The Soul Children of Chicago: Decades of youth singing the gospel

The Soul Children of Chicago is not your typical sunshine youth choir. The lively group of 7- to 17-year-olds offers stirring lyrics, boasts powerhouse singers and is known around the globe.

The Soul Children of Chicago is not your typical sunshine youth choir. The lively group of 7- to 17-year-olds offers stirring lyrics, boasts powerhouse singers and is known around the globe.

Walt Whitman established The Soul Children of Chicago choir in 1981 at St. John De Salles Catholic school. For almost three decades, Whitman and the choir have helped children while motivating audiences around the world.

"The choir started out as an elementary school choir, but developed into a citywide choir, and now we’ve been an international choir for the last 29 years," Whitman told the Defender.

By 1988, The Soul Children of Chicago released its debut album, “We Are One”, and has gone on to record several others.

Becoming a member of the choir is not taken lightly and being a part of it is life changing, members and staff say.

Youth have to audition, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, maintain a gang- and drug-free lifestyle, tattoos are a no-no, and boys can’t wear earrings.

"They have to be spiritually and mentally committed in order to perform at the level we’re performing," Whitman said. “It develops the family structure.

The Soul Children is a family. Parents are chaperones. We have fathers, mothers that participate to make things work. They come to rehearsals and stay. It’s a family atmosphere.”

The choir has not only touched the lives of members of the global faith community, it has been an outlet for the hundreds of youth who’ve been a part of it. The choir holds its twice-a-week rehearsal at Olive Branch Mission and each one begins with praise and worship.  Everyone joins hands and forms a circle, and with Whitman at the keyboard, the choir sings "I’m In Love With Jesus".

After the song they pray and talk about their recent accomplishments in school.

"Sometimes they don’t even get a chance to rehearse. They have so much on their minds," said Amelda Johnson, the choir’s director of administrative affairs.

The Soul Children – as they are called – have performed internationally in Sweden, Italy, Holland, Israel and Switzerland and all over the United States. Some 1.7 billion people got to witness the choir performing for the opening day of the World Cup in South Africa over the summer.

The sought after choir has recorded with Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, Neil Diamond, Yolanda Adams and many others. Their experience crosses several music genres as the choir has also performed with the Chicago Jazz Philharmoic Orchestra and other non-gospel entities. The choir is called upon often to performer for special community, civic and other ceremonies including its appearance at The Democratic National Convention for Bill Clinton, and at the White House for Presidents George H. Bush, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

This fall the Soul Children hosted the Soul Children Choir Festival where they welcomed their namesakes from Oslo, Norway for the Norweigans’ first visit to Chicago.

The two-day festival included workshops, discussions and a talent showcase. It also provided the opportunity for both Soul Children choirs to participate in a massive concert.  

"These (international) groups are always coming to Chicago to get the gospel experience because Chicago is the Mecca of gospel,” said Whitman. “So I’m trying to create a vehicle so that when the choirs come they can go to churches to get the experience of working with the gospel artists here. It will bring an international audience to them and us.

"My goal for The Soul Children of Chicago is to establish the choir as an institution that impacts nations. I want to have Soul Children choirs in different cities and countries. Music is music. The openness of minds is what really makes you reach nations," Whitman said.

The event also served as a listening party for The Soul Children’s current CD, “My Time…My Favor.” The choir, which has recorded eight albums, inked an international distribution deal with Central South that will allow the new disc to be placed in Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Kmart, and to sold on iTunes.  

The Soul Children was already a Stellar Award-winning choir, then this year they the choir picked up a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album as part of the "Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration” compilation. On the album, The Soul Children collaborated with rock group 3 Doors Down on the song "Presence of the Lord."

Choir alumni include gospel recording artist Kim McFarland who sang the title song on The Soul Children of Chicago’s debut album.

Today, members of the Soul Children are regarded international ambassadors. Current and former participants take note of the strides the choir has made since its formation.

"When I was in the choir we were more the pioneers of gospel youth choirs in the city, and then we branched out. … A lot of our events were in the United States…Washington, D.C., or corporate things in Chicago,” said choir alumnus Trina Poole whose 16-year-old son is a current member. “They’ve been to Nigeria and Sweden. Now they’re more international with their ministry.” 

What the children take from the experience varies with each child.

"It’s been great. I’ve learned how to have the spirit of excellence. I think that carries me on in every area, as far as spirituality goes, " tenor Austin Lash, 15, told the Defender.

He also explains that just like every family, they squabble. "Everything is not going to be perfect … but we love each other. And we know how to make up. It’s all love," he states firmly.

Some members are just grateful for the experience.

"To be in Soul Children has been quite a journey. When I first got in the choir. I had to get used to Mr. Whitman saying, ‘Take your hands out your pocket, stand up straight, chest out!’ I thought I was in the military. But I got used to it," alto Mavarick Richardson, 13, said.

Richardson, who travels from Indiana for practice, and suffers from sickle cell anemia, yet still remains spiritually optimistic. "I trust in God and have faith. (Being in the choir) has taught me to count my blessings. I’m grateful to do God’s work," he said.

The Soul Children of Chicago will be performing for the Links Program on December 5. Their latest album, is on pre-sale.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender

Tags: