GOSPEL’S HIDDEN FIGURE: OPAL WILLS 1927-2019
Take a close look at this picture. There’s much more to it than meets the eye! I called her ‘grandma’ but those who knew and loved her called this dynamic woman, “Mother Wills”. And in her younger days she was widely known as “Sister Wills”. She proudly proclaimed herself a Holy-Ghost filled Fire Baptized Saint, who lived the life that she sang about .. and OH how she sang! This photo, taken in the early 1990’s when grandma was in her mid 60’s, reveals her confidence and her talent. A microphone in her right hand and one foot in front of the other … ready to “shout” in church. This photo is taken in Astoria, Queens, New York. Not the storefront church that she founded with her husband, Rev. Fred Husband, but a church we rented that allowed more space for a special program. Grandma learned to sing from the best in Haywood County, Tennessee! Her mother, Emma Tyus (pianist and choir director) and all of her sisters and brothers (all 12 of them) sang in church every Sunday at St. Peter’s Methodist Church in Brownsville. She grew up in the segregated south where Jim Crows laws separated black folks from white folks, but she NEVER let anyone steal her JOY!
Look directly behind her. Thats her son, Van! A great guitarist! I mean a GREAT GREAT Gospel GUITARIST. He literally practiced every day of his life with his brother, (my father), Clarence. They learned to play from the band seated behind him in a light blue suit .. his dad (my grandfather) Rev. Fred Wills.
Now Grandpa is the reason the entire family relocated to New York City from the south! Born on a former plantation is Haywood County, Fred told me that had to be something better in the world that picking cotton for 12 hours a day to only make $6 dollars a week! So he took his guitar, his young wife and sons on a trip where they played and sang gospel in churches in Chicago, Indiana and finally New York.
Gospel music was a man’s game so powerful women singers were initially seen as a novelty during the early 20th century. They were supposed to stay in the background. But as groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers, The Blind Boys gained traction, women groups like The Caravans, The Davis Singers and Clara Ward and her famous Ward Singers started to make their presence known!
Sister Wills made her presence known her own way, too. When she stood to testify, her voice was like thunder! She had perfect pitch, range, power, emotion — she was the perfect package. But Sister Wills wasn’t leaving her husband and sons to go ‘singing’ on the road. Period. So, the only people who had the privilege of seeing her in action, were those who were lucky enough to be under the same church roof on Sunday morning.
I was one of the lucky ones. Her first grandchild, as soon as I could sit up straight, I joined her on the piano bench and felt her energy and her sweat and her passion every Sunday morning. It was quite the show! On Saturday’s we would listen to the ladies in my book and marvel at their talent. Grandma had no regrets. She sang to the glory of God and that was good enough for her.
But as I grew older, it wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted the WORLD to hear Sister Wills!
When she passed away two days after my birthday on September 30, 2019, I promised her spirit that I would let the world that she was here and her voice touched the world.
So this recording is from a cassette recorder, that I held in my lap, as my grandmother sang her heart out during a family reunion in Cleveland, Ohio in 1983. She was in her glory, even though her oldest son (my father) had been killed in a motorcycle accident just three years before. But no matter what happened in her dramatic life, Sister Wills didn’t let ANYONE steal her joy!
Her sister, Laura Lee is on piano, another sister Mary Ruth Spearman is on organ, her son Van is on lead guitar, Bilal Whitest is on drums, Eric Spearman is on bass and I’m on tambourine. We had a time, I tell ya.
Listen to the joy in her voice as she sings ‘This Old Soul of Mine’ … the church explodes and you will see.
When everyone starts shouted, I get so distracted that I didn’t notice my poor little tape recorder ran out.
and thank you from the bottom for checking out my book https://www.amazon.com/Isnt-Her-Grace-Amazing-Changed/dp/0063050986/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=isn%27t+her+grace+amazing&qid=1651345776&sprefix=isn%27t+her+g%2Caps%2C70&sr=8-1&author-follow=B09QZ2ZQ4W& that salutes women who changed gospel music from Mahalia Jackson to Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary.
This book is a keepsake and a love letter to ALL women who made a way out of no way!
Amen and Hallelujah!