Gospel music and modified Church hymns are not the sort of music most members of the Church are accustomed to hearing inside our chapels at Sunday firesides.
But that changed ever since renowned singer and entertainer Gladys Knight first directed her newly formed LDS choir at the Las Vegas Green Valley stake center in 2002, which was filled to capacity with Church members and their friends. That night she turned a traditionally conservative mood into a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, arm-swaying celebration praising Jesus Christ through music.
“At first, the audience held back, looking around and wondering if this kind of response was allowed,” says choir member Elaine Christensen. “But it didn’t take long for them to get caught up in the spirit of the music.”
Since its debut, the Saints Unified Voices (SUV) directed by Gladys Knight continues to present an extraordinary adventure of music and spoken words reflective of the cultural diversity of our worldwide Church.
What an effective platform for sharing the gospel! People who wouldn’t otherwise enter an LDS church are overfilling the chapels and cultural halls just to experience an evening with Gladys Knight and her choir.
According to President Ivan Holland of the Las Vegas Nevada Anthem Stake, which hosted the choir’s fireside in April, about five hundred copies of the Book of Mormon and two hundred Church videos were distributed in one night. “I can’t think of any event our stake could host that would bring in as many visitors as Gladys Knight’s choir,” says President Holland.
Currently, the SUV Choir, as the members affectionately call themselves, has more than one hundred volunteers from several cultural backgrounds who reside in the Las Vegas area where the choir is headquartered. A few commute from California and some travel from Utah to every rehearsal and performance.
“It’s worth the commute just to sing with Gladys and the choir members,” says Damon Andelin, who lives in St. George, Utah. “It’s an honor for me.”
As a musician from childhood, Gladys Knight’s mother always told her that God had given her a musical gift to share. After her baptism into the Church in 1997, joining through the example and influence of her son and daughter and their families, Gladys realized that God had a larger purpose for her gift and she uses it to do the Lord’s work. “I know why I sing,” she says. “At first I thought it was just to entertain. But now I know this gift from God is a platform from which I am to share His gospel.”
She takes her role as a worldwide missionary seriously. “What an awesome opportunity I have to serve the Lord through music, which has been so dear to me for most of my life,” she says. “I have always sung for the Lord, but now I get to use more hymns and scriptures to tell the world His story. I just want to do what He has asked of us all, to feed His sheep.”
Creating this choir is also the realization of her dream of bringing a new level of passion and cultural awareness to traditionally reserved LDS hymns. “I do love the music in this Church, but I think some of it could use a little zip!” Gladys once told President Gordon B. Hinckley. “Our congregations are filled with a growing diversity of people from different races and cultures. I look forward to the day when we embrace their music without feeling uncomfortable.”
To add some of the vigor she longs to share, the choir presents familiar hymns that reflect diverse heritages. This is particularly evident in “Pass Me Not,” a rousing gospel hymn Sister Knight directs in animated zig-zag motion that gives her a full cardio workout. It’s also manifested in the choir’s African rendition of “Come Come Ye Saints,” inspired by the poignant stories of Saints in Africa who demonstrate great courage and faith in joining the Church.
Gladys explains that the message a song conveys is as important to her as the emotions the music evokes. “I choose all of the choir’s songs for their basic messages,” she says. “I fell in love with ‘I’m a Child of God’ when I sang it at my granddaughter’s baptism long before I joined the Church. I heard the message in it even then.”
She heard “As I Have Loved You” for the first time in a Relief Society meeting. “The melody pierced me,” she says. “But the message was so basic I just knew the choir had to record it. It is the foremost request our Savior makes of us, to love one another.”
The seed to create a choir was first planted in Gladys’s heart when she was invited to speak at the 2002 Women’s Conference at BYU. She yearned to incorporate music into her speech, so she organized a small ensemble of young women to sing with her. One of those young women is the daughter of Laurie and Sullivan Richardson, members of her ward. “Laurie and I frequently shared our feelings about Church music and my desire to put together another choir,” remembers Gladys. Sullivan, who was the stake mission leader at the time, approached Gladys with the opportunity to organize a choir for an upcoming stake missionary fireside. With the help of the Richardsons, Gladys turned to other ward and stake members to form a special choir for this stake event.
“I heard about an audition for Gladys Knight’s choir through a friend, and even though I didn’t believe it was real I went anyway,” says choir member Temanuata Hunkin. “I couldn’t believe it when Gladys pulled up at the church. After the audition, I called every minority singer I knew to join in this wonderful opportunity.”
Tema’s phone tree eventually made it to Whitney and Losa Teo, who live in Los Angeles, California. “I knew who she was and I knew her story of joining the Church; I just wanted to see her,” says Whitney, who immediately caught a flight to Las Vegas to audition. Within a few weeks, Gladys had a full choir. To reflect her idea of Latter-day Saints singing as one, she named the group Saints Unified Voices and began teaching them how to sing gospel music as one voice.
It wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. “Except for a few, these wonderful people had never sung gospel music before,” says Gladys. For assistance, she turned to her show’s professional crew at the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Her long-time pianist John Fluker, who is not LDS, agreed to play for the choir and assist with directing. He is now featured on the choir’s CD in an inspirational duet with Gladys titled “Did You Know?”.
Kelly Eisenhower, who was Gladys’s backup singer and coincidently had joined the Church the same year Gladys did, also volunteered as an assistant director.
After each show at the Flamingo, Kelly and John worked with Gladys to create gospel-type arrangements for the hymns the choir would sing, such as “Because I Have Been Given Much” and “I Need Thee Every Hour,” incorporating short staccato punches mixed with long, drawn-out phrasing. It wasn’t long before two more members of Gladys’s professional crew volunteered to join the choir as musicians, even though neither are LDS. Scott Cannady, who plays bass and percussion, says he joined not only to help Gladys, but also to praise the Lord. “I also do it for the friends I’ve made in the choir,” he says. “I like the people of the LDS Church and the love that they have for everybody.”
Organist Matthew Pittman agrees. “I enjoy playing music to praise the Lord and this is one way for me to give back to Him the musical gifts He has given me. Working with this choir is a pleasure.” Less than three months after the first rehearsal, the choir presented its first fireside at the Las Vegas Green Valley stake center on Sunday August 11, 2002, which coincidently was Gladys’s five-year anniversary of joining the Church. It was a hot night – literally. For those who stood in line for hours in the sweltering heat of a Las Vegas summer, and then squeezed into the stifling filled-to-capacity church, the evening proved to be an extraordinary event. “It was inspiring, moving, and fun,” says President David Rowberry, counselor in the Green Valley stake presidency. “You could feel the marvelous spirit.”
Word about Gladys Knight’s unique fireside spread quickly. To date, the Saints Unified Voices has presented its program at four Las Vegas stake firesides, at two of Deseret Book’s Time Out for Women events in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and at the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Several stake firesides are scheduled nationwide in 2005.
Most choir members will say their highlight was performing inside the Tabernacle in June 2003 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the LDS Church’s announcement allowing “all worthy men” to hold the priesthood. In a performance unlike any ever hosted in the Tabernacle, the Saints Unified Voices gave a whole new meaning to the type of gospel music traditionally performed in the historic building. According to a Salt Lake Tribune article, the choir had the Tabernacle “rockin’ on its footings.”
“I was thrilled to see the audience respond to us in a way not normally seen in the Tabernacle,” says choir member Laurie Richardson. “Although there was a strong reverence for the Spirit, the audience exuberantly demonstrated their love for the Lord and their appreciation for the music by standing and swaying to the beat, clapping, and singing along with us.”
For some choir members, the experience was personally meaningful. “I grew up in Samoa watching general conference, so it was amazing to me that I was singing in the Tabernacle with Gladys Knight,” says Whitney. “But all I was thinking was, ‘Don’t disappoint her.’”
For others, the event was a significant milestone. “As an African-American convert to the Church, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to sing in this Church the way I was raised to sing,” says Buffie. “But as I sang in the Tabernacle, I looked up at the multi-cultural people in the balcony and saw the joy in their eyes and their enthusiasm for our music, and I knew God was answering our prayers.”
Whether performing in the Tabernacle or in stake centers, choir members are continually amused by audience reactions during firesides. “I love to watch the faces of people because it’s clear that many are not sure how to react to our music,” says choir member Jay Young. “They seem to wrestle with reacting as tradition tells them to or the way the music makes them feel. Eventually, most give way to full enjoyment of the music, and they feel the Spirit at work.”
Because of Gladys’s celebrity, people often confuse her choir as a secular performing group. “We receive many invitations to perform public concerts, with specific requests for Gladys to sing some of her Motown hits,” says Ron Strobelt, a member of the choir’s board of directors. “But that’s not what we do.”
Using the success of stake firesides as a guide, Gladys and her choir’s board of directors determined the choir’s two-fold purpose is to spread the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ by providing an opportunity for people who wouldn’t come otherwise to enter an LDS building and feel the Spirit, and to help members of the LDS Church embrace the cultural diversity of people worldwide coming into the Lord’s kingdom.
William McDowell, a featured fireside speaker who is also Gladys’s husband, is an ardent automobile aficionado who likes to compare the SUV Choir to today’s sport utility vehicles. “Parents buy SUVs to keep their families together while safely getting them where they need to be,” says William. “When we invest in an SUV, we examine the quality and look at who makes it. This choir is the Lord’s SUV, a ‘Spiritually Upheld Vehicle’ that God has put together through divine intervention. Gladys initiated it, but without a doubt the Lord is directing it. I’ve watched this choir grow from the beginning and I know that God is working here.”
In 2001 Gladys married William, a friend she had known for nearly twenty years. After investigating the Church for some time, William was baptized the following year. “In my heart I know, and I tell all of you I know that this Church is true,” said William while speaking to about 1,200 people during a choir fireside. “This is the Lord’s church. This is the way He set it up, with prophets and apostles to guide us. It took a long time for me to get to this Church, but without a doubt, I know God was leading me here.”
Though he doesn’t sing with the choir, William’s involvement is manifested in other ways. A highlight of each fireside, and featured on the choir’s CD, is the solo “He Lives” performed by Gladys with lyrics reluctantly written by William at his wife’s insistence.
“Honey, you need to get your pen out and write this for me,” Gladys says she told William after listening to a composition performed by contemporary artist Kenny G. With her face glowing as she spoke about William’s talent at writing poetry and his reluctance at sharing it publicly, Gladys relayed that she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Through her loving persuasion and their combined efforts, the result is a musical testimony of Jesus Christ.
“’He Lives’ has deep meaning to me,” says William. “Partly because I saw it develop from birth to maturity, but also it has a very powerful message. I get emotional just talking about it.”
Everyone involved in the SUV Choir, whether they sing in it or volunteer with the administrative aspects, is passionate about the potential the choir has to bring down cultural barriers and open doors to sharing the gospel that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
“We feel a great spirit accompanying this music and this missionary cause, and it’s exciting to watch the Spirit at work,” says choir member Jay Young. “There is no greater thrill for us than to hear the missionaries tell us of investigators who felt the Spirit at our fireside.”
Though singing in the choir is a combination of being uplifting, spiritual, and fun, the choir members freely admit that it’s also hard work and challenging. After all, they are working under the direction of a two-time Grammy-award winner who stretches their vocal capabilities to the fullest.
“Gladys is very personable and easy to work with, but that’s not to say she doesn’t work us hard, or get after us when something is not up to her standards,” says choir member Todd Orme. “She pushes us to the very limits of our abilities at every rehearsal.”
It was a struggle for most in the beginning. “Initially, none of us knew what to expect from Gladys or the perfection she continues to require from us,” says Whitney. “Everyone is trying to sing up to her level.”
Gladys describes directing the choir as challenging, partly because of her own hectic schedule, but also due to the level of perfection she demands. However, she acknowledges her own growth from the experience. “I’m learning to be more considerate, patient, and loving,” she says. “My life has been immersed in a professional music environment where careers are made or ended depending on the perfection of talent and performance, and the level of training and focus.
“Now I work with a hundred or so of my brothers and sisters who are not here for a professional music career, but because of their testimonies and their desires to serve the Lord. Though I still demand high standards from them, I’ve learned a lot about serving with these wonderful, good-hearted people in God’s kingdom. They’ve got the vision and understanding of our calling as a missionary effort, and they are dedicated to the work.”
She is quick to point out the growth of her choir members as well. “There is an amazing difference between the choir’s sound when we first started and the way it sounds now,” she says. “This is such a part of my testimony, that the Lord is helping this choir succeed.” The deep respect choir members have for their director is evident. “I’m blessed to have the honor to work with a legend like Gladys,” says choir member Rashida Jordan. “She is a wonderful person.”
“I grew up listening to Gladys Knight and singing into the mirror pretending to be her,” says Buffie. “It’s a dream come true to work with her, because she’s a great coach and she knows her stuff.” Todd agrees. “What greater opportunity could I ask for than to be taught by Gladys Knight in such a spiritual setting?”
Gladys Knight and the choir have worked relentlessly during the past year to record a music CD of hymns in response to President Hinckley’s request to “share your music with the world.” The CD is scheduled to be released nationally through Deseret Book and other retail outlets where music is sold. For more information visit www.suvchoir.org or call (702) 433-3016.