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Lansing's Earl Nelson Singers give final concert after 60 years of performing spirituals

Earl Nelson Singers singing, on risers at Friendship Baptist Church. Director Verna Holley is playing piano on the left.
Sophia Saliby
The Earl Nelson Singers practice on Feb. 19, 2023 ahead of their final concert.

The Earl Nelson Singers in Lansing performed their last concert Sunday after keeping the tradition of African American spirituals alive for 60 years.

Spirituals like Good News and I've Been 'Buked have been a part of the Earl Nelson Singers’ repertoire for decades. Their founder, Earl Nelson, started organizing the choir in the early sixties in Lansing.

Ruby Frazier was an early member. She says Nelson wanted to honor songs created by enslaved Africans.

"He could hear the spiritual being changed into like dancing music," she said. "I think that was his initial desire was to bring it back to its original intent."

Mary Anne Larzelere joined a few years later. She says, as a white woman, she didn’t grow up knowing spirituals, but the group was always open to everyone.

"I found the spirituals to be so sad in some ways and joyful in some ways. And of course, this was right about in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. And I thought, this is something I'm going to do," she said.

Black and White Photo of the Earl Nelson Singers, posed on risers and wearing robes
Verna Holley
The Earl Nelson Singers, pictured around 1980, have sung spirituals across Michigan.

Nelson led the group up until the late 1970s. Verna Holley took over for him as director after that.

"The spirituals still address the troubles of the world. And so, we feel that we are like messengers as we sing the songs in our repertoire," Holley said.

The Earl Nelson Singers have sung in churches, community centers, schools, retirement homes and prisons across Michigan and even at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

The choir's membership has fluctuated over the years, but at its farewell concert, 25 singers performed ranging in age from 40 all the way to 90.

Frazier, who's sung with the group for 59 years, says singing the spirituals is a family tradition.

"I had a six month old child in my arms, my son, when I joined group, he is now one of the tenors," Frazier said.

It's also like a part of America that would be wonderful because we sing so much in harmony, all colors, all cultures together.
Ruby Frazier, Earl Nelson Singers

Even if they aren’t all related, the group has become close-knit, and Frazier adds that togetherness is revolutionary.

"It's also like a part of America that would be wonderful because we sing so much in harmony, all colors, all cultures together," she said.

Larzelere says the group has been a constant in their lives, including their weekly practices which have fallen on Monday nights.

"If anyone asked me to do something on Monday night, I'd say, "I'm sorry. That's my night. That's my Earl Nelson Singers' night."

But that routine was interrupted by the pandemic, and the group is smaller now. Some of the members died during that time.

When they came back together late last year, Director Verna Holley says they made the difficult decision to give one final performance.

The farewell concert seemed like the culmination. We couldn't just quietly step out of the scene.
Mary Anne Larzelere, Earl Nelson Singers

"After you get to be a certain age, then it's apparent that you must lay down some things that you have always done," Holley said.

The group's final song called That’s Enough featured Melvin Holley, a bass. Former members of the choirs were invited to the stage at Friendship Baptist Church to sing with current members.

Larzelere said it was a powerful way to end their last concert.

"The farewell concert seemed like the culmination. We couldn't just quietly step out of the scene," Larzelere said.

Many of their performances have been uploaded to Soundcloudfor the community to revisit.

The singers say they’re hoping a younger member may decide to bring back the group in the future. But for now, they plan to get together a few times a year just to sing.

Melvin Holley leads past and current members of the Earl Nelson Singers in the song, That's Enough.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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