Music on a Mission

Music on a Mission

On a blustery January day, some forty Madisonians—black and white, old and young—peel off winter layers and shuffle into the church pews at Mt. Zion Baptist Church for the first rehearsal of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir.

I’m intrigued, and slightly intimidated at the prospect of singing gospel. Singing was always my favorite part of church. But gospel—the original “soul” music with its roots in African American slave communities and black Christian churches—has always seemed mysteriously “other” to me. That’s probably because I grew up in New Glarus, a town of upright Protestant Swiss immigrants, not prone to clapping or shouting “Hallelujah.”

I take a few deep breaths, put my name on a sign-in list, collect sheet music and take my place in the pews with the altos. Smiling up from the piano is Madison’s gospel ambassador, Leotha Stanley, whose mission is to have everyone singing in harmony, feeling the universal spirit of gospel, as soon as possible. He’s broad-shouldered, mustachioed and good-looking; his crisp suit and tie stand out in a sea of sweatshirts and jeans.

We sing through Stanley’s arrangements. He hears everything, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly when he hears a sour note. He helps the sopranos trill through their notes, then plays through the song “You Gotta Be” for the sprawling alto section. Peering out at us, he can predict an imbalance. “We’ve got too many altos,” he says. “Who can I get to sing tenor?” Five of us women volunteer to shift over to the tenor section.

After he teaches all four parts, Leotha’s wife, Tamera Stanley, steps up to direct the singers. The two communicate easily to shape the choir’s sound. They help the basses with a bold entrance, coax out tentative middle harmonies and create dynamic swells—building the tension in the music. Then Stanley stops abruptly and looks out at us, still dutifully poring over the sheet music, trying to get it right. “Smile, people. This is gospel,” he says. “Listen to the words. You are singing about love.”

When all four parts gel, I feel goosebumps.

By the end of that rehearsal, we are clapping and swaying. Goodbye, musty hymnbook. Gospel is alive.

* * *

For the last quarter century, forty to eighty singers have lifted their voices as part of the annual Madison and Dane County Martin Luther King, Jr. observance, an inspiring evening of speeches and music honoring King’s vision of social justice and racial harmony.

The multiracial singing group has thrived in a city that’s still more segregated by race than most of us like to admit. And much of the choir’s success is due to its dedicated leader.

“I love gospel music,” Stanley says. “I love the inspiration it gives people. I love the message.”

He considers it his “first love.” Stanley began playing piano and drums at age five and became the pianist at his neighborhood church in Milwaukee at thirteen (“I got $10 for every funeral”). As a freshman at UW–Madison, he founded a gospel choir, which became his path to Mt. Zion. “They would bring a bus to campus and take us back afterward.”

Now he’s been the music director at Mt. Zion for thirty-four years and plays piano for five choirs. In the late 1980s, Stanley took over the direction of the community choir from its founder, Marilyn Parks, wife of Madison’s first African American alder, Gene Parks.

A retired paramedic/firefighter and former assistant to the director of community relations in the UW–Madison chancellor’s office, Stanley has a hard time sitting still. After a brief retirement stint, he launched a new career in July 2011 as an agent for Bankers Life and Casualty Company. He juggles a dizzying array of education and music projects, works with Madison schools as an artist in residence and has written two books of music for children.

But he always makes time for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir.

“It’s a lot of work that goes into it, but I like the result, regardless of whatever toiling that I did to get there,” Stanley says. “Just the magic of that evening, of that night. I love the faces, when I look up at the crowd there, the audience and the choir.”

Some of those faces are family. Tamera Stanley not only directs the singers; she’s also a show-stopping soloist. While Tamera belts out solos, Stanley’s daughter Letrice, a music teacher at Sun Prairie Elementary School, takes over directing. Then Letrice takes a solo.

Gospel quite literally brought Leotha and Tamera together. After a divorce and a stint of Internet dating, he met his wife-to-be at a gospel conference in Milwaukee when they both bent down during a rehearsal to pick up her godchild’s pacifier. He knew at that moment he wanted to marry her. But they taught a gospel class at UW–Whitewater for three years before she agreed to wear the diamond ring he carried in his glove compartment—ever hopeful of wooing her.

* * *

When I ask Stanley if he believes music can change the world, his answer is unequivocal: “It’s probably one of the only things that can,” he says. “When you look at songs that Michael Jackson wrote, they get people to come together in all parts of the world because it’s a universal language. Music is the one thing that has a common denominator—the understanding of it, the tonal part. People in the elevator, they need music. At the wedding, at the funeral. I don’t care what culture.”

Stanley’s hope is that singers and audience will grow from this annual multiracial musical experience. I’m testament that it can happen. Months later, still humming the tunes, I can easily summon the powerful emotions I felt standing on the risers behind Rev. C.T. Vivian. At last January’s observance, Reverend Vivian, who organized marches and sit-ins with Martin Luther King, Jr., explained how King forgave a man who shot him, and how the man cried at the forgiveness the civil rights hero offered.

I’d been taught it was respectful to sit still when an elder spoke, but as I heard Vivian speak, I felt color rising in my face—and I suddenly became conscious of all the joyous noise coming from members of the choir. Instead of polite silence, I let out a “yes” when I felt it. That’s the difference between gospel and the culture I grew up in—trusting the body and the voice, setting them free, letting yourself be moved.

Stanley’s vision for the community choir is changing Madison, one singer at a time.

“There’s more in common in us than different,” he says. “The more we bring out what’s in common, the better we’ll get along. Ideologies are splitting us right now, but music can bring us together.”


Catherine Capellaro is a writer, performer and member of VO5, a local disco/funk band.

Photos by Chris Hynes