Willa Ward Royster of the Famous Ward Singers passed away on August 12 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of 91.
The legendary singer and pianist was a gospel music pioneer along with her mother, Gertrude, and sister, Clara. Together, they performed throughout the country for decades, paving the way for many contemporary artists.
Willa’s daughter, Charlotte Sims of Leimert Park, described her mother as “a beautiful woman, not only physically, but also on the inside. She was loved by everyone she met. The only wrinkles on her face were from smiling.”
A native of Philadelphia, Willa was born in 1920 to the late George and Gertrude Ward. She accepted Christ at a young age and began playing piano at 12 years old. In 1934, Gertrude started performing professionally with her daughters and for the next 24 years, Willa sang with The Ward Singers. She also managed Ward’s House of Music, founded by Clara, that offered original sheet music and songbooks.
Willa married John Moultrie in 1940, who passed in 1966. In 1972, she wed Harry Royster who passed in 1993.
According to Charlotte, her mother sang gospel, yet loved popular music, too. “She formed the Gay Charmers Trio and sang background for singers such as Frankie Avalon, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Dion, Fabian and Chubby Checker in the 1950s and 1960s.
“She also worked as a singer-pianist at the best supper clubs on the east coast. Her greatest achievement was appearing three times with her group at Radio City Music Hall in New York,” said Charlotte.
Following the death of Clara Ward in 1973 and Gertrude Ward in 1981, Willa became spokeswoman for The Famous Ward Singers, accepting many commendations for both the group and her own accomplishments.
Continuing an active schedule in her later years, she collaborated with Toni Rose in 1997 to write the book, ‘How I Got Over – A History of the Famous Ward Singers.’ In 2008, Willa performed in a concert in Pennsylvania honoring Rosetta Thorpe and two years later, she served as a narrator in the movie, ‘Rejoice and Shout.’
A celebration of Willa’s life was held on August 20, in Philadelphia. Cherishing her memory are her daughters, Charlotte and Rita (Rodolfo) Scarlett; grandchildren, Felicia (Terry) Bell and Larry Sims, Jr., and a host of cousins, nieces, nephews and friends.