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Helen McAlerney Barth, Gospel Singer
posted in: News
August 4, 2017
When Helen McAlerney auditioned for Moody Radio in 1940, the station manager frowned and marked her application with a bold NG—as in, No Good. Then she sang for a Moody campus event, but classmates thought she sounded like a blues singer (which was true). And at her second Moody Radio tryout, she was awarded the same red-letter rejection. Later, after she became one of the most famous gospel singers in the country, she could tell the story with all of its irony. It took three auditions to get hired, but once she did, her career soared.
Helen McAlerney Barth ’39 of Bristol, Indiana, died on February 27, 2017. Undoubtedly the last of the great gospel singers from the live radio era, she was 98.
Helen Lillian McAlerney grew up in Moline, Illinois, where her mother had escaped an abusive relationship to raise her three children. At the height of the Great Depression, Helen dropped out of high school and began working full time, though she was only 16. She also joined her church choir, where she met a trumpet player who led a local swing band. Despite her lack of formal training, Helen had the voice he needed.
“My ideal at that time was Kate Smith,” Helen said. “Whenever she came to the Orpheum Theater in Davenport, Iowa, I never missed her. I knew that she had never had any voice training, and I thought, ‘If she can make it, I can make it.’”
The band was good but Helen was the real star—curly red hair, blue eyes, and a magnetic personality that lit up the bandstand. Soon she had her own show on WHBF radio, singing live requests from the Harms Hotel. Listeners bombarded her with postcards asking for popular songs of the day, forcing her to become a quick study and prodigious sight reader. But she drew the line when they asked her to sing gospel songs. “That wasn’t my type of program,” she said at the time, still unaware of her future career.
After singing in local YWCA shows, Helen became interested in social work, a full-time career that required further training. The financial hurdle of a college education seemed insurmountable until friends told her of Moody’s tuition-paid classes. And Moody would allow her to enroll without a high school diploma. The solution seemed ideal to Helen, who recognized a rising tension in her singing career. It was one thing for her to play local gigs at the Legion Hall and Moose Lodge, but her next step would take her straight to the bar and nightclub circuit. “Although I sang with the orchestra, dancing and drinking and smoking had no allurements for me. I admitted to myself that my life was a most unhappy one.”
She arrived at Moody in 1939, landed a job serving milkshakes at the Sweet Shop, and bumbled into a surprise during her first freshman orientation meeting.
She had grown up in church, had listened to the weekly sermons, and had sung all the hymns with her church choir, but she was entirely unprepared for her classmates’ impromptu testimonies. They gave heartfelt expressions of the gospel at work, transforming lives. “I thought I had met the requirements of an entrance into Heaven,” Helen said. “The most important thing I lacked, but didn’t realize until then, was the message that Jesus Himself had said to Nicodemus: ‘Ye must be born again.’”
For Helen, student orientation helped her find Christ: “For the first time, I truly believed that Jesus had died for me, and I asked Him to come into my heart and life. I knew that as I got up off of my knees that I, too, could give a testimony that Jesus was now my Personal Savior.”
Helen arrived at Moody during a period of rapid campus development. Construction workers had just finished Crowell Hall, including three floors devoted to WMBI. The two largest studios were live performance spaces, including galleries so audiences could watch the productions. With more than 200 live shows per week, Moody Radio became a magnet for the best sacred musicians in the country. At the same time Helen was arriving, Dr. Will Houghton was recruiting George Beverly Shea as a full-time radio singer.
Whatever struggles Helen might have had with the auditions, her third try was successful and she certainly had a radio-friendly voice. While classically trained singers with big opera voices had a difficult time adapting to early radio microphones, Helen’s voice seemed to resonate with warmth and sincerity. She was immediately popular and joined the station full time after her 1942 graduation. She sang two live solo programs each week, sang in a radio ensemble, and frequently worked with Shea, who called her “Miss Mac.”
Her early career was boosted by Alfred B. Smith ’37, a music publishing entrepreneur who later served as Alumni Association president. Tapping into the Youth for Christ trend, Smith founded Singspiration Music to produce radio-friendly songbooks and recordings. He signed Shea and Helen to the new label; both would make dozens of recordings.
Helen’s local fame extended well past the Moody campus and beyond the confines of Christian radio. It seemed like everyone listened to her show—even Tommy Dorsey, the trombone-playing leader of the country’s hottest swing band, famously billed as “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” Dorsey had been listening to Helen’s program on the radio. One summer afternoon in 1943 he dropped by the Moody Radio studio, asking to meet Helen and then floating an even bigger idea. Would she join his band?
Later, when Helen told the story to a magazine writer, the whole scheme seemed far-fetched. Dorsey’s band performed in Chicago dance halls like the Trianon and Aragon, places Moody students could not even visit, so it didn’t take long for Helen to politely decline his overture. Still, Dorsey’s respect for her talent was another indication of her rising career. And for Helen, one final offer from the jazz world had given her the chance to cut ties for good.
By the time she married Rev. Reinhold Barth on May 20, 1944, Helen was a full-fledged radio celebrity. No part of her life was normal. Imagine a wedding ceremony at The Moody Church with more than 1,750 guests in attendance, where Moody Radio’s Wendell P. Loveless gave the bride away, Torrey Johnson read the vows, and George Beverly Shea sang solos!
During several years while her husband served as a local pastor and evangelist, Helen continued her Moody radio broadcasts and recording projects. From 1950 to 1955 they ministered in Germany as Youth for Christ missionaries. Helen appeared with Billy Graham during these years, singing at London’s Harringay Arena and Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Returning home, Reinhold continued traveling as an evangelist, where he deeply valued Helen’s contributions as a soloist. She won awards, including the National Evangelical Film Foundation “Christian Oscar” awards for Best Solo Album and Best Children’s Album.
Later in life, Helen formed “The King’s Daughters” with her daughter, Sharon, and two granddaughters, Bethany and Christine; they ministered at church events and retirement homes. The years flew by and the Barths eventually retired to Goshen, Indiana. Ever vivacious, Helen was 81 when she was crowned the Senior Fair Queen at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair! She was surprised to see fans lined up, wanting autographs for their old albums. By the time Reinhold passed away in 2007, Helen had finally sung her last concert.
In 2002 her son had given her a laptop computer and a printer (“Items I never expected to own . . . certainly not at 83!”). She sat down and proceeded to type a 10-page letter to Moody’s president, Dr. Joseph Stowell.
“The influence of the Moody Bible Institute on my life cannot begin to be measured,” she wrote. “Only eternity will reveal the multiple lives that have been touched because of the doors God began to open for me while I was there. I am eternally grateful to the Lord that I first heard the message of this ‘so great salvation’ during my first days at Moody.”
And she told Stowell that she was still receiving fan mail, more than 60 years later, from listeners who heard her sing on WMBI.
“I used to try to be happy while singing with the dance orchestra,” she explained. “But honestly, my life was void of a song until I met Christ face to face. I realize so much more joy in singing the message of salvation, the Good News that so many needy hearts are waiting for.”
Helen McAlerney Barth had no idea she would live until she was 98—no idea that she would outlive all of the gospel singers who sang on live radio in the early 1940s. But back in 1942 when she started signing autographs (always awkward for her), she began adding a verse under her name: Psalm 104:33–34. “I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. My meditation of Him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.”
Kevin Mungons is editorial manager for Moody’s Marketing and Communications department.