Remember When: Local gospel choir 30 year reunion
Published 4:24 pm Friday, July 19, 2019
“I’ve Got a Robe, You’ve Got a Robe, All God’s Children Got a Robe, When I get to heav’n gonna put on my robe and gonna walk all over God’s heav’n, heav’n, heav’n. Gonna walk all over God’s heav’n.” On the internet, it states that this popular African-American gospel song appears in at least 18 hymnals. The verses continue with “I’ve Got a Crown…I’ve Got Shoes…I’ve Got a Harp…I’ve Got a Song.”
On Saturday evening, July 20 at 6:00 p.m., the South Alabama Mass Choir (SAMC) will present a concert at the First Baptist Church on Whatley Street in Andalusia. This will be a reunion concert of this gospel choir established 30 years ago in 1989. Three local women who were around when this group was formed recently shared the story with this writer that is more or less the history of the SAMC, a never to be forgotten Covington County story. Diana Glover Samuel, Emma Samuel Locke, and Betty Joyce Hobbs-Holmes spared none of the details of the history of the SAMC and the occasions that transpired in the late 1980s.
The theme was “Upward in the 80s” back then at the Andalusia Area Chamber of Commerce. The organizers of this singing group were all of the opinion that there was a need at that time to come together to fellowship, sing, and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as they served the community.
Dr. Tommie James, well-known locally and nationally for his work in gospel music as well as in the medical community, started his music career early in life. He began with piano classes under the instruction of the late and beloved Mr. Elmore Lewis, Jr. in Andalusia. James has used his musical talents to form many gospel groups, but in the fall of 1989, he exercised his organizational skills to establish the SAMC.
Another founding director was the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Marshall. Affectionately known by the singers as “Chuck,” this gifted musician and composer was employed full-time at Amoco Fabric and Fiber Company (currently Shaw Industries), the new industry on the scene. At the time, there were a number of people from Georgia that came to town to supervise the new industry. Some of those employees signed up to be a part of the new gospel group. Pamela Hoyles who became the first president of the group was one of those individuals. She was closely assisted by Diana Glover and Juanita Johnson according to the Chamber of Commerce Impact newsletter.
Marshall, living in Andalusia at the time, who was associated with the Auburn University Gospel Choir was invited by James at the second rehearsal to be the pianist. James was the director of a choir workshop at his home church, The Church of the Living God, with Maurice Foster as the temporary pianist. Over 50 people from Covington and the surrounding counties of Coffee, Crenshaw, Conecuh, and Butler joined together to form the new group. James and Marshall became the perfect fit for the choir.
Rehearsals were held in different locations. Dr. Marshall and Dr. James came up with all of the written music. Practices were held every Saturday night. It was evident from the on start that there was a lot of talent in the new group.
Robes for performing were created. Their design was floor-length cuffed white satin robes with purple and gold overlays, all hand-sewn by a few of the members including expert seamstresses Diana Glover (Samuel) and Dr. Tommie James. Several choir members handmade their own robes like the industrious Joyce Hobbs-Holmes.
Emma Locke states, “Chuck was passing through Andalusia last summer, and he decided to get up with some of his old choir friends. He went to the church, the First Baptist Church of Whatley Street, to check out and play the new baby grand piano.”
She continued, “Martha Carter who had been the Executive Director of ‘Bright Beginnings’ had left instructions before she passed away that in the event the pre-school kindergarten program ever closed, she would like for the piano that she had donated to be given to the FBC Whatley.”
“When Chuck sat down and played that piano, it made us all feel so good. We reminisced together and afterwards started making conference calls to our former choir members. It was decided that we should aim for a grand reunion in the summer of 2019 to commemorate our 30th year anniversary.”
Committees were soon formed to make plans and to begin locating former choir members, many of whom lived away, to invite them to the July 20, 2019 event.
The trio of alumnae choir members, Samuel, Locke, and Homes, well remember the first “preview performance” under the name of SAMC on the LBW Jr. College Dixon Auditorium stage on June 16, 1990. Another memorable performance was held at the Andalusia High School Auditorium where they marched down the aisles singing.
Other performances were at the Bethel A. M. E. Family and Friends Day, Nazareth Baptist in Opp, Mulberry Baptist in Crenshaw County, St. Beulah Missionary Baptist in Enterprise, Jordan Grove Baptist past Dozier in Crenshaw County, and at a school in Pensacola where the photo shown in this publication was taken. A memorable Gospel Workshop was also held with Minnie Stringer as the guest musician.
Choir members were represented from various churches including First Unity Missionary, St. Peter Baptist, Mount Moriah, New Pilgrim, Church of the Living God CWFF, Bethel A. M. E., and Mulberry Baptist.
Transportation was by members traveling in cars. They relied strictly on donations.
Thirty years later, choir members no longer living include Martha Smith from Andalusia and Mary Sue Brooks from Opp. There may be others but are not known to the trio who was interviewed.
The illustrious duo of James and Marshall have definitely gone on to great accomplishments. James has registered all of his original songs and recordings with the National Library of Congress and is currently in the process of launching his Paramount Gospel Musical Awards of Alabama business. He has directed many gospel groups including The Gospel Echoes, The Angels of Heaven, The Gospel J Notes, and the 37 Voice Choir. Semi-retired from the medical field, James currently serves as Minister of Music at the Church of the Living God, CWFF, and at the First Unity Missionary Baptist Church, both in Andalusia.
Marshall is a pastor, published author, international speaker, playwright, composer, public servant, and ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Senior Pastor of the Fountain of Hope Christian Church of Atlanta, Georgia. With over 30 years of ministry experience, Rev. Marshall has provided pastoral care throughout the world as he fulfills the call of God in his life. He also currently serves as Ministry Director for the Gospel Music Workshop of America, Atlanta Chapter as an instructor of church administration at Atlanta Divinity Center. In addition, he has a full-time job as Director of Asset Management at Hartsfield-Jackson International Atlanta Airport.
Alumni choir members are excited about their upcoming reunion performance and urge the public to attend the early evening concert on Saturday, July 20, 6:00 p. m. at First Baptist Church, Whatley Street. They hope to get another younger generation interested in singing gospel music in a choir setting.
The South Alabama Mass Choir organization finally disbanded around 1992. Some of the Amoco folks were transferred and moved back to Georgia. Others moved away.
Now, after 30 years, the members are coming together again to celebrate God’s goodness and to glorify the Lord in song.
The vintage choir robe of Joyce Hobbs-Holmes has been donated to the Three Notch Museum on Historic Central Street for display among the Black History artifacts along with the only known picture of the group.
The choir will no doubt think back and Remember When they were all younger but declare they are just as enthusiastic as ever about their members reuniting in fellowship and song. The public is invited to attend the Saturday night event as well as the Sunday morning service when Dr. Marshall will deliver the message. The celebration is open to anyone who wants to participate.
So “put on your robe, put on your crown, put on your shoes,” and walk on down, brothers and sisters, to Whatley Street on Saturday evening at 6:00. See you there!
Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at email@example.com.