FAMU Gospel Choir promises unforgettable comeback

The Florida A&M University Gospel Choir sworn in on day of dedication. Photo courtesy: Darien Bolden Jr

The Florida A&M University Gospel Choir had its first week of practice this week after swearing in members Sept. 30. About 75 members were split into four sections — sopranos, altos, tenors and baritones — to form the choir.

The choir was founded by Jona’ D. Olds in 1957, who was widely known not only because he established the first FAMU choir, but the first historically Black university choir in the country. During his time, the choir travel the country to perform, and it was featured in Coca-Cola commercials. The Gospel Choir was considered important when it came to homecoming, and Olds worked on projects to have the choir perform before his death.

The first member to ever be part of the choir was FAMU and FSU alumna Mother Frances Stallworth, who later served as an adviser for 20 years. Stallworth was discovered by Olds, who heard her singing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” in the Lee Hall basement. Stallworth was ridiculed for gospel singing, as it was condemned by the university.

Since then, she didn’t dare have anyone hear her voice. With the help of Olds, both were able to start a choir. Stallworth was later named FAMU’s Teacher of the Year three times.

The Florida A&M Gospel Choir has performed with artists such as Clark Sisters, Kirk Franklin, Shirley Caesar, as well as performing for a Christmas Day special at Disney World.

People often confuse the Gospel Choir with the Concert Choir, although they are two different groups. The Concert Choir has more choral genre, from contemporary to jazz and gospel, and also has a brass section. The Concert Choir’s most recent performance was with the Marching 100 at the NFL season kick off, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys in Tampa. It was the first live performance of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sung with Alicia Keys, and it was an opening for Ed Sheeran.

The Gospel Choir is often overlooked by the university, and not many students know there are actually two choirs. The Gospel Choir has been on campus for 65 years and it has a rich history. In 2009, the university recognized being a part of the choir as academic credit, but was short lived due to low enrollment as students flocked to other organizations. The choir had gone under a small hiatus since the pandemic but plans to come back with full force.

Director of the Gospel Choir, Darien Bolden Jr., says he’s happy to have the choir return in person this year. “I have the ability to continue to lead the dynamic choir, and finish what was started,” he said.

Bolden also serves as president of the Concert Choir and says schedules can get a bit hectic juggling the two. “It’s rewarding to serve as leader of both choirs, oftentimes there’s difficulty trying to balance schedules. However, it brings joy to see both choirs propel in excellence.”Interest meetings were held the fourth week of September and there was  great turnout, he said. Previous director and now adviser Nathaniel Tanner says he looks forward to the homecoming concert, and concerts in general now that in-person performances are back.

“I’ve been advising for three years now, and I find so much joy knowing students still enjoy gospel music and have a love for the choir like I did many years ago,” he said.

The Gospel Choir plans to kick off performances during homecoming week, starting with the “Sunday Brunch Blessing” on Oct. 24, and on Oct, 31 for the homecoming parade.