One of the leading gospel groups of the 1940’s and 50’s, the Roberta Martin Singers were a unique ensemble, Born February 12, 1907, in Helena, Arizona, Roberta Martin’s family relocated to Cairo, Illinois, when she was ten. There she studied classical piano until she was asked to play for the young people’s choir at Ebeneezer Baptist Church. From that point on, she devoted herself to church music. In the gospel fold, she was inspired by the piano styles of blind pianist Arizona Dranes, who also influenced Clara Ward, and Bertha Wise, who helmed a vocal group from Augusta, Georgia.
Martin became a disciple of Thomas Dorsey when he assigned her to play for his Pilgrim church choir. In 1933, she co-founded the Martin-Frye Quartet with Thomas Frye. By 1935, the quartet had morphed into the Roberta Martin Singers. Possessing a thick contralto, Martin was the lone female surrounded by Norsalus McKissick, Willie Webb, Robert Anderson, James Lawrence, and Eugene Smith, who were all adolescents at the time. Martin’s singers sang loudly and dramatically without a bass. Their sound was not harmonious. One could easily identify the backing voices. This lack of synchronicity made the group’s urgent sound a distinctive and welcome change amid the repetitive quartets of the era. By the 1940’s, Martin had added women to her group and further refined her sound with elements of her classical training. In 1939, she founded the Roberta Martin Studio of Music where she began to publish (and further popularize) her songs and the compositions of others. Among the gospel standards flowing from her firm were “Only a Look”, “i’m Just Waiting on the Lord,” and “He Knows How Much We Can Bear.” In the 1960’s, Martin began to wind down and take it easy as her health began to weaken. She died January 18, 1969, Chicago, Illinois. More than 50,000 mourners attended her memorial service.