Just days before COVID-19 shut Chicago down, mourners crowded Trinity United Church of Christ to bid farewell to gospel singer Billie Barrett Greenbey. A member of the world-famous Barrett Sisters and among the last survivors of gospel music’s foundational generation, Billie died February 28 at age 91.
Born in Chicago in 1928, Greenbey studied at the American Conservatory of Music and sang Thomas Dorsey’s new gospel songs with her sisters Delois and Rodessa in the Morning Star Baptist Church choir. By 1941, Billie, Delois, and their cousin Johnnie Mae Hudson had formed the Barrett and Hudson Singers. When Hudson died, Rodessa took her place and the group re-formed as the Barrett Sisters.
For years, the Barrett Sisters worked alongside gospel’s leading lights, among them Dorsey and Roberta Martin. They were favorite guests on TV Gospel Time and Jubilee Showcase (both launched in the early 1960s, the latter in Chicago) and cut their first of more than a dozen LPs, Jesus Loves Me, in 1964. Fans nicknamed the trio the “Sweet Sisters of Zion” for their Baptist soulfulness and crystalline harmonies. The sisters’ distinctive three-part singing, anchored by Billie’s alto, endowed gospel with an understated splendor and elegance.
The Barretts’ crowd-pleasing performances in the 1982 documentary Say Amen, Somebody led to an appearance on The Tonight Show and years of touring as far afield as Switzerland and Africa. They were also the subject of Regina Rene’s 2013 film The Sweet Sisters of Zion. Until the end, Billie soloed first Sundays at Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Roseland. “As long as I have a voice,” she said, “I’m going to sing.”