By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture
On Sunday, October 24, 2021, hundreds of gospel music fans helped celebrate the 85th anniversary of The Elite Jewels, “The Gospel Songbirds of the North,” at the Sanctuary Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Mrs. Willie Mae Reese (pictured here) is the lead singer and current manager for the Elite Jewels. In the summer of 2021, she agreed to be one of the narrators for the Western Reserve Historical Society’s A. Grace Lee Mims Arts and Culture Oral History Project. An Arkansas native, Mrs. Reese shared stories about her family life and education in the South, her migration to Cleveland, her love for music, and the people who inspired her to tell the world about the place of the Elite Jewels in the history of Black gospel quartet singing. Excerpts from her July 2021 interview are included in this special “Home for the Holidays” issue of our newsletter.
The following passages are taken from a July 2021 oral history interview with Mrs. Willie Mae Reese. Dr. Regennia N. Williams and Ms. Kathryn Oleksa conducted the interview.
Early Life in Rural Arkansas
I was born in Jericho, Arkansas, and I grew up on a farm that my grandfather [Walter Adams] owned. He had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and lots of farmland. He just raised everything there on his farm –including cotton. He had sharecroppers who also lived with their families in one of the other eight houses on our farm. The [Black] sharecroppers would plant their crops, and then they would give my grandfather a certain portion of that crop for staying there . . .
. . .There was a funny thing about it, though. White people would sometimes come to our farm. If you wanted a car, for example, they would drive that car all the way from Memphis, Tennessee, and let my grandfather see it. If he didn’t like the car, they would drive it all the way back to Memphis–and bring him another one to look at! The White people wouldn’t call him “Mr. Adam.” They would only call him “Uncle Walter,” because they didn’t want to say mister. That’s just the way that it was.
Music, Education, and Migration
sic, so I guess that’s where I got it from. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved gospel singing. I started out singing solos, and I just migrated into quartet singing. When I was a child, we even had a little singing group with our cousins . . .
I never rode a school bus. My sister Myrtle and I walked to school. When we graduated from the grade school in Arkansas, my sister and I moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with our aunt. In Tennessee, we attended Booker T. Washington High School . . .
When I moved to Cleveland with my parents, I attended Cuyahoga Community College and studied Office Administration. Later, I started taking bass lessons from a professional [union] musician, and I am still taking lessons!
Mr. Arthur Turner and the Elite Jewels: Sources of Inspiration and “The Gospel Songbirds of the North”
In Cleveland, I always heard the Elite Jewels on the radio. They had a regular broadcast, and Mr. Arthur Turner was their manager. I thought that the Elite Jewels had the prettiest harmony that I had ever heard. I really, really wanted to sing with them, but I never thought I would get a chance to do that.
By the grace of God, Mr. Turner heard me singing a solo at a Baptist church in Cleveland, and he invited me to come to their rehearsal. I was about 30 years old at the time, and I started singing with the group soon after that. I don’t think anybody in the Elite Jewels had any formal training. It was just a God-given talent. We enjoyed singing, so we just kept doing it.
Mr. Turner made the Elite Jewels, because he had all of the contacts. He handled all of our management-related activities: he booked all of our concerts, he planned all of the programs, he collected the money, he maintained the equipment up. If we needed new equipment, he would go get that equipment. Of course, we paid for it, since he took it out of our money . . .
We performed with all the big groups, including the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, and Inez Andrews’ group . . . We recorded for major labels like Savoy, and James Cleveland even invited the Elite Jewels to head the quartet section of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, because he loved the Elite Jewels, but we decided not to do that . . .
It was a traveling group, and we went everywhere. The Elite Jewels had lots of opportunities, because they didn’t just sing for Blacks; they sang for Whites, too. The Whites loved the music as much as the Blacks, so the group performed for both groups. Sometimes, we couldn’t even stay in hotels; we would stay in the homes of Black people along the way . . . You always feel left out when you are not allowed to eat where everybody else eats, when you are not allowed to stay where everybody else stays, because the hotels were for Whites . . . That’s the way that it was in the South. As a matter of fact, it was like that in some of the Northern states, too, but you never let that stop you. If we had let that stop us, I wouldn’t be singing today.
After Mr. Turner retired and I took over as manager, the group was still travelling. We just kept on pushing and kept on singing.