Willa Ward-Royster, 92, sang on first million-selling gospel album

Posted: August 15, 2012

SHE WAS 88 years old, but here's how an interviewer described her in 2009:

"Her gold-toned pants with matching top, large jeweled earrings that sparkle brilliantly as they catch the light, and her gold high heels serve as the ideal ensemble within a beautifully aged home that is dripping with old Hollywood elegance."

That was Willa Ward, agelessly beautiful and still radiating the electric energy that made her a star as a member of the legendary Ward Singers, the Philadelphia-based gospel group, and later when she began singing pop standards on her own.

Renowned for her beauty, talent and charm, Willa also was a fine pianist who could have had a career on the piano. She had a natural ear for music from childhood.

Willa - who became Willa Ward-Royster after her marriage to the late Harry J. Royster - whose rich soprano packed them in wherever she performed, died Aug. 13. She was living in Southwest Philadelphia but had lived most of her life in Logan.

She suffered from Alzheimer's disease and other ailments in recent years, but until her doctor advised her to stop performing, she was still singing and playing the piano at nursing homes and the Keswick Theatre into her 80s.

The '40s and '50s were halcyon days for the Ward Singers. Founded in 1931 by her mother, Gertrude, the group included Willa and her sister Clara and they gave gospel a new dimension in performances at Carnegie Hall (with Mahalia Jackson) and several at Radio City Music Hall.

They drew big crowds at the Met in Philly, often going to concerts in a limousine driven by a white-gloved chauffeur.

Their rendition of "Surely God is Able" was the first gospel record to sell 1 million copies.

They annoyed some religious leaders by their choice of sequined gowns over robes, with wigs and plenty of jewelry, but the audiences ate it up.

They also performed on TV for Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore and Johnny Carson.

Both Willa and Clara started musical groups of their own. Gertrude died in 1981, and Clara in 1973 after two strokes at the age of 48. Willa's last public performance was at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in '09.

She was born in Philadelphia to George Ward and the former Gertrude Murphy. She taught herself piano and was able to hear a piece of music on the radio and sit down and play it.

She ran the family's Ward House of Music, which published sheet music, at 18th and Butler streets, for a number of years.

Willa dropped out of the Philadelphia High School for Girls to join the family's gospel group.

"She was an interesting woman," said her daughter Rita Scarlett, who occasionally sang with her mother. "She had no frown wrinkles on her face, only laugh wrinkles. Everybody loved Willa. She made people feel good."

Willa's first husband, John Moultrie, was a contractor and music producer who managed her career for a time. He died in 1966.

She later married Royster, who was a popular variety-store owner on Girard Avenue. He died in 1983.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by another daughter, Charlotte Sims; a granddaughter, Felicia Bell, and a grandson, Larry Sims Jr.

Services: Will be private. A memorial service may be arranged later.

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or morrisj@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnfmorrison.

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