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Waking hours with Harlem Gospel Choir's Allen Bailey


 Allen Bailey

Allen Bailey

Allen Bailey

I live on the East Side of Manhattan. I've lived here for 40 years. When I wake up in the morning, it's noisy. You can hear the garbage trucks on the street and people hammering upstairs. My dog, Max, gets me up. He has been with me for 12 years, and the routine never changes. Some days he might get up earlier than the usual 6.30am, but the first thing we have to do is go for a walk. He's a husky dog, and he likes the cold weather. We have a park near us on the east side, so I walk him down there.

I enjoy living here because I love the energy of the place, especially in the mornings. I see my neighbours in the elevator - most of them are going to work - and some of them are off to walk their dogs. Dog walkers always talk to each other. We do a 20-minute walk, which is enough to wake me up. Then I go home and have some cereal while I watch the television, the news in particular. It makes me really sad when I see what is going on in the world today; things like the beheading of people by Isis. It's just not human.

After that, I get myself ready. I shower and then I check emails and start making calls. Some of them are international calls because we've got tours all over the world. My wife, Anna, is usually home, but at the moment, she is off on tour in Chile with the Harlem Gospel Choir. We'll be touring around Ireland this month.

I started the Harlem Gospel Choir on January 15, 1986, and now I am the executive director of it, but no one pays attention to that title. The group is based on the principles of Dr Martin Luther King. It is about bringing different people and different nations together and giving something back.

I got the idea to set up the Harlem Gospel Choir because I used to see tourists queuing up in Harlem to go into the Baptist churches. In our show, we try to emulate what happens in a black church on a Sunday. It's a big fashion show. The women come in their big hats, but the men are not as exciting in their black suits and ties.

A tourist asked me once why black people never sit down in church, and I explained that the pastor is only going to make them stand up again. We bring instruments to the church because we want to make a joyful noise; it's all about joy. We sing songs like Oh, Happy Day and When The Saints Go Marching In.

We don't just perform in churches. We play in theatres and halls and, for the past 14 years, we've been in BB King's Blues Club in Times Square every Sunday. It's one of the top tourist attractions, especially among the Irish. The tourists have a brunch and then we do the show.

We try to explain that you don't have to be any particular religion to come and see our show. We have a great time. We have some of the top singers from black churches in Harlem. We jump up and down and clap our hands while we sing. It's a wonderful experience. Also, in part of the show, people testify, which means that they talk about their past.

We try to save people. We've had women who were prostitutes, and guys who were muggers and addicts, but when they come into our choir they leave all that behind them. They do that because they feel the spirit, and that occupies their mind and their body. When they realise that they've been missing something like this, then stopping drugs is second nature to them. One of them said, 'I'm high on Jesus' and I said, 'Well, stay high on Him'.

When you work for the Lord, you work full time. I always say when you work for the Lord, the pay is small, but the retirement plan is out of this world. I wish I was going to Ireland for our tour, but my doctor won't allow me to go on planes for a while. I suffered a heart attack two years ago. My heart sat down, my lungs sat down, my kidneys stopped and my liver was bad. I was in intensive care for about a week. I started praying. I said, 'Dear God, help me'. I say to my friends that the Lord may not get there when you call, but he is never late.

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Some of our group are on tour a lot. My wife, Anna, works for the choir, and she is away with them quite often. She is from Australia, and we met in a health spa. She's a perfectionist and I suppose I need somebody like that around me, because I'm the worst. We've been married for 28 years. I think the marriage has lasted this long because I am never there.

I love performing every Sunday and I think that's because the entertainment business is in my blood. My father was in vaudeville, and when I was a young man, I used to go with him to the Apollo Theatre. He was there with all the great black entertainers. He used to sing and dance.

I remember thinking that I needed to find something that I could do because I wasn't going to be a neurosurgeon. Also, if there's a lot of poverty in your world, you need something to boost you. I grew up in Harlem, in a rat-infested house. When you walked out the door, you didn't know if you were going to kill somebody, or if somebody was going to kill you. I needed to keep busy. Basketball kept me away from crime. Also, I used to sing in church in a men's choir, and the music has carried on.

I'm still pretty up after a performance. It is a wonderful feeling to get a standing ovation. I usually get a snack on the way home. There is an all-night deli nearby. One of the great things about New York is that you can go out and eat anytime of the night. I watch a late-night movie, and then I fall asleep. I'm very happy in my life. I love being around people. Also, I grew up in a rat-infested house, so after that, everything is a gift to me. I appreciate the small things.


The Harlem Gospel Choir's tour of Ireland begins on November 12. It includes the Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork, November 16, and the National Concert Hall, Dublin, November 26, see harlemgospelchoir.com

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