The Roberta Martin Singers
boarding a jet to Europe, c. 1960.
Courtesy Eugene Smith.
Roberta Martin was born in 1907 in Helena, Arkansas, and moved to Chicago as a teenager. She studied classical piano and, for a time, played the piano for Dorsey's choir at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Later, she formed the Martin-Frye singers with Dorsey's friend Theodore R. Frye. By 1935, she alone led the group and renamed them the Roberta Martin Singers.
The tradition of gospel groups touring the country from church to church, revival to revival had been established by African American religious singing groups decades earlier. The Fisk Jubilee Singers began touring the country in 1871. Gospel performers used this same method to spread the good news.