Seldom has a more unnecessary question been asked.
“Have you come to praise him?” asks choirmaster James R. Smith, his slender, twitching body wrapped between the singers behind him and the crowd in front of him, looking like a compact rocket in a suit trying to break free from gravity.
Lung-breaking roar – streaked with calls of “THANK YOU, JESUS! HALLELUJA! THANK GOD! “- answer him.
“Imagine you are in our living room,” says Smith, while his cast rock and sway in the run-up to “Free to Praise,” the barn burner for the concert opening. “We hope that the songs we have chosen will bless every ear. We’re going to make the Lord happy tonight. “
The happiness here – in the elegant, spacious sanctuary of Unity Baptist Church on Marion Drive – was more like the ecstasy on June 13th, which was declared “Las Vegas Mass Choir Day” by Mayor Carolyn Goodman. Recorded for a future release, the group’s performance celebrated its 10th anniversary and brought many of the singers who got into and out of the ensemble back together and bestowed their powerpipes and interpretive passions.
For over a decade the choir has made numerous top-class appearances: it appeared at “The Billboard Music Awards” and supported Stevie Wonder for his “Icon Award” medley. Vocalization with artists such as Neil Diamond, Ne-Yo, R. Kelly, John Legend, and Wynonna Judd; Appearances on the former Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon; Shot with Imagine Dragons; Supported Clint Holmes and other stars in Georgia On My Mind, the short Ray Charles tribute production at The Venetian; and his five year stint at the Sunday Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues in Mandalay Bay.
That night – led by Smith, a man’s top on the stage, arms raised in the sky and sweat wiped from his face but never the grin – the choir was the singular star. Gospel callers such as “Great is your faithfulness”, “I love you, Lord”, “He has saved me”, “Bring me out” and “I am blessed” made the church rock in an atmospheric delirium thanks to 35 blends of voices from teenagers to at AARP age.
“When people go through great things, the word being preached really can’t get people through what a song can do,” says Smith, a former Las Vegas resident who now lives in Houston but has a handful of visits for rehearsals and visits every year Makes performances. “That’s why I love what I do – it digs deep into people’s souls.”
Singer Denise Robinson describes the gospel music they play as a direct connection to divinity itself. “It is based on singing about Jesus Christ and bringing you in contact with the Creator. It lets people know that everything will be all right” , she says. “It’s like an oasis in the desert. It is water for the soul. “
These souls cover the religious spectrum.
“Most of the audience has a gospel background, but they are all of different denominations,” says Dee Dee Prejean, the choir’s business manager and performer for its entire story. “Some of the people are Catholics, Baptists, Apostolics, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and some people who don’t even go to church.”
Not originally intended as a formal group, the choir grew out of a recording commitment when Street Gospel Records asked Smith in 2004 to audition, select and develop a 15-part ensemble to complete a project that had begun in the late 1990s. After the CD entitled “Mass Appeal” was released in 2005, the group officially became The Las Vegas Mass Choir.
When he first met the choir, singer Dar Lawrence was working as a cameraman at a General Nutrition Corp. convention. in the city where the group performed. “It gave me goosebumps in the presence of that inspiring, motivating, exciting sound,” says Lawrence, who asked one of the singers where else he could see them and was told to come to a Baptist church – but not watch.
“She said it was a rehearsal. She said, “You will audition and become a member of our choir.” I said, “You don’t even know if I can sing.” She said, “I saw you dancing to our songs back there, you have the rhythm in you.” I said, “You’re a completely black choir and I don’t think I fit the color description.” And she said: “We are not a purely black choir, we are a purely Christian choir. It’s just that we’re a little darker than you. ‘And I loved her. “
After practicing on a Mahalia Jackson song, a nervous Lawrence dared to audition. “I was so scared and Brother James said, ‘Have a seat in the tenor department. ‘We started going through the songs, I recorded them and heard, “You’re leaving, honey – um!” I didn’t touch the ground anymore. At the end James said, “OK, we have a new member today.”
Smith, who has the dual titles of choir director and CEO, has earned an impressive nickname from his troops as the driving force behind the choir.
“We call it The Matrix,” says singer Wilma Roberts, referring to the body flexion performed by Keanu Reeves’ neo-character in the film franchise – and approached by Smith on stage to passions in search of an exit physically channeling.
“He can make a choir sing,” says Roberts. “On some of the songs we were rehearsing it wasn’t available and we had a different director and it just didn’t sound the same. It’s just something he does that brings it out and gets it out of you. “
Lawrence admires the way he “penetrates your head and soul” and says he quickly saw Smith as a role model – and a shout. “I’ve never seen anyone on fire like this,” says Lawrence. I said, ‘I don’t know who this guy is, but I want to hang out with him. He is everything I want to be when I grow up. ‘”
As the choir penetrates its second decade, several goals have been set, according to Prejean, including expanding its melodic addition to 100 voices. “And we want to make it more interracial,” says Prejean. “Las Vegas is a melting pot like New York or Chicago. We are also preparing for a junior mass choir. “