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Roberta Martin Singers

The Roberta Martin Singers helped to lay the foundation for modern Gospel music between the late '30s and 1969. One of the first mixed male and female gospel choirs, the Roberta Martin Singers were known for their forsaking of traditional gospel harmony in favor of distinct, individual voices. Their lengthy list of hits includes such classic tunes as "He Knows Just How Much We Can Bear," "Try Jesus, He Satisfies," "I'm Just Waiting on the Lord," and "God Is Still on the Throne." The Roberta Martin Singers represented the vision of pianist and contralto-voiced singer Roberta Martin (born 1907, Helena, AK). A resident of Cairo, IL, since 1918, Martin studied piano with her brother's wife as a youngster. Although a high school teacher inspired her to dream of becoming a concert pianist, her future course was changed after accompanying the Young People's Choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Moved by the experience, she devoted the rest of her life to religious and spiritual music. After performing briefly with a gospel quartet led by Theodore Frye, Martin recruited young male singers from two local churches -- Eugene Smith, Norsalus McKissick, Robert Anderson, James Lawrence, Willie Webb, and Romance Watson -- and formed the Roberta Martin Singers. The group added female vocalists Bessie Folk and Deloris Barrett in the early '40s. Martin remained active outside the group. In addition to operating her own recording studio, she published songs by other Gospel songwriters including James Cleveland. The Roberta Martin Singers performed one of their final concerts in 1963, appearing at Gian-Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The group disbanded shortly after Martin's death in 1969. More than fifty thousand mourners attended her memorial service. On July 15, 1998, the United Postal Service issued a 32 cent commemorative stamp honoring Martin's influence. The stamp was one of four honoring gospel women. The other women honored were Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. ~ Craig Harris
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