The Mississippi Mass Choir records new live album for the ages.
Photos by Sarah Warnock
Backstage at Word of Life Church in Flowood on an early autumn evening, veteran music executive, songwriter, and producer Jerry Mannery is everywhere at once, taking care of last-minute preparations and greeting well wishers. In less than half an hour, he’ll take the stage for the Mississippi Mass Choir’s first recording in nearly a decade.
Despite the anticipation growing among the audience on the other side of the stage door, Mannery is cool and focused — and he has every reason to be. As executive director of the revered Mississippi Mass Choir, he leads one of the most seasoned and celebrated gospel groups in the world. And he’s been around for all 34 years of the group’s ride to Grammy-nominated, globe-trotting success.
Tonight’s occasion isn’t about any of those accolades or accomplishments, though. Gathered before a sold-out audience, the 220-member choir is recording the performance for their 11th album, tentatively titled We Still Believe!, set for release in spring 2023 via the Jackson-based Malaco Music Group, the choir’s home since the beginning.
“We still believe there’s a place for choirs in the gospel music industry,” Mannery says, as he meanders through the corridors behind the chancel ahead of showtime.
We still believe there’s a place for choirs in the church. We still believe that God is God, and we still believe He fulfills all His promises.
That last point — a belief in God’s promises — will show up in at least two of the songs in the night’s set. All the songs were written specially for this performance, which was originally scheduled pre-Covid, and postponed until now. “He didn’t tell us we wouldn’t go through things,” Mannery says, in reference to the pandemic. “He tells us that when we go through them, He will go through with us, and that’s a promise.”
Mannery says he saw a hunger for gospel music even before the virus swept the globe — a need that has only grown in the last two and a half years. “When people are going through things, it’s the music of the church that they’re really looking for. And so, with all of the things that have been going on in the world, this is the music that really heals, this is the music that encourages, this is the music that gives hope.”
Founded by Jackson Southernaires member and Malaco Records executive Frank Williams in 1988, the Mississippi Mass Choir quickly found success with their self-titled debut album, which locked down the No. 1 spot of the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart for 45 weeks. Since then, the group has picked up multiple Grammy Award nominations as well as Dove and Soul Train awards, while performing to audiences in Greece, Japan, Spain, South Africa, and even for Pope John Paul II in Italy.
But 2 months prior to releasing its third album, It Remains to Be Seen, which spent a year at the top of the gospel charts, Williams passed away in March 1993. “Frank always said he never wanted to be part of anything that would die if he died,” says Mannery, who succeeded Williams at the helm of the choir. “So, what we do [is], we replenish the choir.” To date, more than 500 performers from all corners of the state have been choir members, and more than 50 of the current members, like Mannery, have been there since the beginning. Some members who currently live outside the state traveled from as far as Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and Los Angeles; others drove in from Atlanta and Pensacola, Florida.
“We probably had 18 rehearsals, because we’re learning 12, 13 songs,” he says. “You teach the songs, you learn the songs, then you have to perfect it. And then you have members drive 4 hours one way to rehearsal, sit through a 3-hour rehearsal, and then turn around and have to drive back home again. So, truly, the sacrifice of the members is really the secret sauce of the Mississippi Mass.”
Choir member and songwriter Stan Jones, who joined in time to perform on the 2014 album Declaration of Dependence — which included his duet with Le’Andria Johnson on “God’s On Your Side,” which he wrote — is serving as producer tonight, one month after scoring a Number 1 gospel hit with “All in Your Hands,” sung by Marvin Sapp. Jones made weekly trips from his current home in Nashville, where he works on Music Row.
“I’ve been a fan of the choir since I was a child,” says Jones, who grew up in Clarksdale. “My parents are fans, and back in the VHS days, I watched my parents sing [along]. Seeing the light in their eyes, the pride in their eyes when they watched them, it made me know that it was something special. But I knew what it was — it was because they are the fabric of this state. When I travel and say I’m from Mississippi, [people say,] ‘I know the Mississippi Mass Choir!’ So now to come full circle, my parents are attending and I’m producing the record, it’s an amazing story.”
As Mannery takes the stage to welcome the audience, he makes a point to call them all to service, stressing that what happens on stage is only one part of the worship.
“The role you play in this is as important as what we’re doing, because we’re walking together … and we’re excited about what God is going to do tonight.
Before the performance, Jones reflects on what keeps him inspired to serve. “What’s awesome is that so many people who are still a part of this choir started on day one, and they’ve been a part of it for the last 34 years,” he says. “You can’t help but look at them and feel a sense of responsibility. You have to keep what they started going.”
Jim Beaugez is a music and features writer published by Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Garden & Gun, Outside, and others. He lives in central Mississippi.