As any student of soul knows, gospel lies at the foundation of R&B. Countless artists got their start in church choirs, and the gospel style of singing dominates modern soul. While they never crossed over into secular music, the Clark Sisters managed to incorporate reggae, dance, and funk into their spiritual songs. In tracks such as "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," the Clark Sisters demonstrate that they can assimilate different sounds to create a modern gospel now emulated by artists such as Sounds of Blackness, Mary Mary, and Kirk Franklin.
Originally hailing from Detroit, the original Clark Sisters group featured Jacky, Twinkie, Dorinda, Karen, and Denise. Twinkie served as the leader of the group, writing, arranging, producing, and conducting their material. Their revered mother, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, was not only the head of the family, but also a renowned choir director and gospel artist who encouraged her daughters to follow in her footsteps. Under her guidance, the Clark Sisters sharpened their harmonic skills by performing in their mother's church services; they finally released their debut album, Jesus Has a Lot to Give, in 1973. Their second effort, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark Presents the Clark Sisters, earned the young women a great deal of attention in Detroit gospel circles, which led to a contract with Sound of Gospel Records in 1974. Now completely under Twinkie's command, the sisters recorded albums that subtly blended traditional gospel with contemporary secular music. Unworthy, Count It All Joy, and He Gave Me Nothing to Lose drew more acclaim, but they would soon find themselves torn between the church and secular worlds.
After Denise departed the Clark Sisters, they released their first live album, 1980's Is My Living in Vain. The title track quickly transformed into a spiritual classic, and the album spent a year on the US Gospel charts. Building on this success, they followed it with You Brought the Sunshine; the title song not only proved popular in churches, but received a staggering amount of club play. "You Brought the Sunshine" may contain religious-themed lyrics, but its reggae beat drew comparisons to Stevie Wonder's 'Master Blaster (Jammin')"; in an interview with TVOne's Unsung, Twinkie admitted that Wonder's classic inspired her to experiment with incorporating other genres into her compositions. As the song hit the R&B and Club Play charts, the church community expressed their unhappiness at the Clark Sisters' apparent crossover move. After turning down an invitation to perform at Studio 54, the sisters decided to remain within the church rather than expand to so-called "mainstream" music.
As they continued recording albums, they developed what became known as the "Clark Sound." According to their website, they define this style as "high and fast melismas [singing a single syllable while moving between several different notes], acrobatic trills and riffs, and deep, soulful growls, or 'squalls.'" Each Clark Sister contributes their own sound, from growling bass to very high range, all creating seamless harmonies. If the "Clark Sound" description sounds familiar, it should--numerous R&B singers from Whitney Houston to Mariah Carey have imitated this style.
While not a huge hit, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" from their 1979 album He Gave Me Nothing to Lose exemplifies their multifaceted approach to gospel. While the lyrics address optimism and faith, the beat would work in any dance club. Foot-tapping percussion kicks off the track, followed by an incredibly funky bassline. Twinkie's organ playing weaves in and out, demonstrating that she listened to classic R&B and funk as well as spiritual music. The sisters execute seemingly effortless harmony, their rapid-fire chanting infusing energy into the track. "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" stands up with any popular R&B track of that period, and holds as much in common with disco and James Brown-eque funk than a gospel number. If they wanted to, the Clark Sisters could have easily crossed over and become an enormously successful club act; this song proves it. Like their later hit "You Brought the Sunshine," "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" illustrated how gospel could fuse with contemporary music yet retain its spiritual meaning.
The Sisters continued recording until 1994, when they parted to embark on solo careers. However, they reunited in 2006 for a concert in Houston, Texas; the subsequent album, 2007's Live...One Last Time, won three Grammys and sold extremely well. Due to popular demand, Dorinda stated in an interview, they Sisters may record together again in the future. Whether they reteam for another effort or concentrate on their solo careers, the Clark Sisters have solidified their positions as one of gospel's greatest and most innovative groups.