Chicago’s Women of Gospel Music

Lou Della Evans-Reid
Lou Della Evans-Reid welcomes members to Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 1973

Chicago was influential in the beginning of gospel music, and women were part of gospel from the beginning. CPL has numerous resources to help you discover more about some of these magnificent Chicago women, past and present.

Often the first name to come to mind for Chicagoans is Mahalia Jackson. Let's meet a few of the others.

In 1931, singer and choir director Magnolia Lewis Butts worked alongside pianist Thomas A. Dorsey to establish the city's first gospel choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She simultaneously adopted gospel music for the youth choir she directed at Metropolitan Community Church. Just a year later, Butts and singer Sallie Martin were among the small group of notables who established the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in Chicago. Their first convention was held at Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1933. A National Museum of Gospel Music has been proposed for this site.

By 1933, Chicago's radio waves also had a woman's touch when the "Glorious Church of the Air" broadcast the gospel program of All Nations Pentecostal Church. Elder Lucy Smith, who founded her church in 1918, was the first black woman to pastor to a major congregation in Chicago. Her granddaughter, Lucy Smith Collier, first rose to fame with the Lucy Smith Singers and later served as the pianist for Chicago's Roberta Martin Singers.

Sallie Martin, also noted above, formed the Colored Ladies Quartet, America's first all-female gospel singing group (renamed the Sallie Martin Singers), which featured a young Dinah Washington, then known as Ruth Jones. Martin also recognized gospel's importance as a business. In 1940, she and her husband began the Martin and Morris Music Company to manage music publishing. Around 1,500 scores are in CPL's collection. 

The gospel sounds of Lucy Smith Collier, along with Felicia Coleman-Evans, Rev. Myrtle Jackson, Loretta Oliver, Mavis Staples, Albertina Walker and several local church choirs can be heard on Jubilee Showcase recordings or from appearances with the legendary Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir, led for three decades by Lou Della Evans-Reid. Gospel historian Bob Marovich interviewed Evans-Reid for this Conversations with Gospel Legends.

Lou Della Evans-Reid's Traditional Choir performs Saturday, March 3 at Harold Washington Library Center. This event celebrates both Women's History Month and this year's One Book, One Chicago season exploring the theme "Music: The Beat of Our City" through Greg Kot's book I'll Take You There.

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