NorCal Chapter Choir Keeps Gospel Music Going

Local chapter members of the Gospel Music Workshop of America Choir raise their voices to uplift hearts, strengthening the African-American gospel tradition.


Members of the NorCal Chapter Choir raise their voices and spirits at a recent choir practice.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

During the prayer preceding a Monday night rehearsal of the NorCal Chapter Gospel Music Workshop of America Choir, the Reverend Doctor Juana Francis explains the group’s mission. “We don’t want to just sing,” she says. “We want to lift hearts with our singing.”

About half of the ensemble’s 150 members are present. Members take turns leading the ensemble though a series of gospel songs, some familiar, others less so. Vanessa Murphy, one of the choir’s star soloists, directs them through “God Is My Everything,” a number popularized by the Chicago Mass Choir. The singers read lyric sheets while she teaches each section—sopranos, altos, tenors, and baritones—melodies and harmonies to memorize.

“Is it ‘everything’ or ‘everythang’?” one member asks.

“‘Everythang,’” Murphy answers.

Once they all have their parts down, they join their voices together over organ and piano chords and the steady backbeat of a drummer. Murphy takes the lead.

“God is my everythang,” she wails in a husky contralto. “He’s my joy in sorrow. He’s my hope for tomorrow. He’s my rock in a weary land. A shelter in the time of storm.”

Before the song has ended, the choir is rocking. Many hands clap cross rhythms against the swinging 4/4 groove.

Steven Roberts, the choir’s music director since 1979 and a prolific composer whose songs have been recorded by such gospel greats as Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Daryl Coley, then teaches the singers “Lord, I Thank You,” at first sitting at the piano before rising to lead them with sweeping strokes of his arms.

“Tenors, put some gravy and grease on this,” he commands at one point.

While they run through the song, a collection plate passes down the pews where they sit.

“As you know,” he tells the singers, “we pay rent as we go.”

The NorCal choir is a volunteer organization, like those of the other 172 Gospel Music Workshop of America chapters. Members pay annual dues, as well as rent for the use of the church for monthly rehearsals. The choir receives honorariums for concert performances, but the money goes toward covering expenses, such as traveling to perform at the parent organization’s annual conventions, the most recent of which was in New Orleans in July.

The GMWA was founded in 1967 by the prolific singer, pianist, composer, and record producer James Cleveland, the most influential figure in African-American gospel music from 1960 until his death in 1991. New songs by chapter choirs are presented at the three-day conventions, and many have been recorded and issued on dozens of albums released by Savoy Records.

“We’re not just national; we’re international,” Roberts says of the GMWA. “Every year we have at least five international groups come in. This year we had a group come from China. There’s an international love for this music.”

The NorCal Chapter Choir will host the Crystal Choir Awards at Bethel Missionary Church, 6901 Herbert Guice Way, Oakland, on Saturday, Feb. 27.

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