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 Roberta Evelyn <I>Winston</I> Martin Austin

Roberta Evelyn Winston Martin Austin

Helena, Phillips County, Arkansas, USA
Death 18 Jan 1969 (aged 61)
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, USA
Burial Alsip, Cook County, Illinois, USA
Memorial ID 36819869 · View Source
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Roberta Evelyn Martin

Roberta Martin, an American gospel composer, singer, pianist, arranger and choral organizer, helped launch the careers of many other gospel artists through her group, The Roberta Martin Singers.

Roberta Evelyn Winston was born in Helena (Phillips County) on February 12, 1907, one of six children of William and Anna Winston, proprietors of a general store. She began studying piano at age six. Although a high school teacher inspired her to dream of becoming a concert pianist, her future course was changed after accompanying the Young People's Choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Her family relocated to Cairo, Illinois, before she was ten, and following her arrival in Chicago in 1917, Winston played for various church functions, working with Thomas A. Dorsey, the "Father of Gospel Music," at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church and eventually becoming choir director at the Windy City's Pisgah Baptist Church. Mildred Bryant Jones, choral director at Wendell Phillips High School where Winston attended, taught her in piano and choral directing, inspiring Winston later to attend Northwestern University, where she studied piano in anticipation of a career as a classical concert pianist.

While the date of her marriage to William "Bill" Martin and details of their subsequent divorce are uncertain, she was known as Roberta Martin at the onset of her career in the early 1930s. In 1932, Martin joined Thomas A. Dorsey and Theodore Frye's Chicago-based Young People's Choir, and was eventually employed as the choir's pianist. A 1933 concert featuring the Bertha Wise Quartet led Martin to develop a new style of her own. That same year, with Dorsey's help, Martin and Frye founded the Martin-Frye Quartet. Later, in 1936, renamed the Roberta Martin Singers, the group's early members included Robert Anderson, James Lawrence, Norsalus McKissick, Eugene Smith, Romance Watson, and Willie Webb. Martin added Bessie Folk and Delois Barrett Campbell to the group in the 1940s. Martin accompanied the group as pianist but also sang the occasional solo. In 1947, she married James Austin; they had one son. In spite of a change in surnames, her stage name remained the same throughout her career.

The group set the standard for the gospel choir and mixed group, and had an extremely successful recording career, featuring such hits as "Only A Look," and "Grace."

Most of these songs were published by Roberta Martin Studio of Music, a publishing house in Chicago that she incorporated in 1939, and would eventually publish outstanding compositions by gospel artists ranging from Professor Alex Bradford to James Cleveland. Her first composition, "Try Jesus, He Satisfies," was an immediate hit in 1943.

She was also the choir director of the Pisgah Baptist Church in Chicago for many years.

She composed about seventy songs, arranged and published 280 gospel songs, and reached and inspired thousands of listerners selling sheet music. Her compositions include "He Knows Just How Much We Can Bear," and "God Is Still on the Throne" (1959), "Let It Be" (1962), and "Just Jesue and Me" (1966). Martin earned six Gold records and the Roberta Martin Singers sang at Gian-Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in 1963.

Her great contribution to the history of gospel music was her development of a distinctive gospel-piano style and the special sound of her group, which integrated for the first time men and women into the gospel chorus during the mid-40s when she brought female voices into her all-male group, which she accompanied on piano.

Though stricken with cancer, Martin reportedly refused painkilling drugs during the time leading up to her death on January 18, 1969, in Chicago, believing that God could perform a miracle. At her funeral, 50,000 black Chicagoans passed through Mount Pisgah Baptist Church to pay their last respects. Martin is buried at Chicago's Burr Oak Cemetery, where fellow Arkansan and gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe is buried.

Well known in the African-American community, her funeral in Chicago in 1969 attracted over 50,000 mourners. Her group disbanded upon her death in 1969 but the surviving members continued to perform as a group in reunion concerts into the 21st century. Many of the members had later solo careers such as Delois Barrett, and Gloria Griffin, who was the author of the classic gospel song "God Specializes", made famous by the Roberta Martin Singers in concerts and recordings.

Martin was honored posthumously by the Smithsonian Institution in 1981 with a colloquium and on July 15, 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a 32 cent commemorative stamp honoring Martin's influence. The stamp was one of four honoring gospel women. The other women honored were Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

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  • Created by: John Flack
  • Added: 7 May 2009
  • Find A Grave Memorial 36819869
  • Walter Gray
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Roberta Evelyn Winston Martin Austin (12 Feb 1907–18 Jan 1969), Find A Grave Memorial no. 36819869, citing Burr Oak Cemetery, Alsip, Cook County, Illinois, USA ; Maintained by John Flack (contributor 47049065) .