Gospel music has come a long way since the early 1930s, when Thomas Dorsey fused a Christian message with blues chords and rhythms. Over the years, innovators such as Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar, Andrae Crouch and others have played major parts in pushing the music forward. But no list of gospel greats would be complete without Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark. Many know her as the leader of The Clark Sisters and as a master organist. But Clark's voice is the sum of many parts.
Twinkie Clark sings like John Coltrane played: Her notes are clear and clean, her phrasing and timing exquisite.
"She can do a growl, she can do a moan, but there is a clarity in her singing that has always appealed to me, and I think that reaches a lot of people," says Deborah Smith Pollard, who teaches a class on gospel music at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Bringing The Sunshine
Clark's fans love her solo albums, but know her best as the leader, arranger and main songwriter of The Clark Sisters. She and sisters Karen, Dorinda and Jackie have been making hits and winning awards since the 1980s, none bigger than 1981's "You Brought the Sunshine." It was first a hit on gospel radio before moving onto R&B stations and then to the clubs, where DJs used it to kick-start many a dance-floor groove — much to the chagrin of some of the faithful.
Meanwhile, Twinkie Clark, a fan of jazz and R&B who studied classical music at Howard University, continued to innovate, creating a vocal style that many gospel and R&B singers now imitate.
"That's how the riffs came," says Karen Clark Sheard, Twinkie's baby sister and a member of The Clark Sisters. "She had to sing opera, and you could hear them doing their little acrobats in the opera. And then, even in jazz, people like Ella Fitzgerald — for you to hear someone do riffs and do little turns with your voices and yet put it in gospel — that was something that was very unusual that Twinkie pretty much started."
Twinkie Clark has always been the vocal leader of the group. No surprise, then, that she's been teaching her sisters their parts since they were children. It's a skill she says she learned from her mom, the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, a renowned choir director, arranger and songwriter in gospel music.
"Sometimes she would wake us up at 3 a.m. and we were crying and sleepy, talking about, 'Momma we don't feel like getting up,' " Twinkie Clark says. "And she said, 'No, I'm going to make you do this. It's going to pay off after a while.' And it did. She would have us sit around the piano, and she would say, 'I've got a song on my mind that the Lord gave me and I want y'all to learn it."
Making The Organ Sing
Twinkie Clark the vocalist is perhaps only matched by Twinkie Clark the organist. She's known in gospel-music circles as "Queen of the Hammond B-3," so her vocalizing and organ playing are very much intertwined — so much so that, according to Dr. Cedric Dent of Take 6, she makes the organ sing.
"You hear music teachers say that to their students all the time: 'Make your instrument sing; make it sound like your voice,' " Dent says. "She was incredible at making the organ sound like her voice."
You can even hear the harmonizing that she would teach her sisters in her organ playing. You can hear all of those parts — the nuances, the riffs — that they would sing vocally. It's all there in her organ technique.
Clark's technique as a vocalist and musician may be what makes her a great artist, but she says all the credit goes to the Spirit.
"If you have the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God will lead you to which songs to do, what type of music to do, when to do your runs and your little riffs," Clark says. "You know to kind of make the audience emotional and kind of get them into what you are doing, and to get them into the presence of God."
Twinkie Clark has made a career of mixing artistry and ministry. Her fans seem to agree that it's a divine combination.