Gospel star Albertina Walker, leader of the top ’50s and ’60s act the Caravans and a solo star in her own right, died of respiratory failure Oct. 8 in Chicago. She was 81.
Born and raised in Chicago — a hotbed of gospel music, and home of the composer Thomas A. Dorsey — Walker began singing as a child in the choir of West Point Baptist Church, of which she was a lifelong member.
After getting early professional experience with the Willie Webb and Robert Anderson Singers, Walker was urged by her mentor Mahalia Jackson to form her own group.
She founded the Caravans in 1951; the unit featured such future stars as Bessie Griffin, Dorothy Norwood, Shirley Caesar and Rev. James Cleveland. In 1955, the group appeared with the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers and Dorothy Love Coates at a storied concert at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, today recognized as a landmark gospel show.
Walker undertook a solo career in 1975; her first album was produced by Donny Hathaway. She cut more than 70 albums of her own; she received a 1994 Grammy for the live album “Songs of the Church.”
In 1988, she founded the non-profit Albertina Walker Foundation, which provided scholarships to aspiring gospel singers.
Survivors include an adopted granddaughter.