Rodena Preston Williams, who passed on Sept. 15 in Los Angeles, was heralded across the nation as an amazing pianist, director and arranger. She worked with many gospel greats throughout her career. (Family photo)
The gospel music community lost a legendary giant with the passing of Dr. Rodena Preston Williams of Sept. 15 in Los Angeles.
Known throughout the industry as an exceptional pianist, director and arranger, Williams was a child prodigy who grew up to work closely with the late Rev. James Cleveland and many other gospel greats. She also organized the award-winning Voices of Deliverance that released five albums in the 1970s.
A gospel musical celebrating her life is planned for Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. and her homegoing service is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. Both services will be held at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, 3045 Crenshaw Blvd., in Los Angeles.
Williams began playing at the age of three and six years later, she was the pianist for the junior choir at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Recalling the main influence in her young life in a 2011 Sentinel interview, she said, “I was blessed to learn so much from my mother, Robbie Preston Williams.
“She was an incredible musician who played at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles, then served 35 years as pianist at Victory Baptist, one of the first churches to televise their worship services. She exposed me and my brother, Billy Preston, to gospel music and many early pioneers in the field.”
During her long association with Cleveland, she traveled the world as his pianist and close collaborator when he founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America. “I witnessed the birth of this organization and its growth into an international association with 75,000 members,” said Williams, who served decades on the GMWA National Board of Directors and was appointed by Cleveland in 1972 to be the organization’s Minister of Music.
In that capacity, she was responsible for approving all new music and music by new songwriters that would be presented at the GMWA national conventions. Her position brought her in contact with the early work of musicians such as Kirk Franklin, Kurt Carr, and Daryl Coley.
Despite her executive leadership positions with GMWA, most people were touched by Williams’ humble spirit. The Rev. Dr. Melvin V. Wade, Sr., noted, “As a gifted musician, Rodena practiced self-effacement. She was always pushing somebody else more than she pushed herself. Many musicians are where they are because she took a step back to push them forward.”
Dr. Margaret Pleasant Douroux was impressed by Rodena’s “phenomenal service” to the organization. “She was one of three women who undergirded the GMWA – Edna Tatum, Annette May and Rodena, who maintained a sense of steadiness for GMWA even after Rev. James [Cleveland] was gone,” said Douroux.
The Rev. Calvin Bernard Rhone succeeded Williams as the GMWA L.A. chapter representative after she was elevated to emeritus status earlier this year. “She was a mentor to me and impacted my life by being an example of Christianity and a lover of gospel music who kept the tradition alive,” he said.
Another mentee of Williams, the Rev. Quincy Fielding, shared that she was instrumental in helping him achieve success as a songwriter and musician.
“My first hit was “I Feel A Change in My life” in 1975 and Rodena recommended the soloist. She was my vehicle to place my music all over the world through the GMWA Mass Choir. I’m going to miss her. She leaves a great void in my life.”
Cleveland held Williams in the highest esteem, according to Quaford Coleman, who shared, “In 1990, Annette May and I produced the 50th anniversary in gospel music for Dr. Cleveland at the Dorothy Chandler Theatre. Every leading gospel artist wanted to perform, so I asked him, ‘Who do you want to be a part of the night?” He said, ‘I want one person to play a special role and that’s Rodena.’ That exchange shows just how important she was to him.”
Williams also served as minister of music at several L.A.-area churches including Brookins Community AME Church and Second AME Church and she was the GMWA Los Angeles Chapter Representative and director of the division’s mass choir.
In addition, Williams received countless awards and commendations over the years. The Elbon Solutions School of Ministry honored her with a Doctorate of Divinity Degree in 2004, she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame in Detroit, Michigan in 2006, and her work was added to CSU-Dominguez Hills African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians (ADSMM) Program in 2008.
Throughout her enduring career, Williams maintained a strong connection with Christ. Reflecting on her faith, she said, “God has always and continues to be number one in my life. His loving power has guided and protected me throughout my career and enabled me to stay firmly grounded in His word whether I’m dealing with challenges, setbacks, or triumphs.
“My relationship with Christ is the best thing that ever happened in my life. He is always there for me.”