Sallie Martin was an African-American Gospel singer and businesswoman. From Pittfield, GA after quitting school during the eighth grade, she moved to Atlanta, where she began a run of jobs including babysitting, cleaning houses and washing clothes. In 1916 she joined the Fire Baptized Holiness Church, enjoying the sanctified singing she met there. During the 1920s, Martin, her husband and their son relocated to Chicago. Following a 1929 divorce, she began working at a hospital, in her off hours continuing to pursue her interest in Gospel.
Martin had heard (on the street) about Thomas A. Dorsey whose original Gospel songs were electrifying the Chicago church culture. She arranged an audition. despite serious misgivings (her style was unrefined, with whooping, groaning and a great deal of physical movement and to top it off, she couldn’t even read music) he hired her. In early 1932, Martin made her debut with his group at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. After a year she got her first solo, and Martin instantly connected with audiences. Dorsey became increasingly aware of her value not only as a performer but also as an entrepreneur. She took over his music store and within a few months was turning a neat profit. Their relationship was often adversarial, but respectful because neither could succeed without the other.
As Gospel choruses instructed to sing Dorsey’s songs began saturating the Chicago area, Martin traveled to Cleveland in 1933 to organize a chorus there as well. She also helped set up similar groups throughout the South and Midwest. Martin and Dorsey organized the yearly National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. She was its first Vice President until the time of her death. In 1940, Martin went solo, teaming with a young pianist named Ruth Jones (Dinah Washington) and began touring the country. That same year, Martin and Gospel composer Kenneth Morris joined forces with financial backer Rev. Clarence H. Cobb to found Martin and Morris, Inc., a publishing company which became the biggest of its kind in the America.
Martin next began performing with pianist and arranger Roberta Martin (no relation) that did not last. She next formed the Sallie Martin Singers. Believed to be the first female group in Gospel history, they existed until the mid-1950s. Despite her national renown, Martin had a few hits, however, among them “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “He’ll Wash You Whiter Than Snow.” An active supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, her involvement in the civil rights movement led to an invitation to attend the 1960 celebration marking the independence of Nigeria. Martin’s visit inspired her to donate to the Nigerian health program, resulting in a state office building named in her honor.
Known as “The Mother of Gospel” by the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, Martin is widely credited with introducing spiritual music to the masses. While her rough, voice lacked the finesse of many of the singers in her time, she was an artist who got respect from both her audiences and peers. An astute businesswoman and tireless supporter of charitable causes, she died in Chicago on June 18, 1988.