UPDATED 08/03/11 6:24 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Chicago has lost a superstar in the gospel field – Delois Barrett Campbell, whom one analyst ranks right up there with Mahalia Jackson.
As WBBM Newsradio 780’s John Cody reports, Campbell was a member of the award-winning Barrett Sisters trio, who were known for their powerful gospel harmonies. She died Tuesday at the age of 85.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s John Cody reports
Mark Allen, a board member of the Chicago Gospel Music Heritage Museum, says Campbell and her sisters provided some of the soundtrack for lives of those in the Civil Rights struggle.
“You could feel that this was not just somebody singing that had to go with technology. It was just like somebody telling a story about how we got over; how we looked back our lives and have a testimony. You could feel, because she wasn’t just singing about somebody else; because she was singing about the very struggles that we were going through,” Allen said.
The Barrett sisters were raised on the city’s South Side and coached to sing by an aunt, and they grew up to become what music critic Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune has called “the greatest female trio in gospel history.” Campbell was the oldest of the three.
“I believe she was born to sing,” daughter Mary Campbell said of her mother in a July 2011 interview with The Associated Press. “Each time she sang it was as if she were performing to a cathedral full of people, no matter how small the group was.”
Campbell said her mother, who had been suffering from a long illness, was visited on Monday by singer Jennifer Hudson, who said she grew up listening to the Barrett Sisters.
“She was by her bedside,” Campbell said. “It meant a lot to us.”
The trio shared a gospel lineage with the greats. In the girls’ youth, Thomas A. Dorsey, now considered the father of gospel, was stirring up change as music director of the city’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, where he mixed the worldly and the sacred during the Great Depression.
The Roberta Martin Singers, a touring gospel group, emerged from Pilgrim Baptist’s youth choir, and Campbell joined it when she was in high school. The popular music of the Andrews Sisters also influenced Campbell and her sisters. When they were young, they practiced blending their voices on both religious and secular songs. The sisters recorded their first album together, “Jesus Loves Me,” in the mid-1960s.
They were also weekly standouts on Chicago’s pioneering gospel TV program, “Jubilee Showcase,” which was hosted by gospel music enthusiast Sid Ordower on ABC-Channel 7 from 1963 to 1984.
New generations discovered the Barrett Sisters when they appeared in the 1982 documentary “Say Amen, Somebody.”
Campbell’s husband, the Rev. Frank Campbell, died in 2000. The couple had four children; two are deceased.
The surviving members of the Barrett Sisters, Rodessa Barrett Porter and Billie Barrett GreenBey, sang with guest vocalist Tina Brown in March 2011 to celebrate Campbell’s 85th birthday at a gospel concert in a Chicago church. Campbell, her voice diminished to a whisper, watched from a chair near the altar.
In a video clip from the concert, Brown paid tribute to Campbell. “She is my personal queen of the gospel,” Brown said.
Funeral arrangements were pending.