An Audience With The Queen
GOSPELflava.com's 'Take Me Back' columnist, Gregory Gay, sat down to speak candidly with the Queen, as she reminisced on days gone by, spoke about her sisters in the Spirit, The Caravans, as well as her memories of Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson and Rev. James Cleveland. She also described The Caravans' new project, Paved the Way, and gave words of wisdom and spiritual nuggets for the journey ahead.
GOSPELflava.com: When you first got the idea to start a group so many decades ago now, was there anything in particular that you were looking for?
Albertina Walker: I wasn't looking for anything in particular, I just wanted to work with people that loved the Lord and wanted to win souls for Christ. God fixed it so I didn't have to look for anybody; God just placed the people with me. God used me to do his will and take them all across the country for the people to see and hear them.
GOSPELflava.com: How did you come up with the name The Caravans?
Albertina Walker: I was a part of The Robert Anderson Singers. Robert Anderson was retiring and disbanding the group and Mr. Allen, the guy from the States record company, wanted to record me. I told him I didn't want to record by myself, I wanted to record with a group. Mr. Allen replied, 'Well, you don't have a group.'
"So I asked the girls from Robert's group to sing with me and they said yes. I went back to Mr. Allen and told him that I now had a group, and he asked me what I was going to call them. I thought about it. Elyse (Yancey) was from Gary, Indiana and Nellie (Grace Daniels) was from East Chicago, Indiana, and then Ora Lee (Hopkins) was from one side of Chicago and I was on the other, so we came up with the name, The Caravans. That's how it was. Everybody came from somewhere else. Dorothy (Norwood) from Georgia, Shirley (Caesar) from North Carolina, Inez (Andrews) from Alabama. James (Cleveland) and I were the only ones that grew up in Chicago."
GOSPELflava.com: What was it like to work with James Cleveland?
Albertina Walker: "James was really fun to be around and work with. We grew up together. James played for my sister and me when we were kids growing up on the south side of Chicago. I had been on a tour with The Caravans and at the end of the tour our musician left us."
"We got back to Chicago and as usual, we would go by Mahalia (Jackson)'s house. These were the days when the singers congregated for fellowship. There were no big I's and little U's. We were all the same. Mahalia was just a down to earth person., a wonderful singer and very personable, and what a comedienne! Mahalia would cook and we would sing and eat and carry on." "James came over that day and as we were eating asked, 'Who's playing for you?' I told him I didn't have a musician. So he asked, 'You want me to play for you?' I immediately said yes. I enjoyed James' singing and we could always work together. When we went on the road, I would let him sing and the people would respond."
"After we came off the road again, Mr. Allen called me to tell me the people were calling us to do another album. I told him I wanted to record James. Mr. Allen said, 'That young man? Oh no, he sounds like a frog.' I told Mr. Allen, 'You don't know the response he gets from the people when we are on the road because you're stuck behind the desk. The people really like him and he has something that people really need to hear. I want him to record with us and if he doesn't record with us, then we are not recording.'
"I stayed out of the studio a long time. Mr. Allen was in need of a new record so finally he called. He told me 'I need a new album and if you still have to have that boy, I will let you record him.'"
"One of James' most popular songs was 'What Kind of Man Is This'. [An unforgettable live version of this song is found on the Specialty reissue of the 1951 concert at the Shrine Auditorium. That CD also features soul stirring performances from Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and The Caravans featuring Albertina leading on Alex Bradford's “Since I Met Jesus”)."
"There came a time in the ‘70s that I was going to hang up my hat and retire. I had made up in my mind that I was not going back on the road. James flew to Chicago (he was living in Los Angeles at the time) and came straight to my house. He told me, oh no, there is no way that I am going to let you sit on all this talent that God has given you. We are going into the studio and we are going to do an album. The end result was the Reunion album (featuring the song, 'I Know He Can, I Believe He Will')."
"James didn't stop there. He said 'We are going to do one more.'"
"For that one, we teamed up with a church choir that was recording on Savoy, the Trinity All Nations Choir. They had a little success with their recording of 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee' and “Serving God Will Pay Off'. They were a group of saved and Spirit-filled young people. Their director was Larry Roberts, who was also a great organist and songwriter, and they had an anointed woman of God for a pastor whose name was Reverend Evelyn Davis. Those young folk believed in fasting and praying. They would later go on to record their biggest hit, 'I Love Jesus More Today'."
"We recorded 'Please Be Patient with Me', with me, James and John (McNeil) doing a trio on the lead. We had church in the recording session, and the Lord really blessed that album. It was a turn-around."
"The album did so well it was nominated for a Grammy. God just opened the doors and I was able to walk on through. That led to the album Sweet Sweet Spirit that featured 'I Can Go to God in Prayer', written by Calvin Bridges. That album was recorded in Chicago with Rev. Jerry Goodlowe's Lighthouse Baptist Church Choir."
"Calvin also wrote 'Spread the Word', which I recorded with the Chicago Chapter Choir of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. There are places today that I cannot go without singing 'I Can Go to God in Prayer'. When we get to 'He Can Work It Out', the people get so excited that they want to take the song from me. I just let them have it. I know for myself that God can work out any situation, no matter what the problem may be. The song is over 20 years old and people still want to hear it. I thank the Lord."
GOSPELflava.com: You mentioned John McNeil, your longtime accompanist...
Albertina Walker: "John was such a dear friend to me. Bless his heart; he went home to be with the Lord recently. He was my 'voice' for many years [laughing]. John could sound just like me. He saved me on many occasions. He was very supportive and was such a wonderful singer and songwriter. John was truly a man of God, he loved working with me and I loved working with him. He helped to make everything easy for me. He was very respectful and treated me like I was special, and he was on top of it all."
"There is a song on The Caravans' new album that John wrote; 'Christ Is Coming Back' [originally recorded on the Please Be Patient With Me album]. We do it in remembrance of John. His memory lives through all of the beautiful music that he wrote."
"These days I have Cliff Dubose who serves as my accompanist. Cliff is a great organist in his own right. The Lord always makes a way and gives us what we need just when we need it.”
"On The Caravans new album, Inez's son, Richard Gibbs, is playing. Richard is a great organist and bass player, too. He travels on the road with Aretha Franklin."
GOSPELflava.com: What are your memories of the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas Dorsey?
Albertina Walker: "I met Thomas Dorsey when I was very young. The church wasn't ready for his new style of music, but I personally enjoyed his music and the message that it carried. I would go to the church where he was, Pilgrim, and sit under him as he taught. He would go to different churches and present concerts."
"I remember going to Ebenezer on 45th and Vincennes [on Chicago's south side]. They had organized the first 'Gospel Choir' there. Most other churches would turn him away. This was an exciting time in Gospel music."
GOSPELflava.com: Who are some of the Gospel artists that you listen to today?
Albertina Walker: "I must say, I am a traditional Gospel singer and I love traditional Gospel music. I like quartet. Doc McKenzie and that Harvey Watkins, that's my kind of music."
"Neil Roberson, that is one sangin' machine. When he plays that harmonica and sings 'Don't Let the Devil Ride', isn't nothing left. They are all doing their thing. I don't have a heaven or hell to put them in, I don't know what the Lord told them, I just know what he told me."
"I can appreciate some of the contemporary Gospel. A lot of it I cannot understand. I figure, it's for the young people. That is what they can identify with. I love Kirk Franklin, Kim Burrell and Yolanda Adams, all of the Winans, and the Clark Sisters. Twinkie is such a fabulous organist."
"Today, Tye Tribbett, Fred Hammond and Israel are taking Gospel where it has never been. I am blessed when I hear Jonathan Butler sing 'Falling in Love with Jesus', and he can play that guitar."
GOSPELflava.com: Everybody knows that Albertina Walker is a singer. But few people know of your work as a songwriter and producer.
Albertina Walker: "I presented Father Hayes and Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir on one of their first albums before they were signed to a label."
"I also did an album on Faith Howard. Faith is one of my background singers. She was also the first scholarship recipient from the Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts. Faith is also a member of my church, the West Point Baptist Church, here in Chicago. We have a Jakes for a pastor, but not T.D. His name is Bernard Jakes."
"I have watched Faith grow up and mature into a wonderful young lady. She also has a wonderful voice, and was featured on my Songs Of The Church album that was done in Memphis. Dorothy (Norwood) and I produced her first album. She redid one of the songs that I wrote for The Caravans, 'He's Got Everything'. That was the title cut of the CD. She also did a song called 'Watchtower' that was written by V. Michael McKay [the composer of 'I'm Still Here']. Faith holds her own. You can hear her sharing a lead with me on the new Caravans album, on 'He Fixed It'. She's someone to look out for.
"When we were recording 'Please Be Patient With Me', the Lord gave me the words to 'I've Got a Feeling'. I gave it to Larry Roberts and he taught it to the choir and we recorded it. The song is a simple song with such a powerful message. It goes to show you that if we wait on the Lord and let Him work it out, that He will work it out. Most of the times we get in trouble when we try to handle it or work it out ourselves. When we take our hands off of it and let Jesus fix it, He will fix it and it will be fixed."
"I was watching a rerun of The King of Queens the other day and they were using the song during one of the scenes. The song is really popular with white audiences as well. I am grateful to the Lord that it connects with so many people."
GOSPELflava.com: Now about the new album, specifically, can you share your thoughts on Paved The Way?
Albertina Walker: Well, Dorothy (Norwood) approached me with the idea of doing a reunion project with the group. We have been doing reunions here and there for a while. When James was alive, we did a reunion on the Stellar Awards [and also did one at the 2006 Stellars]. We've done reunions at the Gospel Music Workshop of America, and there are some times that we are each appearing individually on the same concert bill. We did a couple numbers on one of my albums, Let's Go Back, Live in Chicago. We've also been featured on the new compilation that Malaco put out featuring some of the old Gospel groups [Gospel Legends]."
"So, Dorothy felt it was time for us to come together and do a album featuring some old and some new material (read recording recap). So it's all there: Inez singing 'Mary Don't You Weep', me on 'Lord Keep Me Day by Day' and 'Show Some Sign', Evelyn Turrentine-Agee was our guest on 'No Coward Soldier' and then the Caravans doing 'Remember Me'. Cassietta George used to wreck the house with this one. That brought back memories and people will hear and feel the anointing when we sing that."
"As for the new songs, there's 'Paved The Way', Delores does 'Let Your Will Be Done' and I do 'He Fixed It'. There is something for everyone."
GOSPELflava.com: Another unknown tidbit perhaps, is that Albertina Walker is a master chef in the kitchen. What are your specialties?
Albertina Walker: "Hot water cornbread and chili. Although, you have to wait for it to get cold for me to make chili."
GOSPELflava.com: And something else; you spent time being a radio angel.
Albertina Walker: "Yes, I did. Father Hayes introduced me to radio. I did the Albertina Walker Gospel Hour on WMPP for many, many years in the early 80's. It was something that I truly enjoyed. We are all a part of the body of Christ. Being an artist is one part, and being a radio announcer is just another part, but we are all in one body. I thank God for the radio announcers who keep us alive by playing our music."
GOSPELflava.com: Lastly, can you tell us something about the Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts?
Albertina Walker: "I have a special place in my heart for young people. Everywhere I go, I am introduced to young people who love Gospel music and can't wait to jump into the Gospel arena. College is expensive and most of these young people need help. I am interested in seeing people finish college and get degrees."
"It's not like it used to be in the days when The Caravans were starting out. You need a degree and sometimes two and three degrees to get a good job. There are thousands of young people who want to go to school and major in music and just can't afford it."
"I felt that since the Lord has blessed me to make it, why not bless someone else. The Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation was created to provide assistance to students with a desire to go to school and get their degree. We help young people who have completed one year of college to get to the second year. There are so many Gospel singers these days. They are coming out of the bushes and everywhere. Competition for recording contracts these days is worse in Gospel that it is in secular music. So you need something to fall back on."
"If you go to school and get a degree, you can have some money coming in while you are waiting for the Lord to take your ministry to the next level. We have adopted two Chicago schools, the Sherwood Conservatory of Music and a junior college, Olive Harvey."
"Each year in August (around my birthday), we have a big benefit concert where my friends come together and we raise money to support these young people. This year I was honored to have Dorinda Clark, Byron Cage, Neal Roberson, Doc McKenzie and the Hi-Lights, New Direction, Dr. Charles G. Hayes and Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir, and my group, The Caravans, to share with me in the concert. We had a wonderful time."
"Through the Foundation we make regular visits to the nursing homes where I give concerts to those persons that are sick. I figure if they can't come to us, then we can go to them. The people are so happy to see us coming, just to know that someone is thinking of you says a lot."
"I know that one day, if we keep living, the ‘old man' is going to stop by our house as well and we will want someone to come and see after us. We also participate in food drives for the hungry and coat drives in preparation for the winter. Jesus said 'When I was hungry, you didn't feed me, when I was naked, you didn't clothe me, when I was sick and in prison, you didn't visit me.'"
"People are always ready to sing to the packed auditoriums and churches, but sometimes we need to be like Jesus. He said when you do it to the least of these; you are doing it to me. So everyone needs to make an effort and do their part."
"I like encouraging young people. I always tell them to go and make something of yourself. The church has a responsibility to tell people the truth. Drugs and HIV and AIDS are in the church, like they are in the world. We need to say yes to God and no to the things that don't please God. Go to school, get a good education and get the Lord in your life."
"I did a song called 'Life Can Be Beautiful'. The message in that song is true. God can make your life beautiful. Living for the Lord has some wonderful benefits, and I know that full well because I am still here. It's no goodness of my own, but I am sure that the Lord left me here to tell others."
"I don't know how much time I have left. But while I am here, I am going to do all I can while I have the chance. God isn't through with me yet, my time is not over and I mean to work until the day is done."
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