Evelyn Beavers Hardy
Gospel, Spiritual Vocals Gospel Harmonettes
Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame
Evelyn Starks Hardy, the last surviving member of The Original Gospel Harmonettes, sat down at the Steinway piano in the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church this week and wondered aloud whether she could still play the songs that made her group one of the most famous and acclaimed all-women gospel groups in history.
Her fingers began to dance across the keys and hit all the right notes, a galloping rhythm for the group's famous song "Get Away Jordan."
The piano seemed to summon up memories of the powerful voice of Dorothy Love Coates, the longtime lead singer for the Harmonettes who died in 2002.
"She sang with such fervor and sincerity," Hardy said. "She was emotional, demonstrative. Before she joined, we were dignified and staid. She said the Holy Ghost just made her move around."
In 1940, Mildred Madison, later known as Mildred Howard, and Odessa Edwards approached their friend Evelyn, a pianist and singer, about forming a group. "It was Mildred's idea," Hardy said. The recent Parker High School graduates soon hit the road together, touring and performing in gospel music package shows in municipal auditoriums and churches.
The death last month of Howard, second soprano in the Harmonettes, coincided with the release of Hardy's book, "The Sweetest Harmony," written with Nathan Hale Turner Jr., that details the Harmonettes' role in a pioneering era of gospel music.
Hardy sat down by the piano to reminisce about her musical career, which continues in her role as a key musician for her church.
"She's a living legend," said the Rev. Al B. Sutton, pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist.
A turning point for the Harmonettes came in 1947, when Hardy suggested Coates join them as lead singer after hearing the future star on a Birmingham radio program. Hardy said she was lying in bed and sat straight up when she heard Coates sing and decided it was the voice they needed to give the Harmonettes an extra push.
"She kind of preached when she sang," Hardy said. "You got to follow her. She's writing while she was singing. She just knew what to do. She had it."
Coates became one of the most influential singers and prolific songwriters of gospel's golden era. Coates wrote and recorded more than 300 songs such as "Get Away Jordan" and "That's Enough," many later recorded by other stars such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson and the Blackwood Brothers.
Hardy tapped at the piano and played "I've Got Jesus and That's Enough," an upbeat song. "That's the one Johnny Cash sang," she said.
Anyone who has seen the movie "Ghost" has likely heard Hardy playing piano and Coates singing on a song they co-arranged, "No Hiding Place."
As she played the piano, Hardy was amazed that she could remember the songs as if she had played them yesterday. "I haven't played those songs in years," she said. "I've played them so many times, I guess I could play them in my sleep."
One of the first all-women gospel singing groups to sign a national recording contract, the Harmonettes toured the country for more than three decades, played at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and Madison Square Garden, recorded on RCA and Specialty Records, and left a legacy of classic songs that are still sung in churches around the world.
The Gospel Harmonettes made a living for years touring and playing at package show concerts that often charged only $1 admission so that more fans could attend.
Hardy's career with one of the top touring gospel groups put her in contact with plenty of other stars.
The Harmonettes toured with Sam Cooke, who left his gospel group the Soul Stirrers to become one of America's most beloved pop singers. "He was so friendly and wonderful," Hardy said. Cooke helped get the Harmonettes signed with Specialty Records.
Hardy met gospel pioneer Thomas Dorsey as he sold his sheet music at gospel concerts. Dorsey brought his nightclub piano style into church and helped revolutionize gospel music with his bluesy songwriting.
"The blues strand is still there," Hardy said.
She once had the queen of gospel, Mahalia Jackson, over to dinner at her house. "She was a good cook, but she was a better singer than a cook," Hardy said.
The Original Gospel Harmonettes formed in 1940, and the ever-evolving group disbanded in 1977. "We left the group one by one," Hardy said.
Hardy was pianist for the Gospel Harmonettes for 15 years, then left to focus on teaching school. She recruited Herbert "Pee Wee" Pickard as her eventual replacement in the group and had a 40-year career as a teacher and assistant principal in Birmingham schools. She calls playing piano for church choirs her third career.
Hardy, a Miles College graduate who has a master's degree from UAB, was recruited in the early 1960s by the late Rev. John T. Porter, then pastor of Sixth Avenue, as a musician for the church. She played piano for the sanctuary and chancel choirs.
In 1977 Porter asked Hardy to start a men's choir for Brotherhood Sunday. She started The Men of Distinction Male Chorus in 1978, and it has endured as one of Birmingham's premier gospel choirs, with Hardy's continued inspiration, accompaniment and arrangements. The 120-voice choir will sing during the 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday services at Sixth Avenue Baptist on Aug. 30 and will do a full concert at the church Nov. 15 at 6 p.m.
Though she stays busy, she sometimes misses the other Harmonettes.
"I think about the good times we had," she said. "God knew what he was doing when he put us together. God knew what he was doing as he took us apart. He's still in charge.
"It's lonely. I get lonely. But I know I'll see them one day."