Aretha Franklin’s passing created a flurry of tributes and memorials, which continues weeks after her death Aug. 16. The October edition of Rolling Stone weighed in with a lengthy reflection by Mikal Gilmore, with as much effulgence as all the other tributes combined.
In surveying Franklin’s extraordinary odyssey, he touched briefly on the gospel singer Clara Ward, and he noted the influence she had on her protégé as well as Ward’s “on again, off again,” relationship with the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s charismatic father.
Few encomiums about Franklin missed mentioning Ward, but none of them offered more than a passing nod to her career and legacy. Let this page be added to what has been only fragments of her momentous life.
Clara Mae Ward was born in Philadelphia April 21, 1924, and was nurtured in a home where the church and gospel music were as regular as Sunday morning grits, eggs and bacon. Although she recorded her first song when she was 16, it was not until her mother, Gertrude, in 1931, formed the Ward Singers, including her sister Willa on piano, that she gained national prominence. When they performed at the National Baptist Convention in 1943, the Ward Singers secured a niche at the tip of the gospel and church circuit.
By the late ’40s, given the group’s popularity, two new members—Henrietta Waddy and Marion Williams—were added. Williams’ powerful voice became the group’s signature sound, replacing Ward as the leader, although Ward continued as pianist and arranger. When the singers issued “Surely God Is Able” and “Packin’ Up,” their acclaim reached a new pinnacle. However, there were those purists among their followers who took exception to the semblance of actually mimicking packing during their rendition of the latter song.
Even with Williams out front, her soaring soprano capable of reaching the top of the scale, Ward’s presence was always in demand, particularly for her to render “How I Got Over,” in her practically heavenly alto voice. But soon she settled into being just another voice in the quartet, as well as the arranger, and making sure that when new singers such as Frances Steadman and Kitty Parham were added, they were familiar with the switch-lead style of the shouting quartets. Through the ’50s the Ward Singers dominated the gospel charts and the church circuit, their beehive bouffant wigs almost as identifying as their harmonic voices.
The group’s climb in sales and engagements were accentuated by their appearances with the Rev. Franklin, but this ascendance hit a bump when a disgruntled Williams, not satisfied with her pay, left the group. Her exit was followed by Steadman and Parham, who also complained about their low salaries. In Willa Ward’s biography of Clara Ward, she wrote that she and other members of the group were grossly underpaid. Moreover, the singers were charged for housing, thereby having charges for rent deducted from their salaries.
Williams and the other disbanded members formed a new group called The Stars of Faith, which might have been a name to counter the Ward Singers’ venturing out of the conventional gospel genre and style.
With a coterie of new singers, the Ward Singers began to explore the club circuit, which was met with consternation by their conventional listeners. The gospel world was in a generation of change, and the Ward Singers believed that to keep up they had to adapt to new audiences, experiment with different rhythms, discard the robes and tool around town in the flashiest cars.
For example, in 1949, they toured from coast to coast in their brand-new Cadillac, appeared on TV and recorded on Miltone Records in Los Angeles. Rudy Van Gelder, best known for recording the jazz immortals in his New Jersey studio, engineered several recordings for the Ward Singers in the 1950s. It was around this time that the Ward Singers made their Carnegie Hall debut on a program called the “Negro Music Festival,” produced by Joe Bostic, a gospel music pioneer. They shared the stage with the renowned Mahalia Jackson. This date would be reprised in 1952 at another Bostic produced event.
Meanwhile, Ward began to perform as a solo act and became the second gospel singer to sing on Broadway in Langston Hughes’ play “Tambourines to Glory.” She was also the musical director. Ironically, it was The Stars of Faith who had preceded her on Broadway, again in Hughes’ “The Black Nativity.”
But Ward was not superseded in the 1960s when she was the first gospel singer to sing with a 100-piece symphony orchestra. This success was followed by a recording date in which Ward and her sister Willa provided backup vocals to Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. Seven years later, Ward recorded “Soul and Inspiration” for Capitol Records, mainly an assemblage of pop songs from Broadway plays and movies.
Not content to rest on her musical laurels, Ward recorded a mélange of blues, pop, country-western and folk music, and even a version of the Beatles’ classic “Help.” Still stepping into the pop arena, she recorded Bill Withers’ hit “Lean on Me,” in 1972. All of this activity occurred four years after the Ward Singers toured Vietnam at the request of the State Department and the USO. They narrowly escaped death when their hotel was bombed, and several guests were killed. Ward and her singers were not discouraged and made a return visit in 1969. Their performances were filmed and they were later honored by the U.S Army with special certificates of recognition.
Along with a variety of performances in numerous venues, Ward can also be seen in several films, including “It’s Your Thing” featuring the Isley Brothers.
Beginning in 1966, when she collapsed while performing in Miami Beach, Ward suffered a series of strokes. Finally, Jan. 16, 1973, at the age of 48, she was dead. Both Aretha Franklin and her father sang at Ward’s funeral in Philadelphia. Ward is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, Ca.
In 1977, Ward was honored at the Songwriters Hall of Fame with Willa accepting the award for her. Ward had her image on a 32-cent stamp in 1998. But it was left to Aretha Franklin to put an everlasting stamp on her splendid voice on her album “Amazing Grace,” with James Cleveland in the 1970s.