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Click here to read our review of a poignant Homecoming in which Vestal played a role for Bill Gaither at a time
 of his loss

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Vestal Goodman, the ''Queen of Gospel Music,'' died Saturday near Orlando, Fla, where she was visiting family for the Christmas holiday. As a member of the influential Happy Goodman Family, she won numerous Grammy and Dove awards and became a matriarch and guiding light of Southern gospel, one of the most important antecedents to today's contemporary Christian music scene.

The cause of Mrs. Goodman's death was unknown, but friends said she died en route to the hospital. She was 74, according to wire reports.

Her passing sent shockwaves through the familial gospel music community. ''It's a sad day for us,'' said fellow gospel great Bill Gaither, who idolized the Goodmans as a young man and who aided their comeback in the early 1990s.

''She was a spirit of optimism, a spirit of joy. Even when there were so many negative things happening, the glass was always half-full to Vestal. She was a bigger-than-life character.''

The Goodmans are key figures in a series of about 60 Gaither Homecoming videos, which Gaither launched around 1990 and which went on to sell more than 13 million copies. Mrs. Goodman had been touring with Gaither and was slated to appear on dates well into next year, including an annual New Year's Eve show in Charlotte.

''Besides being talented, she loved people and people loved her,'' said John W. Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association last night.

He added that ''in her later years, she developed a kind of hipness even in the contemporary (Christian music) crowd. She was bigger than her genre.''

Mrs. Goodman was known for her beehive hairdos, her floor-length gowns and her habit of carrying a white handkerchief, which fans would wave back at her during her roof-raising performances.

The Goodman style was rooted in foot-stomping ''camp meeting'' singing, according to singer and former Gaither Vocal Band member Mark Lowry. Lowry said she set the tone for what were especially vibrant performances. She was, he said, ''like a walking, talking electrical storm in a beaded gown.''

Mrs. Goodman hoped to be an opera singer early in life, according to her Web site's biography. But she wound up joining The Happy Goodman Family, which began performing in the 1940s. The best-known version of the group consisted of Mrs. Goodman, her husband, Howard ''Happy'' Goodman, and his brothers, the late Rusty and Sam Goodman. They were inspirational to subsequent generations of gospel singers for decades. They were flagship artists for influential Word Records in the early 1960s. They won Grammy awards in 1968 and 1978, performed at the White House in 1979 and were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1998.

Howard, Goodman's husband and singing partner of more than 50 years, died in 2002 at 81.

Lifelong friend Judy Nelon, a music publisher, said that while Mrs. Goodman remained active and vibrant, she ''never really recovered'' from Howard's death. But she said Mrs. Goodman was a ''most charming, most loving lady.''

Nelon recalled having a brake failure one day and rolling safely to a stop. ''I called 911 and AAA and I called Vestal, and she was the first one to the scene,'' she said. ''That was the way she was. She would jump up and be there for you.''

Country music legend George Jones told The Tennessean last summer that Mrs. Goodman had become a spiritual inspiration after a relapse of his longstanding alcoholism problem. Though he'd met her only once before, he sent for her when he was recovering from a near-fatal auto accident several years ago.

''After I woke up, I wanted Vestal around,'' he said. ''She prayed for me, and she visited me.''

Goodman is survived by her son, Rick; a daughter, Vicki, four grandchildren and three great- granddaughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

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