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.
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Written by : Bob Marovich
Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.
Good Afternoon Mr. MAROVICH! What a wonderful tribute! I have loved these Ladies a Lifetime! I was so happy to see them again a few years back! Say Amen is my favorite Gospel Documentary! As Always, Keep up the Great work!
Thank you, Gary Craig!
Nice tribute of the legend singers,I loved me some Barrett Sisters
Thank you for that information. I remember the Barrette sings who inspired my family and my father formed us his children we were the The fabulous white singers of Jacksonville Florida
I had always wondered who were those ladies who can sing so beautiful. I had saw them on a video, and their singing took me to Heaven. I was just a child in the 70′,s, but as I became an adult their singing still rides on this day. When God gives you a gift use it for pleasing of God. I’m a 2nd Soprano in my church choir, I listen to The Barratt Sisters, and others sing with the late Rev. James Cleveland, ,”Only a Look.’ I LOVE IT!
I came to know the Barrett Sisters via Say Amen Somebody. I have watched this documentary so many times and encouraged others to watch it too, especially if they are students of gospel music. I also loved them in James Cleveland’s Only a Look, my favorite Roberta Martin song. God bless the Barrett sisters for the legacy they leave behind.
I I too love me some Barrett sister’s. All of those sister’s could really sing straight from Heaven. I especially love Billie , when she sang only a look behind her sister, with James Cleveland on the piano. What a gathering that must have been!!! Barrett sister’s I love you all. And I do know and believe that Heaven welcomed you with open arms.