During the 1950′s and 1960′s, there was no more famous gospel group than the Clara Ward Singers. They conquered Hollywood with the same vengeance that they used to become the best selling gospel group of the 1950′s. In the black church world, they were renowned for their million-sellers, such as “Packing Up, Getting Ready to Go” and “Surely, God Is Able.” In the main stream market, they weren’t known for those songs. They were known for Broadway styled renditions of “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The group broke many barriers for gospel music. They were the first to perform in Las Vegas hotels, the first to perform in amusement parks such as Disneyland, and they brought a flamboyant elegance to a musical art form that was considered an glamorous vestige of slavery.
As a child Clara’s family worshiped at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, and her mother, Gertrude had a vision in 1931 that God wanted her to form a group. So when they came of age she formed a trio with her two daughters. In 1934, the group made its debut at an anniversary concert that Mother Ward assembled. She brought in gospel stars Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin (along with her pianist Dinah Washington), neither of whom had performed in the Northeast before, to make sure people remembered the concert. The concert was a grand success, and the group soon was booked as the Consecrated Gospel Singers.
In 1943, Gertrude muscled the group onto the National Baptist Convention program in Chicago. After a winning performance there, the delegates went back to their states raving about the Ward Singers, and their fame began to grow. By 1950, the group had added other singers such as Henrietta Waddy, Frances Steadman, Kitty Parham, and Marion Williams. They were called the Famous Ward Singers or the Clara Ward Singers from then on, and their live program was quite a spectacle. They dressed in the best coordinated stage attire, had their hair stacked into beehive wraps, and sang with divine abandonment.
The group recorded prolifically for Savoy Records for the entire 1950s and scored with staggering radio and retail hits such as “Surely God Is Able,” “Packin Up” and “How I Got Over”. The group let everyone’s talent shine. Clara and Willa sang most of the alto songs, Waddy and Williams sang the high soprano parts, and Steadman sang bass. Clara wrote and arranged most of the music, and Mother Ward handled all the business and collected the money.