Maggie Ingram, known throughout the region as the “Gospel Queen of Richmond,” passed away the evening of June 23. The legacy she leaves behind is as rich and full as her voice, which she used masterfully during her lifetime to reach prisoners and preachers, saints and sinners. Among her many accomplishments and awards, we named Ms. Ingram as an honoree of our 2013 Pollak Prizes for Excellence in Arts. Her presence and indomitable spirit will be sorely missed here in Richmond. In honor of Ms. Ingram, we look back to our 2010 feature by Erin Parkhurst, “The Gospel According to Maggie.” (below)
Maggie Ingram, the "Gospel Queen of Richmond," performing alongside her group, the Ingramettes.
Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes were halfway through their set at First African Baptist Church in Barton Heights when technical trouble set in. The audience of 150, there on a late Saturday afternoon in March to raise money for a mission group, was on its feet and pounding the floorboards — then three microphones went silent and the fourth buzzed loudly. As the crew in the back of the sanctuary frantically tried to restore the sound system, the audience sat back down and began to quiet, wondering if the gospel music would continue.
Without missing a beat, Ingram gripped the misbehaving microphone and testified: "Listen, y'all, I am gonna sing this song!" The microphones clicked on, the buzzing disappeared, the audience leapt up and Maggie Ingram, a halo of white hair framing her high cheekbones, rocked the house.
But that's just Maggie. "There's something magical about her," says Hosea Fox, a Richmond concert promoter who's been a friend for 50 years.
Next month, this giant of gospel will celebrate her 80th birthday. For nearly a generation, she has sung anthems of fortitude and forbearance, and the conviction in her voice leaves nothing to doubt. The recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gospel Music Workshop of America, Ingram has performed at the Kennedy Center and the National Folk Festival.
But her longest-running gig has been as one of Richmond's most resolute community servants. She has spent the last five decades soothing the suffering and inspiring the wayward — opening her home as a halfway house for recently released female inmates, delivering free food to the Mosby Court projects and partnering with local churches to deliver a message of salvation to prison inmates through music as the leader of the eponymously named Ingramettes. In 1992, the Virginia General Assembly honored Ingram with a Senate Joint Resolution, commending her for her "lifetime of generosity, compassion, and inspiration."
When she sings — "Oh, everything will be all right! Everything will be all right! When Jesus comes!" — we believe. Oh, yes, we believe.
Maggie Lee Dixon was born in Ambrose, Ga., a town of three square miles in the south-central part of the state, on July 4, 1930. The fourth of six children of Reason and Pauline Dixon, sharecroppers on Mulholland Plantation, Ingram attended school sporadically and worked alongside her family in the cotton and tobacco fields. She earned $1.75 for each barrel of cotton she picked and broke horses for her father, who bought them untamed to save money. It was her sister Fannie who inspired her to start singing. "I desired to be like this sister of mine who had a powerful voice," Ingram says. "I started singing as a child, at about 8 or 9 years old, in the choir at Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church and on the farm. It was something I could do, something I wanted to do out there in the fields."
At 16, she married Thomas Ingram, also a sharecropper on Mulholland Plantation, and within seven years, the couple had five children: John, Lucious, Thomas (Tommy), Almeta and Christine. Thomas senior was also a gifted preacher, and in their early years together, the couple traveled frequently to revivals to preach and sing. Though they could pack a house, they earned little; it was sharecropping that sustained the family. Ingram would sit her babies on bales of cotton at the end of the row while she picked. "Where she went, we went," says Tommy, now 60.
In the early 1950s, the elder Thomas became pastor of Wells Temple Church of God in Christ, and the family moved to Miami. Ingram, a self-taught musician who has always written most of her own music, participated in her husband's ministry and sang in the church choir, where she met members of the Six Trumpets, a local gospel quartet. They invited Ingram to sing as their featured soloist, and the group performed at Miami's Longshoreman's Hall with a young Aretha Franklin and her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Then, in 1955, Ingram and the Trumpets shared a stage with one of her idols, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. "Singing on the program with Mahalia was my dream come true," Ingram says.
As her gospel career was taking off, another dream would end when Thomas left Ingram and the children and returned to Georgia. "Five kids, it was just too much for Daddy," explains Almeta Ingram-Miller, 58.
"It wasn't easy raising five kids [alone], but I prayed a lot," says Ingram. She didn't forbid the children from having a relationship with their father following his abandonment of the family, but it would be years before they re-connected with him. John, 62, says his father, who was paralyzed from a fall near the end of his life and who died in 2000, played their records over and over, always regretting the split.
Ingram continued to sing and tour with the Six Trumpets after her divorce, but when 12-year-old Lucious became ill with rheumatic heart disease, and the doctor told Ingram that the Miami heat was exacerbating his symptoms, she acted quickly. Nearly penniless and without a job, she decided to move her family 1,000 miles north to a city she had visited once before while performing with the Six Trumpets — Richmond. "It's what the Lord told me to do," she now says.
Ingram had a heater installed in her 1957 Chevy Bel Air, she hooked up a trailer, and the family traveled for days with just an AM radio and Ingram's own voice to entertain them. She stopped only to call ahead to the Love's Temple Church of God in Christ, at the suggestion of her pastor in Miami, to ask for a little help and a temporary place to stay.
The family arrived in Richmond on Christmas Eve in 1961. When they pulled up to the house the church had provided on Eighth Street, next to what were then stables for the police department, the children, who didn't own coats or even long-sleeved shirts, gazed in wonder at the snow blanketing the city.
"We realized it was Christmas Eve, and we didn't have any presents," recalls Christine Ingram-Murphy, now 56. "Mama sat us down and told us about the promise of our lives. There were no gifts, but that was the Christmas everybody got the promise of a new life. She's always kept hope in us."
Though the family was on welfare briefly and living in the Mosby Court housing project, it didn't take Ingram long to find a job as a housekeeper. An employment agency sent her to the home of prominent civil-rights attorney Oliver W. Hill. Famous for arguing Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hill and his wife, Bernie, befriended Ingram, employing her for five years. "I felt like a part of their family, and they loved my children," Ingram says.
The couple's son, Dr. Oliver W. Hill Jr., now professor and chair of the psychology department at Virginia State University, was 12 when Ingram came to work for his family. He remembers her joining him and his parents to see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Virginia Union University. The program was supposed to have music, but the piano player didn't show. As the audience waited, Ingram jumped on stage and started playing. "That moment really epitomizes her indomitable spirit," Hill says.
The elder Hill ultimately helped Ingram find a job with the city's department of social services, transporting indigents from the counties into the city to receive medical care. Ingram, who had grown up driving a truck on the plantation, clinched the job because she could handle a stick shift. She worked for the department for seven years, until 1973.
Ingram never stopped singing. From 1962 to 1964, she was the featured soloist with the Richmond-based Silver Stars Quartet. They would remain lifelong friends, but Ingram was hurt when the group told her in 1964 that they would continue performing without her. "I was at the house when the Silver Stars' manager came over to tell her," recalls John. "She took it hard and cried."
Ingram bounced back, though. She and her children had been performing as Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes since 1961, when Joe Williams, leader and manager of the Harmonizing Four, asked them to open that group's 35th-anniversary concert at the old Mosque, now the Landmark Theater. An immediate hit, they were on programs up and down the East Coast with established acts like the Jewel Gospel Singers and the Swan Silvertones. Then in 1964, soon after Ingram's split with the Silver Stars, she signed a five-year contract with Nashboro Records, a Nashville-based label that produced great gospel artists such as Edna Gallmon Cooke and the Dixie Nightingales — whose lead singer David Ruffin went on to lead The Temptations.
To get to recording sessions in Nashville, Ingram had to drive her family through the Great Smoky Mountains on weekends. During one trip, the car slipped on an unseen pool of oil and dropped off the shoulder of a treacherous two-lane highway, heading toward a rocky ravine. Just in time, the automobile caught on a large tree stump and remained suspended until help arrived, and a crane was used to pull the family back up to safety. Despite the accident, they made it to Nashville to record. "When you need to make a way out of nowhere, God will make a way," says Ingram.
Nashboro was trying to make her the next Ella Fitzgerald or Edna Gallmon Cooke, but it wasn't fame Ingram was after. For all the success she and her children have had, they've never made their living singing. Frequently they were paid in potatoes or corn, and even after the family had moved to Highland Springs, Ingram would drive back to Mosby Court to distribute the food.
"Mama never tried to get rich," says Almeta. "No, I didn't!" answers Ingram, the two women laughing at the idea.
In 1966, the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, asked Ingram and her Ingramettes to sing backup on his single "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year." Not interested in singing secular music, she said no.
Brown, whose own career had begun with the Gospel Starlighters, visited Ingram's house and tried to talk her into the gig, but she stood her ground.
"I have always believed God would take care of me and my children, and I dedicated myself and my children to singing gospel music," she says. "I couldn't go back on my word for money."
By 1973, all of Ingram's kids were grown, and she was operating a day-care business from her home in addition to keeping up a busy recording and performance schedule. It was also during this time that Ingram's prison ministry began. Her son John was incarcerated for a year and a half in South Carolina for drug possession, and Ingram and the family, who have always supported one another through their ups and downs, would drive down to see him on weekends. She noticed that few of the young men had visitors, so she arranged what she thought would be a small performance just for John's camp. As word got out that she was coming, the event grew to include the warden and his family, prison guards, and even the mayor of the town.
That performance spurred Ingram to do the same thing here in Richmond, and soon she had started "Family Day" programs that included picnics and children's activities at a number of area prisons. "I knew that many of these young men who were locked up would come out better if they knew that family still loved them," Ingram says. "That's all I wanted to do — let them know that someone at home was praying for them and would receive them when they were released."
Ingram's ministry extended beyond the prison walls: In the early 1970s, she opened her home as a halfway house for recently released female inmates she had met while singing in the prison system. (Even now, many former prisoners stay in touch with Ingram.) Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who as a young minister often met Maggie at services and gospel programs around the city, says, "If there were a hall of fame for service and commitment, Maggie Ingram would certainly be included."
During this time, the Ingramettes partnered with Mt. Gilead Baptist Church and began what has become their signature ministry. One Sunday each month, the group travels to area prisons to perform.
"I love it, I really do," Ingram says. "The people are lonely, but if they hear you singing a beautiful church song, sometimes they cry, they just want to talk to you."
No matter the size of the audience, Ingram demands precision when it comes to music. The Ingramettes could pack a stadium one day and perform in a church for 20 people the next, but Ingram has always insisted that the group sing just as hard. She'd tell them, "This is our gift from God, it's our life and you're on duty, so do your job."
"Maggie Ingram is one of the true master artists in Virginia," says Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities. Last year, the VFH awarded Ingram a 2009-2010 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship, a program that pairs experienced artists with apprentices to ensure that traditional art forms are passed on. Almeta is Ingram's apprentice, and according to Lohman, she has been documenting her mother's life and career, preserving the extensive collection of songs Ingram has composed over the years.
The Ingramettes' most successful album, The Miami Riot , which hit No. 33 on the Billboard gospel music chart in 1988, was based on Ingram's experiences during the 1979 riots that took place after the acquittal of four white Miami police officers in the beating death of a black man named Arthur MacDuffie. The Ingramettes had traveled to Miami for a reunion tour and arrived to find a city ablaze, rioters patrolling the streets with guns.
"Once we crossed the state line, I wouldn't look back!" Lucious says, "but Mama turns it into a song. That's her special talent, taking a bad situation and turning it into a blessing for someone else." She would do it again in 1986 when "The Richmond Flood," written after the great Election Day flood of 1985 left Shockoe Bottom under at least 12 feet of water, became another hit.
Less successful was Ingram's second marriage in the early 1980s, to a man her family didn't like. "We saw the slick in him," explains Ingram's granddaughter Cheryl Maroney-Beaver, 40.
As Tommy walked his mother down the aisle, he sang softly in her ear to the tune of the wedding march: "Don't do it. Mom, don't do it, Mom, you're making a big mistake, don't do it, Mom!"
"But I was going to get my way and have my wedding," Ingram says, chuckling. For her, it was a chance to experience the companionship of marriage again, and she was determined.
With typical aplomb, she says now that her family was right. The couple divorced after less than two years.
The center of Ingram's universe has always been her family and her singing. Today, she has 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. "The one constant in our lives has always been Mama and her singing," says John. "She'd say, ‘You can go this way, you can go that way, but I'm gonna stay center, this is what I do.' "
"I had nothing else to pass on to my children while living on Mulholland's Plantation in Georgia, so I believe that God gave me the music," says Ingram.
In 2009, Ingram was honored by the Virginia Commission for the Arts with one of its first Virginia Heritage Awards, an honor recognizing masters of traditional arts. Peggy Baggett, executive director of the VCA, says that the night the award was presented during the Richmond Folk Festival, "We saw genius coming through — the audience was spellbound."
Ingram, ever humble, says, "I was so honored that someone felt that the songs that I've written about my life deserve to be honored. I never thought that I was doing anything special."
These days, Ingram sometimes performs sitting down since sustaining an injury during a train accident in 1994.
WCLM's Preston Brown, who, as program director for WANT in the late 1980s, hired Ingram to host that station's Morning Gospel Prayer Line , recalls seeing her perform after the accident. "She was walking with a cane and sat in a chair on stage. The place still went wild, and she did it sitting in a chair."
In April, Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes performed on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage for the second time, as part of its first-ever Joyful Sounds: Gospel Across America festival, featuring the country's top talent.
That night, under a cascade of light from the Kennedy Center's massive three-story crystal chandeliers, Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes performed for a standing-room-only crowd in the grand foyer. Ingram stood on the stage for a moment, then, seeming unsteady, she carefully sat down as she and the Ingramettes, clad in shimmering emerald gowns, worked through their set. As they began their last song, the audience, a mix of tourists and ticket holders, clapped politely and kept time with the driving beat. Then Almeta turned to her mother and said, "Come on, Mom, it's time to go to work!"
When the still-statuesque Ingram rose from her chair to lead the Ingramettes in rapturous dancing, everyone in the audience shot up from their seats and cheered wildly. She rocked the house. Again.
But that's just Maggie. She rises, and she falls. She stumbles, but she keeps walking.