CHICAGO (AP) – When she sang “Fly Away,” Delois Barrett Campbell’s voice soared to the church rafters and her joy raised the roof.
The gospel legend was the oldest of the three singing Barrett Sisters, who electrified audiences worldwide with their powerful harmonies. She died Tuesday at a Chicago hospital at age 85, daughter Mary Campbell said. Delois Campbell’s health had been deteriorating and she had been hospitalized at least twice in recent months.
“I believe she was born to sing,” Mary Campbell said of her mother. “Each time she sang it was as if she were performing to a cathedral full of people, no matter how small the group was.”
The Barrett Sisters, raised on Chicago’s South Side and coached to sing by an aunt, grew up to become what music critic Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune has called “the greatest female trio in gospel history.”
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 Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, where he mixed the worldly and the sacred during the Great Depression. In high school, Campbell joined the Roberta Martin Singers, a touring gospel group that emerged from the church’s youth choir.
The popular music of the Andrews Sisters also influenced the Barrett Sisters, and as young women, they practiced blending their voices on both religious and secular songs. The Barrett Sisters recorded their first album together, “Jesus Loves Me,” in the mid-1960s.
New generations discovered the Barrett Sisters when they appeared in the 1982 documentary “Say Amen, Somebody.”
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael described the trio as “dramatic, physically striking women with ample figures in shiny, clinging blue gowns.” She wrote that they “sing so exhilaratingly that they create a problem.” Kael wanted more music, less talking, in the film.
The film opened doors for the Barrett Sisters, Mary Campbell said. “That’s when they began their European travels,” she said. “It gave them the publicity they couldn’t afford.”
The sisters appeared in Patti LaBelle’s 1990 television special “Going Home to Gospel.” In 2008, they received the Ambassador Bobby Jones Legend Award at the Stellar Awards, the national gospel music awards show.
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.
Campbell said her mother 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.”
Funeral arrangements were pending.