A July 4th celebration

Chris Graham leads the mass choir from Gospel Sunday, with members from around Philadelphia.
Chris Graham leads the mass choir from Gospel Sunday, with members from around Philadelphia. (RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER.)

Joining the mass choir for Gospel Sunday

Posted: July 02, 2012

Attending Gospel Sunday during the city's July Fourth celebration is a must for Ozella Smith, of Mount Airy, but this year she decided to move from her seat in the audience to the stage.

The adult literacy teacher - and second soprano - was one of 75 local residents who sang Sunday at Penn's Landing as part of a mass choir assembled especially for the Wawa Welcome America! celebration.

Smith, who was trained in opera, was nervous.

"It's blowing my mind the way God works. This is a major test," said Smith, 60. "I'll be singing - but standing in the back."

Or so she thought.

By the time the choir was arranged on stage, Smith was standing in the front row. Three lines into "We're Blessed" a song by Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ, Smith was jamming.

"We're blessed in the city. We're blessed in the field," the choir sang.

Church at Penn's Landing was in full session.

The choir's set was a highlight of Gospel Sunday, which also featured well-known gospel singers Bruce Parham and Byron Cage on an oppressively hot day.

The concert was part of a patriotic menu of events during the city's 10-day July Fourth celebration, which culminates on Wednesday with a mega display of fireworks and a concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway featuring the Roots.

The special choir was a first for Gospel Sunday at Penn's Landing. Members signed up online.

"This is a great way for residents and churches to be involved in the celebration," said Melanie Johnson, city representative.

Brenda Goldsmith, a producer for Wawa Welcome America!, organized the mass choir effort, Johnson said.

To lead the choir, Goldsmith called on Craig Hayes, founder of the United Voices choir of Trenton and a board member of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.

Hayes drafted musicians, including keyboard player Joel Bryant, a Chestnut Hill resident and music director for gospel star Tramaine Hawkins, and a former music director for the Stylistics.

The multidenominational choir rehearsed three times to prepare, the last on Saturday. Hayes, equipped with an ear that can pinpoint a stray soprano in a row of altos from 10 pews away, mixed efficiency and fun.

"All right now, y'all giving me the Kimmel Center Choir, the Academy of Music Choir," Hayes said as the group warmed up at Second Pilgrim Baptist Church. "I need church!"

On Sunday, the group chatted excitedly in the green room as they prepared to take the stage. Dressed in white, they lined up and paraded into the heat. A huge spray fan provided one last blast of relief.

On stage, they delivered rousing versions of " I Need You to Survive," " The Best is Yet to Come," and a gospel rendition of " America the Beautiful."

Smith, sipping water after the choir was done, called the experience "absolutely marvelous."

Director Hayes was delighted with the choir's effort. Earlier, he had summed up his feelings about gospel, God and the Fourth of July:

"I'm proud to be in a place where I can freely worship . . . and represent Gospel music."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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