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St. John Male Chorus celebrating 70th anniversary

A brief, formal history of the Male Chorus of St. John Missionary Baptist Church exists.

But then so does a tenor who has been in the group for 62 of its 70 years.

Claude M. Castleberry will be part of the anniversary celebration when the Male Chorus and choruses from other churches gather at 4 p.m. March 17 in the St. John Family Life Center.

Now in his 80s, Castleberry joined as a 17-year-old freshly arrived from Sparta, Ga. (Those doing the math should account for the years he spent away in the service in the early 1950s.)

Asked why the family relocated, Castleberry said, “My Daddy, he was the boss.”

And the boss moved them all because after visiting a friend in Springfield, “he came back to Sparta and said he could get a good job, which was better than working on the farm there.”

At first, young Claude didn’t particularly like Springfield.

“We didn’t have much playground space,” he said. And that made it more difficult to find a place to play baseball than in the open fields around Sparta.

But he adjusted.

And shortly after his father, Wade, got on at the Ohio Steel Foundry, the family started attending St. John’s, and DeWitt McWhorter, one of the chorus’ founders approached Claude.

Castleberry says it was 1947 or 1948.

“They needed some more guys,” he said. “And we (he and DeWitt McWhorter) worked together at Robbins and Myers down on Lagonda Avenue.”

That, of course, made it easier to sing together the third Sunday of each month, still the chorus’s performance schedule. Back then, the group had 18 to 20 members, among them DeWitt’s brother, also named Claude, Mitchell Carr and George Young.

And in addition to singing at St. John, the chorus directed by Selman Blanchard took its joyful noises on the road.

“We did a lot of traveling — Indiana, West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky,” Castleberry said. “A lot of times we’d sing here in the morning and leave in the evening.”

Dorothy Bacon played piano in the earliest days, and Castleberry remembers some of the early hymns and songs.

“One of the older guys sang ‘Never Heard a Man Speak Like This Man Before,’ ” he said. Other favorites were “Farther Along,” “Know All About It,” “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away” and “Lord Will Make a Way.”

Traveling in a caravan of cars, “a lot of times we’d stop on the roadside and practice,” Castleberry said. The fellowship, fun and food shared made it “a lot of fun.”

In addition to their road trips, they’d sing at other black Baptist churches in Springfield, among them People’s, Greater First, Zion Hill and Mount Zion.

In 1962, General Bradford, also called “Dutch,” got drafted into the chorus.

“Me and my wife had already separated, and these guys kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you come to church?’ ” he recalled. “So one day I just drifted in. I started coming on Sundays.”

With nothing to do one Thursday night, “I said, ‘I’ll just go over and listen to them’” practice, Bradford said.

With the help of Clinton Sallee and Leroy Sutton, “we hog-tied him,” Castleberry said, and soon Bradford was singing along.

“I’m supposed to be a tenor, I guess,” Bradford said. “I don’t know exactly what I sing.”

At 87, he added, “I want to quit, but they won’t let me.”

“He says he isn’t going to (sing), but he’ll do it anyway,” said Castleberry, who shares duet duties with Bradford on “Brighter Day.”

Castleberry calls his friend “one of the faithful members.”

“We’ve been friends since I joined,” said Bradford, who counts that one of the major benefits of chorus membership.

It’s one Bob Scott has come to treasure in the past five or six years.

A long-time St. John member, “I kept giving excuses for not joining,” he said. “I thought I wouldn’t enjoy the traveling.”

But he’s liked the visits to Chillicothe, Xenia, Columbus and Dayton, just as he’s enjoyed singing around town — and just like chorus members in its earliest days.

And as much as Scott enjoys the singing “this is a fellowship I really enjoy,” he said.

Part of that involves his friends in the chorus, part of it is the greater fellowship with other choruses they meet in group events.

“When you fill a church with men these days, it kind of lifts your heart,” Scott said.

The thought of leading a chorus of men almost made Denise Williams’ heart skip a beat when she came on a few years back.

“I was a little gun-shy, because I hadn’t directed a male chorus,” Williams said.

That may have been true of other women who have worked with the chorus as pianists, including Yvonne Bray and Anna Blackwell.

“But when you’re doing the work of God,” said Williams with a smile that can light up a sanctuary, “all the problems melt away.”

That includes her pre-performance jitters, which disappear when the singing begins.

“Those guys make me feel so spirit filled,” she said.

“His Yoke is Easy” is one of her favorites, “and they tear the roof off” with “He’s Been Good,” Williams said.

She admits that getting some of the older members to adapt a more modern sound has had its challenges.

“I try to meet them halfway,” she said.

As for the chorus’ formal history?

It tells us B.E. Edmonson Jr. called the organizational meeting at the home of his father and St. John pastor, B.E. Edmonson Sr.

It tells us the chorus made numerous radio appearances over the course of time.

And it tells us that the inspiration to form the chorus came from the Male Chorus of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church when it visited St. John in the fall of 1943.

That puts the 70-year history of the St. John Male Chorus in the context of an even longer history of men who have inspired others to make a joyful noise.

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