The Arizona Republic
A Phoenix singer’s song became famous King words.
| Bridget Buckley | Guest columnist
When longtime Phoenix resident Alma B. Androzzo Thompson wrote the gospel song “If I Can Help Somebody” in 1939, she could not have realized she was penning words that would feature prominently almost 30 years later in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known and prophetic sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.”
But she was.
On Feb. 4, 1968, two months before his assassination, Dr. King delivered “The Drum Major Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. Using Jesus’ life as an example, Dr. King exhorted the congregation that true greatness is not found in accolades or awards, but in servant leadership, full of love and grace.
Dr. King then told the congregation that at his funeral, which in fact would occur just months later, he wished to be remembered as a leader who fought for justice, served others, fed the hungry and clothed the naked.
He ended his sermon with a rhetorical flourish, expressing a desire that his living would not be in vain:
These final words did not come from Dr. King’s pen.
They came from Androzzo. As explained by Arizona State University professor Dr. Keith Miller in “Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources,” it was not unusual or in any sense improper for King to include lyrics in his oration without attribution.
But after reading Dr. King’s sermon as a graduate student at Arizona State University, and learning from Professor Miller that Androzzo remained in relative obscurity despite the significance of her lyrics in Dr. King’s important sermon, I could not help but wonder if there was more to her story.
With the help of genealogical records, newspaper archives, family stories, a preliminary email exchange with Androzzo’s youngest daughter, Tanya, and a telephone interview with her eldest son, Donald, I started to piece together some of Androzzo’s life story, the foundation for her words, and by extension additional context to Dr. King’s closing lines.
Alma Irene Bazel was born in Harriman, Tenn., on Oct. 12, 1912, to Fred and Frances Bazel, who were active members of the Country Baptist Church. Alma was educated by her aunt in a oneroom schoolhouse, and by 1930 she was living in Marion, Ind., while traveling the “AME Church Circuit” with her mother.
According to Donald, Frances was an accomplished elocutionist and would recite poetry while her daughter would accompany on piano. Alma added the names Androzzo and Thompson by marriages, had five children, called Chicago her home during important parts of her career, and lived in Phoenix from 1966 through 1995.
Androzzo was a prolific composer and lyricist. “If I Can Help Somebody,” her best-known song, was first published and copyrighted in 1945 by Boosey and Hawkes Publishing and arranger George Zalva. Between 1946 and 1949, the song was recorded by several UK artists, including Turner Layton, Dame Grace Fields and Robert Wilson.
The song became part of several BBC radio shows in the late 1940s and early 1950s but did not gain popularity in the United States until Androzzo’s friend, the renowned Mahalia Jackson – a performer at the March on Washington and King’s funeral –recorded it in 1951.
The National Tuberculosis Association chose the song for their Christmas Seals campaign in 1957, leading Billy Eckstine to perform it live on the last “The Nat King Cole Show,” which aired on Dec. 17, 1957.
In a 1957 Chicago Tribune article related to Eckstine’s performance, Androzzo explained that she wrote the song in 1939 when “she was doing missionary work in the streets of Pittsburgh.” In a 1983 Associated Press interview, Androzzo said the song, which took her about an hour to complete, was written during the Great Depression.
“I was living in Pittsburgh and I was very poor … Things were so rough and just about everybody was in the same boat. I remember going to the store and seeing some alcoholics. I tried to talk to them about making their lives better.”
So why should we think about Androzzo at a time when we remember Dr. King?
For starters, because the legacy of Dr. King and the lives of those connected to him remain all around us if we are willing to look. Androzzo lived in Phoenix for nearly 30 years in relative obscurity despite writing hundreds of gospel songs.
This song, written in poverty, motivated by her sense of mission and expressive of the ideals of Dr. King, remains alive. In fact, it was just performed in October by the Morgan State University Choir at the funeral of a man who endeavored to carry on the legacy of Dr. King, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Equally important is that the words of many people like Androzzo became the words of Dr. King, just as the efforts of many people became the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon was made stronger by Androzzo’s words, and her words were birthed from the very experiences Dr. King fought to overcome.
In return, his choice to quote Androzzo’s lyrics and add his rhetorical power, gifted her song with historical consequence far beyond what she could have imagined in 1939.
This was cemented when a section of “The Drum Major Instinct,” which included the lyrics, was played at Dr. King’s funeral and broadcast live on national television. Like so many connected to Dr. King, Androzzo’s story is a tribute to his legacy and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.
It is a tribute that Dr. King himself would likely have wanted to “pass along … to cheer somebody with a word or song.”