Acknowledged as a prime influence by no less than Little Richard, the Birmingham, AL-based Original Gospel Harmonettes were among the greatest and most successful female gospel groups of the 1950s. They were led by soloist Dorothy Love Coates, who also composed many of their best-known selections, and their music transcended its spiritual foundations to appeal to a secular world on the threshold of the civil rights era. Formed during the mid-'40s, the group -- initially dubbed the Harmoneers, later modified to the Lee Harmoneers in the wake of a tour with soprano Georgia Lee Stafford -- were originally comprised of pianist Evelyn Starks Hardy, contralto Odessa Edwards, soprano Vera Kalb, alto Willie Mae Newberry Garth, and mezzo-soprano Mildred Miller Howard, their first lead vocalist. Coates enlisted in 1947, but left soon after to care for her infant daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Rechristened the Gospel Harmonettes by 1950, they soon appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts; their success on the program resulted in a contract with RCA Victor, and prompted the addition of the word "Original" to their name. Their early recordings went nowhere, however, and they signed to Specialty in 1951, at which time Coates rejoined their ranks. The Original Gospel Harmonettes' first Specialty releases, "I'm Sealed" and "Get Away Jordan," quickly shot them to popularity; a pure dynamo in seemingly constant motion, the galvanic Coates cut a sharp contrast to her urbane accompanists, and her songs -- often updates of traditional numbers tailored to speak to contemporary issues -- struck a powerful chord among listeners. Among Coates' compositions, many -- among them "That's Enough" (covered by artists ranging from Ray Charles to Johnny Cash), "He's Right on Time," "You Must Be Born Again," "I Won't Let Go," and "You've Been Good to Me" -- clearly qualify as standards.
Hardy retired from the Original Gospel Harmonettes' tours in 1953, although she continued recording with the group; on the road, she was replaced by Detroit pianist Herbert "Pee Wee" Pickard, later an accompanist for James Cleveland. Despite the group's enormous popularity, by the end of the decade both Edwards and Kalb had retired as well, and from 1959 to 1961 the Harmonettes were inactive; during that time, Coates was reborn as a civil rights activist, often working with Martin Luther King. She re-formed the Harmonettes in 1961, with her sister Lillian McGriff and soprano Cleo Edwards joining alongside original members Howard and Garth. Their comeback record, "Come On in My House," was a hit, and although they never quite recaptured the prominence of their golden era, the group continued touring until 1971. In later years, Coates frequently toured with McGriff and her daughter, Carletta Coates; she also performed at a number of jazz festivals, and even appeared in the 1990 film The Long Walk Home. ~ Jason Ankeny