EVELYN STARKS HARDY, FOUNDER OF THE GOSPEL HARMONETTES
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Stephanie Parker.
“Evelyn Starks Hardy’s legacy is that she helped the Original Gospel Harmonettes to become one of the first African-American female gospel groups to sign with a major record label — RCA Victor — and for encouraging the group to recruit Dorothy Love Coates as the main lead singer,” said Robert Marovich, the founder and editor of The Journal of Gospel Music. He added, “The Harmonettes marched and spoke out against injustice at a time when not every gospel singer was willing to take risks.”
In an interview in 2009 for the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Ms. Hardy said that most of her group’s civil rights advocacy was implicit. “We didn’t go so far as to call names, but we implied in our singing,” she said. “Songs like ‘I’m Just Holding On’ — that means, ‘I don’t care what you do to me, I’m still holding on to my faith.’ ”
Ms. Hardy organized the Harmonettes and was the group’s original pianist, composer and arranger. She had a major role in enlisting the vocalists, including Ms. Coates, who was widely regarded as one of the greatest of all gospel singers.
Evelyn Virginia Starks was born in Birmingham on Dec. 15, 1922, to William Starks and the former Idell Golson. She learned to play the piano when she was 7. Before graduating from Miles College in Alabama and receiving a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Alabama, she was invited to play piano in 1940 for the National Baptist Convention Choir in Birmingham. There, some of her fellow recent high school graduates decided to form a gospel group.
That group, originally the Harmoneers, included Mildred Miller, Odessa Edwards and Willie Mae Newberry. They were soon joined by Vera Kolb, whom some include as an original member. Ms. Starks, the last surviving member, recruited Ms. Coates in 1947.
The newly christened Gospel Harmonettes recorded for RCA in 1949 and for Specialty Records beginning in 1951. They toured the country with Sam Cooke and others and had their own radio program in Birmingham, sponsored by a funeral home. In the early 1950s, Ms. Coates, then known as Dorothy McGriff, became the principal lead singer of the group, which had been renamed again and was now the Original Gospel Harmonettes.
Ms. Hardy stopped traveling with the group in 1953 but continued to record for several more years. She wrote an autobiography, “The Sweetest Harmony: Evelyn Starks Hardy and the Original Gospel Harmonettes,” with Nathan Hale Turner Jr. (2009). She made her last recording, with the singer Inez Andrews, in 1988, according to its producer, Anthony Heilbut, but that was not the end of her career. She was leading the men’s choir at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham as recently as 2013.
In the soundtrack for the 1990 blockbuster film “Ghost,” Ms. Hardy and Ms. Coates can be heard performing “No Hiding Place,” which they arranged together.
Ms. Hardy’s husband, Samuel Hardy Jr., died in the 1980s. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Darryl, and seven grandchildren.
Speaking in 2009 of the role her group’s songs played in the civil rights movement, Ms. Hardy said: “It gave them hope. It gave them the will to fight. It was like a” — she paused, and started to hum “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“That’s what that did to the soldiers in the Civil War; our songs did for us in that war. It kept us together, it kept us determined to do and to be.”