Boys Choir of Harlem goes quietly

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Led by Dr. Walter J. Turnbull, who started the group in 1968, the Boys Choir of Harlem sang at the White House for nearly every president since Lyndon B. Johnson, and it was awarded the National Medal of Arts by Bill Clinton. But it did not survive long enough to perform for the country’s first Black president.

What happened to this internationally acclaimed choir? For more than three decades, they sang Mozart in Latin, Bach in German and Cole Porter and Stevie Wonder in English, from Alice Tully Hall in New York to Royal Albert Hall in London.

boyschoir
THE BOYS CHOIR OF HARLEM

The choir’s last official performance was in 2007, around the time of the death of its founder,  Turnbull. But no one ever announced that it was gone. Board members and alumni had hoped to revive it, but according to a New York Times article they acknowledged that they had not had any success.

The choir’s demise as a functional organization was a result of many factors, but everyone agrees it was set in motion by a single episode: an accusation by a 14-year-old boy in 2001 that a counselor on the choir’s staff had sexually abused him. The counselor eventually was sentenced to two years in prison.

The accusation and the scandal that followed—set off a chain of events that led the city to oust the choir in 2006 from the Choir Academy of Harlem, the school building that had been its home. That, in turn, deepened the choir’s already serious financial problems.

Even though several of the former members have vowed to start the group back up, nothing has happened to this point, mostly because of the money owed by the group, and the ongoing civil suit.

But the choir was not just about building musicians. “It was understanding how to balance everything in our lives, about how you become a global citizen,” said Matthew Gadsen, 25, a former singer in the choir who went to Georgetown University on a full scholarship and now works at an investment bank. The hardest thing, he said, “is that I had that opportunity, and now there’s another kid in a public school in Harlem who doesn’t.”

The Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumni Ensemble performed at the Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church.

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For the audiences that marveled at the Boys Choir of Harlem, it was an additional wonder that the young performers with world-class voices had emerged from some of the most difficult neighborhoods of New York. December was always a busy month, as the choir toured the country’s premier concert halls and appeared on television Christmas specials.

But this year, the boys are nowhere to be found. Last week, Terrance Wright, a 39-year-old choir alumnus, picked up a microphone in front of the altar of Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church in Harlem, the choir’s last home, and delivered news that surprised few people but saddened many.

“Tell the people. Let it be known,” Mr. Wright said, glistening and exhausted after leading a Christmas concert by former singers in the choir. “There is no Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem.”

For a famous organization that politicians had vowed would outlive its founder, it had a quiet end. Many of the choir’s materials, like copies of handwritten scores and its trademark burgundy blazers, now sit in black garbage bags and open boxes in the church’s damp dirt-floor basement, amid overturned tables and sacks of plaster of Paris.

Owing millions in payroll taxes and penalties, and immersed in a lawsuit stemming from the abuse accusations, the board of the Boys Choir gathered in the months after Dr. Turnbull’s death, said Howard Dodson, the leader of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Mr. Dodson was brought onto the board, along with former Mayor David N. Dinkins, in an effort to save the choir.

“There were those who didn’t want to declare its end because they were wishing something would show up to make it real again,” Mr. Dodson said. “That was the hope.”

The meeting, he said, was spent with lawyers, who were negotiating with the I.R.S. about how the liens would be paid. “Trying to revive the choir, unfortunately, was not uppermost in anyone’s agenda at that time,” he said.

At the church, leaders were getting little information from the board. People kept calling—and do to this day—wanting to book the choir at events. Church members stacked the choir’s materials on an unused stage upstairs and then, finally, in the basement.

“When Mr. Turnbull died, everyone said, ‘We are not going to let this die,’ and no one did anything,” said George Reyes, who arranged concerts and concessions for the choir. A few months passed. Then, he said, a decision was made by some of the alumni.

“We finally got together to say, O.K., we are going to continue what Mr. Turnbull started,” Mr. Reyes said.

With that, about 30 former singers in the choir began practicing, this time men and women together, to make up for the lack of soprano and alto male voices. (The Girls Choir of Harlem was founded, also by Dr. Turnbull, in 1988.) Mr. Wright, who joined the choir at 16 and later became Dr. Turnbull’s assistant, took the lead.

With little support except for what they earn at occasional performances, like a recent Christmas show at a Brooks Brothers store, the alumni began singing their old classical, Broadway and gospel arrangements, and adding some R & B and soul.

They made their first international appearance in October, traveling to Shanghai for an international arts festival. Financing came from unlikely sources: The country music duo Brooks & Dunn helped out, and a Texas businessman paid their airfare. “The standard politicians around the city didn’t even return our phone calls,” Mr. Reyes said.

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