Mary Anne Larzelere was introduced to the Earl Nelson Singers in 1967, two years after she began teaching in the Lansing School District. Her colleague Ruby Frazier, the mother of Lansing artist Brian Whitfield, was a member.
“We went to the big teachers’ meeting that they always have before school starts, and the Singers presented a wonderful concert, and I thought they were so good,” Larzelere said. “I said to Ruby later, ‘I just loved your choir,’ and she said, ‘Well, come and sing with us,’ and I said, ‘I would love to.’ So, I joined them in the fall of 1967, and I’ve been a member ever since.”
After 56 years in the group, like other members, music has become a mainstay of Larzelere’s life. In fact, she is president of the Singers.
“Someone asked us, ‘How many songs do you know?’ she said. “I think we all have hundreds of songs in our heads. If someone mentions a song, many of us can just start singing it because we’ve been singing for so long.”
The choir has been sharing Black spiritual music with the people of Lansing and beyond for 60 years but has reached its end. It will host its final concert at 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 26) at Friendship Baptist Church in Lansing.
“We just can’t go on anymore because our director, Verna Holley, is going to be 87 in April, and her husband, Melvin, is 90, and it’s just too much, and we don’t have anyone ready to step in,” Larzelere said. “She’s a fabulous pianist and a fabulous director, and there’s really no one who can take her spot. So, we decided it’s time to look at this group as a wonderful memory. We’re grateful for the 60 years we’ve had together.”
The group was founded in the early 1960s by Earl Nelson, who began gathering friends to sing spirituals with him while studying music education at Michigan State University.
“He realized, as they were singing, that spirituals were not really known or appreciated or sung very much anymore, so he decided that he needed to start a group that would preserve the dignity of the Negro spiritual,” Larzelere said. “He went on to become a music teacher at Otto Middle School in Lansing and started a group called the Earl Nelson Singers, which is composed of friends and people that he knew.”
It was an integrated choir, comprising both Black and white members. Its first concert was in 1963, just after the death of President John F. Kennedy.
“That was at Friendship Baptist Church in Lansing. That was 60 years ago this year,” Larzelere said. Nelson “directed the group until about 1978, when he left his teaching job and got involved in politics as a state representative.”
Holley, Sexton High School’s choir teacher at the time, took over as director following Nelson’s departure.
“She strives for authenticity and excellence, and she wants us to sing Negro spirituals in the spirit and the way in which they were written,” Larzelere said. “She’s an incredible director, and we give the credit and the glory to her for keeping us together as a pianist and director.”
The group comprises Lansing-area residents who share one common passion: singing Black spirituals in their original format, a cappella.
“A lot of gospel and other music that was out there would try to make it more instrumental, but (Nelson) wanted to keep it as it was in the fields, where it was just the raw slaves who were singing,” said Chelsea Hare-West, the group’s secretary and treasurer.
Larzelere said members have come from all walks of life, including “teachers, physicians, scientists, blue-collar workers and retirees.”
“When Earl was the director, there was an audition process, but by 1978, when Verna took over, people just came and joined,” she said. “It was really word of mouth. We never advertised anywhere, but people would invite their friends.”
The group has performed at countless events throughout Michigan and has traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., and beyond.
“We’ve sung everywhere. I remember concerts where we traveled on buses to Detroit. We drove to Flint. We’ve sung at college events. We’ve traveled to Battle Creek and sung at auditoriums and churches there,” Larzelere said. “When I think of our most memorable concerts, I think a concert that we did in Washington, D.C., in front of the World War II Memorial was very touching. I also think our concert at Carnegie Hall was definitely memorable. Just to stand on the stage was incredible.”
The upcoming concert will be the group’s first since 2020, and members are excited to share their passion for singing with the community one last time.
“For this final show, we’re singing some of our favorite songs that we all know by heart. It’s really a goodbye to the community and the end of a wonderful 60 years of singing together,” Larzelere said. “This whole thing has enriched the lives of everyone who’s been a part of it.”
Though she’s sad to see it end, she’s thankful the Singers have been able to bring attention to the importance of Black spiritual music.
“I have great gratitude for being able to be a part of this group. I have a great appreciation for the Negro spiritual and the incredibly painful experience that people went through. We don’t want to ever forget that,” she said. “I would have to say that the important thing I think we’re all gonna miss is the connection, and we will continue to sing together as often as we can, but we will not be performing anymore.”
The choir’s ending is bittersweet for everyone. Hare-West looks back on her 24-year tenure fondly.
“It was one of those things where you’d get tired after working or being in school all day, and Monday night you didn’t want to go to practice, but you’d leave like you’d just been invigorated and shot with some tremendous energy. You didn’t want it to end,” she said.
She hopes the Singers’ work won’t soon be forgotten. She’s been uploading recorded songs to SoundCloud to preserve its music and legacy for years to come.
“They’ve had 60 years, I know they’ve been recording albums at least the last 40. Probably the last 15 or so albums are on SoundCloud. We have some of the older albums from some of our members that we still have to get loaded,” she said. “I would just love to ensure that people in the Lansing area see how important this is, and perhaps, somehow, there would be a way that we can revitalize it or bring the choir back if we have enough exposure or interest.”
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