Chicago has lost two singers from what’s been described as the golden age of gospel music.
Ann Yancy, 87, a lead soloist at Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church, and Clay Graham, 81, a recording artist, songwriter and lead singer with the Pilgrim Jubilee singers, both died last month in Chicago.
Wherever they sang, “They were the stars of the programs,” said Bob Marovich, author of “A City Called Heaven, Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music” and editor of the website journalofgospelmusic.com.
Mrs. Yancy and Mr. Graham both had roots in deeply religious families in the South before coming north in the Great Migration.
Mrs. Yancy’s Memphis family brimmed with preachers, including two uncles, her cousin and her brother. She married a minister and four of their children became ministers, including the late Rev. Marvin J. Yancy, who was once married to singer Natalie Cole.
Mr. Graham was the youngest of 13 kids in a family that farmed cotton and corn in the tiny community of Horse Nation outside Houston, Mississippi, according to his wife Hazel. When he was 14, they came to Chicago to join his older brother Theophilus, a barber who’d already settled in the city. Young Clay didn’t get the opportunity to study beyond Schiller grade school, relatives said.
Eventually, he joined the family quartet, the Pilgrim Jubilee singers. They became so well known that gospel fans nicknamed them “the Jubes.” They performed at churches and gospel festivals and venerated performance halls including the Apollo Theater in Harlem with stars including the Rev. James Cleveland and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Mr. Graham “wrote 76 songs,” his wife said. “No one else sounded like him. It was a smooth baritone.”
The Jubes were inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2011.
Their quartet and other gospel quartets like the Soul Stirrers — whose stars included Johnny Taylor and Sam Cooke — helped to influence popular music, including soul stars such as the Temptations, according to Marovich.
“Crossover music just came from nature itself,” Mr. Graham told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000.
In 2001, the Pilgrim Jubilees were inducted into the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame, Marovich said.
They became known for the sermonettes Mr. Graham used to introduce their songs.
Mrs. Yancy performed on the same bills as Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, the Barrett Sisters and gospel’s archetype and innovator, Mahalia Jackson. Mrs. Yancy often sang with the Roberta Martin Singers.
When she was 8-year-old Ann Rhodes, singing at Pearly Gate Baptist Church in Memphis, “That’s where my mother first got noticed,” said her daughter Judith Yancy-Ward. “She always had a beautiful soprano.”
She eventually settled with her aunt Lassie Blair in Gary, where she attended Froebel High School.
She came to Chicago to attend a service at Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church, where she met another former Memphian, Rev. Robert Yancy.
“He caught her eye. She caught his eye,” said their daughter.
They got married in 1948. He died in 1973.
For a time, they lived on the South Side near Mahalia Jackson.
“She was the only one who I can remember who had a mic in her house,” Judith Yancy-Ward said of the renowned gospel singer. “We would go over there and sing.”
Their kids loved it when the Yancys drove to Memphis to visit relatives. “My mom and dad used to sing songs together” all the way there, their daughter said.
After her husband’s health declined, Mrs. Yancy moved into the Cabrini-Green housing development, and she began working in day care.
A gifted cook, she made heavenly biscuits with bacon grease and banana pudding.
Though her favorite song was Albertina Walker’s “Until Then,” Mrs. Yancy never tired of listening to Isaac Hayes.
Mr. Graham loved Joe Ligon and his Mighty Clouds of Joy and the hymn “Amazing Grace,” according to his widow. The performers at his funeral included members of the Canton Spirituals and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi
In addition to her daughter Judith Yancy-Ward, Mrs. Yancy is survived by her sons the Rev. Kevin, Derrick, Rev. Sherwin — who would become music director of the Chicago Housing Authority’s choir program — and Stevie and Terry.
Mr. Graham is also survived by his daughters Komie Bumpers, Latrivia Graham, R&B singer Miki Howard and Denise Washington; sons Pastor Keith Blanton and Kelvin Crafton and a brother, Cleave Graham.
Services for both Mrs. Yancy and Mr. Graham have been held.