Earnest Pugh’s old Army uniform, decorated with medals, hangs in the closet of his Bowie home. He wore it proudly for 15 years, the first dozen in active duty and three more in the Texas National Guard.
But in 2000, he retired as a first sergeant to pursue his other passion: music.
It took another decade for Pugh to become the full-time solo recording artist he’d wanted to be, but his persistence is paying off. Pugh, 44, the former worship leader at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, is celebrating the success of his third album, “Earnestly Yours,” a 12-song collection that rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts for gospel albums on July 16 and kept the top spot the following week.
The project features the fastest-charting song of Pugh’s career, “I Need Your Glory,” which has reached the No. 5 slot on the Billboard list.
“I walked away from a very promising military career,” Pugh told gospel legend Bobby Jones during a recent taping of BET’s “Bobby Jones Gospel.”
“I was doing very well, but I just had something in me that was greater than what I was doing.”
Sporting a black blazer and open-collar silver shirt, Pugh gave the live audience a sample of the five-octave tenor that has helped to make him so popular. His voice momentarily transformed a D.C. studio at Black Entertainment Television into a churchlike scene, with audience members shouting and clapping.
It was a long way from Pugh’s drill instructor days, spent barking orders at recruits.
Born in Memphis, Pugh was the seventh of nine children. His father, Earnest Sr., worked at a Firestone tire plant in Flint, Mich., and his mother, Lillie Pearl, a government food-service worker, held several part-time jobs. She was the first to notice her son’s voice and encouraged him to sing.
He was a teenager, singing in church, when his talent caught the attention of O’landa Draper, then a choir director in his early 20s who invited Pugh to join his new group, the Associates. Draper would go on to become a Grammy Award winner, and his group would record with Billy Joel on the 1993 hit “River of Dreams.”
By then, Pugh had enlisted in the Army. He was stationed at Fort Hood, where he began building his reputation as the soldier with the voice. “I frequently was called on to sing at funerals,” he said.
His first big break in music came in 2000, when he was hired full time as the worship leader at Ebenezer AME, a megachurch with various choirs.
“When he first came to Ebenezer, he always believed that he had a music ministry to go different places,” said the Rev. Grainger Browning, the church’s pastor. “He was a tremendous blessing for the church, and now to see him, it is a a blessing for all of those who have seen his growth and development.”
The music ministry at Ebenezer has boosted the careers of several top gospel artists, including the late Donald Vails, Patrick Lundy, Brent Jones, Keith Williams and Byron Cage, who has had several No. 1 hits.
Pugh’s first album, 2006’s “A Worshipper’s Perspective,” came during a tough period. His marriage of 18 years fell apart, he battled with his record label, and he got sick on tour. The diagnosis was ulcerative colitis, which made eating a struggle.
“I lost 50 pounds and was put on a feeding tube,” Pugh said. “I had a very real brush with death.”
In December 2006, his tough year got worse when his mother died after Christmas. He’d lost his father in 1996.
“My mother was my everything,” Pugh said. “She is the reason I am doing what I am doing.”
God, and his music, sustained him, he said.
His relationship with Ebenezer came to an end in spring 2010, when his desire to be a solo artist clashed with his professional obligations. Pugh was AWOL from the choir loft during the church’s Easter service. Instead, he’d accepted an invitation to perform at Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington, where President Obama and the first family were in attendance.
“I couldn’t get approval on a lot of things that I know in my heart of hearts that I was called to do,” Pugh said. “Ultimately, it got to point where they let me go. I feel like Job. It was good that I was afflicted.”
Only then, Pugh said, did he “move out on faith,” using his solo voice for the first time to make a living full time.
“I am so glad that I am now able to operate totally in what I believe was ordained,” he said.