No doubt, when Evelyn Henderson died last week, the heavenly hosts made space for her in the choir — plus a little extra for her hats.
Her body may be at rest, but her music lives on.
The funeral for Evelyn “Hats” Henderson, 88, will be 11 a.m. Saturday at Mount Zion Baptist Church, 417 S. 13th St., Temple, promises to be filled with joyful tears for the woman whose voice could send chills to everything living thing with ears to hear.
Henderson, who died Feb. 12, was Central Texas’ effervescent doyenne of African-American gospel and spirituals. She influenced generations of gospel singers with her commanding voice and sincere faith with performances that appealed to both white and black audiences. Whether she sang in a tiny chapel or a mega-church auditorium, her sonorous, resonant contralto could be heard clearly and powerfully.
She gained the nickname “Hats” from her custom of her ornate headgear — sculptural wonders of fabric and netting that she wore with amazing grace. Her message was clear: The broader the brim, the wider was God’s arms.
In her prime, she said her closet stored more than 300 dress hats. “My mama told me I wasn’t supposed to go to church without a hat. She said it was a sign of respect,” she told the Temple Daily Telegram in 2007.
This was no gimmicky stagecraft; her music and her matching elegant attire reflected pride in her culture, of where she had come from and affirmation of that celestial place she was heading. Every churchgoer knew that underneath her expansive crown of flowers, sequins and ribbon was a piously resolute woman of faith looking forward to achieving her ultimate crown of glory.
When she stepped to the podium, she was radiant as she lifted her voice to the heavens, inspiring her listeners to overcome dangers, toils and snares. Her hat brim and the audience nodded in agreement to the music beat — “Lord, please don't move the mountain; just give me strength to climb.”
A native of Augusta, Ga., she began singing as a youngster and, by age 10, was performing with a traveling gospel choir. She moved to Bell County in the mid-1950s, although she joked she was still a “Georgia peach” at heart.
While she managed the Fort Hood laundry for more than 30 years, she promoted local gospel music groups along with her own weekend performances. Word finally spread, and she was soon a featured soloist in churches, revivals and gospel concerts statewide. She founded the Temple Area Mass Choir and was active in numerous other religious music groups. Beyond her music career, she was active in the NAACP and organizer of fundraisers for the poor.
Henderson was regarded as “the gospel diva of Central Texas,” said the Rev. Roscoe Harrison, pastor of Eighth Street Baptist Church. He first heard her sing when, as a teenager, he was producing a show on KTEM-AM radio featuring African-American singers and church choirs.
“I first met her in 1960,” he said. “She put on a show with Ernestine Robinson on piano. She sang four to five songs. My favorite was ‘I made it,’ about going though trials and tribulations, about going up the rough side of the mountain. She could sing ‘Precious Lord’ and make the hair stand up on your head.”
Officiant at her service on Saturday, the Rev. Willie E. Robertson, minister of Temple’s Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, was Henderson’s friend and pastor for more than a half century. She was an active member of his church, serving as choir director and soloist. Mostly, she was a dear colleague and staunch supporter.
He called his favorite hymn that she delivered with powerful conviction: “He Lives (I have a loving savior).”
“She had a vibrant ministry here where she was able to inspire the lives of many people,” Robertson said. “She was a very valuable source of encouragement to me and many others.” He likened her to Barnabas, described in the New Testament as “son of encouragement” who gave his life to the church and sacrificed much for his faith.
She shared the stage with many gospel legends, including the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mahalia Jackson, Slim and the Supreme Angels, Dorothy Norwood, and Albertina Walker.
Robertson compared her voice and delivery to Sister Rosetta Tharp (1915-1973) with her unique blend of spiritual lyrics and rhythmic accompaniment. Harrison compared her to Jackson (1911-1972), gospel singer widely considered one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century. Others likened her vocal control to Odetta Holmes (1930-2008), singer/lyricist who was often referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.”
In 2012, Henderson was honored for her 75 years of singing gospel along with her 80th birthday. Helping her celebrate was the Rev. Chester D.T. Baldwin, music minister of the Riceville Mount Olive Baptist Church in Houston, who regarded Henderson as his musical and spiritual mentor. Baldwin also produced her first album of 10 songs, “Through the Years.”
“She was a true gospel singer,” he said. “You always knew she was in the house.” Baldwin recalled that she would drive him and other aspiring gospel singers throughout the state to workshops and revivals, helping them jumpstart their careers.
Shortly after she moved to a Temple assisted living facility, Baldwin and his M3 choir traveled to Temple to sing for her and her friends in 2015. Baldwin posted their visit on YouTube.
“She wanted us to go caroling through the hallways singing so that we could be a blessing to everyone there in the center. We had an awesome time with Sister Henderson, and her spirit was truly uplifted,” he said. “Rest on, my dear. Those gates have swung open. Walk on in!”