The iconic gospel supergroup still matters to music today.
Thou shalt not speak against the Lord’s anointed. While the aforementioned is not really one of the Ten Commandments, it is common courtesy to not throw unnecessary shade against those who have not done anything to warrant the hate. Back in April, Wendy Williams utilized her on-air time to congratulate Snoop Dogg on the success of his gospel album, Snoop Dogg Presents: Bible of Love, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel Albums chart. Not being able to leave well enough alone, Williams continued by calling out legendary gospel group The Clark Sisters, asking, “If I were the Clark Sisters, would I be mad that Snoop got No. 1? The Clark Sisters, they’ve been doing gospel forever, did they have a No. 1?” Williams then added, “Oh well, step up your game.”
Viewers promptly responded on social media, asserting the importance and legacy of the gospel singers. Those taking offense included the likes of Kirk Franklin, Donald Lawrence, Michelle Williams and James Fortune, who all gave less of a clapback and more of a timely reminder. The Clark Sisters have not only had one of the most influential careers within the genre of gospel, but their reach has literally fulfilled the mission of bringing good news—and the sunshine—to the world.
Twinkie. Jackie. Denise. Dorinda. Karen. The five Clark sisters grew up in Detroit, Michigan right alongside the Motown music phenomenon. While the influence of ‘60s and ‘70s Motown was undeniable in American culture, it was the church that maintained center stage in the Clark family life. Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, the matriarch of the family, ensured that the teachings of the church remained paramount in their lives. Dr. Clark wrote and arranged songs that the girls sang at church and increasingly around Detroit. Eventually the reins were handed over to Twinkie to create the music that the girls would sing. During the ‘80s, Denise left the group while the other sisters continued performing as a unit. Each of the remaining sisters also pursued solo efforts at various times. As the sisters themselves described in their TV One “Unsung” special, their influences came from everywhere—commercials, mainstream records, and, of course, the church. This blend allowed them to perfect a pop style of gospel that would go on to resonate with generations to come.
A review of The Clark Sisters entire discography would necessitate an entire book. However, even a brief sampling of their music makes it clear that they have had an outsized impact. Their first No. 1 hit, “Is My Living in Vain,” is still a banger. The song shows Twinkie’s writing talent in the simplest way. The lyrics rely on hypophora as the literary device to drive the point home. Rhetorical questions are posed repeatedly: “Is my living in vain?” “Is my praying in vain?” “Is my giving in vain?” Then the obvious answer is given: “No, of course not.” Similar to many gospel songs, the content comes straight from scripture, re-emphasizing a point and wording that would have been familiar to the audience. Twinkie highlights her talent as an organ player, singing the line, “Is my organ playing in vain,” on a song where the underlying organ takes a prominent role in the music itself. While the song itself has all the elements necessary to take it to the gospel charts, it also shows why the group has crossover appeal. “Is My Living in Vain” hit No. 1 when it came out in 1980 and R&B group Xscape rerecorded it in 1993 for their debut album, Hummin’ Comin’ at ‘Cha, using the same lyrics and melody. Today in 2018, both versions sound fresh and timeless, a testament to both the artists’ singing as well as Twinkie Clark’s original writing and composition skills.
As a girl group without one lead singer, The Clark Sisters pushed against the increasing norm of groups to have one identifiable frontwoman during the time when they came to prominence. Each woman had her own key parts and an opportunity to showcase her vocal talent. Yet together, their harmonies are second to none. Listening to one of their songs is listening to five spectacular talents and one whole at the same time. “Is My Living in Vain” allowed each sister to take a line in an almost seamless transition of voices. When they come together, the harmony highlights their ability to work together. “Endow Me,” featured on their eighth album, You Brought the Sunshine, is another major hit for the group, showing that the group also had the ability to let one person shine. Here, Karen takes the lead, utilizing runs and riffs to enhance the power of the lyrics. Syllables are repeatedly extended across a range of notes, imbuing the lyrics with new meaning. The other sisters complete the harmonies in the background, mimicking Karen’s runs. Live versions of the song—both those shared on YouTube and on various live albums—show the versatility in their approach. There’s an undeniable energy to their call-and-response. Any of Karen’s riffs can be responded to on the spot. “Endow Me” has endured not only on its own, but also in contemporary remakes that highlight its timelessness. When Coko of ‘90s girl group SWV used the song for her gospel album debut, she called on three other powerhouses to complete the song: Fantasia, Lil’ Mo and Faith Evans. In order to masterfully remake a Clark Sisters song, it is necessary to use talents of the highest caliber.
“Together, their harmonies are second to none. Listening to one of their songs is listening to five spectacular talents and one whole at the same time.”
Perhaps no song showcases the group’s cross-genre significance as much as “You Brought the Sunshine,” featured on their album of the same name. Drawing inspiration from Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster,” Twinkie Clark infused the melody with a reggae beat, providing an infectious baseline that cannot be ignored. It is a perennial jam. When released, it crossed over in the way that few gospel songs get to do, making it onto mainstream radio and into the clubs. Since then it has been covered by everyone from Al Green to Shirley Murdock to Out of Eden. It even found itself connected back to Stevie Wonder when the ‘90s R&B group Intro remade Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky”—arguably one of the best remakes one any Stevie Wonder song—and sampled a portion for “You Brought the Sunshine” for the ending to the remix. Both songs have made it into their fair share of weddings and barbecue playlists. The Clark Sisters’ talent and influence in music has allowed them to have a place in culture at large.
If those song examples don’t show off The Clark Sisters’ cultural footprint, then consider one of their songs that did not cross over. Is My Living in Vain’s “Ha Ya” certainly has its fans both high and low. The basic gospel tune’s title is taken from Hebrew and loosely translates to “life,” and that’s exactly what it gave to “Family Feud,” the star track on JAY-Z’s 2017 LP, 4:44. All of Twinkie’s work for The Clark Sisters is on full display, from the two sanctified words Beyoncé repeats through the entire song to the background of the chorus down to the melody.
When Wendy Williams asks if The Clark Sisters ever had a number one song, the answer is clear. They have had quite a few number one songs, and charted on Gospel, R&B, Dance and Overall charts. But even more impressively, they have had a continuous noteworthy presence. The irony of Williams’ comment is that even on Snoop Dogg’s latest album—the one that went number one, that Williams offered him praise for, the one that led her to pithy remarks—he features The Clark Sisters. They even performed together at a concert this year.
Without a doubt, the number of No. 1 songs an artist has is an important factor to consider when evaluating an artist’s impact. Sales matter. Quantitative records are objective and easy to point to when making an argument. However, they are not the only way to measure an artist’s success. The sheer number of times that The Clark Sisters have been covered or sampled shows that they have the backing of other musical artists and producers. Their community acknowledges them as a creative force. That is a valuable part of evaluating the longevity of an artist. When we salute any song or artist that has used The Clark Sisters in their work, we are also, in effect, giving kudos to the original piece of work.
Longevity might just be the strongest proof in the pudding of The Clark Sisters’ necessary kudos. They’ve performed together in various forms for almost forty years. Four of the five original members still perform with the group, and they have supported each other in their various individual projects, which have also been met with success. Similar to many other musical families, the talents have also been passed on to another generation. Most prominently, Karen Clark Sheard’s daughter, Kierra (also known as Kiki), has made a name for herself in the music industry. She herself has several acclaimed albums, has charted at No. 1, and is most known for her appearance on Mary Mary’s crossover hit, “God in Me.”
The immense vocal talent, songwriting skills and ability to produce music of The Clark Sisters have allowed them to have an undeniably prosperous career. Their impact within the world of music and to the culture at large is undeniable, something witnessed firsthand in 2016 when the sisters were honored at Essence Fest in front of a packed room. Amidst all the festivities going on in New Orleans, people flocked to see these women receive their laurels. Amongst those giving them their due respect were Yolanda Adams, Ledisi and Chrisette Michele. The women were given their roses while they were alive, and an auditorium full of people received a blessing in terms of the performance given that day.
While Wendy Williams may opine that the group needs to step up their game, it is far more evident that she needed to be put up on game. More importantly, we all should reevaluate the way in which we consider success and talent. The success of Snoop’s latest endeavor does not eradicate the decades of music and entertainment that The Clark Sisters have provided. His success is actually a reason to celebrate them even more for their contributions, and hope that they both continue to grace us with their gifts for decades to come. They both serve as testaments to the fact that greatness knows no genre and is, indeed, timeless.