“It was a prayer answered,” gospel chanteuse DeLois Barrett Campbell reflects. “I had always wanted to go to Europe and sing, and the Lord fixed it so we could go.” Her legendary voice—the soaring soprano that established the Barrett Sisters as gospel standouts—is reduced to a hoarse whisper these days, but its warmth is palpable.
Though the family has been performing since 1941, the 84-year-old now only joins her sisters Rodessa Barrett Porter, 79, and Billie Barrett GreenBey, 81, onstage for her annual birthday concert. But at the peak of their career, between 1980 and 2000, the trio toured the world 50 times, including dozens of trips bringing holy music to the land of hole-y cheese: Switzerland loves the Barrett Sisters.
Though far from household names, it would be a stretch to say the siblings were underappreciated in Chicago. They’ve played Gospel Fests, were on WLS-TV’s Jubilee Showcase for decades, and Barrett Campbell sang at the funerals of Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and gospel’s patriarch, Thomas A. Dorsey. That they are not superstars reflects partly on traditional gospel’s limited audience and partly on the family’s decisions to put faith before fame. Even during the height of her international success, most of Barrett Campbell’s singing was done at her husband’s tiny storefront church.
After performing for 70 worshippers each Sunday, the sisters say it was amazing to jet to the Montreux Jazz Festival, Bern and Geneva to play for thousands blown away by their Andrew Sisters–inspired harmonies. “We could not believe the way they loved what we do and loved gospel music,” recalls Barrett Porter. “They used to come up to us and say, “Oh you gave me goose bumps!’”
Though the sisters never performed at religious services in Switzerland, they didn’t feel their work there was secular. “This is how we ministered,” Barrett Porter explains. “We put our faith and our belief in Jesus Christ in the songs, and the people accepted and enjoyed that.” In the ’80s and ’90s, they released a series of Swiss-only CDs, and their annual visits ended in 2004 only because of health concerns; promoters tell them the demand for their music never diminished.
Hear the Barrett Sisters’ divine vocals on iTunes.com.The Coctails | Robert Guinan | Laura Caldwell | Dzine | Liam Hayes (a.k.a. Plush) | The Barrett Sisters | Chicago exports