The Golden Age of Gospel choirs in Jackson

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It is always risky for historians or writers to designate a certain time period as the Golden Age or other such descriptor. That is especially true if one is not an expert in that field. Nevertheless, we are throwing caution to the wind and declaring that the period from the mid-1970s – the mid-1980s as such a period for Gospel choirs in Jackson, Mississippi. 

Although it is not meant to downplay any other groups, this time period is declared such because of the success and impact of four choirs in existence primarily at the time – D.R. Curry Memorial Choir based in Liberal Trinity Church of God in Christ; Greater Fairview Young People’s Choir based in Greater Fairview Baptist Church; Greater Mount Calvary Radio Choir based in Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church; and Voices of Faith developing out of Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church. Yes, there were many other great choirs around at the time, but those four were the cream of the crop. 

Those four choirs were the most acclaimed and sought-after throughout the area. They frequently competed in local choir competitions. Each had a huge fan base inside and outside their home church. Each choir produced and released records that were quickly snapped up by the record-buying public. Many people flocked to their churches to get a chance to hear them perform in person.

In order to understand this development during the 70s and 80s, which we call the Golden Age, it is important to realize that a few years earlier, in 1967, James Cleveland had organized the Gospel Music Workshops of America. Choirs from around the country began participating in and were influenced by these workshops. Most of them followed Cleveland’s directions, but they also borrowed from one another as they met and worked. More than a few musicians from Jackson attended the workshops. Even more of them followed the lead of Cleveland, from afar. This definitely promoted the music of Gospel choirs.

It also happened that “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins and the Northern California Community Choir was released that same year. “Oh Happy Day” turned out to be one of the most popular Gospel songs by a choir in the history of recorded music. It was followed by others of the same quality and style. Choirs in Jackson were impressed and often tried to rise to the same level of excellence.

The work of James Cleveland, Edwin Hawkins, Walter Hawkins, and other similar artists attracted multitudes of young Black singers and musicians, and music lovers in general. They proved to have been responsible for the Gospel choir craze that was being witnessed at that time. Jackson was definitely in that movement, having many proponents graduating from Jackson State University, Tougaloo College, and other surrounding institutions remain in the Jackson area to work and worship.

For the benefit of those too young to have witnessed those choirs, below are brief sketches on or descriptions of each of those four great choirs that can hopefully provide some of the flavor of that time period. For those who were around at the time, hopefully the comments will bring back fond memories or put a smile on their faces.

THE D.R. CURRY MEMORIAL CHOIR was named in honor of Liberal Trinity Church of God in Christ’s founding father, Superintendent D.R. Curry Sr. It was composed of thirty plus young church members. During the period under discussion, it was under the direction of the very capable David R. Curry Jr., who also was a key soloist, songwriter, and organist. Other featured soloists in the choir included: Emma Curry, Dorcus Curry Thigpen, Rachell Curry, Esther Bernell Laster, Timothy Curry, and Clifford Curry. One of the writer’s other favorites was percussionist Mark Hardy, who went on to become the provost at Jackson State University and at Tennessee State University in his day-to-day working life.

The D.R. Curry Choir sang with controlled excitement and had volume to spare. It received national accolades on several occasions, being ranked as high as number two internationally at one of its denomination’s congresses.

On the song, “Put Your Trust in Jesus,” which seemed to have been their theme song, the power and pleadings of Emma Curry and Dorcus Curry Thigpen is nothing short of earth-shaking. The choir was also quite successful in transposing material from popular secular music to sacred, Gospel music, as in the case of “Way Out of No Way,” which was one of their favorites.

Many of their singers and musicians went on to join the Mississippi Mass Choir, once it was formed. David Curry, in particular, would become a director of that choir. Many of the other musicians and singers are active in their craft today.

GREATER FAIRVIEW YOUNG ADULT CHOIR, also known as Greater Fairview Young People’s Choir, was most closely associated with or identified by musician, songwriter, soloist, and director, Lannie Spann McBride. The choir was composed of thirty or more young adults, including numerous featured soloists. McBride herself led many of the songs. Other soloists included Barbara McKinney, Fulton Cable, Shirley LaBranche, Katrena Jefferson, Bernita Proctor, Sarah Paise, Janyce Leflore, Rev. Charlie Jackson, Robert Thompson, Greg Graham, Earl Shoto, Henry Smith, Jane Graham, Veronica Rouser, Herbert Rouser, Mosie Watkins, John Franklin, and Janice Craft.

Perhaps because this choir had such a multiplicity of featured soloists, it was very diverse in its offerings. There were the soft and sweet offerings, as in the song “Galatians 2:20”. There were the deliberate, preachy offerings, especially those led by McBride. There were the plaintiff cries of Katrena Jefferson’s solos. There was frequently, in the background, the celebrated tenor section with its high falsettos. “Only Jesus” combines several of those elements, and does so with a wonderful outcome. An early and perennial favorite from the choir was, “Come and Walk With Me”. 

Lannie Spann McBride went on to a solo career and has been spotlighted in several movies as a singer. She also taught music for a time at Jackson State University. Others from the Greater Fairview choirs have continued to be active, including singing in the Mississippi Mass Choir.

GREATER MOUNT CALVARY RADIO CHOIR was a choir of thirty or more singers and musicians who were students or recent graduates of Jackson State University. Many walked from JSU to Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where they were members. 

The choir released one album, under the sponsorship of Rev. John Cameron and Mrs. Melvina Deans. Because it was privately produced and distributed, not many sales were generated, especially not outside the Jackson area. That lack of commercial success, however, was not a reflection of the excellence of the choir.

The choir had an impressive array of outstanding soloists, including Roy Terry, Patricia Franklin, Freda Bush, Dorothy Taylor, Jan Taylor, Deborah Taylor, Alfred Dukes, and Barry Taylor. They were under the musical direction of Herbert Jones, who was ably assisted by pianist Dowell Taylor and organists John Palmore and Charles Chiplin. In the choir’s heyday, the church would be packed with community residents as well as students from JSU who had come to hear them. Their renown was such that it attracted outsiders such as Rev. Jeffrey Stallworth from the Gulf Coast, Joe and Sylvia Shemwell then from the Memphis area, and Floridian Gwen McRae of “Let Me Be Your Rocking Chair” fame.

The choir sang traditional Gospel music, but with great purity, strength, and zeal. From their one album, “Give God a Chance”, the best offerings are “Jesus is the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me”,, led by Roy Terry, Jan Taylor and Deborah Taylor and “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”, led by Patricia Franklin and Freda Bush. Of even greater brilliance, but lost to posterity because it was not recorded, was the choir’s rendering of the song, “God Is”, led by Roy Terry and Jan Taylor.

Some of the members of that choir are still active, including singing in the Mississippi Mass Choir. Dowell Taylor, of course, went on to a most successful career as band director at Kentucky State University and Jackson State University.

VOICES OF FAITH as a choir was perhaps more the result of the personal dream of Randolph Watson than was either of the other choirs mentioned above. Even though he and his family were staunch members of the Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church, many choir members were from his school and from other churches and denominations. They were attracted by the dedication and musicianship of Watson.

At its peak, there were nearly fifty members. Many of the featured soloists were Watsons – Randolph, Eric, Don, Michael, Harry, Althea, Fannie, and Evelyn. More than favoritism, however, that revealed how musically talented the Watson family was. In addition to the Watsons, there were other featured vocalists, including Jeanne Jackson, Michael Owens, Herbert Rouser, Veronica Styles, Patricia Roberts, and Rex Houston. Throughout the choir’s existence, Randolph Watson was the heart and soul of the group. He played piano and organ, sang and directed the choir, and wrote and arranged much of the choir’s music.

In the Voices of Faith repertoire were a number of offerings with a prominent male emphasis and with a driving beat. Two of the songs that were not in that mode were “Look Where God has brought Us”, featuring Jeanne Jackson and “Rockin’ Jerusalem”, featuring Patricia Roberts. Both of those were examples of Voices of Faith’s alternate sound that also reflected the choir’s greatness. 

Compared to the other choirs mentioned above, Voices of Faith had more outside connections or at least were recorded more by outside record companies. One of their albums, “Rodena Preston Presents Voices of Faith” features music with nationally known artist Rodena Preston on Birthright Records out of Los Angeles. Another, entitled “Harrison Johnson Presents the Voices of Faith,” features music with nationally known artist Harrison Johnson on Nashboro Records out of Nashville. They also recorded for Vee Jay Records out of Gary, Indiana. Those out-of-state ventures were all after they had begun with Talk of the Town Records in Jackson.  

 In conclusion, what we have tried to convey is that from the mid-70s through the mid-80s, Gospel choir music experienced a golden age, based upon the sheer number of outstanding choirs in Jackson. It would be hard to duplicate anywhere else at any other time.

What we are not saying, however, is that the music of such choirs died after the mid-80s. Instead, what we have tried to convey is that a large number of those outstanding choir members moved over, joining the Mississippi Mass Choir as it was born in 1988. Consequently, the Mississippi Mass Choir, in turn, rose to a level of unprecedented success on the national level among choirs, receiving numerous awards and ranking number one for most of its years of existence. 

We, thus say, long live Gospel music and the brilliant, capable, dedicated and inspired people who make it so outstanding. Many of them helped develop the Golden Age and are now showcasing their music in places never even dreamed of in the past. 

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The Golden Age of Gospel choirs in Jackson

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 27, 2022