Terrance Kelly’s homegrown gospel singers still shine after 25 years.
The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir hadn’t sung “Joy to the World” since last December. During a recent Monday night rehearsal in the sanctuary of Oakland’s Imani Community Church for the 55-voice group’s annual holiday concert at the Paramount Theatre, director Terrance Kelly discovers that the choir’s delivery of his unique arrangement of the 1719 Isaac Watts Christmas carol is in need of some serious touching up.
“There’s about a third of you who were singing Russian all the way through,” Kelly, a stickler for precise enunciation, says after stopping the choir mid-song. He then playfully mocks the offenders by singing a line himself in faux Russian.
“If you don’t start getting your stuff together, I’ll stop you right in the middle of the song at the Paramount,” he threatens.
The arrangement becomes increasingly complex, with the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sections each singing different wordless lines that interlock to create a highly syncopated calypso groove. The 48-year-old Kelly works with one section at a time, indicating the desired rhythms with punching thrusts of his hands, then brings all four together. He’s especially hard on the tenors.
“You’re dragging,” he tells them. “You aren’t singing enough. You’re still kind of terrier-ish.”
He demonstrates by singing their part as a barking dog might.
“Learn to sing off beat. I want it perfect next week,” he demands before announcing that fried chicken, jambalaya, and pumpkin cupcakes, most of which he made himself, are on sale in the lobby. Proceeds will go to the nonprofit organization’s travel expenses to sing at local churches, jails, homeless shelters, and funerals, plus the choir’s uniform fund.
Kelly next introduces a number new to the choir’s repertoire: “Blessings Are Falling,” a lively, African-spiced song recently recorded by Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago. Like most gospel choir directors, he seldom uses written music—40 percent of his choir, he estimates, can’t read it. Instead, he teaches by rote so that the singers can memorize the lyrics, melody, and arrangement. As he sings the parts, moving with seemingly little effort between booming bass and soaring soprano, many hold up iPhones and other recording devices, planning to replay the session when they practice at home.
“The Little Drummer Boy,” a perennial Christmas favorite since the Harry Simeone Chorale recorded it in 1958, is up next. The choir has little trouble singing Kelly’s arrangement, which gives the song a Spanish tinge by having the rhythm section interpolate sections of Maurice Ravel’s famous 1928 composition, “Bolero.” Kelly notices, however, that the singers need a tip on how to get stronger tones when sustaining the “m” sounds in the words “come” and “drum.” He tells them to separate their upper and lower teeth when humming.
“It makes your nose buzz a little bit, but you’ll get used to it,” he tells them.
Kelly may be a demanding taskmaster, but the choir members don’t seem to mind. His admonishments can sound harsh, but they’re usually delivered with humor and with obvious love for the music at hand and for the individual members.
Kelly took over teaching a gospel music class at Cazadero Jazz Camp from his mother, Faye Kelly, following her death in 1981. Five years later, at the urging of students who expressed a desire to sing gospel more than once a year, he launched the choir. “People would ask, ‘How can I sing this music once I leave here?’” he recalls. “‘I’ve always wanted to sing gospel music, but I’m not black and I don’t know about going to a black church. I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I’m not even Christian.’”
Current membership includes blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, and people of other ethnicities. And while the term “gospel” refers to “the good news of Jesus Christ,” the choir’s ranks have contained Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists, in addition to Christians of many denominations.
“I joined because I always wanted to be a gospel singer,” recalls 56-year-old bass vocalist Jack Mahan, a member for the past 21 years. “I assumed I’d have to die and come back as a black person. One night on TV, I saw the choir, and I went, ‘Oh, my God! There’s a gospel choir with white people!’”
“I’m not especially religious,” adds Mahan, who was raised Methodist. “It’s the joy of the music. Whether you believe in God or not—I may or may not, depending on the day—it’s just such joy.”
The choir was controversial during its early years, not only because it welcomed non-Christians but also because the membership was largely white. A 1989 New York Times profile of the group made much of the seeming disparity between the racial makeup of the choir and the fact that it primarily performs black gospel music. African-American participation gradually increased, however, and black people now make up about a third of the singers. Asians currently comprise about 12 percent of the choir.
“It’s part of our mission statement that we choose to use basically black gospel music,” Kelly explains. “We go outside the confines, though. I would do that with whatever choir I’m directing. They sing better when they sing different styles. It polishes the middle. We might not sing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as pristine as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but I dare them to try some of our gospel tunes. We may not hit the gospel tunes quite as hard as Ricky Dillard, but give him Randall Thompson’s ‘Alleluia.’ We may not have the polar ends, but we have a lot in the middle.”
Kelly learned the fine points of choir directing and arranging from his mother, who led the adult and youth choirs at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, as well as the Laney College Choir and her own Faye Kelly Singers. Kelly himself began singing at age 3, and at age 9 joined the Kelly Family Singers, which included his two sisters, a cousin, and a niece. “I used to see her sit and figure out how to make the songs sound good for the church choir,” he says of his mother. “You have to make the song fit your choir.”
Kelly’s first directing job was with the youth choir at Greater St. Paul Baptist Church in Oakland. But his private passion was for a very different type of music: He had developed an appreciation for opera as a teenager and studied voice at Texas Southern and Holy Names universities, as well as privately with John Patton, Jr. and Cheryl Keller. Ultimately, his mastery of both vocal disciplines—gospel and classical—helped him transform the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir from a bunch of novices into a first-class, internationally renowned singing ensemble.
“I wanted to be a classical singer, but God wasn’t working it out that way for me,” says Kelly, who also directs the adult and youth choirs at Imani Community Church, as well as supervises the praise dancers and ushers as part of his job as “Minister of Magnification.” “It was really hard at some points for me to get back to singing gospel because of the classical training. I think God did that for a reason, to get me ready to deal with people who didn’t sing gospel. When I get to people who go, ‘I can’t do that,’ I say, ‘Yes, you can. If I can do it, you can do it.’”
The diverse musical interests of his father, the late pianist and organist Ed Kelly, including jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals, and classical, were a major influence on Terrance Kelly’s musical development. Noted for long associations with jazz violinist Michael White and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and for recordings with Art Pepper and Sonny Stitt, Ed also taught music at Laney College and worked as an organist at Allen Temple and Greater St. Paul Baptist Church. And, in keeping with the Kelly family’s intertwined musical careers, he was the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir’s original organist.
The choir’s repertoire is more eclectic than that of most large gospel ensembles, encompassing a wide spectrum of styles, from spirituals and hymns to traditional and contemporary gospel and praise songs. The choir also has performed numbers like Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Wanting Memories” and Take 6’s jazzy arrangement of “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep.” Kelly kept his arrangements relatively simple in the beginning, but they became more and more complex, he says, as the choir “grew musically every year.”
“Alleluia” is one of the few pieces in the choir’s repertoire for which the singers learned from sheet music before performing from memory. “When you have to commit a song to memory, you sing it with more heart,” Kelly contends. “You’re more connected to it because it becomes more organic. When it’s on the paper, sometimes you don’t have any connection to it until the paper’s in front of you.”
The choir has performed repeatedly sold-out Christmas concerts, first at Oakland’s Calvin Simmons Theater and then at the larger Paramount Theatre, every December since its inception a quarter century ago. A smaller contingent known as the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Ensemble has done holiday shows at Slim’s in San Francisco for the past two decades. Besides frequent appearances in the Bay Area, including a 1990 sacred music concert with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Grace Cathedral, the choir has appeared in Atlanta, New Orleans, Charleston, New York City, Canada, Israel, and Australia. Last year, 30 choir members traveled to New York City to perform on The Wendy Williams Show. The ensemble opened and closed the nationally syndicated television talk show with “How Ya Doin’?,” a number Kelly had composed based on Williams’s catchphrase.
Isa S. Chu, 31, has been a member of the alto section since joining six years ago after attending one of the choir’s holiday concerts at the Paramount. A lifelong Christian who was born in Hong Kong, she spoke no English before relocating to Oakland at age 5 with her parents and sister.
A self-described “Top 40 girl” whose favorite singers are Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, Chu says that singing in the choir “serves as my spiritual outlet, as my creative outlet, and as my political outlet because of the mix of people.”
“We agree to disagree,” she says. “We agree to work together and respect each other. We don’t talk about our faith and beliefs to change people but with the intent to inform only. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about other cultures and faiths. I’ve been able to keep my faith and still acknowledge others.”
“It’s world peace,” she says, summing up in three short words why she became—and remains—a happily dedicated member of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir.
The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir annual holiday concert is slated for 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. The choir takes part in the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s “Let Us Break Bread Together” concert, 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 11, at the Paramount. An annual Christmas Eve show by the Oakland Interfaith Ensemble on Saturday, Dec. 24, 7 and 9:30 p.m., at Slim’s, 333 11th St., San Francisco, rounds out the season. For info: (510) 839-4361 or oigc.org.
Music writer Lee Hildebrand’s books include Hammertime and Stars of Soul and Rhythm & Blues, and he served as co-producer of The Legends of Gospel reissue series on Specialty Records. A resident of Oakland for 28 years, he currently lives in Tracy.