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Gospel ensemble reunites after 26-year hiatus

Lauren Magnuson
Gospel ensemble reunites after 26-year hiatus
The Garthenia Beal Gospel Ensemble choir lifted their voices during a recent reunion performance at Morning Star Baptist Church. (Photo: John Brewer)

Fans of the Garthenia Beal Gospel Ensemble had their first chance to see the choir sing in more than 25 years last week at its first official reunion, held at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan.

About 300 people turned out to see the original members, now ranging in age from 30 to 60-plus, come together to perform 16 of their favorite compositions. The choir began as the Youth Guild Choir at Concord Baptist Church in the late 1960s.

As the Garthenia Beal Gospel Ensemble, the group peaked in membership in the ‘70s and ‘80s, reaching a membership of 85 until Concord absorbed them into the church’s mass choir in 1986.

“The choir was a focal point of a lot of people’s lives at that point,” said Herbert S. Jones, the choir’s director during its final three years. “It’s a chance for a lot of people to come back together and reflect on a coming of age.”

Jones said that members had previously reassembled only to sing at special occasions or funerals of former members. He added that Freda Battle, another of the choir’s former directors, recently had the idea to plan a reunion.

“We wanted to get together under happier circumstances [and] come back together just to sing again,” said Jones.

Battle, whose mother was also a choir director, joined her youth choir at age 6 while growing up in Dorchester. In 1975, when she was just 18, she became the choir’s director — a role she would hold until 1983. She has continued her career in music and just released her 10th album to iTunes last week, she said.

Battle said that the reunion was a “great success.” Not only did almost 40 original members return for the reunion, but many solos were sung by the same soloists from 30 years ago, she explained.

“It was a great reaction,” Battle said of the audience. “They were going back down memory lane.”

Battle recalled that after the concert, audience members said to her, “‘Wow, you guys haven’t lost a beat even after all these years,’” or that they had heard their favorite song.

Because many returning members are now parents or even grandparents, “we had the younger generation combine with us and sing a song with us,” Battle said. “That was the highlight of the evening.”

Battle said that “it was a very emotional experience” coming together for their first reunion. Those emotions ran high particularly as they approached their last song, “Jesus Christ is the Way.” Some of the choir members had tears in their eyes as they all joined hands for that final number, she said.

“I was blown away by the energy and the excitement of the choir,” said Jones, who now serves as the music director for Messiah Baptist Church in Brockton. “It was as if no time had passed.”

Jones added that the energy and excitement from the audience, many of whom had seen members of the choir grow up together, kept the choir going so that at the close of the program, it felt like it was ending too soon.

“The choir sounded exceptional, even better than I remembered and better than I expected,” Jones said. “It was really special.”