The Legendary Singing Stars are a gospel band whose history and tenacity can be seen as a microcosm of the genre itself — something born not only from deep faith, but as a reaction against grief and heartbreak. American gospel music is rooted in the slave songs and spirituals of the nation’s early history. It came about as a way to raise the hopes of human beings who were treated as much less. The modern incarnation — while not forgetting or abandoning its hardscrabble past — is much more celebratory. It is here that we find the Stars, the spiritual successor to a band called Tommy Ellison and the Singing Stars.
“You’ve got to go back to 1960,” says Da’Quan Bowers, the Stars’ lead guitarist. “That’s when Tommy Ellison put the Singing Stars together in Brooklyn.”
Under Ellison’s leadership, the Singing Stars — which included Bowers’ father, Dennis, and current member Billy Hardy — were a band of sharp-suited road warriors whose performances were defined by tight choreography, virtuosic musicianship, and impeccable four-part harmony. “They were stars of the gospel world,” Bowers offers, “but they had to face a lot of difficulty, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There were places they couldn’t go because a lot of cities, especially Southern cities, didn’t let black artists perform, even though there were people that wanted to see them.”
But the band persisted, continuing to record and tour relentlessly until Ellison’s death in 2009. That’s when the group changed their name to the Legendary Singing Stars and Bowers — then a standout defensive end at Clemson University — joined the fold to replace his father, who had also passed. He speaks with obvious reverence for Ellison and his legacy, but is humble about his own role in the band. These days, he’s a starter on Sundays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he still finds time to tour. “I could sing and play guitar just like my father did, so I was hired,” he says.
The Singing Stars have existed in differing forms for 54 years, two years longer than The Rolling Stones. In today’s musical climate, that sort of endurance is practically unheard of, especially for a group that doesn’t have the luxury of hit singles or platinum records to keep it afloat. According to Bowers, the key to the band’s longevity is its faith and a willingness to perform at every opportunity:
“We’re just blessed. We’re committed to what we do. And we’ve played with everybody, not just other gospel groups and not just at churches. We do big festivals with rock bands, R&B groups, all kinds of music.”
He’s not lying. A few years ago, the Stars rocked in the New Year in Asheville with popular garage outfit The Reigning Sound. This approach has won the group a large, demographically varied fanbase, and he demurs at the suggestion that gospel music’s strongest foothold is within the black community. “I don’t really see it that way,” he says. “People of all colors can take something from the music. It’s an experience for anyone that wants it.”
Bowers’ statement touches on an important aspect of this music. Gospel albums are in no short supply. The Singing Stars’ latest, Sail On Super Star, was released in 2011. But many bands treat recording as a mere formality. The real experience is the live performance. For the Stars, this means combining smooth, harmony-soaked soul with high-energy rave-ups that rely on an equally active, participatory audience. And they show no signs of slowing down, forging ahead in service of their faith and in memory of Ellison, whose vision is as fully realized today as it was 50 years ago.
The Legendary Singing Stars play Township Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 25. Township Auditorium is at 1703 Taylor St. Doors open at 2:30 p.m.; music starts at 4 p.m.; admission is $35 in advance, $40 at the door. With John P. Kee, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Canton Spirituals, and more. Call 576-2350 or visit thetownship.org for more information.
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