Soul Children of Chicago, all heart and soul

Soul Children of Chicago, and the choir's indefatigable director, are working for more

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The Soul Children of Chicago perform at an international faith conference at Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park on September 12, 2013. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

It is a long, hot afternoon of waiting in Douglas Park, on the city's West Side. The Soul Children of Chicago, Walt Whitman's long-running, mostly gospel powerhouse choir, is on the bill at a Dwyane Wade foundation charity event, but the concert started at 4 p.m., and by 5:30 the group's members are still milling about on the grass behind the stage. 

Also waiting is the headlining act, Mindless Behavior, a hip-hop boy band of the moment, the members of which are hidden in big Cadillac Escalades parked to the right side of the stage. Every cracked window or slightly opened door brings screams from the teen and pre-teen girls for whom these big black vehicles are the event's real stage.

And a few members of the Soul Children — who are, after all, kids ranging from about 8 to 18 — take advantage of their backstage location to walk up and try to peer into the SUV windows. 

Big mistake, when you sing in a choir run by Whitman. 

He pulls the whole group, more than 40 strong for this performance, together on a little hill, and, with the gusto of a man who grew up as an Air Force brat and has run a kids choir for three decades, demands that they cut. It. Out. 

"Y'all are professionals!" he reminds them. "You are an artist. Act like one." 

Stepping up the choir's level is what Whitman is trying to achieve these days. It would seem hard to do for a group that has sung at President Barack Obama's second inauguration festivities (at the request of the First Lady), backed Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and regularly tours Europe. 

Wednesday, Soul Children is scheduled to be featured in the third episode of "The Queen Latifah Show" (2 p.m., WBBM-Ch. 2); Latifah surprised the kids at a rehearsal over the summer and then flew the group out to perform with her at the Hollywood Bowl. There's also a new DVD out, "Soul Stories!," which dramatizes real-life situations from the lives of some of the choir members trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Their big 32d anniversary concert, "Break the Chains," comes Oct. 26 at the Holy Temple Cathedral in Harvey.

But Whitman wants more. The members of Soul Children can electrify the crowd in a shopping mall mega-church, as they did at the heavily religious International Faith Conference in Forest Park last Thursday. They can hold the stage in a pop setting with a Queen Latifah or Mindless Behavior, and they can do even more to the stage itself: When the group finally got to sing in Douglas Park two Saturdays ago, jumping with the enthusiasm and the spirit that Whitman insists the kids bring to performances, officials from the event were seen peeking under the bunting to make sure Soul Children weren't going to, literally, bring the house down.

And the group has won over hardened critics. "It isn't often that the opening act tops the main attraction, but it surely did Monday night in Orchestra Hall," the Tribune's Howard Reich wrote in 1999 about a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday concert featuring the choir and superstars Sounds of Blackness. "If there is a more technically disciplined, emotionally committed and musically dynamic young people's chorus in the United States, this listener has not encountered it."

Whitman, who's got the energy in person that the poems of his namesake have on the page, wants Soul Children to be the headliners rather than the opening act or the backing gospel choir. 

He wants them to have not their day in the sun — because the group has certainly had many of those since it grew out of the choir at a South Side Catholic school where Whitman taught — but more days in a brighter sun. 

Three scenes from Soul Children's summer show the group trying to achieve that. 

A visit from the Queen

The kids, gathered in the cathedral space at the Olive Branch Mission in the West Englewood neighborhood, where they rehearse every Thursday and Saturday, know something is up. Someone is coming on this early July day. To explain the cameras, they've been told a documentary crew is shooting them. And they've been warned to clear their calendars for the tail end of the next week, which, in all likelikhood, means an out-of-town performance. They're just not sure where. Or who. Or what.

And then, as Whitman puts them through their paces, Queen Latifah walks in. "I just happened to be strolling through the 'hood at 63d and Claremont," she says. 

"She walked in the door, mid-song," Kyana Nunnally,18, a 10-year choir member from Lansing, recalls later. "I was, like, 'Oh my God, it's really her.' I had to get closer to be sure."

They're practicing Stevie Wonder's "As," and Whitman, in the middle of the song, throws out an improvised: "Queen Latifah, we will always love you." The choir executes it flawlessly. "The spontaneity is the piece that excites the audience," Whitman says afterward. "The energy is spontaneous, but the choir rehearses it. Everything is calculated so even the looseness is prepared." 

"You all sound crazy good," Latifah tells the group. "What is the name of this choir? Soul Children of Chicago? You ain't lyin'. You ain't lyin'."

She asks who does "the best Mr. Whitman impersonation," and a boy named J.J. steps up: "When I say move, you move," he barks, and his peers can't quite stifle laughter, "or you won't sing in this life or the next one, either." 

"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. 

The group's 2010 report to the IRS listed about $200,000 each in income and expenses, and Whitman says the budget is above $300,000 now. But he wants to get to $1 million, a place where the fees the group commands are higher, and finding travel money is less stressful. 

Financially, "we're O.K.," he says. "We're not great, but we're O.K. I want to move into this place where this is great."

But for all the importance of the worldly, spirituality remains at the essence of the group, as well. "I just love how we worship and how it's connected to God," says singer Kyshawn Carpenter, 14, of the South Side. "And it's just a release to mesh with the other people."

Church time

Before they take the stage at the International Faith Conference of Bill Winston Ministries and the Living Word Christian Center, which own and occupy the back half, roughly, of Forest Park Plaza; before they sit in rows with bibles open in front of them just ahead of entering the sanctuary; before they deliver a performance that takes the group back to its roots, with Whitman becoming more preacher than leader and primary vocalist; before all of that, the Soul Children rehearse with Whitman in a back room. 

There is some singing, tightening things up, warming up the vocal cords, making sure the new members are up to snuff. Then he delivers the devotion, a regular, pre-singing ritual — but this is an extraordinary performance, part pep talk, part call-and-response psalm reading and interpretation, part group therapy. A taste of it:  

"Listen to yourself impacting nations. Every time you say 'holy' something has to happen. I want to see that angels have to bow down. Don't come in here with no kind of attitude, no kind of drama. Your facial expression, your whole countenance in the presence of God, has to be right. There is a certain way that you operate. Look at somebody and smile at them. Repeat after me: 'God be merciful to us. Bless us.' This ain't no little small thing. Pastor Winston has choirs. He don't need you. He can call anybody. He don't need kids. So don't you get caught up in yourself. Everybody stay focused. That means do not allow distraction to take you off your post. That means everybody is in sync. So that means nobody messes up. Nobody. Stop right there. Stop right there. Y'all look at each other and smile. I'm still looking at some of your all pitiful faces. There's more in you than you realize. I want it to be so that when you walk in the door, they will feel your presence."

And then, before they leave the room, one of the last things Whitman tells his young charges is this:  

"One more time. One more time. One more time. I don't care about you all getting tired." 

sajohnson@tribune.com Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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