2020-04-29
(RNS) After opera singer Denyce Graves performed in Chicago a couple of years ago, a young fan asked her some questions. Did she grow up in church? Did she sing in the church choir?

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

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

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

"Absolutely the number one requirement was that they had to have grown up 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 of Universal Music Enterprises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Ellis of En Vogue recalls how she forgot the words to "I'm Going Up 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 to generally inspirational.

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

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

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

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

The CD opens with a spoken-word selection by author Maya Angelou in which 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 ago Sunday mornings grew up to fill concert halls, opera houses, cathedrals and arenas with clarion voices that now enthrall millions," wrote Toni Morrison as an introduction to the the notes that also include childhood pictures of some of the featured artists.

Graves' selection on the recording is a new gospel-tinged arrangement of "Ave Maria," a 17th-century classic. She said she opted for that after considering 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?" she recalled. "I love the simplicity of that."

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

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