DeLois Barrett Campbell dies at 85; gospel soprano

She was the mightiest voice of the greatest female trio in gospel.

And if she had wished it, Chicagoan DeLois Barrett Campbell surely could have been a far bigger star singing solo in jazz, blues, pop, Broadway, you name it.

But Campbell and her siblings, who for more than 60 years performed as the Barrett Sisters, early in life found a kind of personal salvation in sacred music and clung to it despite hardships that never really flagged.

Campbell died Tuesday at a Chicago hospital of complications from pneumonia, said her sister, Billie Barrett GreenBey. She was 85 and had been battling arthritis, cardiac problems and other ailments for years.

"She was the leader, really, the one who encouraged us all to sing together," said GreenBey, one of the three Barrett Sisters; Rodessa Barrett Porter rounded out the trio. "We could always harmonize together, and she saw that we did."

Vocally, "she had so much power," said Anthony Heilbut, author of "The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times." "There are very few kinds of music that she couldn't have conquered."

But like her sisters, Campbell found her calling in the music of the church. Born in Chicago in 1926, she grew up on the South Side with two titans of gospel as neighbors: Mahalia Jackson, the foremost gospel singer who ever lived, and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who virtually created the modern genre.

The Barretts' father served as a deacon at a local church and their mother sang in the chorus, so gospel music swirled around the young girls.

They harmonized sacred music around the house. But when their devout father was not home, they dared to mimic the pop music of the Andrews Sisters, whom the Barretts considered a primary model for their close-harmony singing.

But when four siblings died of tuberculosis in the 1930s, they turned to religious music because they believed that they had been saved by divine intervention.

In 1941, Campbell and GreenBey made their debut as the Barrett & Hudson singers (cousin Johnnie Mae Hudson held a spot that Rodessa would fill in 1950), quickly winning admirers for their distinctive sound.

When they spun high notes in "The Lord Knows," built gorgeous chords in "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and made way for Campbell's high-flown solos in "I Know Jesus," listeners heard gospel-trio singing at its highest degree of polish.

Their growing reputation earned them a recording debut in 1963, with the album "Jesus Loves Me," and they attained international attention for their work in the acclaimed 1982 documentary "Say Amen, Somebody," which yielded appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and more than 50 world tours.

But they were not well compensated.

Nor were Campbell's years with the Roberta Martin Singers, in which she sang lead soprano starting in the mid-1940s, any more lucrative.

Campbell also faced fierce resistance from her husband, Rev. Frank Campbell, who famously battled her in a scene in "Say Amen, Somebody."

"My husband really resented me going off to perform," Campbell recalled in a 2001 interview with the Tribune. "But I had to go, because I felt this was my calling.... Later in life, he finally tried to come into it, but he never really did. I think there was a little jealousy there too."

Despite the difficulties, the Barretts stopped singing as a trio only in recent years, when Campbell's magnificent voice was silenced by polyps.

Throughout her career, she felt guided by a higher power.

"The Lord speaks to you on the stage sometimes," Campbell said in the 2001 interview, "and you don't even know it yourself."

Campbell, whose husband died in 2000, is survived by two daughters, Sue Ladd and Mary Campbell; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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