Clara Ward (April 21, 1924 - January 16, 1973) was a gospel artist who achieved great success, both artistic and commercial, in the 1940s and 1950s as leader of The Famous Ward Singers. A gifted singer and arranger, Ward took the lead-switching style used by male gospel quartets to new heights, leaving room for spontaneous improvisation and vamping by each member of the group while giving virtuouso singers such as Marion Williams the opportunity to step forward in songs such as "Surely, God Is Able" and "Packin' Up".
Yet while Ward was willing to share the spotlight with her talented co-singers, she was not so generous when it came to money. Williams left the group in 1958 when her demand for a raise and reimbursement for hotel expenses was rejected; she was followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the group--Henrietta Waddy, Frances Steadman and Kitty Parham--who formed a new group, "The Stars of Faith". Their departure marked the end of the glory days for the Ward Singers, who later alienated much of their churchgoing audience by going into nightclubs and other secular venues in the 1960s. Ward's poor health forced her to retire in the early 1970s.
During the group's heyday, however, the group was both widely popular and highly influential. The Ward Singers emphasized glamour--traveling in oversized Cadillacs, preferring sequined gowns for choir robes, and wearing wigs and jewelry that more conservative churchgoing women considered too worldly--while bringng a shrewd entrepreneurial sense to the business of gospel music. That was due largely to Clara Ward's mother, Gertrude Ward (1901 - 1981), who had founded the Ward Singers in 1931 as a family group, then called variously "The Consecrated Gospel Singers" or "The Ward Trio", consisting of herself, her daughter Clara and her older daughter Willa.
Over the years, Gertrude Ward created a booking agency for gospel acts, sponsored tours under the name "The Ward Gospel Cavalcade", established a publishing house for gospel music, and even wrote a book for churches on how to promote gospel programs. Gertrude Ward created and managed a second group, "The Clara Ward Specials", to accompany the Ward Singers and furnished housing for members of the Ward Singers--which meant that stars such as Williams and Steadman not only had to accept second billing and lesser pay for their work, but pay their employers rent out of their earnings.
The Ward Singers began touring nationally in 1943, after making a memorable appearance at the National Baptist Convention held in Philadelphia that year. Henrietta Waddy joined the group in 1947 after Willa Ward retired; she added a rougher alto and the enthusiastic stage manners taken from her South Carolina church background. The group's performance style, such as the mimed packing of suitcases as part of the song "Packin' Up", may have been condemned by some purists as "clowning" but was wildly popular with their audiences.
Marion Williams, who came out of the Pentecostal tradition growing up in Miami, Florida, brought even more to the group. A powerful singer with a preternaturally broad range, able to reach the highest registers of the soprano range without losing either purity or volume, she could also swoop down to growling low notes in the style of a country preacher. Williams' singing helped make the group nationally popular when they began recording in 1948.
Ward was also a great singer, displaying a beautiful alto with a somewhat nasal tone in gospel songs such as "How I Got Over" and "The Old Landmark" and the Methodist hymns of the eighteenth century. She had a marked influence on later singers, such as Aretha Franklin, who adopted her moan for secular songs and who saluted her in the gospel album she made with James Cleveland in the early 1970s. Franklin sang at Clara Ward's funeral in Philadelphia in 1973; Marion Williams sang at Clara's second memorial service held days later in Los Angeles.
Clara Ward is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.