'Sweet Sisters of Zion' doc celebrates the Barrett Sisters

The Barrett Sisters

DeLois Barrett Campbell -- leader of the legendary Barrett Sisters gospel trio -- with her her sisters, Billie Barrett Green Bey (left) and Rodessa Barrett Porter (right). (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune / March 8, 2006)

Five years ago, the greatest trio in the history of gospel music – the Barrett Sisters – told me they had one last wish: That someone would make a documentary film about their lives and careers.

That film, a moving evocation of their journey, has just been completed. Now the question is whether anyone will ever see it.

"The Sweet Sisters of Zion: Delois Barrett Campbell & The Barrett Sisters" tells the story of the celebrated Chicago trio in the best way possible: with footage of their performances stretching back more than half a century. We see – and hear – Campbell's towering solo work with the Roberta Martin Singers in the 1940s; the Barrett Sisters' gripping TV performances on Chicago's "Jubilee Showcase" in the 1960s; excerpts of their rousing concerts across Europe in the 1980s and '90s; and their somewhat frail but inspired appearances, a few years ago, in churches across the South Side of Chicago, where their remarkable odyssey began.

"I told you many years ago that this was my dream, to have a documentary, something (so) people would know what the Barrett Sisters did during their lifetime, and how they served and ministered God's words all over the world," says Rodessa Barrett Porter, 82.

"It was not easy," adds Porter, speaking of the travails the sisters endured. "I wanted people to know this."

Anyone who sees "The Sweet Sisters of Zion" certainly will learn the obstacles that the Barretts faced. Promoters in the United States booked them for shows and recorded them prolifically, but barely a trickle of the proceeds made it into their pockets.

"You don't get rich, by no means," says Campbell in the film.

Adds Porter in the documentary: "I never understood why other people, other singers could make money, and we couldn't."

Alas, the Barrett Sisters were not alone in their troubles. Gospel, jazz and blues artists routinely were shortchanged by the music industry that profited from their work in the early- and mid-20th century. And the Barrett Sisters always focused on the music and the mission, not the money.

"A lot of gospel singers back then didn't really get into the business of the music," Billie Barrett GreenBey told me in 2001 (she's now 84). "That was the problem. We were so happy to sing that we didn't handle the business."

After the 1982 release of the landmark gospel documentary "Say Amen, Somebody," which included the Barrett Sisters, the trio became a global attraction. European promoters, unlike their American counterparts, paid them a decent wage, though nothing like what artists of their stature receive today, the sisters say in the film.

But "Say Amen, Somebody" benefited the Barretts in another way, as well: It made possible "The Sweet Sisters of Zion."

"I've always been a big fan of the Barrett Sisters, ever since 'Say Amen, Somebody,'" says filmmaker Regina Rene, who directed the new doc.

"That's what inspired me to try to do documentaries in the first place – letting people speak."

After reading that the Barretts wanted a film of their own, Rene went into action, suggesting in 2010 that she would be the right person for the job, because their world was "something I could totally relate to. The church, the choir, the ushers walking in – I grew up in all that."

The Barretts "wanted something they could pass on to their children, their grandchildren," adds Rene. "They have a pretty nice representation on YouTube and out there in the universe, but it's fractured. I call it a fractured legacy.

"This (documentary) kind of pulls it together."

Not a moment too soon. Because Campbell, the lead singer and driving force of the Barretts, suffered a variety of ailments in her late 70s and 80s, including vocal polyps, she whispers throughout the film. These are essentially her last words in public, for she died Aug. 2, 2011, at age 85, having seen a rough cut of "Sweet Sisters" and knowing the Barretts' story finally would be told.

The film features TV news reports on Campbell's death, including moving testimonials from Aretha Franklin and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Their emotionally charged words attest to the stature of the Barretts' work and the importance of this film.

Though some might criticize the structure of "Sweet Sisters," its final sections transforming the doc into a kind of concert film, the performance footage will be gold to anyone who values gospel singing at its most stirring.

CHICAGO
Best songs of 2014 so far

More music

More