Joy Harris, granddaughter of “The Gospel Queen of Richmond” Maggie Ingram, stands before Redeem Church of God in Christ in south Richmond, where Ingram attended services for many years. Harris holds a copy of her newly released book, “Singing Ain’t Enough: The Inspiring Story of Maggie Ingram.” (Photo by Jay Paul)
I must have been about 11 or 12 when my grandmother took me to hear Ms. Maggie Ingram sing. On a scorching afternoon in the late ’90s, Grams cranked up her trusty, boat-big black Oldsmobile, and we left Doswell, cruising south to one of the bigger black churches in Richmond — Cedar Street? Fourth Baptist? I can’t recall which — where The Ingramettes were appearing in concert.
“It’s a wide river … I’ve got one more river to cross,” they crooned in a high-pitched harmony so tight it was startling. The group sounded like one voice somehow divided among the throats of four women. Mother Ingram’s alto, at once sweet yet gritty, wove through the stanzas with the natural ease and grace of a fish swimming in the sea. These lines comprise my first memory of hearing the silver-haired powerhouse perform with her family group, and it was evident to me, even as a child watching her command the pulpit, that she was the rock of that group, and its driving force. Their music left an impression so deep, that if I close my eyes and quiet myself, I can still hear them singing.
Ingram, holding microphone, sings at Richmond's Cedar Street Baptist Church with The Ingramettes in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy Joy Harris)
Evangelist Maggie Ingram was a treasured pioneer of American gospel music and, without doubt, as I wrote in a feature story last year, one of Richmond’s gospel MVPs. Born in 1930, Ingram picked cotton and tobacco as a child alongside her family on a plantation in Coffee County, Georgia. She married a young preacher at 16 and followed him to Miami, where they had five children together. By the end of the 1950s, she found herself a divorced single mother and packed up her kids and moved to Richmond in 1961, arriving on Christmas Eve; she formed the Ingramettes soon after. Many would consider her life up to that point a very hard one, but Ingram considered it blessed, and she embraced every challenge lobbed at her with an enthusiasm and tenacity that became her trademark, as her granddaughter Joy Harris notes.
“Her mentality was, ‘OK, get yourself together, figure it out, and you can do anything you want,’ ” says Harris, 33, a stylish entrepreneur, writer and mother of two. Last month, Harris published her grandmother’s biography, “Singing Ain’t Enough: The Inspiring Story of Maggie Ingram.”
The book rightfully depicts Ms. Ingram as a trailblazing gospel artist, who sang at prisons just as powerfully as she did at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, who was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Gospel Music Workshop of America, and whose wildly popular 1977 album, “God Works a Miracle,” is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., among many other accolades and honors. But she deserves to be recognized as much more than a musician, Harris says.
“I want the world to remember her as an entrepreneur, with a family. Looking at her life, how she created something that her family could live and exist inside of, how she kept her family in tow, how she navigated both worlds successfully — as a mom and a business owner — that’s how I want the world to remember her. She was an artist, yes, but she was also a businesswoman, and that’s the sentiment that should be conveyed in the long run.”
In a music industry dominated by men, Ingram took ownership of her music early in her career, writing most of her songs and retaining publishing and distribution rights on many of them.
“When she was signed to Nashboro Records in the ’60s, she bought her records straight from the label, and didn’t wait for them to [promote her],” says Harris, speaking of her grandmother’s stint at the legendary gospel music label founded in Nashville in 1951. Also on the Nashboro label were seminal Southern gospel quartets such as Slim & the Supreme Angels, The Fairfield Four and the Pilgrim Jubilees. “She sold her own records [and later] cassettes,” Harris explains. “She was one of the first female gospel musicians on the circuit who created and sold memorabilia — pamphlets about her music and upcoming engagements, flyers, photo cards, that kind of thing.”
Like many indie artists even today, Ingram usually maintained a side gig to boost her income from making music. To make ends meet after coming to Richmond, Ingram worked as a maid in the home of legendary civil rights attorney Oliver Hill. She then landed a position in the city’s social services department, and a few years after that, opened her own in-home daycare — all this while delivering meals to the needy and opening her home and heart to members of her community, including women who had just been released from prison.
Through it all, Ingram's music was the constant in her life, and her family was the center of it. Though she never sang, Harris, like everyone in the family, took part in her grandmother’s music. “The rule in our family is, ‘You have to do something [musical],’ ” says Harris, her full cheeks lifting with a broad smile. Each of Ingram’s children – three sons and two daughters – at some point either sang in the family group, or accompanied on an instrument. Harris’ two sisters, Cheryl and Rene, also sang in the group alongside their grandmother. “I was kind of like the family rebel, in that I didn’t necessarily want to be in [The Ingramettes], but I was always there helping out.”
Once during a live performance, her uncle, the group’s drummer, motioned Harris onstage. “One of the cymbals came off while he was playing, and while the group was still singing, he had me take over playing drums while he fixed it. It was definitely a crash course.” Having shown her musical ability, Harris was drafted into playing drums by her mother, Christine, nicknamed Tina, at the church where she was the music director at the time.
One of Harris’ best memories of her grandmother involves biscuits, a bathtub and the Great Richmond Flood of 1972. The story demonstrates Ingram’s determination to make it through anything, with her God and her music. While staying with her grandma during her mother’s honeymoon, Harris poked around the house while Ingram made biscuits. Cooking was another of her gifts.
“My grandmother’s house was eclectic, like her,” says Harris with a smile. “Well, I went into one room and hopped up on this daybed. It was very hard, and when I pulled the cover back and looked, it was a claw-foot tub that she’d converted into a bed. She told me later that it was the tub that she stored water in during the Great Richmond Flood because people didn’t have water.” Ingram wrote and sang about that tub in her song “Richmond Virginia Flood.”
“When heard the flood was coming, church, I scrubbed out my bathtub and filled it up with water. … Just a few days later, the rain began to fall. … God is so good to me!”
“Having that moment to discover that without everybody there was very special to me,” Harris says.
It took Harris 10 years to write “Singing Ain’t Enough,” during which time she researched her grandmother’s Georgia roots and interviewed family members. Ingram died in 2015, leaving the world with the memory of her 60-year gospel music career. As The Ingramettes continue singing, led by Ingram’s daughter Almeta, Harris’ book is another way to further the legacy of The Gospel Queen of Richmond.
“For me, this book is about [ensuring] that her name and everything that she’s done goes down in history, and that my kids and people who never met her can understand what she was doing,” Harris says. “A single mother, raising her kids alone, getting sick, finding God — I wanted to put that story out, so that people could see it, read it, be inspired and know that they can do the same thing. They can make their own way, like my grandmother did.”
“Singing Ain’t Enough” is available on Amazon; signed copies of the book can be found in the gift shop of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and at BBGB children’s bookstore in Carytown. Harris is currently planning a local book tour; visit her Facebook page for dates and locations.
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