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Choirs Capture Sound, Spirit of Gospel in ‘How Sweet the Sound’ Contest

December 6, 2010 at 4:56 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown chronicles the competition in the "How Sweet the Sound" contest to find the best church choir in America.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: the sound and the spirit of gospel in an unlikely arena.

It was a mix of spiritual and spectacle, church revival and “American Idol”-style competitions.

REV. MARVIN SAPP, judge, How Sweet the Sound Competition: You all did a phenomenal job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fourteen choirs from churches around the nation recently competed in the How Sweet the Sound finale, a celebration of gospel music
started by Verizon and held at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., a venue usually hosting major sports and pop music events, but on this night filled with close to 11,000 gospel fans.

Outside the main hall, a youth choir displayed its talents, as people arrived. And concertgoers young and old took part in some gospel karaoke — on
stage, a wide array of modern gospel styles, from the traditionally gowned New Sunny Mount Missionary Baptist Church in Saint Louis, to the masked and highly
choreographed Burning Bush International Ministries Mass Choir from Detroit…

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: … all of it, according to gospel recording star Marvin Sapp, aimed at one thing.

REV. MARVIN SAPP: It’s the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s the message that encourages and uplifts people and gives them strength to be able to move
forward past life’s circumstances. It’s a positive message in difficult times.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, on this night, Sapp was serving as a judge. So, if the message was the same for each choir, how would he choose who is delivering
it best?

REV. MARVIN SAPP: You’re looking for tone. You’re looking for, you know, individuals to make sure that they’re succinct, because they’re a choir.
You can’t have one person standing out. It’s not a solo act. So, you want to make sure that they’re succinct, that their — that their tone quality is great. If they’re doing choreography, you want to make sure that their choreography is tight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gospel music has its roots in the Negro spirituals and call-and-response tradition of the slave era South. Its modern era dates to the 1930s in Chicago and Detroit, with figures such as Thomas Dorsey, known as the father of gospel, and, later, Mahalia Jackson, who sold millions of records and achieved international fame.

Today, gospel is a multibillion-dollar business, with stars such as Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin, who maintains the religious words and themes,
even as he incorporates contemporary styles, like hip-hop, into his music.

Indeed, another of today’s leading lights, CeCe Winans, who serves as a host of the How Sweet the Sound competition, says that many pop stars got their starts just as she did: in the church choir.

CECE WINANS, host, How Sweet the Sound Competition: Most genres got their start in — really their beginning from gospel music. So, you hear the
gospel roots and the flavors. You pick some of the greatest R&B celebrities, and the first thing they will tell you is: We started in a gospel choir.

You even go to some of the rock stars: Well, you know, I love gospel music. So, a lot of that flavor comes from gospel music. We have gospel artists in hip-hop. We have gospel artists in, you know, you name it.

JEFFREY BROWN: How Sweet the Sound, though, wasn’t about stars, but amateurs who come together at night after work to rehearse, and then sing at
Sunday services.

One such group was the Greater Mount Calvary Men of Valor of Washington, D.C., whom we visited several days before the competition, as they worked to
polish the hymn “Available to You.”

ELDER CORNELIUS YOUNG, director, Greater Mount Calvary Men of Valor: So, that’s what you have to bring at the very beginning, OK? Rehearsed singing, not congregational.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elder Cornelius Young, a classically trained choral leader and the minister of music at the church, put this group together just a year ago.

ELDER CORNELIUS YOUNG: My job, my responsibility is, first of all, to teach the dynamics and to teach the technical side. That’s one part of my responsibility.

The other part of is to make sure that you understand the words that you’re singing, because, when all the chips fall, when you actually up and
you’re actually ministering the gospel, sometimes, you don’t remember all of the technique, but you’re connected to the song in a way that, if you’re emotionally connected to it, it’s going to — the sound is going to just come outautomatically.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: The Men of Valor choir, in fact, was the only all-male group in the competition, more than 50 strong with a wide range of experience and age.

Nineteen-year-old Leon Jones, a freshman at American University, is the youngest.

LEON JONES, Greater Mount Calvary Men of Valor: Well, gospel music is discipline. Being a great singer, being even in a church congregation, it is
discipline. The Bible says, you know, that our spirit can be controlled by us. So, you know, church, being in the gospel choir, anything, discipline is a must.

JEFFREY BROWN: The oldest in the choir, at 90, is Haldane Leon (ph) Boyce, who grew up in Barbados.

HALDANE BOYCE, Greater Mount Calvary Men of Valor: I was brought up very poor. My mother had to — my father was a coachman. And my mother had to dig potatoes. And we had to carry them on our heads. So, I was taught to look to the lord for my rewards.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the night of the competition, the men helped each other secure their bow ties and button up their confidence. They then joined
the other choirs waiting to perform in what built into a spontaneous moment of praise.

For Marvin Sapp, the Men of Valor are a role model.

REV. MARVIN SAPP: More people need to see that in the urban community, so that they can see, even though we — as African-American males, we get a bad
rap. The only time they really see us on television or in the newspaper is when there’s something negative.

My hope and prayer is that the news, whoever it is, can come and see the positive male role models that are going to be sharing tonight.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the end, the Men of Valor won the hearts of the hometown audience and won the people’s choice award and a check for $5,000.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: The award for best church choir in America and the grand prize of $25,000 went to the Voices of Destiny Choir and Greater Zion Church
Family in Compton, California.

MAN: You put time into your music department, because your music department and every church music department is very important, because it breaks up the ground for the word.

JEFFREY BROWN: The evening closed with all the choirs and this night’s congregation raising their voices together.

(SINGING)