'Idol' Contestants Found Their Voices First at Church

By Adelle M. Banks and Sally York
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 10, 2007

When LaKisha Jones belted out a song from the movie "Dreamgirls" in her debut on this season of "American Idol," the Michigan church that helped nurture her soulful sound was rooting her on.

The musical careers of Jones and some other "Idol" contestants, past and present, were born in churches across the country, settings where many singers perform on Sundays to a not-so-nationwide audience.

"Years and years of singing in church and never making a living off of something that I love to do," said Jones, a 27-year-old bank teller, summing up her musical career in an interview aired on the Fox talent show. "And now to have the opportunity . . . it's a good feeling."

Churches, especially African American churches, have often been the training ground for artists who make it to America's most prominent stages.

Members of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Jones's home town of Flint, Mich., are busting with pride over the singer, whose powerful voice once belonged to their Voices of Mount Zion adult choir. Jones now lives at Fort Meade, Md.

"She's always been our 'American Idol,' " said Cassandra Ellison, a Voices member for 13 years. "She was always the one who stood out."

The connections between contestants and church don't surprise Christian music experts such as Teresa Hairston, founder of Gospel Today magazine.

"There are so many people that have started in gospel, famous people like Elvis Presley, Al Green and Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight," she said in an interview as she kicked off her Gospel Heritage Foundation's recent Praise and Worship Conference in Washington.

When opera singer Denyce Graves spearheaded a CD project in 2003, "Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration," the first requirement for the featured singers was that they had grown up in church. Patti LaBelle, Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick and Graves herself all fit that bill.

When artists move on from the church, music ministers hope their faith remains with the fame.

Minister Ternae Jordan Jr., a worship leader at Mount Canaan Baptist Church in Chattanooga, once sang backup for gospel artists with current "Idol" contestant Melinda Doolittle.

"Though she's doing the majority of everything in the secular realm, in the secular field, right now, she's bringing the cross over instead of crossing over," said Jordan, who attended the Praise and Worship Conference.

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