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Gospel great Ethel Elliott dead at 76

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CHAPEL HILL -- Ethel Elliott, half of The Branchettes gospel singing duo, has died at the age of 76, the N.C. Arts Council said Monday. Elliott suffered a stroke during an appearance Nov. 29 and died Wednesday at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, council spokesman Joe Newberry said.

Elliott was born near Benson in rural Johnston County and grew up in a family and church that encouraged spiritual music.

The Branchettes were formed by chance in the mid-1960s. Elliott, Lena Mae Perry and Perry's aunt were the only members of the Long Branch Disciple Church choir who showed up to sing one Sunday at a neighboring church.

Despite their embarrassment, the ladies sang -- and the response was overwhelming, Elliott recalled in an interview a few years ago: “The people were just shouting and crying."

When Perry's aunt passed away, the group -- its name reflecting that of their church -- continued as a duo. Over the years, they performed hymns and gospel songs across the state and as far away as Northern Ireland.

The Branchettes remained true to an older style of music, rooted in the congregational hymn singing of earlier generations of African-Americans.

“When I go to sing, I don't even think about pleasing the people out there. I want to please the Lord. Then you'll see the people get up and begin to move and begin to shout," Elliott said.

The council honored the Branchettes with its Folk Heritage Award, noting lifetime achievement in the folk arts, in 1995.

Elliott is survived by two daughters, Beverly Elliott of Newton Grove and Willa Elliott of Dunn; a son, Wayne Elliott of Newton Grove; a sister, Hattie Peacock of Newton Grove; three brothers, Lonnie Elliott of Summerville, S.C., Jasper Elliott of Newton Grove and John Grantham of Wilmington; and a grandson and granddaughter.

- Associated Press

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