Sister Lucille Pope is one of the first females in gospel music to be the featured lead singer of a male gospel quartet. Her fiery, forceful alto offers a compelling contrast to the Pearly Gates’ smooth harmonizing. The combination of sugar and salt has given the group its distinctive sound throughout a several-decade career.
Born Lucille Hall on January 12, 1936, to a Concord, Georgia, sharecropping family, Pope sang while she plowed the fields. She also sang at church and at school, and wrote lyrics and songs whenever the spirit led her. She assembled the Pearly Gates quartet from two brothers and a brother-in-law. The group grew to include Larry Bivens, Henry Milner, Sam Jennings, James Willis, Jack Ellis and Lucille’s new husband, Willie Pope.
Never intending to be anything more than a local quartet, the Pearly Gates sang on gospel announcer Ed Shane’s 15-minute broadcast over Griffin, Georgia, radio station WGRI. When the station jingles the group recorded for WGRI began gaining as much, if not more, listener attention as their live broadcasts, Shane wanted to record them on his indie label, Eddo.
The group was not interested in recording, but Shane persuaded them to cut four sides. Of these sides, recorded in 1964, the first two to be coupled were the Pope-led Almighty God and the Bivens-led Early One Morning. The group’s minimalist traditional sound—only a guitar for accompaniment—along with Shane’s radio promotion gave the single enough push that Vee-Jay Records reissued it nationally. Not to be outdone by its Chicago neighbor, Chess Records purchased the two unreleased Pearly Gates cuts from Eddo, Jesus Tore My Heart to Pieces and Highway, and put them out on Checker Records. The quartet that wanted to remain local and was hesitant to record was suddenly a national gospel sensation.
Nevertheless, Sister Lucille Pope and the Pearly Gates did not record again until they signed with Nashboro around 1973. Their first single for Nashboro, Somebody’s Gone (1974), extended the group’s penchant for releasing hits. By this time, Willie Pope had died, Lucille remarried, and her new husband, Louis Alexander, assumed duties as the Pearly Gates’ organist and guitarist. Other Pearly Gates personnel during the Nashboro years included Henry Miller, James Willis, Kell Ponder, Willie Willis, Charles Stephens and Walter Holmes.
Aghast after Nashboro allegedly released unfinished Pearly Gates singles without the group’s consent, the quartet moved to Atlanta International Records (AIR). Starting in 1982 with Moving Up, the quartet recorded six albums for AIR. The Great Reunion (1984) hit No. 24 on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart. Other AIR albums included Dedication (1986) and God’s Promises (1990). By this time, the Pearly Gates personnel featured a new generation of Popes: Willie “Bubba” and Reginald “Pee Wee” Pope.
In 2014, the American Gospel Quartet Convention inducted Sister Lucille Pope into its Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Sister Pope sang in as clear and strong an alto as ever.