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Cleveland gospel great Helen Turner-Thompson passes away at 93

Helen Turner Thompson
Michael Dixon
Helen Turner Thompson had connections going back to Cleveland's mid-century golden age of gospel music. She was a frequent guest at roots music events at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, where she signed her name in 2017.

She was a musician, singer, mentor and an expert in the history of gospel music in Northeast Ohio. Rev. Helen Turner-Thompson passed away March 5.

“She was a once in a lifetime person to meet,” said Chuckie Burton, president of the Gospel Music Historical Society in Cleveland. “She was so humble and knowledgeable and so full of grace and encouragement.”

Burton, who wrote the 2003 book, “Cleveland's Gospel Music,” covering performers of sacred music of the 20th century, was impressed Turner-Thompson knew everyone.

“I couldn't believe how much knowledge she had. Not just the songs of gospel music's golden age, but she knew of the current songs.”

"She wasn't stuck in some favorite decade of the 20th century," said Regennia Williams, the Western Reserve Historical Society’s distinguished scholar of African American history and culture. "She continued to be a teaching-and-learning kind of musician right up through her 80s and into her 90s."

Williams interviewed Turner-Thompson several times over the past two decades.

"She was a great clinician," she said. "She could sing. She could play well. She could teach other people how to sing. And then even if people didn't think that they could sing, she would teach them about the history that's reflected in the music."

Interviewed in 2011 for the Ohio Arts Council, she championed mid-century gospel from composers such as Thomas Dorsey and Rev. James Cleveland.

“The culture of the contemporary has taken over,” she said. “It’s more emotional, it’s more ‘dance with it,’ it’s more like… hip-hop. Where in the gospel music tradition, it’s man singing from his heart. He wants God to hear his heart singing out to him.”

Turner-Thompson was recognized with a Traditional Master Artist grant from the Ohio Arts Council in 2011. She performed and spoke as part of programs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame highlighting roots music. Called a “piano pounding powerhouse” by Plain Dealer reviewer John Soeder in 2009, she remained active until retiring from University Circle United Methodist Church last fall. Even then, Burton remembered her performances as an education in traditional gospel.

“She took the crowd on a journey,” he said. “Everyone was amazed at how well she played. Now, here's someone that's in their 90s. And I believe she had broken her hand months before. But her fingers were so nimble.”

Turner-Thompson graduated from Central High School and the Cleveland Institute of Music. She held roles with Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, Antioch Baptist Church, Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church and even congregations abroad while her husband was stationed overseas. She penned a memoir, “In His Presence,” in 2014. Her surviving family includes four children, whom she referred to as her “first musical quartet.”

Turner-Thompson was 93. A wake in her honor is Saturday at 10 a.m. at Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.