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Gospel Truths From a Trio That Sang It From the Start

February 17, 2001|HOWARD REICH | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO — They began singing together more than six decades ago, on the south side. Today, their names are revered wherever gospel music is sung and admired.

Even as septuagenarians, the honey-voiced Barrett Sisters sing like a dream. More important, they epitomize the sound of bona fide, true-to-its-roots gospel music. In an era when contemporary pop and modern-day gospel can seem indistinguishable, the Barrett Sisters represent the real thing: gospel music as it was originally performed, in the early 1930s, when the genre came into being.

Next month, the indefatigable trio--DeLois, Billie and Rodessa--will celebrate DeLois' 75th birthday with a concert at Trinity United Church here. But the concert will mark another, more extraordinary anniversary: the 60th year since the trio was founded, as the Barrett & Hudson Singers (then staffed by DeLois and Billie, plus cousin Johnnie Mae Hudson; Rodessa joined in 1950).

Still eager to spread the word, the Barrett Sisters recently gathered in DeLois' living room here to reminisce on their long journey.

DeLois Barrett Campbell: I never thought I still would be singing as I came up to my 75th birthday. I really didn't. I'm just grateful to God that he has kept me in this field this long.

Billie Barrett GreenBey: We started singing music together about 1941, as the Barrett & Hudson Singers--just DeLois and me, plus cousin Johnnie Mae Hudson. We had to sing with Johnnie Mae because Rodessa was too young, so she mostly played piano back then. But the three Barrett sisters sang at home, around the neighborhood and so forth. Johnnie Mae passed away in 1950, which is about when Rodessa officially joined us as a singer.

Rodessa Barrett Porter: I think we started singing because of our parents. Our dad sang, and our mother was the choir director in church, and that kind of pushed us into singing.

Billie: But what really got us harmonizing was the Andrews Sisters. We loved listening to them on the radio. They had such beautiful chords, and we wanted to sound just like them.

DeLois: Rodessa had piano lessons and Billie studied voice some, but as for me, I never had a music lesson. But I was always told that I had something unusual in my voice.

Rodessa: Well, Billie and I may have had some lessons, but whatever we can do, we consider a gift from God.

When we arranged our songs, we did it just by singing them. One of us would say, "Why don't you put this in there?" And then Billie might say, "Why don't you add this over there?" And eventually, we would come up with an arrangement that's pretty good.

DeLois: We didn't use any written music. It all came from the top of our heads. And then we created it on the stage. We would sing it one way today, and the next day we would make it something else.

Rodessa: But the gospel life was hard, at least I'll say it was for me. Because eventually I was married and had five children. And to start off singing and traveling, it's a problem. I had to watch the kids, and my husband was working.

DeLois: It was never was easy for me, either, because my husband really resented me going off to perform. But I had to go, because I felt this was my calling. Just like he had a calling, as a preacher, my ministry was the same thing. Later in life, he finally tried to come into it, but he never really did. I think there was a little jealousy there, too. Because I could make more money than he could make. I could make in one hour what he would make in a whole week.

Even though in gospel you don't get rich. In fact, sometimes we wouldn't get paid at all because a crowd wasn't there.

Billie: A lot of gospel singers back then didn't really get into the business of the music. That was the problem. We were so happy to sing that we didn't handle the business. But at least we were fortunate that we had husbands and families to help support us, so we didn't worry about it.

Now we are more concerned about it than ever. But we really were not business people, and we should have been.

Rodessa: Now, my sisters don't want to hear this, but I must say I'm getting tired. They don't want me to say this. But I'm truthful. After 50-some years, my body is tired. . . . I would like to stop.

Billie: Well, I feel that God gave us this gift, and as long as we are able to sing, we should sing. Now, if my voice goes out and my body goes out, I'll give it up. But I'll be singing to the glory of God till I die. I love it, I love singing with my sisters. The people keep encouraging us. It's a gift from God.

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