Marion Williams' Anointed Voice

July 06, 1994

The gospel singer Marion Williams once told a newspaper interviewer, "When I'm singing, I get inspired by God. I call it 'the anointing.' It's an extra-special thing. When the inspiration of God is missing, I just rely on talent."

Divine inspiration was seldom far from Ms. Williams. But when it did take momentary leave, the talent to which she turned was extraordinary.

Universally regarded as one of the greatest vocalists produced by gospel music, Marion Williams died last Saturday in Philadelphia from vascular disease. She was 66.

Through a career that began when she was 17 and saw her rapidly establish herself as a stand-out, she built her reputation with a dramatic style that could whisper, whoop and growl. And like most great artists, she made an impact beyond her field. Rock and roll singer Little Richard, rarely one to credit others for his success, says Marion Williams was the inspiration for his "wooooo" in "Tutti Frutti." Thus, whenever a young Paul McCartney did his Little Richard imitation, Marion Williams was present on the early recordings of a famous pop quartet from Liverpool -- and present again, it can be argued, in the music of countless singers influenced by the Beatles. The web of American music is indeed cast wide.

But Ms. Williams spurned the glories of the hit parade. "I don't want no part of singing secular music," she said last year, explaining how she turned down $100,000 to make a blues record. Her closest brush with the less divine side of the music business came in 1980, when she had a long engagement at a Greenwich Village club. Those were her first performances in a place that sold alcohol.

The last year of her life saw her doubly honored -- in June 1993 with a $374,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation and last December as a Kennedy Center honoree. On the occasion of the latter award, President Clinton remarked, "For almost a half-century now, no voice in gospel has soared like that of Miss Marion Williams."

Few other voices were so "anointed," to use her word. And, we would add, so talented.

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