Albertina Walker, known as the "Queen of Gospel Music," was nominated for an NEA National Heritage Fellowship by her church, the West Point Missionary Baptist Church of Chicago, where she has been a member for more than 70 years. At the age of four, she began singing in the children's choir. Under the mentorship of Mahalia Jackson, she decided to pursue a gospel music career, and at the age of 22 organized her own gospel group, the Caravans. The group launched the careers of such gospel greats as Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Dorothy Norwood, and James Cleveland. Through the years, the Caravans had many hits – "Sweeping Through the City," "Mary Don't You Weep," and "Walk Around Heaven," to name a few.
To date she has recorded more than 60 albums, with five gold records and 10 Grammy nominations among them. In 1995, she received a Grammy for the Best Traditional Gospel Album. Always active in her church and community, she founded the Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts in 1998, which offers financial assistance to college students who aspire to serve the gospel community.
NEA: I want to congratulate you on your award. Could you tell me how you felt when you heard the news?
MS. WALKER: Oh, I was so excited because I never thought it would happen to me. When Barry Bergey called and told me, I said, "Oh, my God. What did I do to deserve this? I haven't even sung yet." I am so thankful to the Lord that they're giving me my flowers while I can still smell them!
NEA: Tell me about the influence of your family and church on your musical development?
MS. WALKER: I was born and raised at West Point Baptist Church in Chicago where Reverend Bernard Jakes is the pastor. I grew up right there in that church. My mother left the church with me in her and brought me with her when she came back, so I've been in church all my life. My mother used to sing in the church, so whatever talent I had I got because my mother did it. It just came on into me.
Different singers used to come to our church, like Mahalia Jackson, Roberta Martin, Professor Frye, Carmacy Dorsey. I'd sit and listen to them sing and I just knew that was what I wanted to do.
NEA: What special skills does a gospel singer need?
MS. WALKER: You've got to stay humble. When you are humble the Lord can use you. And you've got to be faithful to what you're doing. Just because you make a record or somebody tells you you can sing, you can't let it go to your head. A lot of singers do that, you know. You've got to stay humble so the Lord can use you. Gospel singers have to realize they've got to put the Lord first.
NEA: Have you seen a lot of changes in gospel music over your career?
MS. WALKER: Oh, yes. When I started out we just had the piano. Then we added the organ and years later they added the drums and the guitar and all the other instruments. I'm from the old school, but I can identify with some of the new music, too. But God knows whatever is good for the young people.
NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about your scholarship program and what you do to help carry on the gospel music tradition?
MS. WALKER: I have a scholarship foundation, the Albertina Walker Scholarship Foundation. We give scholarships every year to young people going into their second year of college, to further their musical careers. They have to have an A or B average. We've been doing this for 17 years. And we've added Sherwood Conservatory of Music to our roster, that's the little bitty kids, and Oliver Harvey College. It's a blessing to be able to give back and support these young people. That's what it's all about now, the young people.
NEA: What do you see as the role of gospel music in your church and the broader community?
MS. WALKER: Gospel music is music that's good for the soul. It's good for the mind. It's good for the heart. Gospel music is what it says, Gospel. It's the Word in song. If we would try to live what we sing about rather than just singing it, this would make the world a better place.
NEA: What has kept you going all these years?
MS. WALKER: The grace of God is what has kept me going. I can't do anything without him and he's first in my life. He said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and everything will be added to you." God has really been good to me and it's just a blessing to be able to tell the world that he's alive and well.
What you sing from the heart, reaches the heart. I love to sing and I love to deliver what God gave me. Like I said, I can't do anything without him. He gives me the strength and the spirit and the annointance to do his will. That's what I enjoy doing. I've done it for quite a long time and I'll do it until I die. All I want to do is sing and lift up the name of Jesus.