By Gilbert Garcia
Sylvia St. James devotes her life to scouting gospel-music talent. As the national director for House of Blues' Gospel Brunch series, she has launched weekly showcases in Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Anaheim. Everywhere she goes, the Chicago-born St. James - a seasoned R&B and gospel singer herself - learns something new about the gospel tradition.
"I've been surprised at the amount of talent, and also at the history of gospel music in each area," she says. "For instance, I didn't know that in Florida there was a tradition called 'sacred steel,' featuring steel guitar. Robert Randolph is the fruit of that tradition. I've never seen it anywhere else.
"In the Carolinas, without any music, there is a symphony of handclaps in alternate rhythms. They've got a handclap praise that's unbelievable."
Last month, St. James made a pilgrimage to San Antonio seeking talented vocal groups for Sunset Station's new Gospel Brunch series. At a Tuesday night rehearsal, she was immediately riveted by the Macedonia Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir, a 90-piece powerhouse that has been elevating spirits since its inception in 1937.
"They're an incredible choir," St. James says. "They're just wonderful."
Upon hearing the Macedonia Choir, and meeting Jerry Dailey, the church's pastor, St. James decided that they were the perfect group to open Al Green's April 30 show at Sunset Station. She also hopes to make them one of the cornerstones of Gospel Brunch, a plan that could require some intense schedule shuffling on the choir's part.
"Being that the nature of our group is that we are a church choir, our first and foremost responsibility is to the church services at Macedonia `963 SW 40th St.`," says Donald Garrett, president of the choir. "So we're trying to work it out to where we can accommodate the folks from the House of Blues sometime this summer. We're working on it."
Garrett grew up in Houston, and settled in Austin after attending the University of Texas. In 1991, he moved to San Antonio and gravitated to Macedonia after hearing people talk about the special environment being nurtured at the church.
"It had nothing to do with proximity, because I was living in Live Oak at the time and Macedonia is out on the South Side. One of my cousins was a member there, and I felt the warmth and the love of the church and pastor Dailey. And it drew me to Macedonia."
The choir's capacity to uplift was on full display at the Green show, a kind of coming-out party for Gospel Brunch. With practically no vocal amplification, and with their tiny backing band crowded on the left end of the stage, Macedonia worked its call-and-response testifying with such fervor that even confirmed skeptics found themselves involuntarily raising their arms in praise.
The massive group assembles every Tuesday night for two-and-a-half hour rehearsals. Garrett credits the direction of Gary Givens, the church's minister of music, for providing his choir with an uncommon command of vocal arrangements.
"There are a lot of choirs in San Antonio, and I'm not trying to sound haughty, but a lot of choirs are not privileged to have the best of teachers," Garrett says. "Down through the years, we've been blessed to have great teachers to teach us the parts and vocal techniques."
In 1999, the Macedonia choir recorded Looking for a City, a CD collaboration with the widely admired gospel singer Dorothy Norwood. Recorded live at New Life Christian Center - one of the few local houses of worship that could comfortably fit a choir of their size - the disc artfully displays the group's many strengths, from Givens' arrangements to the power and versatility of their many soloists. In a way, the most impressive cuts are "Looking for a City" (composed by Givens) and "Adoration," the two examples of the choir singing as a single instrument, without a soloist.
"These are soldiers, spiritual warriors," St. James says. "They're giving it all, and it's coming from the divine. The object of Gospel Brunch is to touch, to uplift, to enlighten, to inspire, and finally, to empower that audience to praise God with their whole heart. We're not meant to replace church. We're an appetizer for church." •