William Mills still remembers the date of the biggest performance of the Johnsie L. Mills Memorial Mass Choir — August 19, 1994. The choir, an all-star assembly of singers from around Western North Carolina, sang traditional gospel songs for nearly an hour and a half, accompanied by a full band for a recording by Horizon Records, said Mills, the choir director of Brevard’s Bethel A Baptist Church.
It was a sunny day with a breeze and about 80 degrees. The crowd consisted of about 600 people in the church and 800 people outside. “All those people who were outside, on porches or standing in the parking lot, could . . . hear the music from where they stood, because all the sound was piped out through about 12 speakers,” said Mills.
“It really felt good to finally have it all come together and be a success.”
For more than two decades, the choir, named after Mills’ mother, who died in 1987, was one of the most famous in the region, performing to large crowds in the Carolinas and Georgia. It was disbanded in 2008, when Mills, a retired Army sergeant major, was deployed to Afghanistan.
Now, he said, he is determined to reform the choir, and not just to spread great music. Mills, 60, who also serves as the executive director of Rise & Shine Neighbors in MInistry, said the choir’s goal will be the same as that of the organization he leads — promoting unity and community.
“Instead of everybody going this way and worrying about the politics of the day, they can go back to focusing on something positive. Something they can share. It’s really sad in this day and time, we’re revisiting the separation of races.”
Most of the members of the original choir were drawn from the congregations of traditionally African-American churches in Transylvania, Henderson and Buncombe counties. But it also included singers from several mostly white churches, he said.
It sang gospel standards that were familiar to all its members, including Jesus Loves Me and Your Grace and Mercy.
To further spread its music and message, it performed not only at churches, but at high schools and public halls, including the Porter Center at Brevard College. It was so tight and well rehearsed for the show at Bethel A, that the album produced from that performance, Songs My Mother Taught Me, was recorded without a single break.
“It blew (the sound engineers’) mind, and it blew our mind too, because usually they have to stop and fix things,” he said.
He started thinking about reforming the choir after his retirement from the Army in 2017, and became more convinced it was necessary as he watched the growing political divide in the country.
He has a list of more than 60 potential members of the new choir, some of whom sang with the original group. He plans to reach out to recruit more singers, and winnow them down to the best performers during rehearsals.
“I direct section by section. So when you start to hear something that sounds different, you narrow it down. Then you ask them to take a seat in the pew, because even though a person may want to be a singer, it’s not for everyone,” he said.
He plans the first rehearsal after the celebration of Bethel A’s 100th anniversary celebration in July. They will start performing at the church shortly afterwards. He predicts both the music and the feeling of togetherness will be inspirational.
“Basically, it’s about pulling people back in and getting everybody unified,” he said.