The timeless phrase “Twas the night before Christmas” from the classic ode, A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, has never been quite the same since Gary Hines and Sounds of Blackness (www.soundsofblackness.org) got their hands on it and took the yuletide scenario to soulville with the annual heartwarming The Night before Christmas — A Musical Fantasy.
The contemporary adaptation brings Santa and the Mrs. together with Rudolph the Rappin’ Reindeer for delightful song and dance to celebrate the reason for the season.
Hines, founding music director/producer, guides the internationally renowned, three-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble with a well-versed hand, expertly blending genres to craft a universal yet distinct style.
Over almost a half-century, Sounds of Blackness has recorded film soundtracks (Batman, Panther, Posse, Down in the Delta, Mo’ Money, and Precious), worked with countless luminaries, among them Prince, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Anita Baker, and performed at the Grammy Awards, World Cup and the Olympics, garnering honors that includes NAACP Image Award and a Soul Train Music Award, to name a few.
The runaway 1991 hit “Optimistic” put them prominently on the musical map and they have since enjoyed ever-increasing success.
Hines spoke with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, taking a break from promoting and preparing The Night Before Christmas. He sounded the alarm to prospective ticket buyers: “Don’t wait ‘til the last minute! We have so many people who afterward, at church or wherever, say, ‘We didn’t get our tickets. And it was sold out.’” Hence, a proverbial word to the wise.
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR): When did Sounds start?
Gary Hines (GH): Our roots go to 1968. My alma mater Macalester College started a program, Expanded Educational Opportunity, for students of color — Latino, Native, Asian and African American. As an offshoot, they had a 50-voice choir started by Russell Knight.
In 1971, I [succeeded] him. The music was in the tradition of Duke Ellington. When people called him a jazz musician, he’d reply, “I do the music of my people.” Gospel, spirituals, blues and, of course, jazz. So, the mold had been set. We needed a name to reflect that, the music of the people. Ragtime, reggae, hip hop, rock. People forget rock is Black music. So, that January we named ourselves Sounds of Blackness.
MSR: What background qualified you for the job?
GH: There was the North High Black Choir around ’70 or so. I was their director. Many times we were on a [bill] with Macalester Black Voices. That’s how they became aware of me. I had started with the old Sabathani Baptist Church, directing their youth choir in my late teens. And my mom, the late great Doris Hines, exposed me and my brothers to all kinds of music.
MSR: But why directing? Was it leadership ability?
GH: I was always attracted to the function of a conductor, whether a symphony orchestra, church choir, a Jackie Wilson or James Brown band. The whole ensemble was the instrument of the conductor. I always heard music that way, in its totality. Even as a drummer, hearing the other parts. Whether it was in my community back in Yonkers [N.Y.] or watching Duke Ellington, Count Basie. I wanted to do that — had to.
MSR: Sounds personnel have come and gone, most notably vocalists. The band, as the saying goes, plays on.
GH: It’s been wonderful. We’ve been blessed. That’s been one of our goals. For Sounds of Blackness to be a springboard for careers.
Our first person to do that, a lot of people don’t know, was Alexander O’Neal. When he moved to Minneapolis from Natchez, Mississippi, before he joined Flyte Time, he joined Sounds of Blackness. The great Cynthia Johnson — you may not know her name, but everyone knows “Funky Town.” Ann Nesby went on to have a great solo career but is still part of the Sounds extended family.
MSR: Can audiences expect the same show they saw last year?
GH: Yes and no. We always tweak it. Update some of the songs, some of the gags to keep it a contemporary kind of thing. For instance, the mice this year have a special surprise. So do the reindeer. To divulge any more would ruin it.
MSR: So it’s the same thing only different.
GH: It’s always the basic [production]. But we always have such repeat audiences that we do things we know will make it a fresh experience for them.
MSR: What’s next after The Night Before Christmas?
GH: A few things. We were asked to perform for the General Mills/Martin Luther King breakfast, this year on the actual day of his birthday January 15. After that there’s a Super Bowl gospel concert at Bethel College.
Also, our homeboys Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are the ambassadors and producers of Super Bowl Minneapolis Sound Celebration. A week of free concerts on Nicollet Mall and ours will the Sunday before the game. A shout out to Jam and Lewis. We appreciate them having the Sounds of Blackness in there.
The Night Before Christmas – A Musical Fantasy is Sat., Dec. 23, 8 pm at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. $25 – $50. For more info, go to http://bit.do/SoundsNightBeforeChristmas.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.