During the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was no more famous gospel group than the Clara Ward Singers. They conquered Hollywood with the same vengeance that they used to become the best selling gospel group of the 1950’s. In the black church world, they were renowned for their million-sellers, such as “Packing Up, Getting Ready to Go” and “Surely, God Is Able.” In the main stream market, they weren’t known for those songs. They were known for Broadway styled renditions of “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The group broke many barriers for gospel music. They were the first to perform in Las Vegas hotels, the first to perform in amusement parks such as Disneyland, and they brought a flamboyant elegance to a musical art form that was considered an glamorous vestige of slavery.
As a child Clara’s family worshiped at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, and her mother, Gertrude had a vision in 1931 that God wanted her to form a group. So when they came of age she formed a trio with her two daughters. In 1934, the group made its debut at an anniversary concert that Mother Ward assembled. She brought in gospel stars Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin (along with her pianist Dinah Washington), neither of whom had performed in the Northeast before, to make sure people remembered the concert. The concert was a grand success, and the group soon was booked as the Consecrated Gospel Singers.
In 1943, Gertrude muscled the group onto the National Baptist Convention program in Chicago. After a winning performance there, the delegates went back to their states raving about the Ward Singers, and their fame began to grow. By 1950, the group had added other singers such as Henrietta Waddy, Frances Steadman, Kitty Parham, and Marion Williams. They were called the Famous Ward Singers or the Clara Ward Singers from then on, and their live program was quite a spectacle. They dressed in the best coordinated stage attire, had their hair stacked into beehive wraps, and sang with divine abandonment.
The group recorded prolifically for Savoy Records for the entire 1950s and scored with staggering radio and retail hits such as “Surely God Is Able,” “Packin Up” and “How I Got Over”. The group let everyone’s talent shine. Clara and Willa sang most of the alto songs, Waddy and Williams sang the high soprano parts, and Steadman sang bass. Clara wrote and arranged most of the music, and Mother Ward handled all the business and collected the money.
The 1960’s brought even bigger success for the group as they left much of their early black gospel audience behind and cultivated a new, upper-middle-class white professional audience. They started on Broadway in Tambourines to Glory and performed at the top Las Vegas hotels, which brought them grief from the Amen Corner. Hollywood’s elite came out for the shows, everyone from Dinah Shore to Elvis Presley. Jack Benny took them on the road with him for six weeks. They appeared on all of the major television programs of the day and became so popular that they formed two sets of Clara Ward Singers, one group worked the west and one worked the east. With Hollywood clout behind them, including the William Morris Agency and Diahann Carroll’s husband Monte Kay as their new manager, Clara became extremely well known outside of the group. She recorded inspirational LPs for Verve and Dot Records with non-gospel fare such as “Born Free” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love”.
While at the top of her game Clara was actually in poor health. She longed to get married and was rumored to have dated Rev. C.L. Franklin. However, she worked so much that she never had time for a husband and she once said that she’d only had one vacation during her entire adult life. Since she was the star of the show and accompanying singers could be rotated, Clara’s schedule was exhausting In addition to her concerts and recording schedules, appearances on NBC’s Tonight Show and Today Show, she had roles in the Universal film Spree and the MGM movie A Time to Sing. Her blood pressure was up and she had splitting headaches, but Mother Ward told her God would take care of her ailments and that she didn’t need a doctor. Mother Ward was suspicious of everything as it related to Clara and even listened in on her phone calls.
Clara later suffered two aneurysms. Things were good for a while. Clara’s strength came back, but she was still working like a mule. In late 1972, Clara was negotiating with NBC for her own network television series called The Sheep and the Lambs. It was to be a musical program mixing secular and gospel artist with Clara as the host. Clara had another stroke due to complications of the aneurysms and slipped into a coma and finally passed away on January 16, 1973.