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Queens of Harmony

African-American Gospel Music
Milwaukee, WI

How do they sing gospel music?

When the Queens of Harmony sing, they sing in a style that’s special to gospel music. Here are some things you can say about the gospel style of singing:

  • The singers express feelings and emotions.
  • The singers use lots of different types of improvisation.
  • Individual voices stand out in the group (all the singers don’t sing the same words as each other all the time).
  • The singers move their bodies in time to the music.
  • The singers keep time to the music by hand clapping, hip slapping, or foot stomping.
  • Sometimes singers get so involved with the music that they feel their spirits move.

Even with six, the Queens are a quartet

Dorothy sings lead. Photo by Lewis Koch.Just like there are four quarters in a dollar, there are four singers in a quartet.

But the Queens of Harmony has six members. How can the group be a quartet? The answer is, even though there are six Queens, only four sing at one time! While those four are singing, the other two ladies rest their voices.

In a quartet, one woman sings lead and the other three women sing harmony. The lead singer sings the main melody and lyrics of the song. She also does the main improvising.

How do the Queens improvise? The lead singer might invent new lyrics that praise God and add them at the end of the song. Then the back-up singers might play off what the lead is singing. Or, the lead singer might:

  • add extra sounds like a hum, shout or moan,
  • sing lots of different notes on one word,
  • speak the words instead of sing them,
  • add extra words like “Oh, yes” or “Hallelujah” between phrases or at the end of lines,
  • Hmm...repeat a word or phrase over and over,
  • use a falsetto voice.

In the Queens of Harmony, different singers take turns singing the lead. Julia and Ella sing lead most often, but Tina and Joyce sing lead too. Dorothy, with her deep baritone voice, also sings lead. Each lead singer brings a different sound to the song and the group.

The three backup singers sing harmony. To make harmony, each singer sings a different note at the same time. The notes blend together to make a chord, giving the harmony a rich, strong sound. The backup singers give a steady foundation that lets the lead singer improvise. In the Queens of Harmony, all the members take turns singing harmony.

Slapping hips to keep time: The Queens sing “a capella”

A cappella” means “without instruments,” so a cappella singing is using only your voice to perform the song.

Julia sings lead; Joyce and Dorothy sing harmony. Photo by Bob Rashid.During slavery, owners forbade slaves to use drums and some other musical instruments. So the slaves created other ways to keep time and make music. The African-American tradition of singing without instruments comes from that history. Some African-Americans kept singing with just their voices even after slavery ended. They sang at home or in church, keeping time by clapping hands or slapping their hips.

Here’s what Ella said about hip slapping: “That’s a form of music, the hip slapping. It’s a form of time keeping. You’ll find that a lot of groups will do a lot of clapping or when they get tired of clapping their hands they’ll go to clapping their hip, you know, to kind of keep you in time. It’s a rhythm, yeah. Sometimes the hip slapping sounds pretty good!”

What does it take?

The Queens of Harmony make every one of the songs they sing sound unique because of how they sing it. They create their own arrangements for every song, inventing special leads and harmonies that give the song a new or unique sound.

How do they do this? The lead singer might say, “I have this song and I want it to go like this,” and she’ll show the rest of the Queens what she means. Then other members will give their ideas and the group will put the ideas together. They’ll practice the song until it’s the way they all want it to sound. This is part of the Queens of Harmony’s creative process.

Each member of the Queens of Harmony has another job and has to schedule performances around her work. The Queens rehearse at least once each week, and perform on the weekends.

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“Most everybody in our city, they sing with music: guitars, bass guitar, lead guitar, drums, maybe organ or keyboard or something, you know, a lot of music. We don’t use any, any instruments. I think we’re the only ones in the city of Milwaukee, and around Milwaukee too, that sing without music.”

— Jessie McCullum

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