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Hear His Voice

Robert Robinson brings gospel music to the masses across the Midwest

Hear His Voice
Photo by David Ellis

(page 1 of 2)

*To listen to Robert and the Choir, visit our Music Clips page.

THERE ARE BIGGER things in life than Robert Robinson, but the stocky gospel singer has a way of putting everything else out of mind—except, of course, for God. When Robinson sings “O Holy Night,” fans break out in tears. With his angelic voice and cherubic figure, Robinson has been called “the Pavarotti of gospel.” It’s not the music alone that motivates him—though it is what propelled his 15 years with Lorie Line and appearances with Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Jackson, Barry Manilow, Kenny Loggins, Prince, and such local favorites as the Steeles and Sounds of Blackness. The message of gospel—songs pulled from the Bible, lyrics of praise and worship—has enabled him to find his greater purpose. ¶ This past year, Robinson’s love for gospel music led him to stop touring and return home to focus on the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir (TCCGC), which he founded in 1990. He initially juggled commitments, but now is solely dedicated to the choir, which recently wrapped up a holiday concert tour—Robinson’s first without Line. ¶ At a recent TCCGC practice, Robinson sits behind a desk littered with song charts for “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “A King Is Born,” along with driving directions to an upcoming concert at Paramount Theatre in St. Cloud. Acolytes approach and ask about the verses, wondering if they’re singing “Joy to the World” with enough “attitudinal flair,” as one long-time singer phrases it. The group is diverse, but when members open their mouths to find the key, their voices become one.

Their dedication advances them, Robinson says, but whether members are motivated by the music or their director is hard to gauge. As they rehearse, toes tap and heads bop along with the rhythm of the drum. A few of the singers break out in laughter after Robinson jokes about bringing food for their trip (“I wouldn’t suggest bringing fried chicken or pork chops ’cause you might get jumped”). Their leader hasn’t just charmed them—he’s earned their respect: after creating a national following with Line, Robinson left to shepherd his own ensemble—to St. Cloud, Arden Hills, and St. Paul.

Line remains one of his biggest fans. “He was amazing,” Line says. “Just his voice and his presence were altogether…unforgettable.” But at 46, Robinson was ready to take the lead and realize his mission of sharing gospel music through the TCCGC wherever there’s an audience.

“When you find a group of people that will follow you to the ends of the earth, you better stay with ’em,” he says. “And that’s what I’ve found in this choir.”

Photo by Tom Wallace

GOSPEL MUSIC was popularized in African-American Baptist churches in the early 20th century, but it stems from 17th-century spirituals. When African slaves arrived in the New World, their masters took away their drums. Slaves created their own beats by clapping hands and stomping feet, augmenting spirituals framed by “call-and-response” formats. African-American religious music evolved with instruments, verses, and refrains, and, over the decades, new urban music.

Although gospel is often associated with black houses of worship in the South, there is also white gospel, sometimes referred to as Southern or country gospel. That sound was made famous by June Carter Cash’s family, and more recently by the evangelical pastor Billy Graham. While country gospel takes a folksy approach, black gospel is soulful and jazzy. The two bear a similar message and can intertwine (in fact, Robinson sang at the 1996 Twin Cities Billy Graham Crusade), but they differ in style; black gospel is often unpredictable in its course. The improvisation on notes makes it challenging to master. Imagine Julie Andrews instructing the von Trapp children to run the musical scales of “Do-Re-Mi” with a gospel slant, asking little Gretl to give the song more attitude.

Robinson grew up in a musical family, deeply rooted in the teaching of the Christian church—his father was pastor and his mother led the musical ministry. Six-year-old Robert and his three siblings formed the Robinson Children group, with young Robert singing the lead.

“My mother didn’t want to lead, so she figured the best way to get a backup was to work her kids, and she did.” Robinson’s older brother, now also a pastor, played drums, while the girls accompanied Robert’s vocals. The siblings remain close, members and leaders in the TCCGC.

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