CHICAGO — Albertina Walker, the Grammy-winning vocalist known around the world as the “Queen of Gospel” who helped launch some of the biggest names in traditional gospel through her vocal ensemble the Caravans, has died. She was 81.
Walker died Friday morning at RML Specialty Hospital Chicago of respiratory complications, said Pam Morris, who coordinated the Chicago Gospel Music Festival for 20 years through 2009. The singer had been hospitalized since Aug. 29, her 81st birthday, having long suffered from emphysema.
Gospel music icons such as Dorothy Norwood, Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Bessie Griffin and James Cleveland established their careers in the Caravans, who achieved wide fame in the late 1950s, headlining at Carnegie Hall and other high-profile venues.
Through the Caravans, Walker popularized the music she heard growing up on the South Side of Chicago; and the celebrated ensemble in turn made her a legend.
“She was the starmaker,” said Norwood, who joined the Caravans in 1954. “She was a great singer — one of the greatest.”
Walker played her last major performance with a reunited version of the Caravans last June at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival.
The youngest of nine children, Walker was born in Chicago and raised in the heart of the city’s Bronzeville community, where ggenerations of African-Americans converged during the Great Migration. This vast demographic wave made the South Side of Chicago an epicenter of jazz, blues and gospel, with Walker — and uncounted others like her — absorbing black cultural traditions through prayer.
She learned early on that the pay would be slight, or nonexistent. Nevertheless, Walker flourished in Chicago gospel singer Robert Anderson’s group, taking over the ensemble when he retired and christening it the Caravans.