Willa Ward, who sang with the Ward Singers, one of the most famous and influential groups in gospel history, died on Aug. 12 in Philadelphia.
Among the many recordings made by the group in the 1940s and ‘50s were “He’s your joy in sorrow/He’s your hope for tomorrow” and “Surely God Is Able.”
Other hits were “I’m Climbing Higher and Higher,” “O My Lord What a Time” and “How I Got Over,” all of which were covered by leading white gospel groups, the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet.
“I think they were the best gospel group in the golden era,” said Anthony Heilbut, a gospel historian, record producer and author of “The Gospel Sound” (1971). “And if it’s understood that gospel music provides the origins of modern rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, the Ward Singers would have to be counted as the most influential gospel group.”
In his 2012 book, “The Fan Who Knew Too Much,” Heilbut wrote that “Aretha Franklin’s style is steeped in the Ward Singers’ hard gospel, from its shouting tempo to its lilting hoop notes.”
Little Richard, he said, patterned his “preacher’s growl” on the style of Marion Williams, one of the most famous gospel singers, who joined the Ward Singers for about a decade.
Willa Ward was the last of the original Ward Singers, the most famous of whom was her younger sister, Clara. The group was formed by their mother, Gertrude, who was singing at a church in Philadelphia when she brought her daughters to the pulpit in 1934.
First known as the Consecrated Gospel Singers, the group was soon singing in churches all along the East Coast.
In 1943 they performed at the National Baptist Convention in Nashville with Willa leading the song “
With their dynamic surges and sudden octave-high leaps, the Wards and their evolving cast of singers, wearing rhinestone-studded choir gowns, packed sports arenas and convention halls around the country.
Willa left the Ward Singers in 1958 and formed a pop group, the Gay Charmers Trio, and later a duo with Toni Rose, which performed in nightclubs. She also sang backup for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Chubby Checker and Patti LaBelle.
Willarene Ward was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 13, 1920, soon after her parents moved there from South Carolina.