The Sweet Sisters of Zion: Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters.
By Bob Marovich for The Black Gospel Blog
The faithful, many adorned in Valentine’s Day red, gathered at Chicago’s Life Center COGIC yesterday, February 16, for the premiere of Regina Rene’s documentary, The Sweet Sisters of Zion: Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters.
Rev. T.L. Barrett, pastor of Life Center COGIC, noted for his recorded sermons and newly reissued Like a Ship Without a Sail, welcomed the two surviving members of the Barrett Sisters, the group’s (relatively) new member, Tina Brown, the late Delois Barrett Campbell’s daughters, Mary Campbell and Dr. Sue B. Ladd, and the many family, friends, and fans who traveled from as far as Oklahoma, Colorado, and Europe to be present.
The documentary is a heartwarming, compassionate, and lovingly produced film that tells the story of the world-renowned gospel trio the Barrett Sisters—Delois, Rhodessa, and Billie—through rare photographs, videos, and interviews with the sisters, their family, and gospel music scholars. The delightful and soul-stirring Barrett Sisters performances are the documentary’s highlights. We see the sisters evolve musically, from their early appearances on groundbreaking television shows TV Gospel Time and Jubilee Showcase, to their participation in the critically acclaimed documentary, Say Amen, Somebody, to subsequent European tours, including the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Especially gratifying are scenes of the Barrett Sisters singing on the 1960s gospel TV shows accompanied by a shyly smiling Roberta Martin. Martin sightings on video are rare, and to watch her play piano was, to this author, as important a gospel music moment as watching a video of Caruso singing is to an opera buff.
Gospel music scholars such as Prof. L. Stanley Davis and Nash Shaffer talk on camera about the significance of the Barrett Sisters to gospel music, and Aretha Franklin, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., and the Brown Sisters of Chicago offer their remembrances of the Barretts.
The sisters share unblinkingly candid stories about life on the road, having a song stolen from them, and the vicissitudes of the gospel music business. While today’s gospel stars can command sizable sums to perform, the sisters chuckle that one of their records up for auction on Ebay was selling for a sum larger than any of their royalty checks. But for every disappointment, the sisters recall fondly the overwhelming response of European audiences to their music and how singing gospel expresses their faith and worldview.
The film contains funny moments and poignant moments, and the ending is bittersweet, as a horse-drawn funeral cortege carries Delois to her final resting place. But even here, as Rhodessa, Billie, and Tina Brown sing their farewell, and a young saxophonist plays an upbeat hymn at the gravesite, the message is of zestful perseverance, grabbing and embracing life with both fists, even in the face of death.
And that is at the core of The Sweet Sisters of Zion, the film and the group: perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles. That this message is at the heart of most gospel music is no coincidence. Everybody who loves traditional gospel music will treasure this DVD.
Special kudos to gospel blogger Libra Nicole Boyd of Gospel Music Fever for leading the Indiegogo project that helped raise the more than $5,000 needed to complete and screen the documentary.