A llen Bailey doesn’t pussyfoot around when talking about his Harlem Gospel Choir.
“We are missionaries for Christ,” says the 72-year-old founder and spiritual leader of the 65-member American gospel choir based in Harlem, New York. “Our choir is first and foremost a ministry, and we minister through our music.”
While it’s unclear whether hearing the choir’s fervently rendered versions of everything from traditional hymns to U2 songs to standards like “Oh Happy Day” will convince anyone to change their belief systems, it has been known to convert listeners into lifelong gospel music fans.
It was in 1986 when Bailey, a veteran music promoter who built a solid 30-year career as booking agent for some of the top African- American acts in the US, including The Commodores, Isaac Hayes, Michael Jackson and Prince, devised the project of taking neighborhood choirs in Harlem and turning them into working units to raise money for charities.
“We always had quite a few tourists coming to Harlem to hear the choir in churches, and we started getting invitations to perform in their towns and countries,” says Bailey. “I thought it would be nice for people around the world to see what this gospel thing is all about.”
The first official appearance of the Harlem Gospel Choir took place on Martin Luther King’s birthday that year at New York’s famed Cotton Club. Since then, the choir has become an American staple, appearing in Madonna’s Like a Prayer video, performing for dignitaries such as US President Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Paul McCartney and at Elton John’s 60th birthday party, and sharing stages with everyone from Bono to The Chieftains to Lyle Lovett.
“You’d be surprised how much popular music is infused from gospel music,” says the gregarious Bailey. “We got a call from Elvis Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, who asked us to perform on her rendition of her father’s “In the Ghetto.” She told me that the only Grammys Elvis ever received were for his gospel albums and that he used to come to Harlem to see the choir perform, which is where he got some of his fancy moves.”
Bailey himself doesn’t sing (“I tried once, and they told me stop”), but he does work tirelessly to promote the choir. Around six years ago, the choir began embellishing its New York-area appearances, including a regular Sunday night show at BB King’s nightclub in New York City, with tours throughout the US and overseas. Three different groups go out on the road simultaneously, each featuring approximately 10 singers backed by a pianist in a modern-day version of an oldfashioned spiritual revival. Their upcoming shows in Israel will take place on November 29 at Zappa Tel Aviv, November 30 at Zappa Herzliya and December 1 at Zappa Jerusalem.
According to Bailey, it doesn’t matter whether the audience has any experience with gospel music; there’s a visceral connection made between the performers and the audience.
“Gospel reaches everyone. It’s fascinating when we travel to a country that doesn’t speak our language,” says Bailey. “They might not understand the words, but they sure understand the feeling of what we’re trying to express.”
Bailey won’t be arriving in Israel with the choir, having suffered a heart attack two months ago and is under doctor’s orders not to travel.
“I was told I couldn’t go because I’m too passionate about what I do,” he says. “I told them that I have to be passionate about it – it’s what I do!” That passion derives in part from looking at the final goal of the choir – to raise money for its charities. To date, they’ve contributed to organizations ranging from Feed the Children and the Hole in Wall camp for terminally ill children established by Paul Newman to their own Harlem Gospel Retreat, a church camp for homeless children, established in the Poconos in 2009.
Looking back on his 26 years at the helm of the choir, Bailey expresses gratification at the realization of his original vision of spreading gospel music to the world.
“Looking at all the people we helped, I’m more than satisfied,” he says. “We’ve been able to go to these beautiful countries, spreading the music. What could be better? I get to travel the world, and at the end of my job I get a standing ovation.”
The Harlem Gospel Choir will perform on November 29 at Zappa Tel Aviv; November 30 at Zappa Herzliya; and December 1 at Zappa Jerusalem.