Albertina Walker, contralto gospel singer and conductor, was born on August 29, 1929, as the youngest of nine siblings. Her parents, Ruben Walker and Camille Coleman Walker, relocated from Georgia after the birth of their first four children and raised their family in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Walker started singing in the children’s choir at her home church, West Point Missionary Baptist Church, when she was four years old.
She was a member of the Pete Williams Singers and toured with the Robert Anderson Singers when she was 17, while attending Lucy Flower High School. Walker performed secular songs in Chicago nightclubs between 1947 and 1949. In 1949, she joined the Melody of Zion Gospel Singers and remained a gospel singer for the rest of her life.
Walker was Mahalia Jackson’s protégé, and she is widely regarded as one of the greatest gospel singers of all time. Jackson encouraged Walker to take over the Robert Anderson Singers and make it her own in 1952. She founded the band The Caravans, which later included James Cleveland, Dorothy Norwood, and Shirley Caesar. In 1957, Walker signed with Savoy Records.
On August 20, 1967, Walker married Lesley O. Reynolds. They later divorced, and in 1991, she married Reco Brooks of Memphis, Tennessee. There were no children present.
Walker gave a concert for former South African President Nelson Mandela during his visit to the United States in 1993. She was also in charge of organizing Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH People’s Choir. In 1994, Chicago renamed a section of Cottage Grove Avenue near 35th Street “Albertina Walker and The Caravans Drive” in her honor. The Chicago Theological Seminary conferred on her an honorary Doctor of Letters the same year.
Walker was nominated for 12 Grammys, including “Best Traditional Gospel Album,” “Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album,” and “Best Soul Gospel Vocal Performance, Female, Male.” Walker did, however, win “Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album” at the 37th Annual Grammy Awards in 1995 for Songs of The Church-Live in Memphis.
Walker released the album Good News in Hard Times on LLF/Warner Bros. Records in 1995. Walker was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001. President George W. Bush honored her for her contributions to gospel music during a ceremony at the White House the following year, in 2002. Albertina Walker, who released over 60 albums, died on October 8, 2010, in Chicago, Illinois, of respiratory complications. She was 81 years old.