MCCC student conquers shyness on the TV gospel stage

Benson at the piano, joined by her mother, Sharon, at Bethel A.M.E. Church in West Chester.
Benson at the piano, joined by her mother, Sharon, at Bethel A.M.E. Church in West Chester.
Posted: August 07, 2014

In church, a singer can hit a sequence of notes with such visceral power that congregants spring to their feet in a move more spirit-inspired than standing ovation.

Pottstown singer Candace Benson made gospel superstar Donnie McClurkin stand up.

It happened on an episode of Sunday Best, a gospel singing competition shown on the cable network BET. Benson, a finalist, catapulted through a key transition with such melodic dexterity and emotion that McClurkin, a judge, and much of the audience just could not stay seated.

Benson's talent is passed down, in part, from family; honed in church; polished in voice lessons; and, he says, inspired by something otherworldly.

All of it has helped propel her to the Top 6 on Sunday Best, shown at 8 p.m. Sundays.

"I never knew I could survive under pressure like that," said Benson, 22, a student at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell. "You don't think that the obstacles and challenges you have actually make you."

Benson joins other area singers, including Kefia Rollerson and Elder Goldwire McLendon, both of Philadelphia, who made it to the top ranks of contestants on the show, hosted by gospel star Kirk Franklin.

The show, from Atlanta, will be shown through Aug. 31, when a winner will be announced. The outcome will be decided by viewers' votes. The winner receives a recording contract with Franklin's Fo Yo Soul label and a cash prize.

For Benson, a music education/audio production major, Sunday Best seems part of a natural progression.

Benson was 4 when she began playing the piano and singing. She was 6 when she wrote her first song, "How I Walk."

"She always had an acute ear. She could hear something and repeat it instantly," said her mother, Sharon. "I thought she had heard ["How I Walk"] somewhere. I started looking for it on the Internet."

From then on, Sharon Benson and her husband, Charles, began to help develop their daughter's talent. Candace Benson sang in the family gospel quartet at conferences, church services, funerals.

Candace Benson, who her mother says "drives us nuts" in pursuit of the right harmonic blend, sings and plays the piano with her parents and sister Karen, who plays the drums.

She took piano lessons, began acting in school plays, and by high school was so busy with choirs, bands, church, and academics that friendship with her peers took a backseat. Her teachers were her friends.

"She would say, 'I want to go to the mall and parties like other kids,' " said Sally House, Benson's music teacher at Pottstown High School. "I would say she had been called to be a gospel singer. If you are going to sing about Jesus, your life has to reflect that, or people won't believe you."

Benson has worked to overcome a shyness that is apparent in her soft-spoken girlishness, but that disappears when she talks about music.

"My mom pushed me into every area. She didn't care if I was shy or not," Benson said.

She had moments when her shyness got the best of her. As a teenager, Benson sang on stage with the gospel great Luther Barnes and "broke down" in the middle of a song.

It was Barnes who told Sharon Benson that her daughter had a special talent that needed to be guided toward professional recordings.

Candace Benson has recorded locally with her brother, the singer Terrance Lyles, when Benson has incorporated touches from her musical influences. There's the expected (Mary Mary and Smokie Norful) and the unexpected (Sting).

At MCCC, Benson sings in several choirs with repertoires that include classical music, show tunes, and Negro spirituals. Benson also has started a gospel choir at the school and is music director at Bethel A.M.E. Church in West Chester.

"Some singers are really so infatuated with their own sound, and it's hard to get them in a choral situation," said Andrew Kosciesza, an associate professor and coordinator of MCCC's music department. "Candace is always willing to be part of the larger picture, to be part of the group sound. But we've featured her as a soloist many times."

In March, Benson and her parents drove to Glenn Dale, Md., for the Sunday Best auditions. She previously had auditioned for The Voice and did not make it.

Benson stood in a line in the rain with hundreds of other people, some of whom had camped out.

She made it past two rounds of auditions and then had to sing before the judging panel of McClurkin and singers Kierra Sheard, Yolanda Adams, and Kim Burrell.

Benson barely had begun singing when McClurkin cut her off and said - seemingly without consulting his fellow judges - "You have a yes from all of us."

Benson watches the show every Sunday.

At the same time, she is sometime texting with her audio production teacher, Michael Kelly, who says he struggles to reconcile her commanding presence on Sunday Best with the quiet student on campus, whose attitude, Kelly said, is that she's "just this girl who sings."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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