Bertha Caroline Lyles, 86, soprano who sang jazz classics and hymns

January 25, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Bertha Caroline Lyles, whose soprano voice and memorable renditions of jazz classics and hymns earned her the sobriquet of the "Song Bird of Sandtown," died Jan. 18 of heart failure at Sinai Hospital. She was 86 and lived in Forest Park.

A first-place finish on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour, a national radio show in the early 1930s, helped launch her professional singing career. Traveling the East Coast on what was then called the Chitlin' Circuit, she performed in nightclubs and theaters before black audiences.

In the Baltimore area, she sang at the Royal Theater and nightclubs such as the Knotty Pine, U-bangi Club, Jolly Spot Inn, the Ritz Nite Club and Wright & Co., an Annapolis hotel and nightclub.

She also performed at the Gem Theater and Liberty Cafe in Washington, Atlantic City's Boulevard Inn and Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.

She was born and raised Bertha Caroline Jones in Sandtown, the daughter of a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad dining car chef. Her interest in singing began as a teen-ager when she joined the choir of New Shiloh Baptist Church. After graduating from Douglass High School, Mrs. Lyles began to perform full time.

A newspaper review from the 1930s - after a performance at the Knotty Pine on Park Avenue - said, "Bertha Jones continues to pour forth her songs in a rich voice, and the patrons clamor loud and long for more."

A 1941 feature article described her as a "Second Ella Fitzgerald."

Family members said that Mrs. Lyles counted among her close friends such performers as singers Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald, comedians Slappy White and Redd Foxx, and bandleaders Cab Calloway and Count Basie.

"When Pearl Bailey came to Baltimore as a guest years ago on Oprah Winfrey and Richard Sher's People Are Talking show, she made sure my mother was in the audience," said a daughter, Sylvia Moore of Forest Park.

In 1942, she married William Henry Lyles, a musician and band member whom she met while on the road performing. When the couple settled in Baltimore and began raising a family, Mrs. Lyles continued to sing with New Shiloh Baptist Church and as a soloist in Baltimore funeral homes.

Her husband died in the early 1950s.

In 1981, when the Rev. Walter S. Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church, began noon services, he asked his mother-in-law, Mrs. Lyles, to be the featured soloist.

"Bertha blessed the hearts and souls of many noonday worshippers for over 15 years. Each week, her melodious voice blessed the church and encouraged so many," Mrs. Moore said.

"Bertha had one of the strongest voices in our soprano section. It was a unique and strong voice and came out of the Mahalia Jackson tradition," said Nathan Carter, director of the Morgan State University Choir, who had been choir director at New Shiloh. "She could take any hymn and give it her personal style. Her voice always had a soprano roar to it."

Recalling her work, Dr. Carter said, "She was a very special lady. She never sought praise and was a very humble singer. She sang for service to the Lord."

Until the end of life, Mrs. Lyles continued to sing, wherever she was.

"She always sang in the house, and at the end of her life when she was in the hospital, she continued to sing," Mrs. Moore said.

Services were held Wednesday.

Mrs. Lyles is also survived by three other daughters, Brenda Saunders and Patricia Thomas, both of Ellicott City, and Bernadette Lyles of Baltimore; a brother, Joseph Jones of Baltimore; three sisters, the Rev. Ada Jones, Blanche Mackel and Elizabeth Foster, all of Baltimore; and seven grandchildren.

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