(RNS) After opera singer Denyce Graves performed in Chicago a coupleof years ago, a young fan asked her some questions. Did she grow up inchurch? Did she sing in the church choir?

The mezzo-soprano told him yes, an answer he fully expected. "I can hearthe church in your voice," he told her.

That exchange led to a CD project spearheaded by Graves and produced byTena Rix Clark. "Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration" features the musicaltalents of such African-American women artists as Patti LaBelle, ShirleyCaesar, Chaka Khan and Dionne Warwick as well as a CD-ROM with interviewswhere they discuss their church backgrounds.

"We approached many different artists about the project," Gravesrecounted in an interview from Warsaw, Poland, where she was performing andserving as a cultural ambassador.

"Absolutely the number one requirement was that they had to have grownup in the church."

The CD, which will be released June 3, is a co-production of Graves'Carmen Productions, Clark's DMI Records, and UTV Records, a division ofUniversal Music Enterprises.

Graves, whose mother described her singing as a gift from God, grew upas the daughter, granddaughter and niece of Pentecostal ministers.

"We were called `holy rollers,"' she said of her early church life inWashington, D.C., that featured speaking in tongues and laying on of hands.

"My career, my calendar, leaves me very little time to actually go intochurch as it were, but it's very much a part and the teachings are very mucha part of the woman that I am today."

On the CD-ROM, artists speak about how faithful music has influencedtheir life.

In an emotional interview, Stephanie Mills said the music of gospelartist John P. Kee aided her in her darkest moments.

"It helped me through a lot of times when I wanted to die, when I wantedto commit suicide," she said. "It helped me to endure."

Terry Ellis of En Vogue recalls how she forgot the words to "I'm GoingUp a Yonder" when she was "absolutely terrified" about her first choir solo.

Chaka Khan, who grew up in a Catholic church on Chicago's South Side,said: "I consider singing my form of prayer. That's how I pray best."

The CD features a mix of songs that range from specifically religious togenerally inspirational.

"My hope is that whoever the listener is, that it puts them in touchwith their own foundation, that they just are able to reflect on whateverthe church symbolizes or means to them," Graves said.

Graves said she and Clark intentionally included many pieces where anartist sings of a loved one but "could also be speaking about God."

It features the earnest strains of the gospel standard "His Eye is Onthe Sparrow" by singer and preacher Shirley Caesar and Nnenna Freelon's morecontemporary "Ooh Child," a jazzy tune that speaks of brighter days.

The only new solo vocal recording on the album is that of Patti LaBelleperforming "Way Up There," a gospel arrangement of a song written by Clarkthat LaBelle sang earlier this year in honor of the space shuttle Columbiavictims.

The CD opens with a spoken-word selection by author Maya Angelou inwhich she also sings "Every time I feel the spirit" at the end of the track.

It also features another literary luminary in its liner notes. "The little girls in choir robes and pigtails who sang on long agoSunday mornings grew up to fill concert halls, opera houses, cathedrals andarenas with clarion voices that now enthrall millions," wrote Toni Morrisonas an introduction to the the notes that also include childhood pictures ofsome of the featured artists.

Graves' selection on the recording is a new gospel-tinged arrangementof "Ave Maria," a 17th-century classic. She said she opted for that afterconsidering performing a spiritual. "Then we thought, why not a piece that comes directly from the church,but that anyone can relate to no matter what ... their denomination?" sherecalled. "I love the simplicity of that."

She thinks it's fitting that she happens to sing the only "Amen" on thealbum in that selection. "It's something that I say quite often after something's been stated andthere's nothing left to say," she said. "The Ave Maria -- it's so sacredthat I just wanted to close with that."

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