Sweet soul music pours out of St. James Male Chorus

The St. James Male Chorus performs at Pineville United Methodist Church

The St. James Male Chorus performs at Pineville United Methodist Church
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The St. James Male Chorus performs at Pineville United Methodist Church

Jehovah was the first chorus director, as he reminded Job. After he laid Earth’s foundation, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” So the Lord may have a special fondness for the sound of a choir, and the St. James Male Chorus has acted on that belief for 60 years.

This group, which takes the musical gospel to any Charlotte-area church that requests a gig on Sunday afternoon or evening, has gotten so hot it’s already accepting bookings for 2016.

Like Christianity itself, this group takes all comers: those who harmonize beautifully and those who don’t, those with perfect command of pitches and those throwing vocal curveballs.

You don’t have to audition to get in. Most new members have been informally recruited by old ones. The chorus never asks a sponsor or an audience to pay, though a basket usually gets passed for charity.

Performers don’t preach or proselytize during a performance, but they make an infectiously joyful noise. Through occasional dropped notes and at least one case of dropped trousers, they’ve raised smiles and bolstered souls – sometimes the souls of the singers themselves, when dark times came – since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and Elvis Presley sought his first hit record.

“I’ve got two men in this group who are over 90,” director Joe Furr told a crowd at Pineville United Methodist Church last month. “It’s a joy to be singing for the Lord that long. I hope to do it, but I’ll probably be singing on the other side.”

Taking the reins

At 77, Furr, who lives in Steele Creek, has run the group for about four decades. (This is not an organization with a carefully preserved history, though it does have a Facebook page.) He took over after founder Jim Postell left and a successor proved unhelpful, “and they never got rid of me.”

Furr’s good humor comes in handy at rehearsals and concerts, which he leads with a relaxed demeanor. “Are we gonna take a rest there?” a singer inquires, wondering about a pause between notes during a practice. “I’m gonna hold that rest so long you can catch a nap,” Furr replies.

They tease each other constantly about age, which is fitting: Only a couple of the roughly two dozen singers were born after the 1940s. But this isn’t a place for soloists to display the range or power of their voices; it’s a place for friends to display their love of God and each other.

The repertoire includes favorites – “I’ll Fly Away,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer” – along with lesser-known numbers that groups such as The Bill Gaither Trio once popularized.

Tom Stinson-Wesley, senior pastor at Pineville United Methodist, admires their philosophy. “They’re regular visitors,” he says, noting that Furr grew up in Pineville. “They’re not here to preach or purely to entertain, but to share their faith experience through music.

“They’re not in this to show off. I like the idea that they don’t retire someone because his voice isn’t so beautiful any more.”

Keeping a tradition alive

“(People) have about quit doing this kind of gospel singing now,” says Ed Puckett, the last man left who was around when the group began at St. James United Methodist Church on Freedom Drive. (He recruited son Mike, who has sung from his teen years to his 60s.) “I never thought this would become a lifelong thing, but I think singing keeps you young.”

Harvey Poole, a 15-year St. James veteran, says, “I get a divine uplifting when I sing. Whether I’m doing it weekly or monthly, I get that feeling every time.”

The singers can’t always pinpoint just why St. James inspires such loyalty.

“It’s not as prim and proper as some groups,” said Ron Fite, who sings and books the chorus. “We have fun all the time. We have five denominations from 16 churches, and we’re comfortable with each other.”

“I grew up with Southern gospel, and it speaks to me in a way no other music can,” says Curtis Buchanan, who joined in the 1960s. “It’s a pleasure to spread the gospel through music.”

Sometimes it’s more than a pleasure. It’s a necessity.

Joe Furr and wife, Jean, lost their daughter, Cynthia, and only grandchild, McAllister, in a 2009 wreck, when street racers smashed into their car at 100 mph. (Cindy Furr, a minister of music at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church and a fine singer, can be heard on St. James’ recording “Sharing the Gospel Through Song.”)

“That’s our home church, and I couldn’t sing in their choir after that,” says Joe Furr. “After she left us, I came close to quitting singing altogether. But I felt her spirit telling me, ‘Don’t give up the Male Chorus.’ If it was just about beautiful sounds, I might have. But it’s about so much more.”

A solid future

The group itself has weathered a few storms, including dwindling participation that long ago reduced it to a quartet too small to perform for a while.

Asked about mishaps, Furr remembers only a few. On one occasion, half the group couldn’t find its way to a church, and a concert fell through. On another, a bass took such a mighty breath that his britches fell to the floor. (“He disappeared off the back riser,” Furr says, “pulled ’em up and went back to singing.”)

St. James now has a loyal core membership, a second recording in the works and three capable backup musicians: pianist Donna Dye, guitarist Stan Jacques and bass player Phil Seaman.

It also has a couple of singers who bring down the median age: Chris Dalton, who maintains the Facebook page, and Joshua Shaver, the youngster at 32.

“I’ve watched them sing since elementary school,” says Shaver, who worships at Pleasant Hill. “I was raised among older people, and I always learn from them. With this group, you get fellowship and music – and a little comedy show when things go wrong.

“We get into the meaning of these songs, and that adds so much. With us, it’s always more than just the notes on the page.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

St. James Male Chorus

The group will perform at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 15601 Idlewild Rd. in Indian Trail, June 7 at 6 p.m. Then it goes to Beth Page Methodist Church, 108 Fellowship Ave. in Kannapolis, June 28 at 6 p.m. Learn more about seeing or singing with St. James by going to the Facebook page or calling Ron Fite at 704-545-5310.