For decades, the aura and soul of Harlem’s many evangelical neighborhood churches have drawn scores of ogling tourists to the pews. They come to hear the gospel. Allen Bailey, 75, realized this thirty years ago at a luncheon in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Cotton Club. After gauging the interest abroad and acting on a gut feeling, Bailey, a former music manager, assembled a gospel choir of Harlemites to perform around the world.
Since then, the choir has performed for Nelson Mandela, headlined at the New York Stock Exchange (the first choir ever to do so), and entertained two popes. Bailey reminisces fondly, “Two million miles later, here we are.”
Among the proudest of the choir’s gigs over the past sixteen years: a Southern all-you-can-eat buffet in midtown Manhattan. The thinking went that churchgoers and tourists alike often visited the soul food restaurants after service; why not combine them?
It was legendary blues musician B.B. King who offered to make Bailey’s Harlem Gospel Choir regular performers at his bar, the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. The choir was already “world famous,” but they rarely performed in settings where alcohol was served. Transforming B.B.’s bar into a place for praise posed a challenge.
But King was sure it would work. He assured Bailey that they could replicate the feeling within Harlem’s black churches in midtown, amid the glitz and glamour of Times Square. Most of the pastors from uptown frequented the venue for drinks anyway, King said. Get your religion with a side of bacon.
As attendees fill their plates with french toast and barbecue chicken, candied yams and peach cobbler, they’re urged to clap, sing, dance, and shout hallelujah when the spirit catches them. There’s only one rule on Sundays at B.B. King’s: You don’t have to be quiet while the Harlem Gospel Choir performs.
The show is often sold out, and the entrance to the dining room can get hectic before the performance. Though there are a few other gospel brunches held in the city (and the choir has its own monthly spin-off show at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.), the original brunch has become a popular attraction.
“The theme of our show is many nations getting together and giving something back,” Bailey says. He’s been singing along from the sidelines since the beginning, back when he was the emcee every night and the choir crooned at the Blue Note, and before, when he moonlighted as a booking manager for the Commodores. Bailey has stepped back slightly since suffering a heart attack two years ago. (His wife, Anna, now manages the choir.) “It’s so hard for me to be out here,” Bailey says. “But if I die, I want to be here. This keeps me energized.”
Seven singers, a keyboardist, and a drummer, dressed all in black with accompanying kente cloth vests and sashes, take the stage. Their first number is a rendition of Bishop Hezekiah Walker’s “Souled Out.” It’s an upbeat anthem that allows the ensemble to stretch their vocal cords. Some of the audience put their forks down to listen; others continue to eat. Kiaama Hudson is singing lead. It’s her sixth year in the choir, and today, she’s also hosting.
“Every week it’s a different crowd,” she says. “You get to see people who come from all over: Australia, Japan, China, Russia, Germany, France…. They’re coming from all walks of life and they come here to hear us sing, and that’s an awesome thing.”
Craig Stagg, a Harlem native who’s been with the choir since 1999, steps to the mic next. He’ll belt out another Walker song, “Every Praise.” His eyes pan the multicultural crowd as he prances across the stage, grinning, singing, “Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord.”
Bailey addresses the crowd when the song is finished. A member of the choir assists him onstage, holding onto his waist and arms as a crutch. He’ll shake hands with “the rich folks” in the front and acknowledge all the “beautiful people in the building.”
“God is good,” Bailey preaches. “Don’t ever give up.”
The choir transitions into “Amazing Grace” shortly after his remarks. “Oh Happy Day” is the last spiritual, and the choir concludes with covers of “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Happy Birthday,” “Celebration,” and fan favorite “Happy.” When the lights turn on and the full crowd spills out, dozens rush to visit the next tourist attraction on a busy 42nd Street. A Russian family gets up to leave, the youngest member, a boy, humming a hymn.
The Harlem Gospel Choir hosts its Gospel Brunch on Sundays at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill.