The BL&S Singers strutted down the aisle of the District's New Bethel Church of God in Christ in full gospel regalia: well-coiffed hair, white satin dresses and shoes, fingernails and big hankies all in red.
For more than two decades, Barbara Best, Lois Tillery and Sylvia Wayman, all longtime residents of Prince George's County, have used glamour, showmanship and vintage sounds to attract an avid following--all in the name of Jesus.
"I was sick! In my body, suffered all that I could," crooned the BL&S singers as an audience of several hundred in the pews at New Bethel clapped and nodded their heads during a recent concert in honor of the group's founder.
"I had tried the doctor's medicine, and it did me no good! So I prayed and I prayed! Till a voice spoke to me. I found a new doctor and Jesus is his name."
This was gospel music at its best: sweet sounds to calm restless souls, mend broken hearts and motivate those who need a boost. It's something these women gladly have spent years offering to others, even as they endured their own tragedies and hardships.
From teaching children to singing, the BL&S Singers say they persist in sharing the message of Christ because each one of the original singers has been through a crisis that has challenged her faith. The group's most popular song, perhaps no coincidence, is "I Found a New Doctor and Jesus Is His Name."
The concert at New Bethel on June 6 was to honor Best and her 50 years in the gospel music business, a career that has led her to overseas concerts, as well as regular appearances close to home.
"Barbara Best is living legend who has been a blessing in my life," said Ricky Payton, director of the Black Entertainment Television Urban Hip Hop gospel choir, who coordinated the tribute for Best that was carried live on gospel radio station WYCB.
Kenny Fisher, lead singer for Kenny Fisher and the Sounds of Victory, said one reason the BL&S Singers have been so popular is that "middle-aged people can relate to what they are singing, because they also have been through so much. Many were born in an era when they relied on those traditional songs [like "Amazing Grace" and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"] to carry them through."
The same passion that marked Best's rendition of "I Found a New Doctor" at New Bethel was in her voice when she sang the song to Anthony, 11, and India Bullard, 8, at the Open Hands Christian Academy in Oxon Hill last week, while other children were on a field trip. By the time Best reached the third verse, she had the children's undivided attention:
"I reached and took hold, though I did not understand, but my faith was rewarded when I heeded his command.
"And right then and there, He touched my body and now I proclaim: I found a new doctor and Jesus is his name."
The Caravans, a legendary gospel group, recorded this song in the 1960s, but in the early '80s, Best rearranged the song for the BL&S Singers, which she formed in 1975. The initials stood for Barbara, Lois and Sylvia. Now there are two additional members of the group--Linda Gore and Lynda Nix--and BL&S stands for Blessed, Loved and Saved.
Best and Wayman arrange some of the group's songs, and the group also sings the work of Payton and Danny McCrimmon, two local musicians.
Many of the group's songs are directly from Scripture. One song, taken from the New Testament, is simply titled "Romans 8:18."
"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time, are not worthy, to be compared with glory, which shall be revealed in us," Best sang for the children at the Open Hands Christian Academy.
Best said she turns to that song often to comfort herself and her audience. In 1997, she was hit by a car after a gospel concert outside National Church of God in Temple Hills. She suffered fractured ribs, broken legs and a head injury and lost six pints of blood.
While on the ground, Best said that she "thought about many songs that had inspired my soul, but one song that I had heard on the radio particularly came to mind: 'Don't Give Up On Jesus.' "
"I had to call on the Lord. I saw my body laying on the ground; I heard people praying around me," recalled Best, who was semiconscious until she was flown by helicopter to a hospital. "Sometimes we take life for granted, even when we are saved. They told my children that I wouldn't live through the night."
Best said it hasn't been easy dealing with her struggles: In 1976, her husband died of cancer. In 1989, her 30-year-old son was gunned down and in 1994, her 19-year-old grandson was killed.
Even though Best must rely on a walker and is still undergoing rehabilitation, she is upbeat, singing and giving concerts, reading her Bible and volunteering at the day-care center where Tillery and Wayman work.
Wayman also has suffered physically. In 1992, she had surgery to clear an intestinal blockage that had made her gravely ill. " 'I Found a New Doctor' is a song that we all can relate to because we all have had serious illnesses," she said.
Tillery, too, has had her share of tragedy. Her 24-year-old son was gunned down last year while he was jogging in Lanham. That same year, she had two surgical procedures on her throat. "When I lost my son, I questioned the Lord. Why?" Tillery recalled. "As much as I sing to other people, those words needed to come to me."
Tillery said that she found strength by continuing to sing with the group. "We have been singing 'I Found a New Doctor' all of these years, but every year the Lord updates our testimony," she said with a chuckle.
This summer, the BL&S Singers have been working with children at the Open Hands Christian Academy. And the children are doing more than playing games and taking field trips to the swimming pool.
When Best told them to recite the 23rd Psalm, she began, "The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want," and the children repeated, "The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want." They continued until they concluded the verse.
During a quiet moment at the day-care center, she asked a child to put her chair in the corner. Then she gathered a few children and began to sing, "I Found a New Doctor."
"Contemporary music is all right, but there is nothing like traditional gospel music," Best said. "When you sing songs like 'Amazing Grace,' there is something that stirs the heart of a man, especially if they have been through something."
CAPTION: Barbara Best is a veteran of 50 years in the gospel music business, including more than two decades as a member of the BL&S Singers. The group performs not only in churches in the Washington area but also in concerts worldwide.