"In '77 I had to have emergency surgery and I gave up to die," says LaBarbara Whitehead. "When they put me on the table I knew my chances were I would not get off, possibly, and my life flashed before me as I went under anesthesia." To Whitehead, recovering later, "it seemed that the Lord said, 'I have a greater work for you.' I guess you could say that is when I felt more of an urgency of His call to dedicate my life to Him."
Whitehead, who grew up in Detroit and still plays piano there in her minister father's Church of God, will be the featured performer this weekend in a celebration for the Tabernacle Echoes, the interdenominational gospel group that has been singing here for 30 years.
Whitehead's appearance with the Moye Ensemble in Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel at 7 p.m. Sunday will cap the weekend-long celebration. Thirty groups -- one for each year of the Echoes' history -- will make eight-minute cameo appearances spread over Friday and Saturday evenings at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. Soloists Patricia Barnes and Wintley Phipps, the Voices Supreme and the Howard University Gospel Choir will be among those offering their artistry in honor of the Tabernacle Echoes' contributions to D.C. gospel. The performances are free.
The Echoes were the first to take gospel music into the Kennedy Center and Constitution Hall. They have appeared with nationally known gospel stars like the Hawkins Family and Albertina Walker, and their seventh album was nominated for a Grammy this year. They'll open for Whitehead Sunday.
Lest Whitehead's account of conversion to "a full-time musical ministry" leave the impression that gospel singers are made overnight, she points out that she had some 25 years of formal musical training behind her when she terminated an investment of nearly two decades working as a surgical nurse to "give Him my time."
Whitehead began piano lessons at age 5 and voice lessons at 7, and was soon enrolled in the Detroit Conservatory of Music, where she studied through high school. She was directing Sunday school choirs at 11 and church choirs at 16. "I was a featured voice and sang with these choirs and a little later I was a soloist in the Southern Michigan State Choir," she recalls.
As Whitehead tells it, "The Lord had a call on my life at an early age, but I did not pursue it. I thought, 'He doesn't really mean that.' I loved music, but I wanted to be a doctor and I felt like He didn't really mean for me to be in music, so I went into medical work as a nurse. But I was not getting the satisfaction or the inner peace."
She returned to school to earn a degree in voice, music and Bible after the 1977 surgery. Since she committed her full energies to singing the gospel, she has won national acclaim. A 1981 LP with the Donald Vail Choraleers, "He Decided to Die," was at the top of the gospel charts, and Whitehead now finds that most of her time is committed to solo performances and guest appearances with choirs.
"I knew I had to do better work for Him, but I had to qualify myself," she says of her decison to return to school. "I had to lean on Him when I thought I was dying and he said, 'Not yet -- I have more for you to do.' When I finally made the step, it was a faith walk, it wasn't a financial walk. And He has put me in a different dimension, put a fresh anointing on my ministry. My music has gone in a different direction and it has not been the same since."