‘Nothing like a good choir’

More than a dozen former members of Triumph Community Choir gathered at Bright Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church last month to prepare for the groups reunion concert on Sept. 6. Pictured from left are Cassandra McLean; Walter Steelle III; Valerie Allen; Ira Baldwin; Raylla Davis-Murray; Andrea McLeod-Thomas; Shelia McLean; Kathy Blue-Cousar; Nicole ‘Nikki’ McEachin Davis; Vicki Ellison-Blue; Corey Monroe; Christopher McPhatter; Ingrid McPhatter Washington; Chris Pegues and Teresa Pemberton-McLean.

The hand-drawn cover of Triumph Community Choir’s first program.

LAURINBURG — Some 35 years ago, as deejays across America were spinning Kool & the Gang, Donna Summer and Earth, Wind and Fire for neon-clad clubgoers, what could be considered Scotland County’s music scene was found between stained-glass windows, the first chords prefaced by a rustling sea of handheld fans.

Through the 1970s and 80s, community choirs, comprised of young and old alike, dominated the schedules of churches and school auditoriums across Scotland County. Arguably the most popular of those, Triumph Community Choir, established a following strong enough to draw capacity crowds — and a bond usually found only among those who share a last name.

“Thirty-plus years ago was an entirely different time and an entirely different spirit of people,” said former member Ira Baldwin. “The church in the black community was one in the same. We were all one solid family — and there’s no better family than you find in the community choir. You sang, you traveled together. You tried to hold each other up.”

Baldwin and a handful of other members gathered recently in the fellowship hall of Bright Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, greeting each other with hugs and handshakes, sharing how time had done its work on each of them in different ways.

Because 200 members had served the choir, Christopher McPhatter knew organizing a reunion concert would come with a special set of challenges. But having already poured countless hours into an analog history of the group — assembling “a mess” of scrapbooks, news clippings, file folders, cassette tapes and boxes of aging photographs — the former director saw it as a worthy task.

A reunion in 2009 drew 60 former members and enough traffic to warrant direction by Laurinburg police. This year, on Sept. 6, with the help of Facebook, McPhatter hopes for a repeat performance at Bright Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, which will include a special tribute for the nine singers who have passed away.

For its members, the pull of the choir remains hard to explain. It might have been the friendship, the voices, or the same sense of togetherness, belonging and pride often forged in a locker room. But whatever the reason, with a minimum age for membership set at 16, 15-year-olds pined for their next birthday.

“We turned 16 and, like, the next day, we were on the choir,” McPhatter said.

“That was the point, it was so good that everyone wanted to be on it,” said Nicole ‘Niki’ McEachin Davis.

‘It was a free space’

In the summer of 1980, the prelude to her senior year at Scotland High School, Atondra Williams (now Ellis) and her best friend and “voice of reason,” Jackie McLeod, were bouncing around ideas of how to bring together friends they would normally only see at school.

“The fun that you had came from home, church or school, and that was it,” she said. “You didn’t have the social media you do now. I could remember when we had three TV channels. If you were going to have any fun at all, it was people concentrated — it was conversation, it was laughing, it was joking around. You weren’t quite as mobile, to get to go to other places or cities. It was all local. Unless you were going to go to a party full of people with loud music there wasn’t many other places to socialize, and for some of us, our parents were so strict, you didn’t do a lot of that.

“When it was associated with church, oh, all bets were off. Even if you were punished or in trouble for something, you could still go to church, you could still go to choir practice.”

Thus, the idea for Triumph was born. With the blessing of advisors Gwen Rainer and Linda Douglas — teachers at Scotland High School — it snowballed, bringing together an eclectic group of young people, from high school basketball and track stars to those who had already dedicated much of their time to their own church’s choir. Altos, tenors and sopranos aged 16 to 19 quickly filled the living room, kitchen and dining room of Thomasena Williams’ house, and later the practice space offered by Bethlehem and Solid Rock Baptist churches, spending hours upon hours each week refining their harmonies.

“There were folks that we wouldn’t have even be friends with if it wasn’t for Triumph,” Ellis said, who capped membership at 60.

“It was a free space for teenagers to hang out and not have adults breathing down your neck and assume you were doing something wrong — a free space to enjoy each other’s company. There were Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, members of so many denominations on the choir. Usually young ones are the most accepting and most open. So it was never a question of how we would worship, just that we would worship together.”

The choir visited three churches in its first day of performances, beginning in Hamlet and coming back to Solid Rock in the afternoon. The program, a combination of pen-and-ink illustration and typewritten text, included “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired,” “With Joy We Draw Water” and “Draw Now Closer.”

Ellis stuck with the choir until she moved to attend Davidson College and local track star Theresa Hawkins took over leadership, followed by Tony Spaulding and then Chris McPhatter.

“You think Triumph, you think Chris,” Ellis said. “He’s the one who pushed it through for years.”

Ellis, who moved back to Scotland County from her home in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, now teaches history and social studies at Scotland High. She credits the choir with helping her learn “life skills” like organization and communication — and thinks it could do the same for the latest generation.

“I think that it would be a new kind of focus for kids. There’s commitment attached to it. You don’t have young people in church the way we did. It’s not the place to be. And I think that’s the way we could draw kids back.”

At least one former member, Corey Monroe, credits the choir, and the expectations fellow members had of him, with keeping him in school.

“TCC turned my life around,” he said.

‘I realized how powerful God was’

Through the years, the choir experience turnover as some aged out and others moved on. McPhatter began leading the choir at the age of 16, not long after he joined himself, when the age limit had been expanded to 25.

“Of course, there were other people much older than me,” said McPhatter, who accentuates his words with busy hands and finds it hard to sit still. “You can’t be timid doing it — you either do it or you don’t.”

His style of reigning in big talent, often simply by “doing it his way,” set the bar high. Rehearsals were not without the occasional battle, but for the most part, egos were checked at the door.

“Generations upon generations came together for one common goal, to praise God,” said Chris Pegues, who joined when his voice was still cracking. “I realized how powerful God was.”

And now, after years of navigating adulthood, that realization feels stronger than ever.

“Back then, we came, we threw down, we sang,” said Andrea McLeod-Thomas. “We just wanted to sing. But now, you’ve been through so much, you know what you are singing about.

“You really do understand it better, by and by.”

‘There’s nothing like a good choir’

In the years since choirs like Triumph performed every Sunday, the style of church worship has changed, with praise teams and mime performances now dominating weekly programs. While Steele, who has seen the change at his own church, Community Baptist, calls it an “evolution,” those of the old school beg to differ.

“There’s nothing like a good choir when we, well, possess,” McPhatter said, “when we’re taken by the Holy Spirit and everyone feels it. There’s a moment when everyone is sitting on the edge of their chair like, ‘they’re getting ready to sing’ — and we are.”

Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-506-3023.