CHAPTER 1 THE GOSPEL
I FOUND CHURCH WHEN I was ten years old. It was the music that got ahold of me. At the time, 1988, my friends were checkin’ for Michael Jackson, Atlantic Starr, and Bobby Brown. It was cool, but my momma was all about the gospel. “It’s the Lord’s music,” she’d say. Momma never had to force church on me. Unlike so many kids in my neighborhood, I loved the sound of the choir, the drama of the sermons, the Sunday attire—all the fanfare that came with church. Mostly I loved the chance to be with my momma, Vera—and away from my stepdad, Donald.
My first time at Pressing Onward was right before Thanksgiving. Donald was getting on my last nerve. He got on my case for the smallest infractions—I drank too much milk, I didn’t take out the garbage, I left the lights on. He’d badger my mom about how much she spoiled me. “Mind your own kids, Donald,” she’d reply. But he persisted. Truth is, she never really told him off like I know my momma could.
One day Momma, Donald, and I were in the living room while I was grumbling about a homework assignment in which we had to write down all we were grateful for. I had managed a couple of things, but needed a few more and wondered aloud about it. Lawd, Donald jumped off the couch, looking like he wanted to deck me. “How you comin’ in here and not know what to be grateful for?” he asked, his voice an octave too high for my liking.
“I didn’t ask you,” I responded, staring off at the blue-and-white plates hanging on the wall in the dining room.
He took a step toward me. “Who you talking back to?” Louder now; spit was flying.
I looked at Ms. V, but she said nothing.
I was tired of Donald picking on me, and of all the kids at school calling me a fat sissy. I decided it was time to run away. “I hate it here!” I shouted and slammed the door so hard a plate fell off the wall and shattered. I really had to run now. Those were Momma’s favorite.
I believe God puts people in your life for a reason. I was fuming on the front steps, planning my getaway, when Denise Fountain walked by. Red and pink barrettes lined each side of her braided hair. “What are you doing, Freddie?” she asked as she approached me.
“Nothin’,” I said.
“Why don’t you come to church with me? Sunday is the Lord’s day.” Her voice was always a little squeaky.
I thought about it for a minute. “Which church?”
“Pressing Onward,” she said. “It’s fun.”
“Sure,” I said, standing up and skipping two steps to land on the sidewalk.
At church, I followed Denise down the long burgundy carpet of the center aisle until we got to the front pew. Denise pointed to a bald, heavyset man. “That’s Pastor Squalls,” she said. Then to a stylish woman with chocolate skin and a short, curly hairstyle. “And that’s the choir director, Georgia.”
The choir comprised eight women and an organist, or rather, a fabulous queen. His hairstyle was off the chain: he sported an immaculate fingerwave. I knew then that I wanted my hair that way one day. As they clapped and swayed in unison to songs like “Amazing Grace” and “True Praise,” I felt my chest relax and all the chaos from the day start to dissipate. They absolutely hypnotized me with their timing, harmony, and—let’s face it—their style.
What I didn’t realize was how much I could actually love church—until I discovered Pressing Onward Baptist Church. It was right down the street from our house in Uptown New Orleans (in the Third Ward, not to be confused with the posh uptown) on Josephine Street. As a small child, I had passed it nearly every day, but the plain little brick building topped with a small wooden cross had never made much of an impression.
I decided I was going to sing in that choir. I eyed the lady with the roller set again and I decided that I would make myself useful enough to her that she’d have to let me sing. Before we left the church that day, I made a point to introduce myself to Georgia. “Hello, Freddie,” Georgia said. “I’m so glad you came to church today!” I liked her instantly. “And I sure hope you will come back next week.”
“I will, Ms. Georgia,” I said. And I meant it.
Denise walked me home that afternoon. When I walked through the front door, my momma was on the phone. The second she saw me she said, “Here he is, I’ll call you back.” She put the phone down and glared at me. “Come here, child,” she said. I had to tiptoe over shards of blue-and-white porcelain to get to her. She grabbed my face in her hands. I thought she was going to smack me. “Boy, I’m so mad at you, I could whup your ass! I’ve been calling everyone looking for you.” She pulled me in close and hugged me hard.
I realized she had been crying, and I felt terrible for making my momma worry like that.
“Sorry about the plate,” I said, grabbing a broom from the closet and sweeping up the remains.
“Baby, don’t ever leave this house without telling me where you are.”
I wanted to tell her to tell her husband to get off my back, but I just said, “Yes, Momma.”
“Where were you, anyway?”
“Church, Momma. Pressing Onward,” I said. “I want to join the choir.”
“Really? You never wanted to join the choir at my church.”
“I know. There is something about this one,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t be offended.
“As long as you’re going to church, baby, don’t matter which one,” she said.
Over the next six months, I attended the little brick church every Sunday. I discovered that there were lots of projects I could start, besides joining the choir. The first: helping to feed the neighborhood kids. There were so many skinny-ass kids with raggedy clothes walking around the uptown, I told Georgia, “We’re a church. Let’s feed the hungry. It’ll get them to come to church too!”
Her eyes widened in surprise and she took a step back. “Fantastic, Freddie,” she said.
I decided we’d host a “Feed the Kids” day every Saturday. It took a month to plan, but I loved keeping everyone on task. I drew up some flyers and plastered them all over the neighborhood. “Feed the Kids” fed these hungry children the stuff they craved—fried chicken, red beans, salad, and a slice of cake.
Next? I decided to raise money for a new stove. The one the church had was so old, it looked like it was from the thirties, and had only one working burner. I told Georgia I’d put on a Valentine’s Fashion Show for the kids. “The boys and girls can model, and we will sell tickets for five dollars a pop.”
“Freddie, no one has money to buy new clothes for a fashion show,” she said.
“They don’t have to buy anything new; they can wear what they have!” I answered, undeterred.
“I don’t know, Freddie.”
“Trust me, Georgia!” And she did. She let me plan a Valentine’s Fashion Show fund-raiser that no one on Josephine Street will ever forget. Kids from the church wore their own clothes. Every last one of them was so excited to strut down the makeshift runway I had created by unrolling a giant roll of white paper in the backyard of the church. Proud parents beamed as I introduced each model. We raised around four hundred dollars from that show. Not only did we buy a new stove, but we had enough left over to paint the kitchen, too.
After the fashion show, Georgia kept me close, and I grew to love her like a mom. “You’re special, Freddie,” she would say, and my whole body would flutter with excitement. That support I was getting from the church gave my self-confidence a much-needed boost. I wasn’t conscious of it at that age, but the unconditional welcome I was getting at Pressing Onward was something I wasn’t getting anywhere else—not at home, not at school.
But my secret wish was that Georgia would hear my lovely voice and insist I join the choir. Finally, two months later, she brought up singing, but did so while throwing me a major-league curveball. “Freddie, we need some men in the choir for the tenor part. You wanna give it a try?”
“I’d love to,” I said, tingling with excitement.
“But we’ll need to do something about the fact that you’re tone-deaf.”
Huh? I thought. I felt like I had been karate chopped. “Tone-deaf?” I repeated, just making sure I’d heard her right. Maybe I wasn’t Mariah Carey, but I did think I could hit a note.
“Yes, but it’s not a big deal,” she said. “That’s a problem we can fix. We’ll start you in the choir now, and we’ll work together on your pitch after church.”
The following Sunday, Georgia handed me one of those blue robes. I held it up to my nose, taking in the fresh detergent smell. I slipped it over my head and walked out behind the pulpit for the first time, alongside the other members. That new vantage point, looking out at the faces of the congregation, was positively electrifying. I knew most of the songs, so I was just concerned about my voice.
As we sang “Never Alone!” and “Oh How I Love Jesus,” I forgot about Donald and those mean kids who hounded me about being an overweight sissy.
It wasn’t just the lyrics; it was the way they were sung. I hope kids today understand the power of gospel music.
In time, Georgia became my godmom. We are close to this day. I spent so many weekends with her singing and cooking. She was gentle and kind.
And she was right about the practicing. Within a few months, my ear was near pitch-perfect. Also, I started to expand my range, learning to manipulate my vocal cords in ways I never knew possible, even from high falsetto to a low, booming bass. I started prancing around the house, singing loudly. It drove Donald nuts.
My momma noticed too. “Baby, you have a beautiful voice,” she’d say. “Let’s get you lessons.”
“Yes, Momma, I’d love it.” She found voice classes for me, and I started going once a week.
I started walking around Josephine Street belting out loud tenor sounds that would reverberate through the whole neighborhood. That’s how I got to be known as the fat kid from Josephine with the funny operatic voice.