by Bob Marovich for The Black Gospel Blog
Next week, the McDonald Sisters of Fayetteville, North Carolina will be one of seven quartets honored at the Gospel Music Workshop of America – Quartet Division’s annual banquet in Cincinnati, Ohio. They will be celebrated along with other legendary quartets such as the Violinaires, Jackson Southernaires, Highway QCs and the Caravans.
Last week, TBGB learned more about the McDonald Sisters during a conversation with Priscilla McDonald, Pamela McDonald and Evelyn McDonald Miller via telephone from North Carolina.
The McDonald Sisters have sung from the north, south, east and west coasts of the U.S. Their singing ministry has spread globally from Switzerland to Portugal to Spain, but the quartet started modestly in 1963 when Priscilla McDonald, a young mother, overheard her pre-school daughters Valerie, Pamela and Evelyn singing along to radio hits by the Supremes and Love Unlimited.
Priscilla enjoyed gospel music growing up, so after she heard her girls harmonizing to Motown, she wanted to hear how they would sound as a gospel quartet. Baby sister Deborah soon joined the group. The McDonald Sisters made their debut at First Baptist Church in Parkton, North Carolina, where their cheek-pinching charm and sweet harmonies earned them local celebrity. “We received overwhelming support in and around the area,” Priscilla remembered.
At this point, neither Priscilla nor her daughters thought about singing professionally, or even performing outside of Parkton and Fayetteville, but Evelyn recalls that one of their fans knew otherwise. “There was a very wise old mother at an A.M.E.Z. church across the street from ours,” she explained. “One day, this mother spoke a prophetic word to us. She said, ‘Parkton will not be able to hold you. You will go into the world and spread the word of Jesus Christ.’ And that’s what we did.”
It was not until 1979 that the McDonald Sisters recorded their first single, “I’m Glad I Found the Lord”/”One Day Soon.” The record was released on K&W Enterprises, a local label run by the late Ken Wormack, who also served as the McDonald Sisters’ manager. Under his leadership, they made numerous recordings. One of their most popular recordings, even today, is “Prayer Changes Things.”
In 1985, the sisters were given the title “The Sweethearts of Fayetteville” from Leon Bryant, a disc jockey with WFSS Radio on the campus of Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC. The title has been associated with the McDonald Sisters worldwide ever since.
The quartet also recorded for Hoyt Sullivan’s famed HSE Records. “Our records played well on local radio,” Priscilla said, “and aired in Nashville on WLAC, on ‘Hoss’ Allen’s program.”
In 1993, the old mother’s prophetic words rang especially true when the group was invited to participate in the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The following year, the quartet toured Europe for two months. Besides Switzerland, the McDonald Sisters sang to crowds in Germany, Lichtenstein, France, Portugal, and Spain. “Thirty-nine concerts in 54 days,” Priscilla exclaimed. “The audiences were wonderful. And in Europe, when the promoters tell you that you are going to start at six o’clock, the people are there!”
When the McDonald Sisters sang overseas, they performed their standard repertory. Of course, there was one compulsory song, the “Free Bird” of international gospel, which global audiences request of American gospel groups. “I say this in tribute to the Hawkins Family. Wherever we sang, we always were asked to do ‘Oh Happy Day’,” Priscilla said.
Other fond memories singing before audiences are connected with historic moments in the nation’s history. In the 1980s, the group performed with the Georgia Mass Choir and Willie Neal Johnson for a Savannah, Georgia program that was part of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s run for President. They have also sung in Selma, Alabama three times, commemorating that area’s Civil Rights activities. The quartet has appeared on Dr. Bobby Jones programs three times. In 2002, the sisters made their first appearance on a production of Dr. Bobby Cartwright’s Gospel Superfest held in Jacksonville, Florida, and hosted by Clifton Davis.
What is it about the McDonald Sisters’ singing that makes them so popular? Ask the sisters and they say it’s their traditional churchy style. “Wherever we sing, whether it’s in an auditorium or a city center,” Pamela said, “the audience feels the anointing and the power of God through the ministry of music. They feel like they’ve been to church.”
Speaking of church, the group remains members of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, under the pastoral leadership of their father, Dr. Samuel McDonald, Jr. Three of the sisters, Valerie McDonald, Pamela McDonald and Evelyn McDonald Miller are licensed and ordained ministers.
In 2009, the McDonald Sisters took a leap of faith and started their own record company. Ra’Ola Music, Inc. is an elision of the sisters’ maternal grandparents’ first names: Ray and Ola Mae Fuller. They felt it was a fitting way to commemorate their grandparents, who played a pivotal role in their lives. The sisters have created and registered their own publishing company with BMI. The company name, “VDEPP,” is made up of the first initial of the first name of each lady in the group. The quartet’s upcoming latest CD and DVD project, The McDonald Sisters – Live, will be released this year on Ra’Ola Music, Inc. The single, “Yes, I Know the Man,” features guest vocals by Evangelist Dorothy Norwood. The live recording also consisted of the angelic voices of the Mason Temple COGIC Choir from Conway, SC. Michael McDonald, brother to the sisters, is a featured vocalist on a selection called “Yes.”
The McDonald Sisters have garnered many honors over the years, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from their hometown of Fayetteville. Later this month, they will add one more honor to their CV when the Gospel Music Workshop of America Quartet Division fetes them at its annual banquet. Priscilla is grateful to the late “Mr. Malaco,” Roy Wooten, who was responsible for getting them involved in GMWA and helped the group at many a turn. “So many have been very helpful to us over the years,” she added.
Forty-seven years after their debut performance in Parkton, North Carolina, the town that couldn’t hold them, the McDonald Sisters are still going strong. What’s the secret? Priscilla didn’t miss a beat. “We stay prayed up and live what we sing about.”
To learn more about the McDonald Sisters and their ministry, please visit their website at http://www.mcdonaldsisters.com/ or e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: McDonald Sisters website