Alexander Hamilton of Inglewood has worked with dozens of well-known entertainers--Aretha Franklin, Ben Vereen and Liza Minnelli, for example--but the performers closest to his heart, he says, are the Voices of Inspiration, the gospel choir he led to first place in a competition last weekend.
The event, at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, was the first major gospel-singing competition held in the state and drew 70 entries from five Southern California counties, according to the event's sponsors, the McDonald's Operators Assn. of Southern California. Proceeds went to the United Negro College Fund.
Alexander Hamilton and the Voices of Inspiration have been together for 12 years, singing one Sunday a month at the Double Rock Baptist Church in Compton. They were chosen over six other choirs, most of them also church-affiliated, to win the competition's first prize: an opportunity to record an album produced by Grammy winner Jeremy Lubbock.
"We've already done one album," said the soft-spoken Hamilton. "In 1982, I produced one called 'Glory, Hallelujah!' that we've sold through the church. But now that we're famous , maybe the album will be available in more places."
No Stranger to Fame
Hamilton, 40, is no stranger to fame, having worked as a conductor, arranger, vocalist and pianist with a parade of headline performers in live shows, television specials and recording sessions.
Still, his roots are in gospel.
"I was raised in the church, and gospel music has always been my priority," he said. "It's distinct from other types of music because it tells a message--the message of Christ. And when it's delivered by people who believe and have joy in the message--that's what makes it exciting."
Though based at the Compton church, the 60 members of the Voices of Inspiration come from throughout the area, Hamilton said. He tries to help the choir develop the polish of professional entertainers at practice sessions held each Friday, he said.
"I strive to take my show business expertise and apply it to gospel music," he said. "The message will be the same. But with the right production values, it can cross over all barriers and reach more people."
Professional at 9
Hamilton has been honing his musical skills since the age of 4, when he began piano lessons. He became a professional musician at 9 when he played the organ at a recording session for a gospel choir. His musical career has taken him to every major city in the country, he said, and includes 10 years as conductor/director for entertainer Lola Falana and the distinction of conducting the New York Symphony at Carnegie Hall for gospel luminary James Cleveland.
He said he continues to shuttle back and forth between work with performers such as Bill Cosby and Lou Rawls and his directorial duties with the Voices of Inspiration.
"When I had a Las Vegas gig," said Hamilton, "I would take a flight back here just to lead the rehearsal--then I'd fly back again afterward. But I'm not on the road nearly as much as I used to be because I want to put more attention on the choir.
"The group is very dedicated," Hamilton said. "They work hard on diction, facial expression, harmony, stage presence, breath control, phrasing--the same as professionals."
'Y'All Come Choir'
But the top-ranking ensemble is, by Hamilton's description, a "y'all come" choir.
"We don't hold auditions--anybody who shows up can be in the group. Most of the members are truck drivers, secretaries, everyday people."
Gwen Evans, a first soprano who has been with the group for 12 years, described Hamilton as "a perfectionist."
"He knows what he can demand from us, and he has a special kind of tenacity," said Evans, a clerk with the state Employment Development Office. "But after all this time, we're more like a family than a choir. Whenever Alex goes to New York for work, he visits my grandmother."
Beyond the Words
"Alex has the ability to pull out of us the meaning of the songs we are singing," said baritone Gilbert Ivey, a 10-year veteran of the choir who is an administrative analyst for the Metropolitan Water District. "He discusses the songs with us so we understand them beyond just the words."
"As choir directors go I'm fairly unorthodox," Hamilton said. "Usually, choirs have group officers and dues. We don't have either--there are no rules or regulations.
"Everyone is an adult and I treat them like adults. I don't insist that everyone come to every rehearsal. They all know what we have to do. It's very loose, in spirit and attitude."
Hamilton smiles when he recalls a rehearsal just before the day of the competition finals. A National Basketball Assn. playoff game was being played at the same time.
"Most people would have been shocked and appalled. We had at least five TVs going--and just as many radios. . . . We didn't start until we'd finished yelling and screaming for the Lakers. But as soon as the game was over we were ready to get to work."
The group, which performed Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" and two contemporary songs at the gospel competition, was judged No. 1 by a panel of celebrities including Dionne Warwick, Barry White, Paul Winfield, Roxie Roker (Helen on "The Jeffersons"), Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap on "WKRP in Cincinnati") and jazz musician George Duke.
Second place went to the Kimble Community Choir, an Inglewood-based group led by Bettye D. Kimble.
"It was gratifying to get reinforcement from peers in the industry," Hamilton said. "But I told the choir members before the competition, 'I'm not as concerned about winning as I am with being the best that we can be. We have set high standards for ourselves, and we should be happy as long as we meet those standards.' "
Alexander Hamilton and the Voices of Inspiration will perform at 3:30 p.m. today at a Father's Day gospel concert at the Hollywood Palladium. They also will give a free concert at the Friendship Baptist Church, 80 W. Dayton Ave., Pasadena, at 6 p.m.