Frances McClurkin, 79, singer, mother to gospel stars, dies

Frances McClurkin, the mother of gospel singer, Donnie

Frances McClurkin, the mother of gospel singer, Donnie McClurkin and Grammy-nominated siblings, passed away Jan. 18, 2013. (Credit: Handout)

When future gospel music star Donnie McClurkin and his siblings were children, their mother would gather them on her bed in Amityville when there was thunder and lightning outside to ease their fears by telling them it was God talking -- and by singing to them.

Frances McClurkin would sing songs she learned during her childhood growing up in Harlem during a golden era of African-American culture there that featured such stars as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Billie Holiday, her son recalled in his 2001 autobiographical book, "Eternal Victim, Eternal Victor."

"That's where all of our musical abilities originated -- my mother and the church," Donnie McClurkin wrote.

Frances McClurkin, 79, of Amityville, died Friday night at St. Joseph's Hospital in Bethpage from complications of a massive heart attack she suffered Jan. 13, her family said.

She lived a remarkable life and produced a notably talented family of singers: Donnie McClurkin, 53, who is also pastor of the Perfecting Faith Church in Freeport, has won three Grammys, has three albums that went platinum with sales of more than 1 million, and sang at Whitney Houston's funeral last year.

His late sister Olivia was a backup singer for Houston for seven years.

Most of the siblings -- there were nine all together, though only seven survive -- started their singing careers performing together on street corners in Amityville that at the time were populated by drug dealers and prostitutes, Donnie McClurkin and his sister Marlene McClurkin Mason of Amityville recalled.

They eventually formed a group called The McClurkin Singers and The McClurkin Project. Donnie McClurkin went on to perform at the national political conventions that nominated Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for president, as well as at the White House several times.

He has described a childhood that was both loving and traumatizing. When Donnie McClurkin was 8 years old, his 2-year-old brother Thomas accidentally wandered into the street after a ball and was hit and killed by a car.

Donnie McClurkin, who was watching Thomas, blamed himself, and his mother was devastated, he has said.

Despite that and other struggles, Frances McClurkin proved to be a survivor, Donnie McClurkin wrote. "My mother is 100 percent proof of God's power to cause you to overcome your past circumstances," he wrote.

"The personality you see in Donnie and the others is a reflection of what she poured into us," Mason said. "She had a lot of wisdom, she had a lot of wit about her."

Frances McClurkin was born in Far Rockaway and raised in Harlem, largely by her grandmother, Mason said. As a child, she was a talented singer and piano player.

At 17 she moved with her family to Long Island, and by the time she was 21, she married Donald McClurkin Sr., a local construction worker, Mason said. They moved into a house in Amityville where she remained decades later.

Her main job was raising her large family and inculcating a love of gospel music and singing.

At one point she was offered the opportunity to sing professionally in the secular music field, Donnie McClurkin wrote. "Yet the convictions that were placed in her from her holy heritage precluded her from accepting."

In later years, she became active in Perfecting Faith Church, where Donnie McClurkin referred to her as "the first lady" of the church, Mason said.

Other survivors include her children Cheryl McClurkin of Amityville, Andrea McClurkin Mellini of Farmingville, Anthony McClurkin of Indiana, Tanya McClurkin Staples of Alabama, and Rafael McClurkin of Alabama; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A homecoming service will be held for her Friday at 7 p.m. at Greater Allen AME Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, located at 110-31 Merrick Boulevard.

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