Roberta Martin was one of the true divas of gospel music. She was one of the "protégés" of the man recognized as the "Father of Gospel Music" Thomas Dorsey. Dorsey was a former blues pianist ("Georgia Tom") who lead Ma Rainey's band during the 1920's and had a successful partnership with Tampa Red which produced such hits as "It's Tight Like That" and several more. After a series of personal tragedies, he devoted his life to the church. Dorsey was one of the creators of the Chicago gospel revolution. Roberta Martin was also a huge influence on the evolution of this 'new' music. Spirituals, field hollers, work songs, European Hymns, blues and mostly passion and an un-faltering belief were synthesized to create this amazing music.
Roberta was born in 1907 in Helena, Arkansas to William and Anna Winston. She was one of six children. At ten she and her family moved to Cairo, Illinois. At this young age, she had been studying piano with her brother' s wife and was already playing for Sunday school. While in high school she was inspired by a teacher to become a concert pianist, but after playing for the Young People's Choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church she devoted her music to the church. (Boyer, Pg. 66).
Roberta formed the Roberta Martin Singers with young boys from two local churches in Chicago. The original members were: Eugene Smith, Norsalus McKissick, Robert Anderson, James Lawrence, Willie Webb and Romance Watson. "Inspired by Bertha Wise and her singers, and undoubtedly because even as a youngster Martin possessed a deep, dark, rich contralto that could easily mix with the male timbre, she set about developing a gospel sound with no bass, but rather a dark treble sound with the vocal elasticity that the new music required...In the early 1940's when Martin decided to add female voices to her group, she selected Bessie Folk and Deloris Barrett and refined the 'Roberta Martin gospel sound and style'." (Boyer, pg. 67)
Roberta's style was taken from the Pentecostal tradition and "refined" into a smooth gospel sound without the loss of intensity. Martin was also a skilled pianist and her playing style easily recognizable by those who love gospel.
Her compositions include, "He Knows Just How Much We Can Bear (1939)," "Try Jesus, He Satisfies (1943)," "I'm Just Waiting on the Lord"(1953) and "God is Still on the Throne" (1959). Martin, who had her own studio of music, also published songs written by others, including a young James Cleveland.
Roberta Martin devoted herself to the music for over 36 years. She earned six gold records and even sang at Gian-Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy in 1963. Roberta Martin died in 1969 , leaving a legacy of soul-stirring music behind.
Reference used: HOW SWEET THE SOUND, Text by Horace Clarence Boyer Photography by Lloyd Yearwood. This book is available at Amazon Books (www.amazon.com) and is an excellent and enjoyable reference for those interested in the history and personalities of gospel music.