From Chip Johnson's column in today's San Francisco Chronicle
Singing for the kids of Richmond
- Chip Johnson
Friday, June 2, 2006
There are no A-list singers performing on "The City of Richmond Sings Gospel,"and it wasn't recorded by a Grammy-winning producer, but it is nothing less than the city's version of the 1985 hit "We Are the World."
And like that album, which raised $50 million for famine relief in Africa, it is no less ambitious. But instead of helping children half a world away, the artists who raise the roof on "Richmond Sings Gospel" are helping children in the city they call home.
Every one of the performers on the 13-song compilation of gospel music and spoken word poetry is from Richmond, and a handful of them are city youth workers who hatched the idea about six months ago while trying to raise money for the city's annual summer youth employment program.
"We were a conglomerate of agencies working toward a single goal, and the idea was suggested at a staff meeting last December," said Mary Billups, a pianist who recently retired from the city's Richmond Works youth employment program and performed on the CD. "The forces just all came together."
The project started as a lark when Malinda Claiborne agreed to hum a few bars
for her boss, Mike Warwick, the city's director of special projects."I told him I would do a little something-something for him right here and now," said Claiborne, whose accent and gospel roots reflect her upbringing in Clayton, La.
When Claiborne showed her chops, Warwick was blown away -- as is just about everyone who hears her sing. Warwick suggested recording Claiborne in a small studio at Richmond's Police Athletic League facility, and the project was born.
Claiborne, a church-going lady, called up some friends. So did Billups and Demitrea Foster, who also works in Richmond Works. The project grew, and so did the number of people who wanted to take part. By the time the CD was finished in early May, a dozen artists and two backup groups had been recorded, and Wayne Organ, co-chair of the music department at Contra Costa College, had spent more than 200 hours coaching and recording the performers, then mixing and arranging the CD.
He recognized the talent the first time they walked into his offices and
volunteered to help out."There is a lot of rich tradition in gospel music in the East Bay, so it's not that surprising to find this level of talent," he said. That said, he was quite impressed with Claiborne.
"Malinda isn't a professional singer, but she certainly has a professional
voice," he said. Claiborne's voice captures and conveys the struggle for righteousness amid a sea of trouble, the very essence of gospel music. Her booming refrains lift the rafters on "I Won't Complain."
Claiborne isn't alone. Consonance, a local choral group, performs a searing
rendition of "Come on in This House and Praise the Lord." Then there's Cynthia Harris, an administrative minister at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond. It wasn't so long ago that Harris was a vocalist with Clarence Clemons' E Street Band. Harris sings the lead on "Ordinary People" and "Near the Cross," and, yeah, she's really good.
The project turned out so well that Warwick has sent copies of the CD to local
retailers and even Starbucks, which promotes, sells and plays the music of
The CDs go for $17.95 a pop, and all proceeds benefit the city's summer youth employment program. All told, the group hopes to raise $350,000 through corporate sponsorship, donations and CD sales to provide six-week jobs to as
many as 350 teenagers who will earn $1,000.
The idea of a community finding the power to lift itself up is powerful, especially in Richmond -- a city that's seen more than its share of crime and economic struggles in recent years.
"I saw it as a chance for me to help the people in my community, and that's exactly what these folks are doing," Organ said. "This is a community coming together for a project that is not self-aggrandizing."
The project seems to be working so far. Since the CDs were delivered less than two weeks ago, more than 300 copies have been sold. For Billups, who retired in December after 37 years, the project was a great note to go out on.
"Projects like this show that it's not about how much money you have, but the
work you do with it and the lives you touch," she said. Amen, sister.
Richmond gospel music available "The City of Richmond Sings Gospel," a 13-song compilation recorded by city employees and community volunteers, is available for $17.95 online at www.richmondworks.org/Gospel%20CD.html; at the city's Finance Department, 1401 Marina Way; and at the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, 3925 Macdonald Ave. It also can be purchased by calling (510) 307-8023. All proceeds benefit the
city's summer youth employment program.
Chip Johnson's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. E-mail him at
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ARTS BEAT: WEST COUNTY
Surprising stars sing on Richmond's benefit CD
SING OUT, RICHMOND! Her co-workers at the Richmond Workforce Investment Board knew Malinda Claiborne could sing, but it wasn't until she belted out a number a cappella one day that they realized she could really sing.
"I was blown away," says Mike Warwick, head of the Richmond Works program. "She was phenomenal."
Warwick persuaded her to record a couple of demo songs. Then, other people started showing up who could really sing. The little demo turned into a full-blown CD featuring some of the greatest -- and in some cases, the unlikeliest -- talents in Richmond.
A group of volunteers led by Contra Costa College Music Director Wayne Organ (yes, that's his real name) volunteered more than 200 hours of recording, mixing and mastering to produce "The City of Richmond Sings Gospel."
The CD showcases 45 voices, including the Contra Costa College Gospel Choir and Consonance, a group led by McKinley "Mac" Williams, who, when he's not letting it all hang out, moonlights as president of the college.
Warwick is talking to Starbucks and Barnes & Noble about carrying the CD. Proceeds benefit the Richmond Summer Youth Jobs Program, which is another heartwarming story. The program aims to find meaningful work for 250 youths, who each will earn $1,000 for their work.
City businesses that don't have summer jobs can donate money, and the program also gets support from the city. The jobs program handles all the paperwork, pays the youths and places them with nonprofit groups such as UC Berkeley's Watershed Project, which works on wetlands restoration, or the city of Richmond Recreation & Parks Department.
You can help out by buying the $17.95 CD at the city of Richmond Business License Office, 1401 Marina Way; the Richmond Chamber of Commerce office at 3925 Macdonald Ave.; or on the Internet at www.RichmondWorks.org. For information about the CD or the program, call 510-307-8006.