Army Chorus to sing to celebrate Northampton Co. native's retirement

Alvey R. Powell Jr., a Northampton County native who graduated from Northampton High School in 1974, grew up singing at his home church, African Baptist Church in Cheriton.

On Friday, the 61-year-old bass will celebrate his imminent retirement after nearly three decades in the United States Army by singing there once again — this time as a member of the U. S. Army Chorus.

The church is at 4224 Sunnyside Road in Cheriton.

Right now, Powell is the oldest enlisted soldier in the Army. His last day, Oct. 31, will be his 62nd birthday.

Powell has been a member of the chorus a total of 26 years, with an eight-year hiatus. The chorus during his tenure has performed for many foreign dignitaries when they come to visit Washington, D.C. — that is its main job.

"We usually try to sing something in their language ... We sing in around 50 languages ... It's our job to entertain them," he said, adding, "I've met just about every foreign leader in the last 30 years."

The program in Cheriton will include patriotic and Americana selections, Powell said.

Friday's concert represents a long-anticipated homecoming for Powell to the church that nurtured his talent — and his character — as a youth.

"That's where I found the Lord," he said.

It was the congregation of African Baptist Church, which was pastored for 50 years by Charles Mapp Sr., that encouraged Powell to pursue singing, he said.

"My church was instrumental in my starting to sing from the age of 5 or 6 years old. Those members just kept pushing me in that direction, saying you really have something, young man — keep going. I'm sure that's why I kept going," Powell said.

His high school chorus teacher, Dora Weston Wilkins, also encouraged Powell as he grew older.

"She decided I was good enough to go on a European tour that was sponsored by her college, Shenandoah Conservatory of Music," he said.

He auditioned and made the cut.

The community again supported Powell by raising about $3,000 to pay his way to go on the tour.

"That was in 1975 — that was a big deal," he said, adding, "They raised so much that I had to put a note in the newspaper saying I had enough and thank you very much."

The Eastern Shore was a good place to grow up, Powell said.

"I enjoyed growing up in Northampton County. At the time, it was the poorest county in the state, but we didn't know it — it was wonderful for us," Powell said.

Powell's late wife, Gina, who died two years ago, was another of his great supporters. She also was a singer — they met in an opera house.

"She definitely was very instrumental in my career and keeping my head level," he said.

Powell is happy to finally have the chance to bring the chorus to his hometown as a way of thanking the people who have lent him support all these years.

"Being that I'm from there, I wanted to bring (the Army chorus) there 30 years ago, but it just never happened," Powell said.

Powell's sister encouraged him to ask if the group could travel to Cheriton to perform before he retired.

He asked if that would be possible — and it was.

"They thought that would be a nice retirement gift for me, and they said yes right away," he said.

Among Powell's most treasured memories when he looks back at his Army career is being asked by President George H. W. Bush to sing at his inauguration — Powell sang the national anthem and "God Bless America" at that event.

When Bush was vice president under President Ronald Reagan, Powell performed at Bush's quarters many times.

"I guess that's why they thought of me to sing at the inauguration when he was elected," Powell said.

Another career highlight happened during the eight years Powell was out of the Army, before he returned to the chorus.

It was a performance that had been his dream since junior high school.

"I was about 14 and I was in the library. I was looking through the (record) albums and books and things, there was this one album that stuck out to me — it was this lady dressed in a red dress and a man on his knees, singing to her. It was William Warfield and Leontyne Price in 'Porgy and Bess'." Powell said.

"I put that album on at the age of 14, and I couldn't stop listening to it."

Powell said he tried to sing the songs Warfield did on the album.

"I could sing every note, but I could not sound like him, at 14. I said to myself, 'You know what — someday I'm going to sing this music," he said.

He finally got his chance at age 32 in Australia, when he first performed the role of Porgy.

Since then, he has sung the part in more than 2,500 performances around the world, including with La Scala, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera, among other companies.

Powell is known as a world-class performer.

He made his film debut as Balthazar in the BBC production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

His Carnegie Hall debut was in June 2008, when he sang the role of Joe in a concert production of "Show Boat."

He returned to Carnegie Hall in 2009 for a production of "Porgy and Bess."

Powell also performed as soloist in the Verdi Requiem for the Rome Opera's commemoration of the centennial of the death of Guiseppe Verdi.

The performance at African Baptist Church will be Powell's last as a member of the Army chorus, the church's pastor said.

Pastor Robert Garris, who has pastored African Baptist Church for about five years, said the Army chorus' performance "means so much to the church, because this is our homeboy."

"This is someone who has sung  at inaugurations, at funerals for presidents and first ladies, at many major events at the White House and the Pentagon ... So it's an honor to have someone who has served his country so many years to come home," said Garris.

"I get a little emotional about it because ... I know the good man that he is. He's good to the church; he supports the church."

The event in addition to celebrating Powell's retirement also will celebrate the Eastern Shore's military personnel, both active duty and retired — military personnel and veterans from all branches of the service are invited.

"We are inviting everybody to come and to hear this great male chorus of the United States Army sing," Garris said.

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