The Roberta Martin Singers

Maybe Clara Ward was the Gospel equivalent of the Supremes, but the Roberta Martin Singers could rival Clara’s group using both male and female voices.  Roberta was born in 1907 in Helena Arkansas, one of six children.  She apparently took eagerly to the piano as a child. By 1933, she had become acquainted with gospel music and assembled six young men to form her group, the Martin and Frye Singers. Over time, women were added.  In 1936, the group became the Roberta Martin Singers (RMS).  In their unique style, each group member sang the song as if they were soloist rather than harmonizing.  Thus, each voice could be picked out by the listener.  They sang loudly and with drama, making this sound different from the repetitive quartets of the era.   Beginning in 1946, they recorded several albums and singles.  The one that appealed to me is “He Knows How Much We Can Bear” a hit in 1949.  Although Roberta wrote many gospel songs, she was the arranger, producer and copyright holder to this song by Phyllis Hall, of whom I can find no information.  Well, after all, Roberta was the star and in fact, had composed over 100 gospel songs under her own name or her pseudonym, Fay Brown.  She didn’t restrict her repertoire, and included other writers.   Like so much African-American music throughout our history, this gospel song comes out of hardship.  I was struck by a recurring theme in this genre.  It doesn’t ask for release from difficulties, but instead, seeks help in bearing them, and often invokes God’s Holy Spirit.   Just like Mahalia Jackson asked “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain”, Margaret Douroux asked “Give Me a Clean Heart”, and Magnolia Lewis-Butts asked “Let It Breathe on Me”, RMS asked for strength to “Keep on toiling tho’ the teardrops fall . . . He knows just how much we can bear.”   RMS last recorded on 1968, and shortly after that, Roberta Martin died of cancer in January 1969, no doubt bearing up strong to the end.  

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