1972-76; starred in George Faison's national touring production of Sing Mahalia, Sing, c. 1977; portrayed the mother of Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, c. early 1970s; appeared in the film, The Last Dragon, 1985; wrote, produced and starred in the musical Truly Blessed, 1990; formed the Harlem Gospel Singers, 1991; toured with the Harlem Gospel Singers, 1992-. Life's Work If your mother names you "Queen," you better have the class and dignity to live up to it. Gospel singer Queen Esther Marrow has proven throughout her illustrious career that she is worthy of the name.
She has sung for four presidents, Pope John Paul II and the British royal family, and has performed with Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Ray Charles and Oscar the Grouch. As a member of the Harlem Gospel Singers, Marrow has touched millions with a high-spirited gospel-fest that blends jazz, blues and R&B. "The word 'gospel' means good news," she explained to Monte Young of Newsday. "I don't see myself trying to reach young people so much that I lose what I have to say about the gospel.
I keep traditional music with an underneath sound of contemporary. If you believe what you are saying in your message, then you are not selling yourself out." Marrow was born in Newport News, Virginia, and was raised by her grandparents on a farm outside of town. Although it was her mother who christened her "Queen," it was Marrow's grandmother who gave her the inner strength that this regal moniker evokes. A devoted churchwoman, she eventually lead young Esther through the doors of the United House of Prayer for All People. Influenced by the Church "As soon as I could walk she was taking me off to the local Apostolic church," Marrow told John Crace of the Independent.
"And I loved it. I loved the Bible stories and I loved the singing. I can remember playing on the swing in the back yard singing the Lord's Prayer to myself. When I was eight, I joined the choir." The church band that played with the choir consisted of five trombones, a tuba, a trumpet, a saxophone, a bass drum and a cymbal hit with a coat hanger. It was while singing with the choir that Marrow first felt the power of gospel music.
As she matured, she was further inspired by the voice of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson coming through her radio. "When I first heard Mahalia sing, it changed my life," Marrow told Hazel Smith of the New York Beacon. "I knew that I had to reach for the fervent messages in her songs and try to match the vocal power that this wonderful woman possessed. She was my inspiration." Sang for Duke Ellington Following her graduation from high school, a thirst for big city life led Marrow to New York where she lived with her aunt and found work at a manufacturer in the garment district.
An impromptu performance of "Happy Birthday" for her boss so impressed him, that he introduced her to a friend who knew Duke Ellington. A few weeks later, Marrow auditioned in Ellington's Harlem apartment. "I sang "How Great Thou Art" in his living room," Marrow told Paula Span of The Washington Post. "Billy Strayhorn was playing the piano.
After Duke listened--he was a person who didn't talk much--he looked up and said, 'It was good.'" Ellington hired Marrow to sing at the first of his sacred concerts, which took place at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1966. "I still get goose bumps about the actual performance," she recalled to USA Today. "It was a Saturday evening, and the sun [was] shining through the stained-glass windows. When I turned and looked at Johnny Hodges playing that solo on "Come Sunday," tears were streaming down his face.
The band had on white jackets, and I had on a white dress. It was so beautiful, and I can see it like yesterday." Marrow went on tour periodically with Ellington and his band for the next four years and received a formal musical education from the great bandleader. "He expanded my musical being. He taught me that what you feel inside of you, you can't stifle it--you have to let it grow," she told Lisa Raushchart of the Washington Times.
"If you feel it, work on it and you can do it." In 1999, Marrow reprised her performance of "Come Sunday" at the Washington National Cathedral to commemorate what would have been Ellington's 100th birthday. "When Marrow sang, 'I don't mind the gray skies/cause they're just clouds passing by,'" Washington Post writer Richard Harrington remarked, "she embodied the yearning and hope at the heart of the black church, as well as the personal faith and optimism so central to Ellington himself." When not singing with the Ellington band, Marrow joined Dr. Martin Luther King's "World Crusade," which was a series of civil rights rallies. The tour's Chicago rally featured Marrow's idol, Mahalia Jackson.
"That night on stage, she put her arms around me, said 'Come on, baby, we're going to sing'--I thought I was in seventh heaven." She also toured with Harry Belafonte around this time and, following the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, performed at the Kennedy Center to honor his widow, Coretta Scott King. Returned to Gospel Music Although she was a gospel singer, Marrow also sang in jazz clubs. This transition proved to be a difficult one for her. "One gets the impression," John Wilson wrote in a 1971 nightclub review in the New York Times, "...that she is working under wraps, muffling her individuality to try to conform to the routine expectations of a nightclub audience." Marrow also recognized the problem and decided to focus on gospel.
"I made up my mind to do gospel music, that I couldn't serve two [masters]," she told Young of Newsday. "It had to be one or the other. I was brought up in the church, and gospel is really all I know." During the 1970s, Marrow branched out into other areas of show business. She performed on Broadway in the musicals, Comin' Uptown and It's So Nice To Be Civilized, and appeared as Auntie Em in The Wiz.
She also starred in choreographer/director George Faison's national touring production of Sing Mahalia, Sing. On television, Marrow portrayed the mother of Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. The 1970s offered Marrow an array of opportunities, but she experienced difficult times during the 1980s. Although she appeared in the film, The Last Dragon, and sang on two Bob Dylan albums during the middle of the 1980s, work opportunities were scarce. Unable to find sustainable work in entertainment, Marrow took sales jobs at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's and worked as a toll-taker at the New Rochelle exit of the New York State Thruway.
"There were times I'd get despondent, down in the mouth," she admitted to Paula Span of the Washington Post, but she would tell herself, "...[just] because I don't have a record deal doesn't mean I'm not good." Wrote and Produced a Musical Marrow's positive attitude and self-confidence gave her the courage to write, produce and star in the musical Truly Blessed in 1990. Based on the life of Mahalia Jackson, the show appeared on Broadway and toured both nationally and in Europe. Although the reviews of Truly Blessed were mixed, the production earned three nominations for the prestigious Helen Hayes Award. In 1991 Marrow and her manager, Roseanne Kirk, met German music impresario Michael Brenner. Brenner shared the two women's vision for a new kind of gospel show that would examine and celebrate gospel music and its influence on jazz, blues, R&B and pop.
Because Europe had long championed African American music, Marrow formed the Harlem Gospel Singers and toured the continent in 1992. "I really can't tell you why I haven't had the same success here [in the United States] that I've had in Europe," she remarked to Young. "It bothers me to a certain extent. But I feel it will [come], all in due time.
It's all in God's plan and it will happen." After eight years in existence, Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers had performed for more than two million people in Europe, including Pope John Paul II. John Crace of the Independent described a typical concert in Berlin. "The audience was made up of everyone from smacked-out students to well-heeled 50-somethings, and by the end of the show every single one of them is on their feet, dancing." Buoyed by their success in Europe, Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers began to tour the United States in 1999. Marrow's performances in the United States were as successful as those in Europe. "The show has the energy of a dozen revival meetings, the power of a couple of locomotives and the sheer joy of what feels like all humanity," extolled William Triplett of the Washington Post.
Initially the show was called Inspiration but Marrow changed the named to Higher and Higher, after the old Jackie Wilson hit, a rendition of which the group performs. "We're giving you inspiration automatically," she told James Sullivan of theSan Francisco Chronicle. "Higher and higher is where we want to take the people." Awards Nominated for three Helen Hayes awards for Truly Blessed. . Works Selected discography * Live at Philharmonic Hall-Cologne. * Live in Paris. * Happiness, 1999. Further Reading * Daily Telegraph (London), February 21, 1998. * Independent (London), February 6, 1998, p.
18. * New York Beacon, May 21, 1997, p. 20. * New York Times, June 21, 1971, p. 37; April 23, 1990, p. C-13. * New Yorker, May 7, 1990, p.
83. * Newsday (New York), May 27, 1998, p. B0; May 1, 1999, p. D-4. * San Francisco Chronicle, August 22, 1999, p. 40. * San Francisco Examiner, August 26, 1999. * USA Today, April 29, 1999, p.
2-D. * Village Voice, May 8, 1990, p. 111. * Washington Post, January 31, 1999, p. G-1; February 5, 1999, p. C-1; April 30, 1999, p.
C-1. * Washington Times, February 14, 1999, p. D-1. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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