In the restored Lincoln Theatre on U Street in Northwest Washington, about 1,000 gospel fans clapped and swayed to melodies of four-part harmony Saturday night and watched an elaborate stage show that recalled the Grammy Awards in Hollywood.
It was the Third Annual Grammy-Style Awards program organized by the Washington Metropolitan Area Quartet Association. The nearly four-hour event, which has no connection to the record industry's annual Grammy Awards, was part of an effort by the local gospel music community to call attention to its own talent. It also was aimed at reminding music fans that gospel has permeated the musical mainstream and gone big time.
The Grammy Awards program has a category for traditional gospel music, but some national and local gospel artists have complained in recent years that the national awards usually go to the same artists, who have large marketing budgets and huge distribution deals.
"We wanted to recognize the gospel artists who down through the years have not gotten the credit or recognition they deserve," said Jonathan D. Shanks, president of the local gospel association, which counts more than 40 groups as members.
On Saturday, awards were given for the top male, female and mixed-vocal groups, as well as the best-dressed group and for those who have contributed over the years to the advancement of gospel music.
The Gospel Pearls received the award for the top female group; Burning Bush received the award for being the top male group; and the Zion Hill Singers won the trophy for being the best mixed group. All are from the District.
The honors were based on voting by about 200 people who attended a gospel festival in the District in June.
The Four Echoes, also from the District, were honored for being the oldest jubilee gospel quartet in the area. In jubilee singing, the vocalists make their voices sound like musical instruments.
"Jubilee is like doing notes. It's timing, melody. That's what it is," said the Rev. William Evans, 85, who has been singing with the Four Echoes for more than 50 years.
The program began with the singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the black national anthem, and the Lord's Prayer. Then the stage filled with smoke. There were actors portraying slaves working crops amid sweet a cappella harmony:
"My God is a rock in a weary land, a weary land, a weary land. My God is a rock in a weary land. He is shelter in the time of storm."
As the audience members clapped their hands and tapped their toes, the Williams Specials, a District female a cappella group, used the stage setting to help the audience recall gospel's real roots as inspiration for shackled slaves and a way to communicate in code as slaves sought to find their way to freedom.
Shanks, a drummer for the Southern Gospel Singers, created the local gospel award program. He and a committee of 31 others have been working on the program since January. The committee includes representatives of the local United Gospel Association, the Coalition of Black Artists and radio station WYCB-AM (1340).
Retha Williams, 78, from Northwest Washington, who has been singing with the Stars of Faith for more than three decades, said it felt good to receive recognition after so many years. The Stars of Faith were runners-up in the female vocal category.
"As blacks, we never had a chance to be recognized in this way," she said.
Larry Young, a gospel artist who is president of PSR Records, a gospel label in New Haven, Conn., said many Washington area artists are competing successfully with some of the better-known national groups.
"Now people are booking local artists instead of professional artists because their sound is just as good," said Young, who was honored during the program for giving many local groups their first recording opportunity.
Rose Thomas, 60, lead singer for the Queens of Faith, said making people feel good through music is why she has been singing since age 5. Quoting a familiar tune, she said, "If I can help somebody as I travel along, then my living will not be in vain."
CAPTION: Burning Bush members Jerry Powell, left, Anthony Birckett, Carter Johnson and Derrick Faison celebrate their award for best male gospel group.