Raising a joyful sound

Raising a joyful sound: Philly-area church choirs vie for national gospel music title

Philadelphia Daily News

synnesd@phillynews.com 215-854-5444

ELEVEN CITIES. 86 choirs. One ultimate winner. It’s “American Idol” for gospel and it’s coming here on Saturday.

Seven Delaware Valley church choirs will take the stage in one of the city’s largest venues to have their shot at being named the Best Church Choir in America during the Verizon Wireless “How Sweet the Sound” concert series. The national event kicked off last Saturday in Houston and has been weaving its way around the nation from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., before landing at the Wachovia Center this weekend.

After the local concert, the series continues to Chicago; Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn.; Los Angeles; and Oakland, Calif., and then winds up in Detroit on Nov. 7 for the grand finale.

Award-winning recording artist, composer and producer Donald Lawrence has returned to host the event in its second year. He’ll be joined by co-host and fellow gospel superstar Lisa Kimmey-Winans, whose career in gospel music started when she was a teenager performing with her two sisters in the popular gospel band Out of Eden. She skyrocketed into gospel notoriety as a solo act and recently married Juan Winans of the famed Winans gospel family.

“Gospel music has so much energy,” Kimmey-Winans said during a phone interview. “It’s full of life, full of joy and celebration and it’s just all about having a good time. Those choirs are going to fill up the arena. The audience is going to be really, really blown away. I mean you’ve got seven choirs that are just going to be coming at you along with Marvin Sapp and Donald Lawrence and the guest judges. It’s going to be beyond imaginable.”

Getting the chance to perform on a large stage is an exciting opportunity for these local groups and the cash prizes aren’t too shabby, either. Philadelphia’s Calvary Baptist Church, Green Grove Baptist Church (West Berlin, N.J.), New Hope Revival Center (Bala Cynwyd) and West Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church were chosen after auditions to compete for the $10,000 prize for the best small/medium size groups at Philadelphia’s competition.

The big dogs competing for an equal prize come from Philadelphia’s Ford Memorial Temple, Lord’s House Ministries and Canaan Baptist Church. The winning choir from each category then goes to Detroit (travel costs will be picked up by Verizon) to vie for the $50,000 grand prize and the title Best Church Choir in America.

“It’s really not about the cash and it’s not about the win,” said Brother Carnell Smith Jr., minister of music for Calvary Baptist Church at 61st Street and Haverford Avenue. “What I hope comes out of this event is to save somebody – to minister to just one person. We can’t get to all, but to have a soul come to Christ just through the music that we perform. And that’s really the most important thing – to have someone be saved.”

But, since there is a pot of gold for the winning choir, it doesn’t hurt to plan what he’d do with the winnings. “We need an upgrade on our equipment in our music department so that’s going to help out a lot,” he said with a deep chuckle.

The competition is bringing back the popular video-cast People’s Choice Award, which awards $5,000 to the choir that best captures the heart of the community. That means voting from your seat by texting your choice to Verizon Wireless.

Saturday’s concert gathers a couple of national and local gospel legends to the stage as judges and guest stars. Special guest Sapp’s song “Never Would Have Made It” was the first gospel track to sell more than a million digital downloads. And he holds the record for the longest tenure at the top of a Billboard chart when that 2007 hit spent 47 weeks atop the Billboard Hot Gospel Songs chart.

Inspirational Pastor Hezekiah Walker will judge the Philadelphia competition. His schedule is split between recording, hosting his own radio show on New York’s 1190 WLIB-AM and shuttling between his Love Fellowship Tabernacle congregations in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Bensalem.

Lonnie Hunter III, pastor of praise and worship for the 18,000-member strong Bethany Baptist Church in Lindenwold, N.J., rounds out the judging panel. He’s a former radio host, model, president of his own public relations firm and a successful recording artist.

What persuades a choir to face such a heavy-hitting panel of judges? “The motivation for me was getting my choir to that level, having that trust, that potential for them to come out,” said Smith. But, he added, “the best motivator is Jesus Christ.”

The concert also enables gospel music to reach beyond the walls of the church, said Kimmey-Winans. “It’s get up, clap your feet and jump up and down and have a good time. In this time and this economy with everything that’s going on, there is nothing like gospel music to refresh the spirit and to uplift the soul.”

While the concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, doors open at 6 for preshow activities on the Wachovia concourse including an exhibit of artwork inspired by gospel music and a chance to participate in gospel karaoke.

“Verizon Wireless has done a fabulous job making this ticket available to everyone. It’s $5 to $7 and that’s economy-friendly for sure,” Kimmey-Winans said. “You’ll get to see all the choirs and celebrate them, but you’ll also get to see Grammy award-winning artists, professional bands and musicians and seasoned gospel artists.”

How Sweet the Sound, Wachovia Center, 3601 S. Broad St., Saturday. Doors open at 6 p.m., concert at 7:30 p.m. $5, $7. www.ComcastTIX.com, 800-298-4200.

Check out the Philadelphia Daily News for pictures and some sweet sweet video.


Wednesday’s YO! cover story on Verizon Wireless “How Sweet the Sound” concert series misidentified Lonnie Hunter III, who is the pastor of praise and worship at Bethany Baptist Church is Lindenwold, N.J.


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