Martha Carson R.I.P.
'Rockin' Queen of Happy Spirituals'
By PETER COOPER
Martha Carson, the ''Rockin' Queen of Happy Spirituals'' whose gospel sound influenced Elvis Presley, Connie Smith and numerous others, died yesterday at 1 p.m. in Nashville. She was 83 years old, and had been in fragile health for the past year.
''She was the first Grand Ole Opry star I ever saw in person,'' said Smith, now an Opry star in her own right, who saw Ms. Carson play at an Ohio theater in the early 1960s. ''I remember the way she played that guitar, the red hair, the curls coming down the front. She was so energetic and so powerful: If she'd walked out of the building and kept singing on down the street, I believe everybody in that theater would have followed her.'' Born Irene Ethel Amburgey in Neon, Ky., Ms. Carson's career began in the 1930s as a member of a trio with her two sisters. In 1939, she married mandolin player James Carson, and the two performed on radio stations including WNOX in Knoxville. Their material included gospel numbers like When God Dips His Pen Of Love In My Heart, and their independent record label success led to a contract with Capitol Records.
"We played a lot of package shows together, back in the late '40s and early '50s," said Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Mac Wiseman. "She had that electricity on stage, and she was a great guitar picker. She showed no mercy on that guitar."
The Carsons' marriage and musical partnership ended in 1951, the same year Ms. Carson recorded her best-known song, Satisfied. That song allowed her entry into the Grand Ole Opry (though she eventually left the show), and it would later be re- corded by Elvis Presley. In 1953, she married promoter Xavier Cossé, and the ensuing years found her moving from Capitol to RCA and making her way into a more pop-oriented market.
When the couple moved to New York, Ms. Carson became a staple on the supper club circuit, and she began appearing on television shows, including those hosted by Steve Allen and Arthur Godfrey. Her pliant voice and pepped-up style became popular in areas where country music did not normally flourish. Ms. Carson also made contributions by recording and touring with the Carlisles and by writing hits for Faron Young, Clyde McPhatter and other artists.
Ms. Carson is survived by sons R. Paul Cossé of Knoxville and André Michael Cossé of Nashville; brothers Conlee Amburgey of Birmingham, Lloyd Amburgey (stage name Don Chapel) of Nashville and Glenn Amburgey of Amelia, Ohio; and sister Bertha Garcia of Nashville.
A receiving of friends will take place from 2-5 p.m. Sunday at Woodlawn Funeral Home, 660 Thompson Lane. The family will hold a private burial on Monday.
Martha Carson died Thursday December 16 2004 in Nashville at age 83. Funeral services will be held December 20 in Nashville.
"Irene Amburgey (Martha Carson) was next to eldest of six children born in Neon, Kentucky on May 19, 1921. She has been called "The First lady of Gospel Music" and with good reason. Martha would be the undisputed reigning queen of gospel during the 1950's. Her song "Satisfied" would gain her many awards, place her name in the Smithsonian for her million selling album, and gain her entrance into the Grand Ole Opry family.
In her early teens, Martha was a skilled guitar player in the Sunshine Sister band. Martha, Jean, and Berthy would be one of the first all female sister string bands in the country when they began in 1936. They went on to perform on the era's most popular radio stations and barn dances throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas.
In the early 1940, Martha married James Roberts while helping to form the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta. The duo would adopt "Carson" as their stage names. Martha played the guitar, and James played the mandolin over the Atlanta airways. They were among the most popular radio personalities of the day. James and Martha would record several spiritual songs together under the Capitol Record label which gained them great notoriety and fame throughout the south.
However, in 1950, while working in Knoxville, Tenn. at WNOX radio, James and Martha would split up as husband and wife. The following year would be emotionally hard for Martha.
Agonizing over her divorce, as Martha was riding to a booking with Bill Carlisle, the thought came to her, "I'm satisfied and God is satisfied with me."
"All the sudden these words started coming to me. I found one of Bill's old blank checks in the floor of the car and wrote out the words on the back of it," says Martha.
One of the first million selling gospel songs sung by a woman was thus conceived. In 1951 Martha recorded her first solo session for Capitol with Chet Atkins, Bill Carlisle, Jean and Berthy as musicians. The song "Satisfied" would noted by the Smithsonian Institute for its popularity and number of album sales.
From 1951-54 Martha would record 12 songs for the Capitol label as a solo artist. In 1952 Martha would be asked to perform on the Grand Ole Opry which is where she met her second husband, Xavier Cossee.
From late 1954 into 1955, Martha toured the south with an up and coming artist known as Elvis Presley. At this time Elvis was recording with the Sun label and had only one record released. "He asked me to show him the move I did at the close of my show," says Martha, "I would go down on one knee and hold the mic stand at an angle. He went on to do that pose a lot on his shows," Martha recalls.
Martha Carson toured with the likes of Ferlin Husky, Little Jimmy Dickens, Patsy Cline, Del Reeves, and many other notables of the day. She appeared on some of the earliest televised editions of the Opry, and made appearances on The Steve Allen Show, Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, Arthur Godfrey Show, and The Ralph Emery Show. Martha had her own collection of spiritual songs released in 1954 by Acuff and Rose, "Martha Carson's Spiritual Song Folio."
Martha recorded two albums for RCA, "Journey to The Sky" and "Rock-a-my-Soul." In 1996, the Kentucky legislator awarded Martha Carson an Honorable Citation for her contribution to country and gospel music. A Highway was named in her honor near her home town of Neon.
The song "Satisfied" has been recorded by some 165 different artist from Elvis Presley to Don Gibson to the Blackwood Brothers to Barbara Mandrell.
Martha continued to shape the gospel field with new artists cutting her "Old Time Gospel" music each year."