Group celebrating 42 years of gospel

Published 10:10 am Friday, April 19, 2019

In the Gospel Harmonettes’ more than four decades of existence, membership and musicians have changed, one member temporarily lost her voice, and some members have gone on to their reward. But the group is still true to its mission, and still performs some of the same favorite songs from days gone by.

“It started in my mom’s house,” Lisa Lacey said of her late mother, Louise Marvin. “She and her sister, Lillie Dawson, discussed who could be in the group. In the beginning, it was me, my mom and Martha Smith. We added some along the way, but the inspiration was from my mom.”

The musicians, accompanied by guitarist Tony Baxter, began by performing in local churches. As word spread, they began traveling to churches all over Alabama and in Georgia, Lacey said.

The names of former members go on and on. Annie Hazley, Annie James, Willodean Wright, Wilbert Marvin. 

On the group’s eighth anniversary, Hattie Lawson joined. Prior to that, she sang with current Harmonettes’ musician Tommy James and his sister, performing as the Gospel J-Notes.

Through the years, the group has faced challenges, but Lacey said they’ve always been met with grace.

“We’ve been travelling and had a car to break down, but God was always there,” Lacey said. “One time, we were broken down and Ms. Ann Grace came and gave us her brand new van, and just told us where to park it when we got home. We went on to Montgomery and sang. There was always people to help us, and they didn’t always know who we were.

“One time we were in a little old town in the back woods,” Lawson recalled. “We had car trouble, and it was three boys in the car. Two of the guys stayed by our car, and the driver took us to the church.

“The group we were singing with, the lady’s brother was a mechanic. He got the car, fixed it, and charged us nothing except for the part,” Lacey recalled. “God’s just been good to us. And people have been good to help us to do what we needed to do. We have been supported in the City of Andalusia.”

The hardest time, Lawson said, was when the group lost three members in the space of six weeks.

“It was the worst hurt,” Lawson said. “We knew Martha (Smith) was going to go. She had cancer, and she didn’t tell us. She just kept going as long as she could. She told us in July, and she passed in September.”

Six days later, the group lost musician Wilbert Marvin, and the following month, the group’s founder, Louise Marvin, passed.

The first two deaths were expected; the third shocked them.

“My mom was healthy,” Lacey recalled. “It was an all-of-the sudden thing. She had pulmonary fibrosis, but she would hassle and just go on.”

She was hospitalized in Dothan the week before she died.

“She called me and said, ‘Now I want you to do this,’ ” Lawson recalled, adding that Marvin gave her several instructions, and closed with, “I want y’all to be done when I get home.”

She died within an hour of returning home.

“It’s just the three of us now,” Lacey said of the Harmonettes, which also includes musician Tommy James. “We’ve got some back-ups that will help us. My nieces help any time we need them, so we have the third generation involved.”

Although popular music has changed in the past 42 years, Lacey said the group has stayed with gospel.

“We basically try to sing the gospel like we used to.”

Lacey’s favorite is, “All of My Help.”

“It’s always been my favorite song,” she said.

Lawson’s is “He Worked it Out for Me.”

“Because he did, so many times,” she said.

She counts among those the return of her voice.

“I had thyroid cancer,” she said. “They thought I would never sing again. He nicked my vocal cords. For nine months, I could not talk above a whisper.”

Her surgeon sent her to an ENT in Dothan.

“He examined me and said, ‘Do you know how to pray?’

“My friend Gladys was with me and she told him, ‘Don’t ask her that, because that’s her thing.’ ”

The ENT added that if Lawson’s voice didn’t come back in nine months, it likely never would.

“My voice is not like it used to be,” she said. “But I still try. I asked God to give it back to me and he did.”

Lawson said she has always sung.

“I’ve been singing since I was 5 years old,” she said. “My first church was St. Peter. I would march around the church with my mama and them.

“My mama sang,” she recalled.

Her mama took in washing, and was often outdoors with washtubs, tending the laundry and singing.

“You could hear her all over the neighborhood,” Lawson recalled. “Other children picked at me all the time about my mama singing.”

But most people loved to hear her, Lacey said.

“One day I was walking from where I lived. You could hear her singing from North Cotton and 2nd to the top of the hill by Opp Avenue and Smith Street. I could still hear her singing.”

Lawson is retired from a nursing career, and Lacey works at Mizell Memorial Hospital.

Lawson said in the week before Louise Marvin died, when she was giving instructions about things that needed to be done, she also admonished Lawson to make sure the Harmonettes kept singing.

“Louise was saying, don’t y’all quit singing,” she recalled. “That was one of her last words to me. Don’t y’all quit.”

And they haven’t. This Saturday, the group will celebrate 42 years of singing at the Church of the Living God CWFF on Tucker Street in Andalusia. The musical event begins at 6:30 p.m.