Ortheia Barnes-Kennerly recalled as loving friend

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ortheia Barnes-Kennerly was remembered at an old-fashioned, high-spirited homegoing Tuesday at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church as someone whose music, ministry and social activism touched many.

There was world-class singing and rafter-shaking preaching in the service, which was led by the Rev. Charles C. Adams. The pastor kept things moving along. "If you are not scheduled to speak, you are not scheduled to speak," Adams said. "You may go to the repast at Bert's and share your memories of Ortheia."

Much of the congregation appeared to be a sea of red, as many paid tribute to the singer's favorite color by donning red dresses, jackets, shirts, hats and shoes.

Barnes-Kennerly was similarly garbed, in a red dress with a sprinkling of rhinestones. A inscription inside her casket read "It's a Good Day" (a favorite saying) and "Heaven Bound" (the title of her most recent song, released on May 14).

In the end, it was the way Barnes-Kennerly made people feel, that had friends and family members wiping tears from their eyes.

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and his wife, Barbara, knew Barnes-Kennerly for years. Recently retired from Washington's corridors of power, Levin said: "Ortheia had a different kind of power. Hers was the power of love, a much more lasting power... Angels will be singing for her when she arrives."

Barnes-Kennerly, 70, died of a heart attack May 15 while in St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, for a performance. She left behind husband Rev. Robert Kennerly Sr.; her son, Melvin Brown; four stepchildren; a host of grandchildren; and her sole surviving brother, singer J.J. Barnes.

Born Ollie Mae Barnes on Oct. 18, 1944, in Detroit, she was the fifth child and only daughter of Eddie Bell and Leroy Barnes. Her voice drew raves early on, and she sang in the choir at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in southwest Detroit. She graduated from Northwestern High School, but attended Cass Tech long enough to know classmate Diana Ross, encouraged her singing.

Barnes-Kennerly and her brother J.J., who is a year older, both recorded for Mickay Records in the early '60s (J.J. went on to record for Ric Tic and others). Her plaintive teenaged alto was heard for the first time on the record, "Your Picture on the Wall" cut for Mickay in 1961, when she was 17.

She was a back-up singer for an array of artists, including James Brown, Julio Iglesias, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin.

Franklin, who was out of town and couldn't attend, was represented at Hartford by son Eddie Franklin, who read a statement from his mother. "So sorry to hear of the passing of a great soul, one of the best singers of our time," he read. "God bless those dear to her, her brother J.J., husband Robert and son Melvin."

There also was a stand of roses and lilies from the Queen of Soul, with the message: "In fond remembrance of one of the great singers of our time."

Motown's Martha Reeves, garbed in a purple knit suit, reminisced about meeting Barnes-Kennerly in the early '60s, when they both had the same manager, and sang the Lord's Prayer, while Sandra Kent of Spaulding for Children, a charity for which Barnes-Kennerly worked and sat on the board, talked about her activism.

There were many politicians in the sanctuary, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), who spoke warmly of her.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), gave a fiery speech in which she quoted Barnes-Kennerly's daily text messages, which would often start at 5 a.m. "Get up, you've got another day! Hallelujah!"

"Detroit lost one of its crown jewels," Dagnogo said. "Her heart was big enough to love those who were not her family. She also made it possible for me to become a representative, because Ortheia prayed for me."

Many of Barnes-Kennerly's sister and brother musicians were in the house, including Spyder Turner and Gino Washington. It was announced that she will be inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in Detroit, in October.

Millie Scott, her partner in the group Cut Glass, sang "God Will Take Care of You" with great spirit, breaking down toward the end with emotion. And singer Monica Blaire tore up "His Eye is on the Sparrow," leaving the assembled breathless.

In his impassioned eulogy, Hartford senior pastor Rev. Charles Gilchrist Adams called Barnes-Kennerly "a fighter for justice and an indomitable spirit. There was no limit to her reach. She was able to reach up, down, around and through. You don't have to mourn her loss, because you know where she is. Life did not destroy her, and death will not defeat her."

Many friends and family members were clearly still processing the suddenness of Barnes-Kennerly's death.

Annie Jamerson, widow of the late Motown bass legend James Jamerson, said, "We were supposed to have lunch when she got back from St. Thomas!" TV 20 personality Greg Dunmore said Barnes-Kennerly was set to appear in her own show on TV 20 in two weeks.

Wayne County Commissioner Martha Scott said: "It's not about how long we are here, but what we do with the time we have. She knew that."