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Billie Barrett Greenbey of the Barrett Sisters, famed gospel music trio, dead at 91

Performing together for nearly 70 years, they linked the early days of traditional gospel to contemporary singers who sprang from the church.

Billie Barrett Greenbey singing at a pre-Gospel Festival event in Chicago.
Billie Barrett Greenbey singing at a pre-Gospel Festival event in Chicago.
Sun Times file

Billie Barrett Greenbey provided the piercing alto in the legendary gospel music trio the Barrett Sisters’ silvery, spine-tingling harmonies.

Mrs. Greenbery, the middle sister of the three, died Friday in Chicago at 91, according to her daughter Albertina Spratley.

She had performed as recently as December, when she and her younger sister Rodessa Barrett Porter sang together at Trinity United Church of Christ.

“They wrecked the place,” said their niece Mary Campbell.

“We’re not ministers, and we’re not preachers,” Mrs. Greenbey told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1990, “but we’re singing about the good news and the good times happening with the Lord.”

The Barrett Sisters — from left, Delois Barrett Campbell, Rodessa Barrett Porter and Billie Barrett Greenbey — with Chip Johnson on piano, performing Feb. 1, 1998, at the Chicago Cultural Center during the kickoff of an African-American History Month festiva “The Grand Ye Ye.”
The Barrett Sisters — from left, Delois Barrett Campbell, Rodessa Barrett Porter and Billie Barrett Greenbey — with Chip Johnson on piano, performing Feb. 1, 1998, at the Chicago Cultural Center during the kickoff of an African-American History Month festiva “The Grand Ye Ye.”
Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

With the death of Mrs. Greenbey — a longtime resident of the West Chesterfield neighborhood — Rodessa Barrett Porter is the last remaining member of the group.

The joyful voices of Billie, Rodessa and their eldest sister, the late Delois Barrett Campbell, would swoop from octave to octave, blending with the near-telepathy in singing families known as “blood harmony.”

Performing together for nearly 70 years, they linked the early days of traditional gospel to contemporary singers who sprang from the church. Jennifer Hudson grew up listening to the Barrett Sisters.

The Barrett Sisters — from left, Rodessa Barrett Porter, Delois Barrett Campbell and Billie Barrett Greenbey — in George T. Nierenberg’s “Say Amen, Somebody.”
The Barrett Sisters — from left, Rodessa Barrett Porter, Delois Barrett Campbell and Billie Barrett Greenbey — in George T. Nierenberg’s “Say Amen, Somebody.”
United Artists

Their stardom grew with the release of the 1982 documentary “Say Amen, Somebody.” Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called it “the most joyful movie I’ve seen in a very long time” and “one of those peak movie experiences that stay with you for a lifetime.”

The Barrett Sisters starred in “Say Amen, Somebody.”

When it was shown at the New York Film Festival, Ebert wrote, it was interrupted 12 times by applause. A personal appearance by the sisters prompted the audience to jump to their feet to sing along.

They performed on “The Tonight Show” and toured the world. In Europe, they were welcomed like royalty, treated to five-star hotels, fine shopping and gourmet food. It was a welcome change after years of meager income from record companies.

They also were featured in “Sweet Sisters of Zion,” a documentary filmed while they were in their 80s. That was the nickname bestowed on them “for their Baptist soulfulness and concert decorum,” Bob Marovich said in his 2015 book “A City Called Heaven, Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.”

“There’s not a lot of money in gospel,” Mrs. Greenbey told the Sun-Times in 1983. “I think what gospel singers like most is the response they get — knowing they’re lifting burdened hearts and easing troubled minds.”

They grew up in Chicago in a family of 10 children, four who would die young of tuberculosis, Rodessa Barrett Porter told Marovich on the show “Conversations with the Gospel Legends.”

Young Billie Mae Barrett went to Englewood High School and studied at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music, her daughter said.

Starting out, the sisters loved both the sheen of Marian Anderson’s contralto and the bell-like harmonies of the Andrews Sisters. But their father was a deacon at Morningstar Baptist Church. “As my mother [Delois] used to say,” Mary Campbell said, “‘he was a strict old man.

“They had the potential to sing rock and roll,” she said, “but because of their relationship with their father and because of their personal beliefs, they were committed to singing only gospel.”

Patti LaBelle (second from left) with the Barrett Sisters. The group appeared on the 1991 WTTW-TV special “Going Home to Gospel” with LaBelle.
Patti LaBelle (second from left) with the Barrett Sisters. The group appeared on the 1991 WTTW-TV special “Going Home to Gospel” with LaBelle.
Sun-Times file

Two of the earliest hymns they learned were “I’ll Fly Away” and “Jesus Loves Me,” Mrs. Greenbey told Marovich.

For a time, Mary Campbell said, the Barrett Sisters lived on Indiana Avenue within blocks of two other gospel icons, their friends Mahalia Jackson and Thomas Dorsey, often called the father of gospel music, who’s credited with combining elements of jazz, blues and spirituals to write archetypal gospel songs including a favorite of ther Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

A Barrett aunt was a music director of the Morningstar choir, and she sometimes brought the sisters new songs straight from Dorsey, according to Marovich, who first reported Mrs. Barrett’s death on the website www.journalofgospelmusic.com.

Delois Barrett Campbell performed with the Roberta Martin Singers from Ebenezer Baptist Church, “the first true gospel ensemble,” Marovich said. Campbell had a powerful stage presence and sang at the funerals of Jackson, Dorsey and Sam Cooke, he said.

Later, the Barrett Sisters performed with Curtis Mayfield to support Harold Washington as he stumped to become Chicago’s first African American mayor.

Mrs. Greenbey loved sweet potatoes and chewing gum, her niece said.

“No matter how old she got, she was 39 and holding,” she said.

Mrs. Greenbey’s first husband William Spratley died in 1965, and she married James Greenbey, who died in 2008. In addition to her daughter Albertina and sister Rodessa Barrett Porter, Mrs. Greenbey is survived by two stepchildren, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Mrs. Greenbey once told the Sun-Times that, when she sang, “You get out of yourself. You forget about Billie and Delois. The spirit of God flows through you and into the congregation, from breast to breast.”