Clara Ward, gospel arranger

Clara Ward was a composer, but she was also an arranger.  It was her role as the latter that caught my attention.  In fact, in going through an African American hymnbook, Songs of Zion, there were two women arrangers of note.  But I will address Clara Ward this time.  She was born in Philadelphia in 1924. While her parents eked out a living, Clara began singing and playing piano at age six in church.  Her talent as a singer, pianist and arranger was put to good use by her savvy business manager, her mother Gertrude, to make The Ward Singers, one of the most popular gospel acts of the time.  They fused church and popular elements to create substantial artistic and commercial success. This included the use of sequined gowns, towering wigs, theatrical gestures and a style not previously done in church music.  Somehow, I envision them as a gospel version of the Supremes.  By the 1940s, they became one of the top draws on the church circuit.  They toured often with Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin and continued touring through the 1960s until Clara’s health forced their retirement.  Clara shone as an original arranger, and introduced new rhythms and other stylistic inventions that today are standard. The particular hymn that I liked, though it appears to be fairly conventional by today’s standards, is “Lord, Touch Me” by Martha Eason Banks.   That same hymnal also included two hymns that she wrote rather than arranged, “How I Got Over” and “Until I Found the Lord”.  Aretha Franklin, whom Clara influenced, sang at her funeral in 1973.  In 1977, she was honored at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York.  In July 1998, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32 cent stamp with her image.  Aretha Franklin saluted her in her gospel album, Amazing Grace.   Is it because of the racial separations still prevalent in our society that I never heard of her before?   There’s so much musical and theological richness that we all miss as a result.   What a pity. 

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