Saints Unified Voices with Gladys Knight performance review

I have been a member of the Church my whole life, I’ve served the Church in several missionary callings, I’ve even served a full-time mission, and I have never seen a missionary like Gladys Knight. Last night I was able to attend a performance here in Lexington, Kentucky of the Grammy Award-winning Saints Unified Voices choir directed by the legendary Gladys Knight, and it was one of the most powerful and moving events I’ve ever attended in a Church meetinghouse. I knew I would have to write about it. Last night, I went to the performance thinking Gladys Knight is a legend, and I walked away from the performance loving her personally. It was a performance I will remember for quite some time.

We got there early so we could sit in the pews instead of in the hard chairs in the overflow, and that meant we got a close-up look at the choir and Gladys. From the first song, Gladys directed with energy and passion. The first song they performed was “Over My Head.” Interestingly, my last concert review was of King’s X, and I mentioned Doug Pinnick’s long Over My Head sermon that nowadays just wanders and rails against religion. This performance was completely different. The lyrics spoke of the trouble in the world, and the emotional need for a God: “There must be a God somewhere.” It was a little strange hearing such a powerful choir singing in our usually quiet little chapel, but as soon as I heard my first “amen” from the audience it all felt right. Can I just say it was amazingly refreshing beyond all measure to hear actual applause at a chapel?

Gladys had a three-piece band, consisting of a tasteful guitarist, an amazing and flashy keyboard player, and a subdued and cheerful bassist. They were on. I’m sure the ears of every musician in the audience perked up as soon as the keyboardist played his first gospel flourish.

The choir moved on to sing a few very powerful gospel songs, and finally, Gladys turned around, and with her signature humility announced, “Well, I guess I’d better introduce myself.” She completely won over every person in that chapel with her loving, soulful personality, and she spoke a language that she brought with her into Mormonism: the language of every black gospel choir in the South. The audience was enthralled and entranced as she moved to a gospel rendition of “I Am a Child of God.”

Then there was a short spoken-word section, read by a British member of the choir. She spoke of the slaves that were brought to the United States from Africa, and the rich gospel tradition that they cultivated. It was a testament to their strength and hope in Christ. However, the choir immediately moved from African hymns to a hymn from a completely different part of the world.

A Hawaiian gentleman took a mic and began singing a hymn in his language, and slowly, each Polynesian member of the choir rose, singing along with him. A Polynesian man sitting near me in the audience lifted a fist of triumph in the air. It was awesome. Soon the entire choir was singing along with them for several moving songs, featuring individual members of the choir who just blew me away with their vocal skills. It was truly a night of great talent.

Finally, after all these songs, Gladys took the microphone to bear her testimony. This was the part of the performance I, and everyone else, was waiting for. There was an elephant in the room, of course, and Gladys immediately acknowledged it. I’m not sure how these performances go in the West, but this is Kentucky. We’re not necessarily part of the Deep South, but we still bear the scars of slavery and racism to this very day. The countryside here is still lined with the short, stacked, gray limestone walls built on the backs of slaves 150 years ago. The audience last night was filled with hundreds of African-American members of the community, most of whom had never been to a Mormon church before. Certainly there was a feeling of curiosity mixed with wonder and nervousness on both sides of this racial divide. Many wondered why Gladys Knight, a woman who was once at the forefront of the empowering Motown musical movement, would join the Mormon Church. For many members of the African-American community here in Kentucky, the only thing they know about Mormons is our racial history. Just three nights ago, a white, Utah-born missionary told me first-hand that as he and his companion were walking through a predominantly black neighborhood at night, a man told them, “Boys, don’t you know this is a black neighborhood? You’d better get out of here.” And when I grew up in a rural Western Kentucky town in the 1990s, I still remember hearing racist views from people in the LDS Church. So anyone who thinks that this country has moved beyond race needs to know where I’m coming from. There are places in this country where a great deal of healing needs to occur in everyone’s hearts.

Gladys started her testimony off by speaking directly to the African-Americans in the crowd. “Now is the part where I tell you why I’m here. I know you’re wondering,” she said. Everyone laughed and a few people even clapped.

Gladys proceeded to bear a sublime, moving testimony of her children bringing her into the Church. She told us that she, like many members of the African-American community, was concerned at what she called the Church’s “image problems with people of color” in the past. Gladys handled such a sensitive and sometimes troubling subject with pure, loving attitude of forgiveness. No matter how you view the history of race in the Church, Gladys delightfully spoke as if she had long ago accepted our apology. She playfully announced, “Ain’t nobody perfect!” She also told us that she was a praying woman, and, though she didn’t want to undermine anyone else’s faith, when she got on her knees and prayed about this Church, God told her this is where He wanted her to be.  After seeing her performance, I must agree that she’s absolutely right. It was like a Baptist sermon for the last 15 minutes of the performance, and she described her experience trying to bring her cultural upbringing to the Church, even taking funny little jabs at scrapbooking and macaroni salad. Any racial tension that may have existed in the room slowly melted away as she spoke to all of us. It was certainly a beautiful sight to behold. She told us to look around. It was a chapel filled with black, white, Hispanic, and Polynesian people who had all come to listen together to the choir in an LDS church. She told us that God was a master painter, He needs everyone to be who they are inside and outside, and He’s got colors in His palette that we’ve never even seen before. The room was brimming with love, acceptance, and unity, and that’s exactly what the Saints Unified Voices choir is for.

I appreciated this last point more than anything. The Church has a reputation for homogenizing everything it touches, from the ubiquitous green hymnbook in every chapel to the clean-shaven, short-haired BYU honor code and everything in-between. People like me who grew up in this Church always felt a bit different because we didn’t fit the mold. At my high school I was the Mormon Kid, so I felt a little disconnected there. At Church, I was a rocker with a rebellious streak. I wanted to grow my hair long and be in a rock band. I wanted to listen to heavy metal. I wanted to be myself but above all, I wanted to strengthen my testimony of Jesus Christ. I didn’t want to abandon who I was to do it though. I felt like I was at the intersection of two strange worlds and didn’t fit in to either one fully.

Gladys Knight shattered the idea that we all have to be the same in one, graceful yet powerful performance. She told us we can be different. The only way we can grow and learn from each other is by being ourselves and embracing our differences. I can’t say enough how that touched me, and I’m sure it has the same effect on anyone who felt like me growing up in the Church. When Gladys was done speaking, the choir ended on a Hawaiian farewell song, and they all slowly shuffled out of the chapel (Gladys stopped only to hold and kiss a baby on her way out).

Let me say again that this was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had at a Church before. I had never seen anything like it in my life, and that’s why I had to write a review for Linescratchers. Though we here at Linescratchers feature “LDS musicians that don’t play LDS music,” Gladys is more than just an LDS musician. She’s paid her dues. She spent her time in the ’60s and ’70s selling records, winning awards, and breaking down racial barriers, and she didn’t stop when she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “LDS music” scene can certainly learn a thing or two (or three) from Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices choir, and if it did, maybe it wouldn’t be in the sorry state it’s in. When was the last time a Pearl Award winner also won a Grammy?

If anyone here has a chance to see Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices choir, I urge you to see it. If you can see it somewhere in the South, even better.

To find out more about the Saints Unified Voices choir, visit their official website HERE.

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About Syphax

Syphax was a king of the ancient Libyan tribe Masaesyli of western Numidia during the last quarter of the third century BCE. He is also the founder of Linescratchers, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, and a singer-songwriter himself.

16 Thoughts on “Saints Unified Voices with Gladys Knight performance review

  1. Steve on May 10, 2010 at 1:40 am said:

    As a member of the SUV choir, I am so thankful for your kind words. Choir members observe many of the things you mentioned. We see the audience faces. We see the change that takes place for many. We see hearts being changed. We do not receive a monetary reward for the work we do, but the rewards we receive are much greater! Thank you for coming and sharing your impressions. I will be sharing this blog with other choir members!

  2. Young Sim on May 10, 2010 at 2:16 am said:

    Great Review Arthur!

  3. Ken Carriere on May 10, 2010 at 10:44 am said:

    Arthur, you did a great job with this review. Keep up the awesome work with linescratchers.com

    Ken

  4. Allison on May 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm said:

    I felt the same, Arthur. I truly thought it was an unbelievable experience! I loved how she can make people aware of the diversity and culture that does exist within the church, even if it isn’t evident within their own Ward, Stake or even Region. I loved how she said something to the effect of “I learned how to can and scrapbook, but I taught them how to make fried chicken!” :) The can still hear the sound of her laugh. Truly incredible…

  5. #1. Steve – It’s an honor to hear your kind words. You all did a beautiful, wonderful job. I wish I had a billion dollars to give you guys, so you can keep singing forever.

    #2. Sim and #3. Ken – THANKS!

    #4. I agree. It was a wonderful show.

  6. I attended the performance in Louisville as an usher and agree whole heartedly with your assessment of both Gladys and the choir. When we ushers went after the performances to the local IHOP about half the choir showed up. Their positive and uplifting influence was felt even outside the stake center venue. Change is oftentimes slow in coming and typically for the worse. The change that Gladys and the choir preached that night was positive and totally uplifting for the whole body of Christ. They were definitely Saints, unified with voices, hearts, and souls.

  7. Great review, Arthur. Sounds like a fantastic performance.

  8. Davey on May 11, 2010 at 11:06 am said:

    This is a beautiful review.

  9. Hi There. I am a member since before its inception of SUV. I was so blessed to meet Gladys shortly after moving to Vegas in 1998. She was such a new member and it was an honor to meet a lifetime idol of mine AND even better to share with her my experiences as a black returned missionary sister. Anyhow, I was not able to go on this tour with the choir so I totally appreciate your views. I get it. I feel it I so incredibly understand where you are coming from. I have lived all over the US and Mississippi during my jr high years after being a “city slicker proper talking high yella negro” as I was called, I cringe when I see folks acting up.. especially in the LDS Church. I must admit, I am not eleoquent like Gladys, I often tell members “You need to go talk to Jesus because you clearly don’t understand the gospel if you have time to hate people simply because they are not like you” I do, however, praise the LORD for answering our prayers with SUV and with Gladys and the many black members like her who fight barriers and bring love, enlightenment and the spirit of true discipleship to the LDS world. Keep being YOU. I would have loved to know you in highi school I was not LDS in the 80s when I was in high school but seriously brother, I can so relate to feeling out of place. WHAT A BEAUTIFULLY written blog. Keep sharing and keep your head up. Many blessings to you. And most of all, a deep heartfelt thanks for helping me experience what I missed by not going on this trip with your blog.
    Moroni 8:3!

  10. Buffie, thanks for your story! I am glad my words were able to explain how I felt in a way sufficient to communicate it to others. Keep in touch.

  11. Great review. I really enjoyed her choir and her testimony. She has such energy!

  12. GOD BLESS YOU SYPHAX!!!!

    THIS IS THE BEST BLOG I’VE READ ABOUT THE CHOIR. I TOO AM A MEMBER AND HEARING THE AUDIENCE POINT OF VIEW IS SO HUMBLING AND TEAR JERKING. I CAN’T STARE AT THE CROWD AT ONE PERSON FOR TOO LONG BECAUSE WHEN THEY START CRYING I START TO TEAR UP AND CAN’T SING. THIS TRIP WAS AMAAAAAAAAAAZING TO ME BECAUSE I FELT THE SPIRIT SO STRONGLY SO MANY TIMES I CRIED SEVERAL TIMES DURING PERFORMANCES. SEEING PEOPLE’S FACES CHANGE TESTIFIED THAT THE LORD WAS AT WORK CHANGING THEIR HEARTS.

    I APPRECIATE YOUR HONESTY OF “FEELING OUT OF PLACE” AT TIMES. I TOO HAVE FELT THAT WAY BUT THIS CHOIR IS HELPING THE CHURCH MEMBERS KNOW THAT IT’S OKAY TO LET SOMEONE ELSE SAY “AMEN” AND “HALELUIA” IF THEY FEEL THE NEED. WE ALL WORSHIP GOD DIFFERENTLY AND WE SHOULDN’T BE RUDE TO THEM IF THEY WORSHIP DIFFERENTLY. YOU KEEP ON BEING THE ROCKER YOU ARE MY FRIEND AND THANKS AGAIN FOR YOUR POSITIVITY AND LOVE FOR OUR CHOIR AND FOR THE LORD’S MISSIONARY WORK.

    ALOHA….T

  13. Thanks Tony! Y’all did great.

  14. Hello. Thank you for your wonderful review. Would like your permission to use a portion. Will you contact me at my email address to discuss?

  15. We had the SUV Choir here in Austin last night. I can’t find words to express the emotion and spirit that I enjoyed as I sat there listening to the music, the words, and the thoughts of my heart.

    I’ve been a member of the church my whole life. I consider myself a musician, though not professionally. I loved the music. I loved the way each one in that chapel felt the spirit the same way because of the beautiful music that came from a different place than what LDS people are used to.

    I loved watching the people to the right and left of me who obviously weren’t members of the church tapping their toes, patting their knee, and mouthing the words to the songs.

    I loved when Gladys shared about her mother. My favorite quote: I knew about Family Home Evening before I ever joined this church. Every Friday night we all sat down as a family and read from the bible.

    It was awesome.

    Aloha.

  16. Reputation Management on January 3, 2012 at 10:41 pm said:

    We were pleased to host Gladys Knight and the Grammy Award winning Saints Unified Voices choir. Reputation Management

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