Albertina Walker’s singing once stopped the filming of a movie because so many actors were moved to tears by the “Queen of Gospel.” At home in Chicago, she babied her beloved French poodles, wore rhinestone sunglasses and was a fixture at the city’s gospel music festival.
The Grammy-winning singer died Friday at age 81 of respiratory failure at RML Specialty Hospital in Chicago, said her granddaughter, Tina Nance. Walker, a protege of Mahalia Jackson, formed her own gospel group, the Caravans, as a young woman. Later, she played the role of mentor to many young singers.
She also was the only grandparent Nance ever knew. In bits and pieces, Nance figured out as a girl that Walker wasn’t her biological grandmother, but she never got a straight answer about it from Walker.
“She said to me, ‘I am your grandmother. That’s all you need to know,'” Nance told The Associated Press on Friday.
Taking young people under her wing started early for Walker. Delores Washington, 72, who joined the Caravans in 1958, said Walker was like a big sister, keeping her and the other younger singers out of trouble when they toured. They sang in churches and stayed in people’s homes because segregation kept them out of many hotels, Washington recalled.
“There was name-calling. We’d have to go in through the back door (at restaurants) if we wanted something to eat,” Washington said. “It came as a total shock to me. I was born in Illinois. I was not familiar with all this hostility toward black people” elsewhere.
Walker set an example by demanding respect with her demeanor.
“We held our heads up high and kept pushing,” Washington said. “We were on a mission: To sing for God.”
Agent and friend Sasha Daltonn said Walker stuck with gospel music even though she’d been encouraged to sing R&B during the 1960s and 1970s.
“She was revered in the gospel community because of her commitment to gospel, her distinctive style and her uncompromising faith in God,” Daltonn said. “It wasn’t about the money. It was about the message.”
A foundation Walker started to help young people get formal musical training now gives away $10,000 a year, Nance said.
Nance remembered her grandmother wowing the cast of the Steve Martin movie “Leap of Faith” when she sang a solo for a scene. Nance, an extra in the 1992 movie, said filming stopped because so many of the actors were moved to tears.
“It was like the spirit of the Lord came into that place. They had to take a break because everyone was crying,” Nance said. Later, Martin sent Walker a bouquet with a card that read, “You are truly the greatest gospel singer in the world,” Nance said. Walker treasured the card because she admired Martin’s comedy.
“One of our favorite movies was ‘The Jerk,'” Nance said.
Pam Morris, a close friend of Walker’s and WVON radio host, called Walker a “legend” who was responsible for launching more than a dozen gospel artists’ careers.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush said in a statement that Walker was a voice for the civil rights movement whose music was “a healing balm to those who struggled for justice.”
Walker, a lifelong Chicago resident, was a member of the West Point Baptist Church. Funeral arrangements are pending.