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Wintley Phipps' commanding voice joins In Unison Chorus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2013 - When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and addressed the crowd assembled for the March on Washington in August 1963, he spoke of a dream, but also a symphony:

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together," King said.

He went on: “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

And in that spirit of shared history and unity, of faith and transformation,  vocalist Wintley Phipps will join conductor Kevin McBeth and the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus Friday night at Powell Hall for what promises to be a celebration but also an education.

The deep rich tone and texture of Phipps’ commanding voice will pay tribute to Black History Month and showcase Phipps nimble talents, as well as King’s noble words.

Every president since Jimmy Carter has heard Phipps sing, experiencing a voice that matches Powell in grandeur and stature. Yet his career is far from orchestrated.

“I’ve had enough break through moments without a manager or an agent,” he said.  “You have to be confident that your career is being guided a higher power.”

One of those moments came as he squeezed into an elevator one day on Capitol Hill. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was also in that elevator; and when he recognized Phipps voice, he asked if Phipps would be willing to perform later that day.

 

“I sang for Mother Theresa during her final visit to the United States,” he said. “I got the offer literally as the elevator was rising. He asked if I would come and close the program with ‘Amazing Grace’.”

Phipps has also performed for Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks. He has sung with Melissa Manchester and Patti LaBelle and appeared on “Soul Train” and “Saturday Night Live.” And he has made 25 albums and received several Grammy nominations.

Yet his training until college was anything but formal. For just like King and countless others, Phipps has had his own struggles to overcome.

Born in Trinidad, he emigrated to Canada as a child, and suffered through a difficult and troubled family life — something he made a conscious effort not to repeat.

“I know a lot of artists who want to live in California or New York,” he said. “I live in Columbia, Md., and I have been a happily married for 37 years.”

Proximity has created some rather odd distinctions, he added.

“I keep being asked by the government to make appearances and perform,” he said. “I probably have appeared more on C-SPAN.”

In this era of rock and hip hop, pop and country, flowing soulful notes more often than not ebb at the shores of today’s airwaves. And yet Phipps got his start because of radio.

He listened to Tom Jones and trained his voice by singing along.

When he was in high school, he saw Little Richard decked out in a white spangled suit and decided he wanted to turn on a crowd like that.

“I performed in my high school talent show singing like Little Richard,” he said “I did ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’.”

His classic rock scream on stage injured his voiced, and the doctor told him to rest it for the following two weeks. He also told him that he might have permanently damaged his vocal chords.

When his voice came back, Phipps took no more chances. “I knew this is what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I accepted it, and I have not compromised for my career.”

And his has been a career of divine intervention and divine achievement. And Friday, along with IN UNISON, Phipps will celebrate and share his voice as well as King’s profound words.

For as King said, “This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring’.”

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.

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