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Gladys McFadden and the Loving Sisters

Gladys McFadden and the Loving Sisters were an African-American gospel group based in Little Rock (Pulaski County). At its artistic peak in the 1970s, the group’s adventurous, contemporary style put its sound outside the realm of traditional gospel music. The group—which included McFadden as well as Jo Dumas, Ann James, and Lorraine Leeks—was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2003.

Gladys McFadden was born on September 10, 1934, in Little Rock. Her father, Aaron Williams, was a pastor, and her mother coached their church choir. McFadden sang in that choir until age nine, when she founded a group she christened the Loving Sisters, as the group included one of McFadden’s sisters, as well as a friend who brought her own sister along.

The Loving Sisters performed regionally and had a weekly stint singing on a local Sunday morning radio program. One Sunday, when the Pilgrim Jubilee quartet was passing through town, the group heard the sisters’ broadcast and invited them to audition for Peacock Records, where the quintet recorded. McFadden sent label owner Don Robey a demo, and he signed the group to the label. Its first radio single was “Who Can Ask for More?” This was followed by “Jesus Is Enough for Me.” The group was marketed alongside Peacock’s big R&B acts such as Joe Hinton, Junior Parker, and Jackie Verdell.

From the start, the Loving Sisters were ahead of their time musically. They entered the scene during an era when gospel music instrumentation was generally sparse—usually just a piano (like Mahalia Jackson) or a guitar (like Sister Rosetta Tharpe). Many in the gospel community thought that the more stripped-down the sound, the more sacred the music. The sisters fronted a full band, which earned them a bit of controversy. In one instance, the sisters performed in September 1964 on a bill with the Staple Singers and the Mighty Clouds of Joy at Regale Theater in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago Defender’s music critic Earl Calloway disparaged the “so-called gospel music” of the program in a scathing review. A reader wrote in to the newspaper with further disapproval for the show. “I was so ashamed of the entire program,” she wrote. “I never expected to hear rock-and-roll at a religious service. We must be real and stop playing with God.”

The group’s debut album, Trying Times, was released in spring 1965 and earned a three-star review in Billboard magazine. McFadden wrote or arranged nine of the twelve tunes. The selections included traditional numbers such as the rollicking “An Unfailing God,” which featured an intense, cracking vocal from McFadden’s father, as well as a gospel blues, “Don’t Let My Running Be in Vain.” The set also included rhythms with a sock-hop flavor such as in “Get Thee behind Me Satan” and “Glory Hallelujah,” which boasted the British Invasion musical styling that was popular in the American musical mainstream at the time.

The group was active in the cause of social justice, often performing before civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at various protest functions. As McFadden observed, “We were in every state with him and Klansman were trying to run us off the road and that’s what we were singing about. You write from your own experiences. I wrote ‘Trying Time’ when we were marching in Tupelo, Mississippi. People were marching in front of the hotel and we were behind the barricade in the hotel and the hotel didn’t want us to come out, so I was locked in there. I wrote that song because those were trying times.” Following King’s assassination in April 1968, the group recorded the album A Tribute to Dr. Martin L. King, which included songs such as “Precious Lord.”

In the 1970s, the Loving Sisters continued to break new musical ground with McFadden as the producer. The 1973 album Sounds of a New Era included songs such as “Love in Action,” with a then-futuristic sound akin to the soundtracks of Shaft or Super Fly. The following year, the album The Sisters and Their Sons continued their move into mainstream musical messaging; the sisters’ three sons—George Williams, Larry James, and Leonard Givens—became their backing band, Love Act, and contributed to the album.

Perhaps the group’s finest musical moment is 1977’s Running Short of Love, Today album, which included one of McFadden’s most demanding vocals on “Anyhow,” where she, at times, exhibited shades of Clara Ward’s graceful blending, Tina Turner’s rusty wailing, and Aretha Franklin’s church-influenced belting.

The Loving Sisters’ final album was 1978’s Gospel Soul, which included spiritual remakes of Roberta Flack’s ethereal “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Debby Boone’s “You Light up My Life,” and the hymn “Amazing Grace”; the hymn won the group a Grammy Award nomination for Best Soul Gospel Performance, Traditional.

After the Loving Sisters’ Peacock Records contract expired around 1979, the group retired from the national scene. The group was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2003. “They were very attractive and they were real showmen,” gospel music historian Anthony Heilbut said of the group. “I saw them at the Apollo Theater where they stole the show. They really knew how to work a house. [Gladys McFadden] was so scrappy. Such a nice little fighter on the floor. She would sing, she would preach, she would croon. She’d go up and down the aisles. She’s very graceful.”

For additional information:
Carpenter, Bil. Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2005.

Kot, Greg. I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Sisters, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway. New York: Scribner, 2014.

Lockwood, Frank. “Loving Sisters’ Gospel Gem Is On CD.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 11, 2010, p. 14. Online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2010/mar/13/loving-sisters-gospel-gem-cd-20100313/ (accessed February 23, 2017).

Marovich, Robert M. A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Bil Carpenter
Washington DC

Last Updated 7/14/2017

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