The Gospel for Charleston: Many singing groups active over the years give voice to basic concerns
The discussion, taped last week for the TV show “Bounce Around Charleston,” included two prominent black pastors and a College of Charleston historian, but it was the music provided by The Lucas Sisters, a local gospel group, that got everyone excited.
If you go
WHAT: Travelling Echoes concert
WHEN: 4 p.m. today
WHERE: Mount Horr AME Church, 4360 S.C. Highway 174, Hollywood
WHAT: Travelling Echoes concert marking Calvary AME Church anniversary
WHEN: 4 p.m. Sept. 29
WHERE: Calvary AME Church, 2040 Groveland Ave., North Charleston
COST: $10 requested
WHAT: Concert featuring The Lucas Sisters, marking Charity Missionary Baptist Church anniversary
WHEN: 5 p.m. Aug. 24
WHERE: Charity Baptist Church, 1544 E. Montague Ave., North Charleston
The Lucas Sisters are one of many gospel ensembles formed in the Lowcountry over the decades, groups well-known to many in the black community, but otherwise little noticed. All have ties to the church.
Watch the groups sing
Watch videos of The Travelling Echoes and Lucas Sisters at postandcourier.com.
Who can remember the Friendly Four or Southern Gates? Recall the Dixie Airs, Bright Cloud or the Swans?
How about the Celestial Four, The Brotherhood or The Five Gospels of Charleston?
The Joshua Singers, Sensational Jubilees and Ashley Gospel Singers are some of the groups still active today. Heard of them?
For the TV discussion, host Randolph Miller, an ordained minister himself and pastor of Nichols Chapel AME Church, wanted to know whether the black church was “on life support.”
Miller had seen discouraging membership numbers recently, and he had spoken with a pessimist or two about the condition of African-American churches and their declining ability to influence young people.
So he broached the subject with his guests, the Rev. Dr. William Swinton Jr. of Ebenezer AME Church downtown, the Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and historian Bernard Powers.
As the debate concluded, with its handwringing, vociferous defense of institutional faith and wide-eyed admissions of what needs fixing, the Lucas Sisters positioned themselves before the cameras and sang two songs, “I know It Was the Blood” and “Marvelous,” accompanied by a very swinging Charles Miller on electric keyboard.
Confronted by this performance in the quiet and cold of the studio, something intangible happened, something emotional, something hard to explain. It was a moment that negated all the intellectual discussion and reported data. It utterly transfixed the listeners.
Gospel singing has been doing that for a long time, in the Lowcountry and beyond. The Rev. Ed McClain of Calvary AME Church said all this music is proof that the black church is in many ways thriving.
“You can’t have a dying church (when) the people are spiritual and free,” he said. “The music would be dying, too.”
And the music surely is not dying.
Perhaps the oldest continuously functioning group is the Travelling Echoes. Formed in 1946 on Johns Island, Echoes members have been amazingly dedicated, often singing in the group until death intervenes.
Today, the elder member and manager is 76-year-old Harold Wynn, who’s been with the group 47 years. Nathaniel Ricks, also 76, has been an Echo for about 44 years. William Blue, 71, has been part of the ensemble for a quarter century.
Viola Mack, 65, and the only woman (she sings tenor), has been in the group for 21 years.
Herbert Brown, 60, is a 15-year veteran. Herbert Beard, 48, has been an active Echo for 26 years.
And Curtis Mosley is the youngest and newest member at 31; he’s a two-year rookie.
Three different denominations are represented, AME, United Methodist and Baptist, according to Beard, who is the pastor’s assistant at Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. One of the singers, Ricks, is a member of Calvary AME Church, whose pastor, McClain, is an Echo alumnus.
The septet will be the featured performers at Calvary’s Sept. 29 anniversary concert.
The Travelling Echoes brand of gospel includes instrumental accompaniment provided by group members. Wynn plays guitar; Brown thumps the bass, Mosley hits the drum kit.
Beard said it’s the way African-Americans have communicated their problems since the days of slavery, and music contains a spiritual component that enables big ideas to be expressed through song.
“It’s a form of communication about how the individual feels”: about God and love and life and death, he said.
Aside from preaching, music always has been the main means of expression in church, a way to convey the tenets of faith, to celebrate a collective identity, to share individual testimony, Beard said.
“And everybody has a voice,” added McClain. Even those sitting in the pews. For they can sing, too.
The role of the church has changed over the years, especially since the civil rights victories of the 1960s, noted Bounce panelist Swinton. But it still has an important role to play in correcting social problems and nourishing members of the community.
Music, he said, always has been an integral part of the black church and the social activism it has engaged in.
“Take the music out of the civil rights movement and all you have is a protest,” Swinton said. “But when you add music to it, it takes on a deeper, higher (meaning).”
The Lucas Sisters — Rossilind, Mary and Trudy, three of nine siblings — got their start 35 years ago, but really were singing seriously as children.
Their parents, Henry and Ruth, also were singers, and Henry Lucas saw the potential in his daughters early on.
Initially, a duo was formed: Rossilind and Mary. Henry Lucas taught the girls harmony and style. A few years later, Trudy joined the group, at first reluctantly (she was the young rebel in the family, she said), then joyfully.
Years later, she would appear in musicals: “Dreamgirls” produced by Art Forms & Theatre Concepts, “Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” and “God’s Trombone.”
The sisters opened concerts for the Travelling Echoes and Five Gospel Singers of Charleston (groups to which their father belonged at the time).
Soon they were headliners themselves, eventually performing in the MOJA and Piccolo Spoleto festivals, and at various venues around town.
But church always has been central to their experience, the sisters said. Rossilind is the minister of music at Charity Baptist; Mary is an administrative assistant; and Trudy is public relations officer. Their biggest fan is the Rev. Nelson Rivers, whose national profile and affiliations help him open doors for the trio.
“Even as teenagers we wanted to go to church,” Rossilind said. There was never any inclination to rebel. Church was where the action was. Church was were the spirit resided. Church provided the opportunities to express one’s faith and nurture relationships.
The girls were regularly exposed to live gospel music; their father hosted the rehearsals for the groups he belonged to.
“Daddy knew voices well, he knew harmony and he knew what would work,” Rossilind said.
The Lucas Sisters perform often, at anniversaries and other celebrations, in gospel music concerts and on demand, they said. They are typically accompanied by Charles Miller on keyboards, Renaldo Griffin and Trevelle Simmons on drums and John Griffin (Renaldo’s dad) on bass.
When they first started out, it was “just singing,” Rossilind said. “But later it became a sermon, life, ministry. Before that, it was just words to us.”
As life experiences have accumulated, their interpretations are informed by disappointment, loss, joy, hard-won successes, all of which are applied to their art.
“Now we can sing with conviction,” she said.
It’s not always a picnic. Trudy relieves stress by joking. Mary complains about songs that are too wordy. Both sisters sometimes get on Rossilind’s nerves. But then they recall the words of their mother:
“You might not always agree or get along, but you will always be sisters, remember that.”
On Aug. 24, the sisters will sing at the 99th anniversary celebration of Charity Church.
Voice of the people
Perhaps gospel singing is so joyous and open-hearted because it is an expression of a truly liberated spirit, observed McClain.
Voice of the people
“The church and its music, anywhere, remind black people of their common heritage,” that time when the church was at the center of a difficult rural, southern life, he said. “The church was our center of ease.” It was a place where life’s toils and troubles could be set aside and briefly forgotten.
For a long time in the South, the church provided an outlet not only for spiritual praise and worship, but also for social engagement of all kinds. It was the crucible of community, the place were relationships were formed and strengthened and sustained, McClain said.
As the years passed, and as blacks migrated North to find work and to escape the claws of Jim Crow, “we took with us that burning spiritual ember inside us, and shared it,” McClain added.
The role of the church may have changed as other viable social and religious institutions have become available to blacks, but its main purpose remains threefold: to foster faith, to bring people together in communion and to engage important issues of the day.
And music is what gives the people their voice.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.
Correction: This article has been updated to include the Rev. Randolph Miller’s current church affiliation, which is Nichols Chapel AME Church. Previously, Miller was pastor of Emanuel AME Church in West Ashley.