USC Upstate Gospel Choir Adds to University’s Soulful Disposition

October 10, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Stacey Mills, executive director of USC Upstate’s Greenville campus, laughs while looking at photos as Dr. Warren Carson looks on.

If you want to equate the University of South Carolina Upstate to the human body, you might say the academics is the brain while athletics could be the heart. But USC Upstate’s soul? That’s easy: The Gordon-Collums Gospel Choir.

The choir was founded around the 1979-80 academic year – not by faculty or staff, but rather, by students who “really wanted to have some activities on campus that were reflective of their own experiences,” said Dr. Warren Carson, who directed the choir for 25 years, through 2009.

In conjunction with the University’s 50th Anniversary celebration and the investiture of Chancellor Brendan Kelly, Ph.D., the Gospel Choir is planning a reunion on the weekend of Oct. 14-15, culminating in a reunion performance at 4 p.m. Oct. 15 at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Spartanburg. The program will include a performance by members of the current Gospel Choir followed by the reunion choir, which will perform several songs. Current and former Gospel Choir members will then unite for the finale, Carson said. On Oct. 14, there will be a meet-and-greet and rehearsal in the Sansbury Campus Life Center Ballroom for former choir members. Currently, about 100 former Gospel Choir members are expected to perform, Carson said, although more are expected to be on hand for the reunion.

When he started working with the choir in 1984, Carson said, there were 16 members. That number would swell to as many as 165 during his tenure (while he has not directed since 2009, Carson has continued to work with the choir in an advisory capacity).

Former members of the Gospel Choir recently got together to sing, talk and perform for a promotional segment on WSPA.

“It was always more than just a choir,” Carson recalled recently. “It was a huge family. I felt like I was the male version of the old woman who lived in the shoe. And we used the choir to teach a lot of lessons you might not get in the classroom.”

In the years since the choir’s founding, it has had a profound impact, not only on the members, but for the University itself, Carson said. When the Gospel Choir began touring, he said, its members served as goodwill ambassadors, introducing USC Upstate to a global audience.

“I started taking them on concert tours, usually right around spring break, to major cities. We sang in a number of major cities, including Chicago – that was our first trip. We went to Cincinnati; we went to Washington D.C.; we went to Newark, New Jersey; we went to Atlanta. We did several cities in Florida, and we were all over North and South Carolina and north Georgia.

“We could probably have stopped what we were doing otherwise and just toured, but I never would let that happen, since I had many of them in class,” he added, laughing.

Carson said the highlight of touring during his tenure as director came in 2000, when, through the efforts of Drs. Regis Robe and Leon Wiles and then-chancellor Dr. John C. Stockwell, the Gospel Choir members packed their bags for a seven-day, five-city singing engagement in Switzerland.

“It was a wonderful trip,” Carson said. “I took 35 students and a couple of additional staff people and it was just a superb trip. It was a wonderful opportunity for these young people – I think with one exception, none of them had been abroad before – so it was a great opportunity and a learning experience for all of us.”

Travel wasn’t the only benefit of joining the choir.

“Many of us have many, many fond memories of those years,” Carson said. “It was a strong student body connection, and the connections continue even today among people who sang on the choir. … Many of them became active in various music ministries; many of them are pastors of area churches – not just in this area, but beyond.”

More than 1,500 USC Upstate students have sung with the choir in its history, Carson estimated. At a recent reunion rehearsal held in the Humanities and Performing Arts Center, a group of former choir members representing three different decades of students got together and, between songs, talked about what the Gospel Choir meant to them.

Carson noted that some University students forged marital bonds based, at least in part, on their experiences in the Gospel Choir. Two of those former members are The Rev. Stacey Mills and his wife, Jacqueline “Jackie” Burton Mills, both of whom were on hand for the rehearsal.

“I met my wife on this campus, and we spent a lot of time in the Gospel Choir, getting to know each other, and now, 20 years later, we’re married with three children and working at our careers – both in education,” said Mills, who is the executive director of the University’s Greenville campus. “I pastor a church and [Jackie is] a great partner in that work that we do. We attribute our experiences here with the joy that we have personally and the successes we’ve had professionally.”

Mills praised the Gospel Choir as an “institution within the institution.”

“I studied English here,” he said, “so on any given day, I was in a Harlem Renaissance class or a Southern Lit class with some other professor, and then walk into choir rehearsal on a Thursday night … and it would be like the stress of whatever else was going on would just melt away and you’d go from learning about Harlem Renaissance and literary theory in the day to singing Thomas A. Dorsey – one of the greats of gospel music – right here on campus.”

The reunion will also give current and former choir members the opportunity to pay their respects to Carson, who will retire in December. Mills said Carson’s influence on choir members cannot be underestimated.

“He’s been incredible for so many of us, honestly,” Mills said of his former choir director. “He’s inspired so many of us to build our careers even beyond what we were able to experience in this school. We just learned to be confident as professionals.”

For himself, Carson said the reunion weekend will be a great closing note for his career at USC Upstate.

“That’s exciting,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to conclude my time here than to spend time with the Gospel Choir.”