News Column

Oh Happy Day

June 27, 2014

By Marta Hepler Drahos, The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

June 27--TRAVERSE CITY -- Derrick Hall raised his powerful voice in "It's Your Season To Be Blessed," the chords and riffs of his organ driving the upbeat song.

It wasn't a church service but rather "Gospel Brunch" on the deck of Clinch Park's Rivertown Cafe. And listeners donned shorts and swimsuits instead of their Sabbath Day best.

The new Sunday afternoon series is the creation of M'Lynn Hartwell and Peter Murphy of Freshwater Events, which focuses on bringing world cultural events to the community and on crafting sounds not heard elsewhere in the area. Hartwell said Gospel Brunch was inspired by churches in the South, though it's more about "gospel as a music genre."

"My son was in Memphis and he was across from a Methodist gospel church and the music coming across the street was phenomenal," she said. "I talked to Peter and he pulled a band together. Nobody else here is doing gospel and it's fun, it feels good."

The music was a long time in coming for Hall. He moved to the area in 2002 to play the Holiday Inn circuit.

"It's rare in northern Michigan," said the musician and music producer-engineer, who was raised in the gospel tradition. "For the whole time I've been up here I've been looking for this."

The naturally gifted keyboardist discovered his talent in an unconventional way and took only a year of lessons.

"At 6 years old I had a dream that I could play," he said. "We had a piano in our house and so I woke up from a dream and tried to play what I heard in my dream. And I could play!"

He started performing in bands in the 1980s, eventually touring with an R&B dance band. But something "wasn't right," Hall said. He quit the band and moved to Atlanta, where he helped produce his brother, also a musician, and worked as a security guard with his brother's company.

At the same time, he started reading his Bible.

"One night, to stay awake, I was reading my Bible and this janitor came by mopping the floor," Hall recalled. "He said, 'That's a good book you're reading,' and he invited me to a church. 'They don't have a keyboardist, they have a drummer,' he said."

After a month of invitations, Hall finally gave in. As he reached the church that day, he heard music like he'd never heard it before.

"They just had a drummer but the congregation was so loud it sounded like every instrument was being played. That was the first time I encountered that," he said. "I looked up on the pulpit and there was that janitor. He said, 'I'd like to thank my friend Derrick Hall for coming and he's a keyboardist.' He sat down real fast and the whole congregation turned and looked at me."

The drummer gave Hall the "come on over" nod and Hall found himself rising to play for the service.

"They had the same exact keyboard setup I'd had in a band," he said. "And that's when I started playing gospel. I was raised up in gospel but I couldn't play until then."

Now Hall is music director and associate pastor at Traverse City'sLighthouse Church of God, and moonlights at Gospel Brunch performances at 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.

Joining him are vocalist Renne Herman, choir director at Trinity Lutheran Church in Frankfort and a Berklee graduate in vocal performance; bassist and vocalist Paul and Sharron May, owners of the May Family Farm in Benzie County and one-time performers in a soul band; and Angie Berle, a music graduate of Alma College and a singer who performs Thursdays at the Yard Patio in Traverse City.

Murphy, a drummer and keyboardist who plays locally with Berle and Blake Elliott & the Robinson Affair, rounds out the band.

"This is the core group but we would welcome a chorus," said Hartwell, who extended invitations to TC Sings and houses of worship in the region.

The series began June 15 and will run through the summer depending on weather and audiences.

"So far we've gotten a ton of compliments," Hartwell said. "I think we're going to build a big crowd."

Myles Anton listened from a nearby rock June 22 with daughters Maggie, 2, and Annika, 4. Annika clapped in time to "Oh Happy Day" while Maggie ate an ice cream cone that dripped chocolate onto her striped bathing suit.

"This is great," said Anton, owner-chef at Trattoria Stella. "We were going to the splash pad and the beach and Annika said, 'I want to go listen to the music.'"

It was a special afternoon for Mike Sutherland of The River, which operates Rivertown Cafe and rents boats, boards and bikes to Clinch Park visitors.

"I think it's so cool," said Sutherland, whose grill-master will cook up barbecued ribs, grits and eggs, and other Southern brunch-style fare for the event. "It feels like that event, that music and the energy and the people that were there, is why the city built Clinch Park.

"It's about community, a place where families and friends can come and get together," he said.


(c)2014 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

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Source: Record-Eagle, The (Traverse City, MI)

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