Allen Bailey and the Harlem Gospel Choir
World famous choir celebrates 25th anniversary
Chico, CA 95929
In response to a question having to do with just how well-traveled the Harlem Gospel Choir is, Allen Bailey—the choir’s founder and director—answered in a recent phone interview, “Let me tell you, American Express told us we’ve traveled, so far, 2 million miles in 25 years. We’re working on our third million now.”
Granted, the world-renowned singing group has had a quarter-century to rack up so many miles. Bailey started the choir on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 15) in 1986. But, still, that’s a lot of miles.
The Harlem Gospel Choir has performed in countries all over the world, and for such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and Sir Elton John. And it has shared the stage with a varied selection of performers, including Diana Ross, Jimmy Cliff, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Jessica Simpson, the Scissor Sisters and Dutch violinist/conductor André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra. The choir, as it has done for years, also still performs at the gospel brunch held every Sunday at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on West 42nd Street in New York City.
On Feb. 24, the Harlem Gospel Choir visits Chico for the first time to bring its special brand of joyously infectious gospel music to the Laxson Auditorium stage.
The jovial Bailey, who had just returned from a tour of Iowa, Idaho and Montana with the choir, said the 15-member ensemble ranges in age from 18 years of age to 70 (him), but, “They think I’m 34 when I go out on stage,” he added, laughing loudly.
Bailey said he was getting ready to leave with the choir for North Carolina the following day, and “Oh my goodness, in the Bible Belt they give us a whole bunch of fried chicken when we get there!” he chortled appreciatively.
Getting more serious, Bailey recalled the day he decided to form the Harlem Gospel Choir. He was inspired by watching a clip of Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964 (at age 35, King was the youngest man to receive the honor), which called for, among other things, “worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation, [which] is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”
“I thought, we can all be great because we can all serve,” Bailey said. “I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that.’” So, just like that, he formed the Harlem Gospel Choir.
“The theme—of all our tours—is ‘bringing nations and people together and giving something back,’” said Bailey. “Our company is based on the principles of Dr. King.”
Before creating the choir, Bailey said, he worked in the music business “with a lot of rock stars.”
“I got tired of working with those stupid stars,” he said. “Every time you see them, you gotta tell them, ‘Man, you’re great!’ If I’m gonna worship somebody, I’m not gonna worship somebody with a baseball hat—I’m gonna worship somebody with a halo and wings on his back!”
Bailey said that the Harlem Gospel Choir is “the only gospel choir to be invited to the People’s Republic of China.” The group made its second trip there several months ago.
“It’s an amazing place, with wonderful people,” Bailey offered. “I looked into the audience and, even though they don’t understand the language, I saw tears in their eyes.”
As for his obvious sense of humor, Bailey said people tell him, “You don’t take things too seriously.”
His reply: “I tell them God must have a sense of humor, you know, ’cause he listens to my prayers at night.
“Tell your readers, ‘Don’t forget to work for the Lord,’” he added. “The pay is small, but the retirement plan is outta this world. God bless you.”