Perhaps the most underrated gospel vocalist and songwriter of black gospel’s golden age, Dorothy Love Coates represented, in the words of Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, “the best of what the early ’60s offered: a model of call and response rooted in an unflinching engagement with history; an understanding of the world that sends pulses of energy back and forth between gospel and the blues; an unwavering commitment to the beloved community; a refusal to be seduced into a mainstream where the value of life is measured in money; and music so powerful it can change your life.”
It changed the fortunes of many more famous music stars. Holland-Dozier-Holland based the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” on Coates’ “(You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right on Time”; Wilson Pickett used the Gospel Harmonettes’ version of the classic theme “99 and a Half Won’t Do” as the model for his soul hit; Little Richard, among others, copied Coates’ stentorian vocal leads. In addition,Coates was one of the few gospel stars to vocally oppose segregation, often appearing at civil rights rallies during the late ’50s and early ’60s. (“The Lord has blessed our going out and our coming in. He’s blessed our sitting in, too.”) This was all the more brave because Coates lived in Birmingham, AL, the most dangerous city in the U.S. for such activists, and she was not then singing professionally. “At night I’d sing for the people, days I’d work for the white man,” as she put it to gospel historian Tony Heilbut.
The Gospel Harmonettes — Mildred Miller Howard, mezzo-soprano; Odessa Edwards, contralto and sermonizer; Willie May Newberry, contralto; and pianist Evelyn Starks — were already Birmingham radio celebrities in the 1940s when the several years younger Dorothy McGriff joined them. After winning on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts TV program, the Harmonettes made some less than stellar sides for RCA in 1949. With Dorothy taking over more forcefully, they became national gospel stars soon after they began recording for Specialty Records in 1951.
That July, they traveled to Hollywood and made “I’m Sealed” and “Get Away Jordan,” both of which became standards. Dorothy soon married Willie Love, the great lead voice of the Fairfield Four, although that marriage didn’t last long. (She later married Carl Coates, bass voice and guitarist withthe Sensational Nightingales, thus becoming Dorothy Love Coates.) The group’s summer 1953 Specialty session produced “No Hiding Place,” another classic; their 1956 date, “You Must Be Born Again”; and in August 1956, the group’s two greatest recordings, “99 and a Half Won’t Do” and, above all, “That’s Enough.”
They traveled the “gospel highway” from church to church and town to town, all through the South, Midwest, and in such northern cities as Philadelphia, New York, and Newark (where her childhood friend, Alex Bradford, was also established as a gospel star). In 1959, they began recording for Savoy Records in Newark. From later in 1959 to 1961, Dorothy retired to care for a newborn daughter with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. In 1961, the group, which adjusted its membership to include Cleo Kennedy (later a backup singer for Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), recorded for Savoy, and then in 1964 for Vee-Jay, an affiliation that lasted until 1968, when they did a few songs for Okeh/Columbia (including the remarkable “Strange Man”) and made some discs for Nashboro. Neither Coates nor her group recorded since about 1970, although Coates was intermittently active in live performance during subsequent years.
As a vocalist, Dorothy Love Coates stood out from any previous female lead in gospel because she was as much preacher as singer. Her vocals were always hoarse, sometimes sounding as if she’d actually damaged her throat shouting and testifying. But she swung behind all that hammering, and her records have power and drive that is virtually unmatched in any American music.