Vestal Goodman, the beloved "Queen of Gospel Music," died Dec. 27 in Celebration, Fla., near Orlando. Goodman, who turned 74 on Dec. 17, had been vacationing with family for the Christmas holidays whe

Vestal Goodman, the beloved "Queen of Gospel Music," died Dec. 27 in Celebration, Fla., near Orlando. Goodman, who turned 74 on Dec. 17, had been vacationing with family for the Christmas holidays when she developed a case of the flu.

Born Vestal Freeman, she grew up in Alabama, dreaming of a career as an opera singer. All that changed when she met Howard "Happy" Goodman at a revival in Albertville, Ala. The two were married Nov. 7, 1949 and were nearly inseparable until his death in November 2002 at 81.

During the 50s, Vestal rose to prominence performing with her husband and his brothers, Rusty and Sam, as the Happy Goodman Family. The group recorded three independent albums before forging a 25-year relationship with Word's Canaan Records imprint. They were also original members of syndicated television show "The Gospel Singing Jubilee." They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1998.

Goodman was the recipient of the Gospel Music Association's first Dove Award for female vocalist of the year in 1969. Over the course of her career, she won numerous Grammy and Dove Awards and was known for such hits as "I Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now." She and Howard also established and pastored the Life Temple Church in Madisonville, Ky., for several years.

"I loved Vestal. But who didn't?" says singer/comedian Mark Lowry, recalling Goodman's generous spirit. "She would pray for you at the drop of a hat."

"For over 50 years she stood with me and shared her tears, joy and prayers with me as I have with her," says legendary gospel singer/songwriter Dottie Rambo. "Before the days of concerts, TV shows and all the success, Vestal and I shared $12 offerings from small country churches. A friendship like ours will never be replaced. The world may have lost a great singer, but I lost my best friend and big sister."

In addition to her work with the Happy Goodman Family, Vestal enjoyed a successful solo career. She was acclaimed not only by her peers in the gospel community, but loved and respected in contemporary Christian and country music circles as well. In 1999, the first of two special "Vestal & Friends" projects was released. The albums featured Goodman with a variety of duet partners including George Jones, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, the Newsboys, Sandi Patty, the Katinas, Andrae Crouch, and Bill and Gloria Gaither.

In recent years, Vestal and Howard Goodman had become featured performers in Gaither's successful series of "Homecoming" concerts/videos. They had also continued to perform Happy Goodman Family concerts with friend/musician Johnny Minnick. When her husband passed away in 2002, someone asked if Goodman would retire. She replied, "You do not retire from a calling."

Known for her vibrant stage clothes and waving her trademark white handkerchief while performing, Goodman was slated to sing in the New Year at the annual Jubilate event in Charlotte, N.C. She had performed through December with Gaither and others on the Homecoming Christmas Tour.

"Her voice was strong," Lowry says. "Her smile was bright. And, she looked like she'd live to be a hundred."

Goodman is survived by a son and daughter, Rick and Vicki, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.