By Bob Marovich
It is with heavy heart that I report the passing of Billie Barrett Greenbey today. She was a member of the award-winning gospel trio the Barrett Sisters. She had been in the hospital recently, but had come home and reports were encouraging. Alas, she is now singing sweetly with sister DeLois and the rest of the family in heavenly Zion.
Billie Barrett Greenbey was born in 1928 to Susie and Lonnie Barrett, migrants to Chicago from Mississippi. The family attended Morning Star Baptist Church on the city’s South Side, where an aunt was the choir director. In this choir, sisters Billie, Rodessa and Delores (DeLois) Barrett had a chance to sing some of Prof. Thomas A. Dorsey’s newly-penned gospel songs.
Around 1941, Billie and DeLois—two of ten total children in the Barrett household, though not all survived—formed the Barrett and Hudson Singers with a cousin, Johnnie Mae Hudson. After Hudson died at the age of eighteen or nineteen, baby sister Rodessa began to sing with the ensemble, and they became the Barrett Sisters.
Although the Barrett Sisters sang in and around Chicago from time to time, especially during the summer when DeLois was not traveling with the Roberta Martin Singers, the group came into its own as a professional gospel troupe around 1962. DeLois asked Roberta Martin if she would record the trio and, in 1964, Savoy put out the first album by the Barrett Sisters.
With their cultured singing, sweet harmonies, refined performance technique and elegant style of dress, the Barrett Sisters were from the Roberta Martin School of Music mold. On their debut album, Jesus Loves Me, the trio’s crystal clear treble harmonies floated atop Martin’s trademark piano riffs and a gently purring organ. The title track was a contemporary arrangement of the perennial Sunday school favorite, It became the group’s first single.
The Barrett Sisters were nicknamed the “Sweet Sisters of Zion” for their Baptist soulfulness and concert decorum. Each of the women had music training: DeLois with the Roberta Martin Singers, Rodessa as director of the Galilee Baptist Church Choir, and Billie as a student at the American Conservatory of Music. The trio was in demand at local gospel programs, church and artist anniversaries, and funerals. They appeared on TV’s Jubilee Showcase, traveled nationally and internationally, and continued releasing singles and albums. Anthony Heilbut dedicated an entire chapter to them in his landmark book, The Gospel Sound.
The sisters’ appearance in the 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody brought them acclaim outside of the confines of the church and gospel music, including as guests on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Charles Pikes was the trio’s piano accompanist. In 2014, producer and filmmaker Regina Rene released a documentary, Sweet Sisters of Zion, which chronicled the highs and lows of the Barrett Sisters’ music career.
After DeLois passed away in August 2011, Billie and Rodessa, with singer Tina Brown, continued to appear on gospel programs. No longer traveling like they used to, Billie and Rodessa would still sing at funerals, anniversaries, birthdays, and whenever requested. Please keep the family uplifted in prayer during this time and at all times.