Singing with the legendary Ben Speer

Powerful moments that continue to empower

Ben Speer on stage with Daniel Riley, Becky Isaacs Bowman and Mark Trammell at Gaither Homecoming event

Ben Speer never told me I was good. But he did exclaim about how sweet was the sound the four of us, in a pickup quartet gathered around an upright piano, made that day in Greathouse Auditorium at Trevecca University in Nashville. Not the day I was part of a group backing up him and his niece, Teri Reid, on a version of “Oh Happy Day” for a Japanese television crew. Nor any of the days Basses Loaded, the international student-comprised quartet I was in while attending the Stamps-Baxter School of Music, availed itself of performance opportunities on the bigger stage. 'Twas the day we were standing around at the end of a lecture by Dr. Jerry Goff, and singing broke out.

There is no substitute for confidence born of affirmation-by-belonging.

A unique sound in a unique moment

All three of us were pleased to find ourselves in a quartet with the legendary gospel-singing Speer. Ben was pleased to be singing lead. Singing is what he seems to do always — everywhere — whether it’s professionally before an audience, such as in the Gaither Homecoming concert pictured above (courtesy Aaron Crisler/The Judy Nelon Group) or simply puttering around somewhere where singing or singers are hanging out. More importantly, he was as pleased as we were with the sound the four of us created. We all belonged, creating a unique sound in that unique moment — one that no one else ... did.

I probably learned more as a performer in the two years spent at his Stamps-Baxter School of Music than from all other instruction anywhere else upon my journey. The difference was in the performance opportunities — not only that they occurred (because they did in other environments, too) but by their frequency and the different forms they took.

Being part of the act for a segment destined for a Japanese television audience was exciting, to be sure. I never did get to see it on TV, nor know to secure a copy of the DVD before the supply had been depleted, so the experience for me began and ended that hot evening at McLurkan Hall in Nashville.

A memory.

Except it wasn’t my most memorable experience with Ben Speer.

Impromptu and transformative

Singing “How Great Thou Art” around an upright piano in that impromptu quartet stands out as a more transformative experience. Jamming outdoors with other gospel singers from all across America on hot evenings where Speer, the patriarch of the school and pretty much the industry, would frequently show up with standup bass in tow does, too.

The lady playing the piano that day in Greathouse was singing alto so, instead of seizing the tenor part as I normally did in quartets, I gravitated to the baritone position. (Truth be told, though, the harmonies I readily “hear” are the tenor and the bass parts.) It all happened innocently enough — not a situation where anyone seemed aware we were entering a moment-for-forever and thus would think to exchange names or résumés. In fact, she was only playing around — practising a particular arrangement of that great old gospel standard — when Ben struck up singing. She began to harmonize with him. Standing nearby, I started to harmonize, too. Ben gave me “the look” — that patented over-the-glasses Speer peer that you’re never quite sure means “how do you do” or “scram”. He waved me in. Then he called for a bass singer. And one emerged from the lessening crowd that had already begun transitioning from the Goff lecture to the next classes.

I never did get the name of the lady playing the piano, nor of the middle-age dude who came and inserted himself so effortlessly into what then became a musical whole. They probably don’t know mine, either. It wasn’t important. Still isn’t. All three of us seemed to be getting a buzz out of the magnificent moment, even if it was ordained to last only for a moment and then be gone.

My singing the baritone part with Speer sort of epitomizes my foray into American gospel music: there, all right — carrying my weight and filling in the gaps left open by those the people are waiting to cheer for — but never really much of a standout.

Paralleling, perhaps, my having elbowed my way into a place where life had already decided I shouldn’t belong. Not offending by showing up uninvited, necessarily, but understanding quite clearly that the polite thing always was to be the one to help carry the freight while those truly of the culture put on the show.

A collage of memories

Fair enough. At least I was there. Viewed from the future perspective of today, it sure beats not having been there. (Though, to be clear, reducing it to a bucket-list item would be misrepresenting what was a very fulfilling years-long experience.)

Jamming with Ben Speer on hot, humid Nashville nights is a keepsake memory. A collage of memories, actually, because when he showed up on the concrete steps outside Jernigan Student Center with that standup bass, he drew with the presence of his elder-statesman status students with piano accordions, acoustic stringed instruments and even makeshift percussion, and of course voices eager to experiment with blends and harmonies.

At that stage, I wasn’t learning to sing. I was learning to sing better. Learning to adapt to a specific genre in various ways — as long as they remained divisible by four! There as much for the advanced theory, the parts-writing instruction and to immerse myself in the beauty of shape-note ear training as I was for vocal expansion itself. (Incidentally, it was the curiosity of shape-note instruction that piqued the interest of the Japanese TV crew, there to shoot footage for a show focused on varieties of world music.)

There comes a point where you do graduate from singing schools, but you never do graduate from learning. And sometimes when you find yourself reflecting on certain aspects of your formal education, you discover that so much of it was manifest in even the most innocent experiences.

I am a graduate of the Stamps-Baxter School of Music. The Steve Hurst School of Music, too. And have mementos from years-long instruction in other musical disciplines. But there is no diploma hanging on my wall that comes close to matching the empowerment embedded in the experiences lived while in pursuit of them.