JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – When Anitra Reed was sharing her childhood story to a friend in northern Virginia recently, she could not help but remember her formative years spent on former Fort Lewis in the 1970s. Especially the time she spent here as part of a gospel choir community who left an indelible mark in the Pacific Northwest.
“They were extremely popular and in demand in the Tacoma-Seattle area,” said Reed. “Even though they were a military gospel church choir, they sang as well as any choir that you would hear on the radio at that time, and that goes to the expertise of the choir director and the musicians.”
The choir Reed was talking about was the Martin Luther King Singers.
It all started for the choir in October 1973 at Evergreen Chapel on 2nd Division Drive when the chaplain at that time, Chaplain Roy Plummer, had a dream where he saw music as a main source of communication and a way of getting people together.
“I remember him wanting us to perform on MLK’s birthday, and that’s how we got our name,” said Michael Prather, one of the original members of the choir. “We performed at the post theater for MLK’s birthday and from that time on, we were known as the MLK Singers.”
The original members consisted of five active-duty military members. The purpose of the choir was to bring “cultural” music to the military worship service -- gospel music.
“It was new,” said Philomena Reed, Anitra’s mother, who was choir president from 1974-75. “That’s when the Army first started establishing gospel choirs in churches at military installations. Up until that point you only had Catholic and Protestant groups, and that’s one of the biggest impacts of the choir.”
Later, the invitation to join the choir was extended to others in the Pacific Northwest. The MLK Singers ministry spread throughout Canada, eastern and western Washington, Oregon and California. They were ministering at places like the World’s Fair and in the presence of dignitaries, according to Philomena.
“What I remember when my mother brought me to choir rehearsal, was the uniformity,” said Anitra. “The way they selected their uniforms, how they collaborated as a group to come up with outfits that looked good on every body type. There was organizational structure.”
ACTIVE-DUTY CHOIR MEMBERS
Michael Phillips was an 18-year-old active-duty Soldier from Arkansas when he joined the choir in 1973.
“It was right across the street from the barracks,” Phillips said. “(The choir was) a few months old when I joined the choir. There were some young people there that were in it, and I grew up singing in church as a child from home, so it was an easy fit for me.
“I remember we used to get in trouble because we would go a little bit into overtime in our services and that was one of the reasons, they had to find us our own building at North Fort. It was always a packed house, and you couldn’t find a seat during service.”
In 1973, Michael Prather was also an 18-year-old Soldier from Compton, California, when he discovered the choir and joined.
“My unit was out on North Fort, so every day the shuttle bus would come through and I would ride and go look around post,” Prather said. “Up until that time, I’ve heard of Mount Rainier and never seen it. And when it cleared up, it was sitting right there like it’s only five miles down the road. A bus full of people asked a dumb question like, ‘When did they put that mountain there?’ And I’m telling you, the people on the bus laughed for about 15 minutes.”
Still unaware of the choir, Prather was about to learn about it after that bus trip.
“Long story short, I got off the bus and I heard somebody singing, and this guy was cutting up – and that was Mr. Larry Dennis,” Prather said. “He was in the recreation center playing the piano, and he was singing up a storm. I was like, ‘Wow, I got to see who this is.’ So, I went in, met him and we became friends. We went to the MLK Singers together.”
Dennis was the first choir director of the MLK Singers.
“In such a short time, we were known all over the Pacific Northwest,” said Prather. “Mr. Dennis had a choir directing style that was totally different. If you were singing the wrong note, he would walk over while we were singing, give you the right note and go back down and direct like nothing ever happened.
“People were just amazed that a group of Soldiers and group of military people could come together in such a short time.”
“I remember Andrae Crouch (a nationally-known record producer and gospel singer) came to Fort Lewis around 1974 or 1975 and the MLK Singers backed him up in his performance,” said Anitra.
The choir also performed for former first lady Betty Ford, who visited Olympia in the 1970s.
But the choir’s biggest champion at the time was Patrinell “Pat” Wright, who was then known as “Seattle’s First Lady of Gospel.” Wright was also a community activist; she developed a local, national, and international reputation as an accomplished pianist, master choir director and an amazing singer.
“Pastor Wright was our biggest supporter. She loved us,” said Prather. “She invited us to every event. She made sure we were noticed and made sure we were in the newspapers as much as possible. She was good to us.”
Aside from their notable performances, the MLK Singers stayed busy around Fort Lewis.
“We sang at nursing homes, the prison, and the PX,” said Philomena. “We sang all over the place.”
In 1997, under new leadership, the choir officially became known as Grace Gospel Community Choir and moved from Chapel 9 to Four Chaplain’s Memorial Chapel. In July 2008, they moved again to their current home at Lewis North Chapel.
Today, choir members are mostly retirees and families of service members. It has been a challenge to recruit and keep service members for various reasons, according to Tommie Terry, current choir member and Sunday school teacher.
“I think back when we were the MLK Singers, there was a lot of dedication and we had a lot more professional help,” said Terry. “All of our musicians were military then, and our directors were mostly military – now we’re still dedicated, but it just seems to be a little harder to keep people.”
One of the enduring legacies of the choir that holds true today is the notion of family.
“We were like family; we were always together,” said Philomena. “The choir was at my house a lot. You just never had a bunch of people that bonded together like that. It was something special.”
Terry said the current choir is still family oriented. Everyone still sticks together and do things together.
“We are still a close-knit group like a family,” said Terry. “We don’t travel like we used to because of the pandemic, but we always sing at various events on base such as Dr. King’s birthday, events at Madigan and the Exchange, among others.”
For Anitra, it was a time in her life that brought joy and left an impression that she still lives by.
“To this day, just wonderful memories, wonderful people, wonderful support, that it just set the foundation for so much in my adult life.”
Phillips, the young Arkansas man yearning for home when he first arrived at Fort Lewis, never left the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife still live in the area and are still active and singing in a choir at their current church in Tacoma.
For Phillips, the choir has given him so much more.
“I married a girl from the choir, and we will be celebrating 40 years of marriage in March,” said Phillips. “I met her in the choir, and we got married at Chapel 9.”