June 08--ALIQUIPPA -- Two of their singers are 85 years old, another is 78, but that's not slowing down Trumpets of Joy.
The Aliquippa gospel group has kept busy the past year with performances at tri-state churches, schools and parks where people come to hear old-time harmonies and traditional lyrics of a godly nature.
"We enjoy what we do, lifting people in the name of Jesus," said Deacon Babe Lott, 85, one of Trumpets of Joy's three original members. "God is good all the time. We're trying to lead people to Christ. That's our message."
That message brought the Trumpets of Joy to P.J. Caul Memorial Park in Ambridge a few weekends ago, as one of five groups performing at a gospel music festival hosted by First Missionary Baptist Church of Leetsdale.
Lott, in a crisp suit, tie and ballcap bearing the group's emblem, took command on opening song, "Oh, Lord I Need You to Help Me," testifying with spirit and soul, his vocals leading the call and response from Joe Freeman Jr. on keys and backing vocals; his sister Nicole Freeman on backing harmonies, their cousin A. Glenn Freeman on drums and Elder Michael Kirkland on guitar.
On the next song, fellow original Trumpets of Joy member Joe Freeman Sr., 78, in a satin-y gold shirt, took the main microphone, and kept hands clapping and toes tapping among a mixed-age, mixed-denomination crowd.
Spectator Mattie L. Smith had first seen Trumpets of Joy years ago, and was back for more.
"They really live the life they sing about, and that's very inspirational," Smith, of First Missionary Baptist Church, said.
That's the kind of inspiration Lott, Freeman Sr., and the third original group member, Deacon Roscoe Peake Sr., who was absent from the Ambridge show, have been sharing from local stages since Trumpets of Joy formed in 1962. The fourth founder, the late William "Shorty" Freeman, had sung throughout much of the 1950s with another Aliquippa gospel group, the Golden Bells.
Lott and Peake both grew up in Union, S.C., moving to Aliquippa for jobs in the mill. That South Carolina upbringing helped add Southern gospel seasoning to Trumpets of Joy, which today is composed of three generations of musicians.
A typical Southern gospel song features a solo vocalist offset by the intertwined harmonies of multiple voices, backed by bluesy piano or organ, drums and bass. The lyrics are simple and uplifting.
"This is just our little niche," said keyboardist Joe L. Freeman Jr., 49, who as a youngster remembers seeing his dad and other Trumpets of Joy members warming up an audience at the former Jones School in Aliquippa for future Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductees and Grammy Lifetime Achievement honorees the Blind Boys of Alabama.
"Our style of singing is almost a lost art, based on that old-style gospel Southern quartet," Freeman Jr. said. "But we've been able to change it a little, and give it more of an edge so there's a bit more of a fresher sound."
Newer members, who also include singer John Newman, have introduced to the group modern recording technologies and marketing strategies.
Drummer Glenn Freeman, a graphic designer by trade and nephew of Freeman Sr., discovered through web browsing a Christian-minded, Oklahoma-based label, Tate Music Group, which agreed to promote and distribute "Come on Here," Trumpets of Joy's 2010 album featuring 11 songs of heartfelt praise like "Thank You Jesus," "Search Me Lord" and "Rest for the Weary."
The group's elder members were surprised to learn that in today's DIY music environment, vocal groups can put out an album without big bank accounts or major label backing.
"Though they're old-school, so it was very hard at times to get them to do a CD," Glenn Freeman said. "They didn't like how (in the studio) you have to stop and start then stop again and do a vocal part over.
"Mr. Lott says when we stop like that, it messes with his spirit," Glenn Freeman recalled with a laugh.
The album, recorded at rocker David Granati's studio in Ambridge, took a few years to finish, with the musicians returning to the studio after the vocals were cut, to add intros and breaks.
The group had an easier time with its follow-up album, "Love Lifted Me," due out soon. Elder members, especially Freeman Sr., were more receptive to the sometimes tedious stop-and-start process that goes with recording, Glenn Freeman said.
So colloquially speaking, you can teach an old dog new tricks, "But those old dogs taught the new dogs some tricks, too," Glenn Freeman said. "My uncle wrote a lot of original songs he showed us."
Trumpets of Joy likely will sing a few of the new songs in their upcoming shows, including one at 6 p.m. today at Kingdom Life Fellowship Church in Pittsburgh (148 Jucunda St. in the city's Mount Oliver section.)
Trumpets of Joy's calendar also includes dates at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Steubenville on June 28, Second Baptist Church in East Liverpool on July 20 and the Raccoon Township Fire Hall on Aug. 31.
In previous years, the current lineup has sung at the National Quartet Concert in Louisville, and at an Air Force base in Georgia.
As long as the spirit fills them, and audiences are grateful to hear their message, then Trumpets of Joy will keep making music, including the group members who have been doing it for half a century.
"They don't keep still," Glenn Freeman said.
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