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Final stanza

Larry Bland, director of The Volunteer Choir, is calling it quits as group reaches 50th anniversary

Jeremy Lazarus | 9/27/2018, 6 a.m.
A local gospel music group that has been generating sounds of joy and inspiration for 50 years could soon be ...
Larry Bland rehearses with choir members last Saturday at Second Baptist Church to get ready for the 11 a.m. worship service Sunday, Sept. 30, at St. Peter Baptist Church in Henrico County. Photo by Sandra Sellars Richmond Free Press

Larry Bland is in practice mode as he prepares for the first of his final concerts as director of The Volunteer Choir, which is marking its 50th year. Location: The choir’s rehearsal room at Second Baptist Church on Idlewood Avenue, where the choir was started in 1968.

Richmond Free Press

Larry Bland is in practice mode as he prepares for the first of his final concerts as director of The Volunteer Choir, which is marking its 50th year. Location: The choir’s rehearsal room at Second Baptist Church on Idlewood Avenue, where the choir was started in 1968.

A local gospel music group that has been generating sounds of joy and inspiration for 50 years could soon be no more.

Larry Bland & The Volunteer Choir is scheduled to make three appearances this year to mark its golden anniversary milestone, and then Mr. Bland said he will retire as the group’s director and chief organizer.

“It’s bittersweet,” said the 65-year-old Mr. Bland, who both sings and plays keyboard with the group he helped nurture into one of the best known gospel performance groups in the Richmond area.

The choir currently has about 25 active singers, including eight women who were among the founding members in 1968.

Whether the choir will soldier on without their energetic and enthusiastic director remains a major question.

Two of the three remaining Volunteer Choir appearances will be during fifth Sunday worship services at St. Peter Baptist Church, 2040 Mountain Road in Henrico County.

That includes the 11 a.m. worship service this Sunday, Sept. 30, and Sunday, Dec. 30, that Mr. Bland said will be his last as director.

St. Peter has hosted the choir on fifth Sundays for eight years, Mr. Bland said.

The choir’s grand finale also includes a performance Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Richmond Folk Festival on the Downtown riverfront. All former members of the choir may return to perform one last time during this show.

Known for its choreographed performances and upbeat tempo, the Volunteer Choir began at Second Baptist Church in the Randolph neighborhood of the city’s Near West End.

At the time, there was controversy over the type of music that was right for worship services. In 1968, gospel music had not yet become dominant in the black church, and music leaders at Second Baptist Church resisted rollicking gospel in favor of traditional hymns and spirituals. Several of the church’s choir members quit to protest the push for inclusion of gospel.

The late Dr. Odie D. Brown, who was the church’s pastor, issued a call for volunteers to fill in while Second Baptist’s music ministry was reorganized. That name — The Volunteer Choir — stuck among those who responded.

Among the initial volunteers are the eight who have remained active with the choir for 50 years — Corliss Terry Bey, Vickie Lightfoot Epps, Calcine Harris, Valerie Harris-Jones, Valerie General Johnson, Deborah Ann Lundy, Yvette Lundy-Johnson and Marsha Dailey Vandervall.

Mr. Bland, who was a teenager at the time, did not become part of The Volunteer Choir until 1971 when Dr. Brown handed him the director’s baton just before Mr. Bland began his freshman year at Virginia State University.

Despite his youth, Mr. Bland was already a seasoned gospel performer. Since 15, he had played keyboards and directed the choir two Sundays a month at Abner Baptist Church in Glen Allen. He also led Larry Bland and the Gospel 6, a touring Richmond gospel group he and friends had created.

And before The Volunteer Choir, Mr. Bland led the short-lived Odie Brown Gospel Youth Chorale, the pastor’s first attempt to bring gospel into the church.