Tuesday, April 07, 2015

One of Birmingham’s Gospel Pioneers Joins The Heavenly Choir

Evelyn Starks Hardy
Photo: Beverly Taylor/The Birmingham News
I was introduced to Ms. Evelyn Starks Hardy in the 1990s by a mutual friend. To know her was to love her. She shared many stories about her career as the pianist, arranger, and organizer of one of the most famous female gospel pioneer groups, The Original Gospel Harmonettes.

Evelyn Virginia Starks was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 15, 1922. She started playing piano at an early age. In her early years she was invited to play piano in 1940 for the National Baptist Convention Choir in Birmingham. It was here that some of her recent friends from high school, all of whom had recently graduated, decided to form a gospel group.

They called themselves the Harmoneers and its original members included Mildred Miller, Odessa Edwards, Evelyn Starks, and Willie Mae Newberry. Later Vera Kolb joined the group and Ms. Starks recruited Dorothy McGriff in 1947, who later became known as Dorothy Love Coates.

The name was changed to The Gospel Harmonettes and the group recorded for RCA in 1949 and Specialty Records in 1951. The Gospel Harmonettes was one of the first all-women gospel singing groups to sign a national recording contract. They toured the country with Sam Cooke, and also had their own radio program in Birmingham that was sponsored by a funeral home. In the early 1950s Ms. Coates became the lead singer of the group, which had been renamed The Original Gospel Harmonettes.

Dorothy Love Coates gave the group an extra push with her powerful preaching-style singing. She wrote and recorded more than 300 songs, including “Get Away Jordan” and “That’s Enough.” Many of her songs were later recorded by other singers, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Mahalia Jackson, to name a few.

Hardy stopped traveling with the group in 1953 after 15 years of serving as pianist. She recruited Herbert”Pee Wee” Pickard as her replacement. Hardy left to focus on teaching school and later became an assistant principal and worked in the Birmingham City School System for 40 years. Hardy was a Miles college graduate and also had a master’s degree from UAB.
The Original Harmonettes - (top) Dorothy Love
Coates, (middle) Mildred Howard, Vera Kolb, 
Willie May Newberry, Evelyn Hardy, Odessa
Edwards, (seated) Herbert "Pee Wee" Pickard

In the early 1960s Reverend John T. Porter, then pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, recruited her as a musician for the church. In 1977 Porter asked Hardy to start a men’s choir for Brotherhood Sunday. She started The Men of Distinction Male Chorus in 1978, and they are still going strong as one of the best male choruses in the state under the leadership of Mr. Vedric Shelby, who was the successor after her retirement.

If you have seen the movie Ghost, you more than likely heard Hardy playing piano on the song “No Hiding Place.” She co-arranged the song with Dorothy Love Coates, who sang the lead.

Just last year I had the opportunity to be in the company of Ms. Hardy at a small gathering of musicians and friends. Her steps were a little slower but she was still as charming and down to earth as anyone. She blessed our souls with a rendition of one of the great songs of the church, “Peace Be Still.” Her fingers had lost none of the mastery of tickling the ivories as only she could. I often play recordings of The Original Gospel Harmonettes to listen to some of my favorite old school gospel numbers: “That’s Enough,” “Get Away Jordan,” “No Hiding Place,” and “I’m Just Holding On.”

Ms. Hardy, the last surviving member of The Original Gospel Harmonettes, passed away Thursday, April 02, 2015, at her home. Yes I will miss her but I cherish so many memories of being in her presence over the years. I am so glad in later years she wrote a book, The Sweetest Harmony, written with Nathan Hale Turner Jr., that tells the Harmonettes' story of being gospel pioneers. She will truly once again be singing up there around God’s throne with her sisters, “The Gospel Harmonettes.” I will say goodbye to this icon and friend on April 8 at her home-going service at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.


Russell Lee
Arts/Literature/Sports Department
Central Library

References
Garrison, Greg. "Pioneering pianist for Gospel Harmonettes, Evelyn Hardy, dies." The Birmingham News 2 April 2015: Web. 7 April 2015

Sims, Bob. "Birmingham's Evelyn Starks Hardy recalls the sweet harmony of The Original Gospel Harmonettes." The Birmingham News 15 August 2009: Web. 7 April 2015

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is very touching and informative. Mrs. Hardy will truly be missed.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. Ms. Hardy's friends and loved ones sent her away in a service fitting for a "Queen," as many called her when giving tributes at her funeral. She left an indelible mark on many through her accomplishments as a gospel pioneer during a time when women, and especially minorities, were not given equal opportunities. - Russell Lee