Terrance Kelly – who has been director of the multi-racial interracial Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir for the past 29 years, as well as choir director at Imani Community Church for 18 years – credits his mother, the late Faye Kelly, for having been his first vocal coach.
His vocal prowess was recently on display during the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir’s 29th annual holiday concert at the Paramount Theatre when he stepped up to the microphone to sing “O Holy Night.” He rendered the hymn’s first chorus in a robust operatic baritone then soared four octaves to deliver the second chorus in a high gospel falsetto.
Kelly will perform a concert of spirituals on Saturday, Feb. 7 at 8 p.m. at Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. He will be accompanied by pianist Ben Heveroh and joined on some selections by members of the interfaith choir.
Kelly’s music teacher, Lula Hadden, tried to talk her 13-year-old student into taking voice lessons at Lowell Junior High School in West Oakland, having told him that he had “a naturally round voice.” He gave it little thought until the renowned San Francisco operatic soprano Henrietta Davis came to Allen Temple Baptist Church, where his mother was choir director, to perform one Sunday.
“She sang ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,’ and that changed my life,” Kelly said of Davis.
“I was riveted,” he recalls, particularly by the way she moved so effortlessly between European classical and African American gospel vocal styles. “She could do it in the space of a single word.”
“Monday morning I signed up for voice lessons,” he said.
Kelly went on to study with Bay Area opera singers John Patton and David Tigner among others, and attended Texas Southern and Holy Names universities.
Although some believe that performances of spirituals were Europeanized at the behest of music teachers, Kelly says that enslaved Africans in the U.S. began singing them that way themselves in order to avoid punishment for allegedly sending secret messages.
“They couldn’t sing in their natural tones, so they learned to mimic the tones of the people in the big house,” Kelly explained. “As they became more educated, they Europeanized it even more and it became an art form within itself.”
Tickets for Kelly’s concert of spirituals are $30 and $40, and are available at eventbrite.com. The full choir will do a concert of spirituals and traditional gospel music on Sunday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison Street in Berkeley. Tickets are $18, $20 and $22, and are available at ticketfly.com.