The The Roberta Martin Singers were an African-American gospel group based in the United States. The group was founded in 1933 by Roberta Martin, who in that same year had just become acquainted with the then new trend of Christian music known as gospel, which was different than the traditional spirituals which were popular at the time. Theodore Frye and Thomas A. Dorsey were directing a junior choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, and asked Martin to serve as the accompanist. From this junior choir, Martin selected six young men at random to form a group, Eugene Smith, Norsalus McKissick, Robert Anderson, Willie Webb, James Lawrence, and W.C. Herman (who lost his life in World War Two). This group was named the Martin and Frye Singers, and in 1936, the group adopted the name of The Roberta Martin Singers. The Roberta Martin Singers (RMS) were well known for their unique sound, which contained no traditional bass, but a dark treble sound with the elasticity that the new music required. For a brief period of time, the group was known as the Martin and Martin Singers, when Sallie Martin joined Roberta's group. That venture was short lived. In 1939, Anderson briefly left the group and returned in 1941 before departing for a final time in 1943, also in 1939, Martin added the first female voice to the group, Bessie Folk.
By the mid 1940s, the RMS added two more women to their ranks, Delois Barrett (Campbell) and Sadie Durrah. The group toured the nation to great acclaim. The group's style of singing was different from most other gospel groups of the time. Whereas most groups would harmonize, each group member sang the song as if they were singing a solo, allowing the listener to be able to pick out each voice singing in the background. The RMS was also one of the first groups to have every member serve in capacity of being not only a background singer, but a soloist as well. In 1947, the group made their first recording for Fidelity Records as the "Roberta Martin Singers of Chicago", singing "Precious Memories" with Norsalus McKissick on lead.
After the group's first release, the RMS made more recordings, for Religious Records of Detroit, Michigan through 1947, and for Apollo Records beginning in 1949 through 1955. Some of their most popular releases during this time include "Old Ship of Zion" (1949), "Yield Not To Temptation" (1947), "He Knows How Much You Can Bear" (1949), "Only a Look" (1949), and Eugene Smith's composition, "The Lord Will Make a Way" (1951). Most of these recordings featured only a piano, organ, and the occasional drum accompaniment. Martin's piano playing was done in such a way that she combined both European classical and black bluesy elements of piano playing. Martin played mainly in the middle of the keyboard, providing secondary beats in the upper ranges of the keyboard, and bringing each song to a ritard at the end. This, combined with the group's unique voices resulted in their trademark "Roberta Martin Sound." In 1949, Eugene Smith became the group's business manager and booking agent as Martin began to focus more attention on running her school of music and publishing music. More members were added to the ranks, or replaced older members, such as the addition of Romance Watson in 1949, and Myrtle Scott and Myrtle Jackson in 1951.
Martin also began to team up with a young James Cleveland, who composed songs for the group such as "I'm Determined" (1953), "Every Now and Then" (1957) and "Since I Met Him" (1961). Some members left to form their own groups or to sing in other groups. Willie Webb left to form the Willie Webb Singers in 1949, but returned to the group in 1953. In late 1950, Norsalus McKissick and Bessie Folk teamed up with James Cleveland to form The Gospelaires. The Gospelaires didn't last long, and McKissick was back with the RMS by 1951, Folk by 1955. In 1956, more changes were made to the group. Willie Webb, who had served as a singer and organist for the group prior to 1949 and during 1953-1956 left, and was replaced by Lucy "Little Lucy" Smith (Collier), Martin's step daughter. Smith had previously been featured as the organist on their 1949-1952 recordings and would occasionally vocalize with the group. This time, her stay with the group would last over a decade. Smith's singing would become more substantial, becoming a regular background vocalist and soloist in 1957. Beginning in 1959, Smith would occasionally leave the organist's duties to the Savoy studio organist and accompany the group on the piano during recording sessions. Smith's organist skills were so popular that in 1962, Savoy released an LP of gospel instrumentals with Smith's organ as the only accompaniment titled "Little Lucy Smith At the Organ." By 1963, Smith replaced Martin as the regular pianist and musical director on their recordings. Gloria Griffin was brought on board in 1957 to replace Bessie Folk, who'd been involved in a serious auto accident and could not sing in the group as a result.
With these new members, the group began recording for Savoy Records. Their first session with Savoy was on January 31, 1957 in New York City. In 1958, the RMS scored their first big hit with Savoy records, "God Specializes" featuring Gloria Griffin on lead. 1958 also brought Archie Dennis into the group as a replacement for Romance Watson, as Watson began a solo career recording Soul music for Coral Records. Dennis made his debut with the RMS at a program accompanying the Reverend C.L. Franklin in a weeklong revival at the Music Hall in Houston, TX. The first recording session to feature Dennis with the RMS wasn't made until 1959. Later that year, Dennis left the RMS to serve in the US Army. Dennis's place was taken by Harold Johnson until Dennis was honorably discharged in 1961 and returned to the group. In 1962, former member Bessie Folk returned to the RMS to record with them on their album titled "Out of the Depths." During 1963, Bessie Folk left for a final time to join the Sallie Martin Singers, the RMS recorded their first Live album and made their first Transatlantic trip to sing at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. During their time with Savoy, the group made more popular recordings, including "Grace" (1958), ""Hold The Light" (1959), "No Other Help I Know" (1962) and "There Is No Failure In God" (1963), among others.
By the mid 1960s, the pace of the group, like many other groups dating from the golden era, was beginning to slow down. Delois Barrett-Campbell left the group in 1966, and was replaced by Louise McCord, and Gloria Griffin departed the group in 1967 to embark on a solo career. Earlier in the decade, Martin ceased playing piano for the group, and Lucy Smith became the group's accompanist and musical director. Under the direction of Smith, the sound of the group began to change slightly, as song arrangements become more choral sounding in nature, drum beats became more prevalent than in previous recordings, and the electric bass guitar was added. It was also during this time that Roberta Martin became ill. Martin retired the group for a short period of time in the mid 60's, though the group came together in 1968 to record an album titled "Praise God". Barrett-Campbell returned to the group for the session, as did Martin, and new group member, Catherine Austin. Martin had experienced a short rebound from her illness and was able to lead one song on the album titled "I Have Hope", which was written by Jessie Jimerson aka Jessie Phillips, a longtime friend of Roberta Martin & childhood friend of James Cleveland. Shortly after the recording, Martin's health took a severe decline, which effectively made "I Have Hope" the last song she ever recorded. On January 18, 1969, Roberta Martin died of cancer. Without their leader, the Roberta Martin Singers tried to continue, but eventually disbanded in 1970. It has been reported that in the months leading up to her death, Martin refused to take strong painkillers.