“We’re giving you a spectrum of four hundred years of African-American music. We start with field cries and hollers and we end up with contemporary praise music. So within that span we have spirituals, we have jazz, we have gospel, we have rhythm and blues, we have rap, we have neo-soul. We’re giving you a gumbo,” Dr. Doris Jones-Wilson, director of the Legend Singers Choral Ensemble, said.
The Legend Singers, one of the oldest African-American choirs in the country, was formed in 1940 by Kenneth Brown Billups in the interest of “preserving the indigenous music of the Black American.” Dr. Jones Wilson, noted musical director, has been with the St. Louis-based group for 15 years. Last Friday, the Legend Singers came to the Touhill Performing Arts Center for a Black history month performance that showcased the African-American musical tradition.
The Lee Auditorium was almost at full capacity as the show began. A range of genres was represented during the show from Blues to Gospel and everything in between. Also implemented were costumes complimenting the different eras. For example, singer Linda Majors’ rendition of “St. Louis Blues” utilized a feather boa and pearls in an effort to transport the audience back through time to an old juke joint of the 1920s.
Along with singing and costumes, the show also included humor. In a celebration of early African-American musical theater, the choir’s rendition of Josephine Baker’s “Chiquita Madam” delighted the audience. Singer Celeste Brown, in an outfit reminiscent of Josephine Baker’s trademark island costume from the original Broadway show, sashayed on stage and seemingly charmed the audience.
“I don’t know all of the songs but I really like the show. The singers are really good,” Miakayla Buriago, audience member, said.
The Legend Singers proved Buriago right that night, showcasing the wide vocal range of the choir members who easily conquered a multitude of genres.
“My favorite part was when they got into the ’60 and onward with Motown, because that’s the music I’m most familiar with. It was nice to hear the history behind that and to see everyone else in the audience really get into it,” Sheri Walker, audience member, said.
The apparent favorite of the night, however, was probably the contemporary hip-hop. The audience had been involved throughout the show, cheering on the performers with exclamations like “Sing it!” and “Alright now!” During a performance of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” however, the floor literally shook when the crowd could not stop themselves from stomping along. The choir members thrived on audience participation, filling their songs with more and more energy the more worked up the crowd became.
The Legend Singers brought their repertoire to a joyful close with contemporary praise and worship. The audience got on their feet and clapped along to “Glory to Glory” and the choir finished to a standing ovation with “Every time I Feel the Spirit.” With one last visit to African-American spirituals, the genre Dr. Jones-Wilson describes as “the basis of all African-American music,” the musical journey was complete.
“I know the different types of Black music but putting it into chronological order and seeing the development through the years from slavery to now was awesome,” Walker, audience member, said.
The Legend Singers chose their name because the group sought to carry on the tradition of legendary Black folk music. “I would have the audience leave with an appreciation for the contribution that African-Americans have made toward not only American music, but world music because our music has influenced all music,” Dr. Jones-Wilson said.