NEW CASTLE — He speaks and the sound of his voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that he gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
— From the song, ‘In the Garden’
sung by the Prevailing Word World
Outreach Center praise group
Katie and Humble know Gladys.
The resident Cockatiels at Lawrence County Geri-Care on West Washington Street wasted no time getting in the groove when the lead singer from the praise group at Prevailing Word World Outreach Center made her monthly visit.
When Gladys belted out an upbeat song, the birds flapped their wings and danced merrily around their cage. On the more mellow selections, they sat silently on their top perch and swayed in unison, seemingly mesmerized by the woman with the melodic voice.
Young and old, human and fowl, all share the same opinion when Gladys Matthews is in the room — the lady can sing.
Matthews is the centerpiece of a praise group that also includes Reatha Gibbs, the praise and worship leader at Prevailing Word, who plays keyboard and sings; vocalist Carol Johnston; Carol’s husband, electric guitar player David Johnston; and Elder Sam Holmes, who is in charge of nursing home visits for Prevailing Word.
Matthews’ story goes back many years — and many tears — before she was able to arrive at the place where she is today.
A STAR IS BORN
Matthews is a 1959 graduate of New Castle High School. She married, but when her husband landed in jail, she took jobs cleaning houses and worked as a caregiver to support her two sons, Thomas Matthews Jr. and Elonzo Matthews.
She originally discovered her voice while singing at family events.
“I sang at holiday gatherings and I sang every child in our family to sleep,” she said. “I would rock them and sing softly and it would soothe them.
“People always commented on my voice, but I never really thought it was anything out of the ordinary.”
One place Matthews never used her voice was at church.
“I wasn’t brought up attending church, so I never went,” she said, adding with a sigh, “I regret now that I missed out on knowing the Lord for all those years.”
She sang with several local bands, including Soul Lifters and Reality in the 1970s — Reality opened for the nationally known Average White Band during an appearance at the Scottish Rite Cathedral — and eventually entered a contest at the Sharon Elks Club, where she placed first and won $150.
“I was on welfare at that time,” she said. “That money was huge to me.”
From there, she began to enter numerous singing contests in the region.
“I never lost,” she said. “I won every single time I entered.”
That included a contest at a club in Ohio, where blues legend B.B. King made an appearance.
“He asked me to go on tour with him as one of his backup singers,” Matthews said. “But I had my boys and I couldn’t just leave.”
“I have thought back many times,” she added, “to how I missed my chance on that one. I should have tried to work it out, but I had to make a quick decision and I couldn’t just desert my kids.”
NIGHTS AT THE GABLES
Instead, Matthews became the star attraction at the Gables Hotel on Grant Street, which was owned by her uncle, John Lee.
“I spent a lot of nights singing at the Gables,” she said. “My uncle would let me sing and practice there. He always looked out for me.”
Eventually, she got a job at Jameson Hospital, where she spent 23 years as a housekeeper and, eventually, supervisor of housekeeping before retiring in 1995. Her father, Herbert “Pete” Ellis, was a hospital security guard at Jameson. He died of a sudden heart attack in 2003.
“I really took my dad’s death hard,” she said. “We were very close. After he died, I felt my health start to deteriorate.”
In 2008, she went to a doctor for a rash on her arm. She was given an antibiotic, to which she had a serious allergic reaction.
“My hair started falling out and then I started to lose my toenails. My chest got splotchy. I just started to go downhill really fast.”
She spent a year in Trinity Living Center in Grove City before returning to her East Side home. Shortly after arriving there, she fell and hit her head. Severely injured, she first was taken to Grove City Hospital, then to Shadyside Hospital, Pittsburgh, where she underwent brain surgery. She was unable to live on her own when she arrived home and landed in Edison Manor.
Struggling physically and emotionally, it was there that she asked an employee to “call for David.”
David is Apostle David Young Sr. of Prevailing Word World Outreach Center. A longtime friend of Matthews’ son, Thomas, he had officiated at her father’s funeral. And on numerous occasions, Young reached out to her to accept the Lord.
“I would always tell him, ‘Someday, I’m going to get saved and you’re going to be the one who saves me,’ ” she said. “And he would say, ‘I’m ready, Miss Gladys, but you have to be ready, too. As soon as you’re ready, you call me right away.’ ”
Finally, in her darkest hour, she made that call.
“David came and I told him I was ready. He asked again if I was sure. And right there, I took the oath,” she said. “I was baptized at the age of 69. And I have never looked back. It was the best day of my life.”
‘VOICE OF AN ANGEL’
That was three years ago. Now 72, Matthews has returned to her East Side home. Although she must rely on a walker to get around, her best days, she says, are attending church, spending time with her 13 grandchildren and — of course — singing.
“My grandson tells me I crave church,” she said. “I can’t want to get there and when I leave, I can’t wait to go back,” she said. “I sing at quite a few weddings and funerals and even though I don’t have a lot of money, I never charge a dime. People try to pay me and I say, ‘I’m doing what I love, I’m doing the Lord’s work, how can I accept money for that?’ I’d rather have nothing than ask for $20 to sing a song.
“People tell me I ought to audition for ‘American Idol.’ But what are they going to say about an old lady like me going out there with a walker? I think those days have passed me by.”
As she concluded her singing at Geri-Care with “The Old Rugged Cross,” the residents joined Katie and Humble in closing their eyes and soaking in the moment.
“They are God’s children, too,” Gibbs said, smiling as she watched the birds’ reaction. “I think they know something amazing is happening here.”
The residents agree.
“That lady has the voice of an angel,” an elderly woman whispered as she made her way back to her room.
Indeed she does.