For 26 years, the Harlem Gospel Choir has been spreading love all over the world.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
The Harlem Gospel Choir was born Jan. 15, 1986, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. The group’s been dedicated to carrying on his ideals ever since.
“Dr. King’s philosophy was to bring people together and give something back,” says founder Allen Bailey. “We teach all our young people in Harlem that we can’t just keep taking and the most successful people are the ones who are always giving back.”
Since HGC’s inception, it’s routinely raised money for charities including Save the Children, the Leukemia Society, the Cancer Foundation, the United Negro College Fund and Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang (a reference from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), which focuses on helping terminally ill kids. Shortly after the choir formed, Newman invited Bailey and HGC to perform at his Connecticut estate.
“I told [Newman] that I’d like to do something like he was doing,” he says. “He said, ‘All you have to do is start somewhere.’ It’s hard to disagree with those big blue eyes.”
Bailey took the late, great actor’s advice and raised enough money to purchase a spot not very far from Newman’s home where he and his wife take inner-city kids on weekend retreats.
“Some of the kids never get a chance to get out of Harlem,” Bailey says. “They go out in the woods and see ducks and deer. It’s an amazing experience for those young kids.”
As a poor kid growing up in Harlem, Bailey says he used to have to sneak into the side door of the famed Apollo Theater to see acts like Sammy Davis Jr. and Duke Ellington. These days, the big name musicians call him. Over the past two decades, HGC has performed with – and made fans out of – everyone from Bono and Harry Belafonte to Paul McCartney. In 1990, the choir was invited by the African National Congress to perform for Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium, and the South African president invited them to perform at his home later this year. In 2003 the outfit spent New Year’s Eve in the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, who described their performance as “more than a show – it’s a feeling.”
HGC will be bringing that feeling to the Sunset Center on Saturday. Unfortunately, Bailey is under the weather, so his wife Anna will accompany the 15 core members (there are 60 total) of the choir in his place. But Bailey has been involved in putting together an extra special set for their Carmel show that may even include some Whitney Houston – who was a huge fan – and Michael Jackson. In 2009, HGC performed a heartwarming a capella tribute to Jackson on Good Morning America, which resonated throughout Times Square and mesmerized thousands.
King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And that’s one of the reasons why the Harlem Gospel Choir continues to flourish.
HARLEM GOSPEL CHOIR performs 8pm Saturday, April 7, at Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at Ninth, Carmel. $45; $50; $55. 620-2048, www.sunsetcenter.org