Vestal Goodman

'Queen of Gospel'
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The Independent Online

Vestal Freeman, singer: born Fyffe, Alabama 13 December 1929; married 1949 Howard Goodman (died 2002; one son, one daughter); died Celebration, Florida 27 December 2003.

Vestal Goodman was known to her fans as the "Queen of Gospel" and was, for over 50 years, an iconic presence within the genre's camp meeting-inspired "Southern" style. Performing in her husband's outfit, the Happy Goodman Family, she sold millions of albums, won two Grammy Awards and in 1998 was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

An exciting stage performer once described as "a walking, talking electrical storm in a beaded gown", she was known for her elaborate hairdos and an omnipresent white handkerchief that she would wave at audiences. Her friend and fellow gospel legend Bill Gaither said:

She was a spirit of optimism, a spirit of joy. Even when there were so many negative things happening, the glass was always half full to Vestal.

Born Vestal Freeman in the Sand Mountain area of northern Alabama, she aspired to a career in opera, but instead gravitated to the field of gospel music. In the late 1940s she met Howard "Happy" Goodman, who for several years had been successfully leading his own family quartet at tent meetings and on the radio. In 1949, following a concert appearance at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, they drove to Tupelo, Mississippi, and were married.

In common with many groups of this type, the family's personnel tended to fluctuate over the years, but its most characteristic and popular line-up featured Vestal, Howard and his brothers Sam and Rusty. Buoyed by her dynamic voice and the respective baritone and bass of Sam and Rusty, their reputation began to grow and from the 1960s they cut a series of popular albums for the Word label.

In 1968, the outfit won a Grammy for the album The Happy Gospel of the Happy Goodmans and in 1969 Vestal was named Female Vocalist of the Year at the annual Dove Awards. Over the next decade their audience widened as they became mainstays of the popular television show The Gospel Singing Jubilee and in 1978 they won a second Grammy for their album Refreshing. In 1975 Vestal recorded the first in a number of fine solo albums, culminating in 1999 and 2000 in a pair of discs that saw her performing with friends such as CeCe Winans, George Jones, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.

The album Reunion, released in 1990, marked the final recording by the Happy Goodman Family, as both Rusty and Sam Goodman died shortly after its completion. Vestal and Howard were then joined by the veteran musician Johnny Minnick and, now billed as the Happy Goodmans, continued to record until The Final Stand (2001). They also performed alongside a number of other major gospel stars on Bill Gaither's series of "Homecoming" videos, a set that has since achieved sales in excess of 13 million copies.

In November 2002 Howard Goodman died aged 81.Vestal Goodman decided to go it alone and was still touring with Bill Gaither at the time of her death.

Paul Wadey