The Gospel Sound, Tony Heilbut's critical and comprehensive study of gospel music, acclaims Marion Williams as quite simply "the most lyrical and imaginative singer gospel has produced." In her long distinguished career, which took her throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa, she brought together the best of the many different traditions that make up gospel music--the directness of Clara Ward, the wit of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the fervor of Dorothy Love Coates, and the grandeur of Bessie Griggin and Mahalia Jackson--and produced a unique personal sound that has had a major impact throughout American music from jazz to blues, from rock to soul, on instrumentalists and vocalists alike. "When she sings about God, it makes you want to sign up. . . There is a little gospel in every singer today and you can't overstate its importance." (The New Yorker).
Her father died when she was very young and her mother was ill much of her youth. Williams therefore, left school when she was just nine to support the family, working as a maid and nurse and in factories and laundries. But even before she went to work at this young age, she was already singing in front of an admiring audience. She remembers her first a cappella performance in a Miami church when she was three years old. Later on, by singing on weekends or after work in storefront churches and at street-corner revivals, she gained a reputation as the top Miami gospel soloist. She got offers to sing everything from opera to blues, but her great ambition always was to become a traveling gospel singer.
In 1946, while visiting her sister in Philadelphia, she happened to sing before an audience that included Clara and Gertrude Ward. They recognized greatness and offered her a job. A year later she became a part of the famous Ward Singers. For the next 11 years, her growling, hollering hands-on-the-hips vocal style made her the group's undisputed star.
Her performances astonished all, quickly becoming famous for their rhythmic control, perfect timing, and remarkable use of portamento, falsetto, and ornamentation.
In 1958, she and other members of the Ward group formed the Stars of Faith, an ensemble most famous for inspiring the creation of Black Nativity, the first gospel musical which also boasted a commissioned book by Langston Hughes. It was well-received on Broadway, but in Europe, where it toured for three years throughout Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the Continent, it was a triumph. The British theater critic Kenneth Tynan called Williams "unforgettable!"
A solo career began in 1965 with her first recital at Yale University. For the next 15 years, she toured widely, singing in concert halls, theaters, and in nightclubs in the United States, Africa, and the West Indies, on television and at jazz festivals, and most of all at dozens if colleges across the county. Her recording of "How I Got Over" sold more than a million copies.
In awarding her a grant in 1993, the MacArthur Foundation stated "Marion Williams is among the last surviving links to gospel's golden age. . . one of the most versatile singers of her generation, she exerted a profound influence not only in gospel, but also in the development of rock 'n' roll and soul music."
Her recordings, as group member and soloist, are legendary, especially Prayer Changes Things, Gospel Now, and The New Message, although it is generally agreed that they don't do justice to the emotional force or dazzling imagination that characterized her live performances when her voice would "at one moment soar lyrically with an awesomely grating shout, then swoop down to an ominous moan or strike out with urgent half-stifled cries" (The New York Times).