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Twinkie Clark: Riffing On Gospel

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Twinkie Clark: Riffing On Gospel

Twinkie Clark: Riffing On Gospel

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This year, we've been hearing about great singers from around the world in our series 50 Great Voices. Some of them have been quite famous. Others are, for many people, new discoveries.

Today we're going to hear about Elbernita "Twinkie" Clark from Detroit. In gospel music, she is a big star. She is a composer and leader of The Clark Sisters. She is a solo artist and a master organist.

David Person reports that Twinkie Clark is a voice with many extraordinary parts.

DAVID PERSON: Twinkie Clark sings like John Coltrane played. Her notes are clear and clean, her phrasing and timing exquisite.

Ms. ELBERNITA "TWINKIE" CLARK (Singer, Organist, Composer): (Singing) But I won't, I won't, I won't, I won't, I won't, oh, y'all, I don't mind going through the persecution in order to go to the next level in God. To say Lord, take me higher...

PERSON: That's Twinkie Clark from an album recorded live in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Deborah Smith Pollard likes that Twinkie Clark is not a gospel screamer, but actually sings. Dr. Pollard teaches a class on gospel music at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Dr. DEBORAH SMITH POLLARD (Contemporary Gospel Music, University of Michigan, Dearborn): She can do a growl. She can do a moan. But there's a clarity in her singing that has always appealed to me, and I think that reaches a lot of people.

Ms. CLARK: (Singing) I got to have the Holy Ghost, because the Bible says that the Holy Ghost has come upon you, each ever seeks power. And I'm asking him tonight endow me...

PERSON: Twinkie'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 winning awards and making hits since the 1980s, none bigger than this one.

(Soundbite of song, "You Brought the Sunshine")

THE CLARK SISTERS (Gospel Singers): (Singing) You brought the sunshine. You brought the sunshine. In my life. You dropped the lifeline. You brought the lifeline. You brought the lifeline. Saved my life. You dropped the lifeline...

PERSON: 1981's "You Brought the Sunshine" was a hit, first on gospel radio before moving on to R&B stations and then to the clubs, where DJs used it to kick-start many a dance floor groove - to the chagrin of some of the faithful.

Meanwhile, Twinkie, a fan of jazz and R&B, who studied classical music at Howard University, continued to be an innovator creating a vocal style that many gospel and R&B singers now imitate.

Ms. KAREN CLARK SHEARD (Singer, The Clark Sisters): That's how the riffs came.

PERSON: Karen Clark Sheard, of the Clark Sisters - Twinkie's baby sister.

Ms. SHEARD: She had to sing opera and you could hear them doing their little acrobats in the opera. And then, even in jazz, and I mean people like Ella Fitzgerald I mean, for you to hear someone do riffs and do little turns with your voices, but yet put it in gospel - that was something that was very unusual, that Twinkie pretty much started.

(Soundbite of a song)

Ms. CLARK: (Singing) I can have everything I want towards the skies. What I can't have. What I can't have...

PERSON: Twinkie 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, a skill she learned from her mom, the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, a renowned choir director, arranger and songwriter in gospel music.

Twinkie Clark.

Ms. CLARK: Sometimes she would wake us up at like 3:00 in the morning...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLARK: ...and we're crying and sleepy: Momma we don't feel like getting up, you know. And she said, No, I'm going to make you do this because it's going to pay off after a while. And it did. She would have us sit around the piano and she'd say, I got a song on my mind that the Lord gave me and I want y'all to learn it.

(Soundbite of organ music)

PERSON: Twinkie the vocalist is only matched perhaps by Twinkie the organist. In fact, known in gospel music circles as the Queen of the Hammond B-3, 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.

Dr. CEDRIC DENT (Member, Take 6): You hear music teachers say that to his students all the time: Make your instrument sing, make it sound like your voice. She was incredible at making the organ sound like her voice.

Ms. CLARK: (Singing) In the high place, in the high place...

Dr. DENT: And you can even hear, the harmonizing that she would teach her sisters at times, 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.

Ms. CLARK: (Singing) In the high place...

PERSON: Twinkie's technique as a vocalist and musician may be what makes her a great artist, but she truly believes all the credit goes to the spirit.

Ms. CLARK: 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, you know, to kind of make the audience emotional. And, you know, to kind of get them into what you are doing. And to get them, you know, into the presence of God.

PERSON: Twinkie Clark has made a career out of combining artistry and ministry. Her fans seem to agree that it's a divine combination.

For NPR, I'm News David Person.

MONTAGNE: Hear the music of Twinkie Clark and more from our 50 Great Voices series at

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Looking for a Miracle")

THE CLARK SISTERS: (Singing) I'm looking for a miracle. I expect the impossible. I feel the intangible and I see the invisible. I'm looking for a miracle. I expect the impossible. I feel the intangible and I see the invisible...

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

THE CLARK SISTERS: (Singing) The sky is the limit to what I can have. Ooh, yeah, the sky. The sky is the limit to what I can have. Oh, yes. It is...

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