NOTE: Gregory Gay, the son of Donald “Preacher” Gay, wrote this brief history of the Gay Sisters, a family that gospel music historian Anthony Heilbut once wrote “is worth a longer study; they provide in microcosm a history of black migration.”
The church and gospel music has long played an integral part in the lives of Fannie and Jerry Gay’s children. Eight children were born to this union. While three were born stillborn, the remaining five were endowed with a gift of music. Their parents knew early on that these children were indeed unique. Evelyn began piano lessons at an early age. While Evelyn studied intently, a young Geraldine would sit at the piano and pick out by ear and play effortlessly the music that Evelyn had just finished studying. Oldest brother Robert, a flautist, would go on to become a great jazz instrumentalist, sharing the stage with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and others. Donald, the youngest of them (affectionately called Preacher Gay) began preaching at the age of three years old, and was the first African American to be featured on the Joe Kelly Quiz Kids Show as a child.
Their humble beginnings originated on Chicago’s west side, where Jerry and Fannie moved after leaving Georgia for the amenities of a better life found in the north. Evelyn, Mildred and Geraldine began singing as children. They soon formed a gospel trio, aptly named The Gay Sisters. Evelyn was the composer/arranger while Geraldine was known for her avant-garde style of playing and Mildred captivated audiences with her high soprano voice. They were prominently featured on the live radio broadcast from Pastor Lucy Smith’s All Nations Pentecostal Church every Sunday night. Pastor Smith, grandmother of the famed Roberta Martin Singers pianist Little Lucy Smith, was a gospel trailblazer, preacher and church builder in her own right with one of the first radio broadcasts going across the nation. Mother Gay and her children later united with the Church of God in Christ under the late Elder PR Favors, where she took on the role of choir director, and Evelyn and Geraldine served as accompanists.
Mother Gay was a praying woman with deep faith and strong conviction. She instilled the principles of holy living within each of her children and told them that if they served the Lord, “their gift would make room for them and bring them before great men”. They would soon realize the power of that prophetic word.
In 1946, the sisters went to New York and cut their first record, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross” on the Dolphin label. They continued to perform and soon caught the attention of Herman Lubinsky, President of Savoy Records. They were signed to the Savoy label in 1950. Their Savoy sessions produced such gospel classics as “Little Wooden Church on a Hill”, “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”, “I’m A Soldier In The Army of The Lord” (which is sung in devotional services regularly on Sunday mornings) and “We’re Gonna Have A Time”. However, their recording of “God Will Take Care of You” captured the hearts and minds of the country, catapulting them to nationwide acclaim. The record went on to sell over 75,000 copies. At the invitation of Mahalia Jackson (whom Evelyn had accompanied earlier in her career), Preacher Gay and the Gay Sisters appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1952.
Preacher Gay and the Gay Sisters became the ambassadors of gospel music, representing the Church of God in Christ. Their many travels took them across America: to churches, universities, auditoriums, and theatres, including New York’s Apollo Theater, The Kiel Auditorium, The Astrodome in Houston, Texas and the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States at the Washington Mall. They appeared on national and local television and radio, and joined such major music personalities in performances and recordings as Dr. Thomas A. Dorsey, Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Pops Staples, Andrae Crouch, Mattie Moss Clark, Alex Bradford and many others. Such well-known artists as Bishop Carlton Pearson, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Pop Winans and Lyle Lovett have covered their music. The family was honored by the Smithsonian Institute for their contributions to the advancement of Gospel Music in America.
With more than fifty years of carrying the gospel message via the medium of music, and although Robert, Father Jerry, Evelyn, Mother Gay and most recently Mildred (in 2002) have gone on from labor to reward, the legacy and music still continues on. Donald serves as pastor of the Prayer Center Church of God in Christ, the church founded by Mother Fannie some 40 years ago on Chicago’s south side. Dubbed the “Errol Garner of gospel music”, Geraldine continues to mystify both young and old alike as the church musician. They continue to perform with the addition of their children and grandchildren, telling the world, “Be not dismayed, whatever be tide, God Will Take Care of You.”