing company.
By 1958, the original group had desolved. Marian Williams, Henrietta waddy, Kitty Parham and Frances Steadman left to form the very successful gospel group STARS OF FAITH. Clara never saw the tremendous fame she had attained again.
Without a doubt, she is an American music hero. Her innovation and musical bravery helped to create what we recognize today as traditional gospel music.
Reference: HOW SWEET THE SOUND: The Golden Age of Gospel, 1995 Text by Horence Clarence Boyer and Photography by Lloyd Yearwood