"I'm shocked," says a smiling Whitman, who freely admits to a "tough love" approach: "They don't have a problem with you being tough with them if they know you really care about them," he explains later. "I've had 'em start crying in rehearsal. I say, 'I don't care about you crying. I don't feel nothing.' It sounds cruel, but some of these kids need somebody that will give them the tough love."
A girl named Julia — last names aren't used for the cameras — tells Latifah her first weeks in the group were hard. "You were crying for the first two months," the actress and singer repeats. "Why did you keep coming back?"
Says Julia, "He's like a total father figure."
Whitman, 52, started the group as a young music teacher at St. John de la Salle Catholic School, on the South Side. As his group gained a reputation, kids outside the school wanted in, and after a couple of years, Whitman left to lead the choir full time.
"I never intended it to be what it is. It was really just the school choir," he says. "I never liked children's choirs, and I didn't like hanging around with kids. … Soul Children has always been a choir that had a very mature sound for a children's choir. They are kids just in physical being, not in vocal ability or talent or what they do to an audience."
He had trained in classical vocal technique at the now-defunct American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, he says, and that training, he thinks, helps his group stand apart from the sound he says is associated with gospel singing. "Most people think of gospel as very harsh or rough and not polished," he says. "We don't give you that hard-gospel, screamy kind of sound."
It gives the group versatility, too. Says choir member Nunnally, who will leave to attend Southern Illinois University in the fall, "We perform at a lot of different places: corporate things, Jewish things, church things."
And Latifah will be added to the list of very famous singers the group has performed with: Josh Groban, Stevie Wonder, Garth Brooks, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Celine Dion, to name a handful.
"I'm excited," Latifah tells them.
Whitman is excited, too, because the TV appearance, scheduled to include a long video piece explaining what Soul Children is all about, will help bump the group up a level, he hopes.
All the backing appearances are "nice," he says, "but what I'm trying to do is establish the Soul Children really as an artist themselves so they can stand on their own."
Saturday in the park
During the wait to go on stage at the Wade's World Foundation event earlier this month, some of the parents talk about what it takes for their kids to be in Soul Children and what they get out of it.
"It's so inspirational," says Monique Weaver, 33, of Calumet City, who works at a Head Start facility in North Lanwdale. Her daughter, 14-year-old Kyla Stevens, gets work ethic, vocal training and world experience: "She's been to Sweden and the kids' inaugural ball in Washington, D.C.," for instance, says Weaver, who, like many parents, volunteers to help keep Soul Children running.
It can be expensive, about $1,500 per year, according to Whitman (comparable to a high-level youth travel soccer club). "It's worth every penny," says Weaver. "It's some good, toe-tapping, finger-snapping music, and they're a great group of kids. They're a family unit."
Joseph Alexander's 11-year-old son, Joey, in his third year with the choir, is in a tough period: His voice is audibly changing, even as he tries to emphasize that a key to being a Soul Child is "You have to be committed. You have to be committed."
"It's teaching him discipline, how to carry himself professionally, and it's building character," says Joseph Alexander, a public service representative at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
And that commitment can pay off. Some alumni, including Jamie Simond and Dave Hollister, have gone on to professional singing careers, especially in gospel, and there's an alumni network that is always saying, "'Let me help you with this,'" says singer Alan Peck, 17, a Mount Carmel High School senior. "It's opened up so many doors and opportunities," says Peck, who worked at McDonald's corporate headquarters during the summer.
Indeed, although the mission statement of the Soul Children talks about helping youth overcome such contemporary struggles as drugs, pregnancy and suicide, when you talk to the parents about them, you realize this is a highly motivated group. They compete to join the choir — new members are just starting to sing publicly with the group at this time of year — and they come in from the south suburbs, from Maywood, even from the Rockford area.
Whitman insists that kids keep their grades at a C or better — "or you get sat down," says Joey Alexander — and many of the kids list a roster of school activities sure to impress any college.