The members of Plantersville-based “New Converted Voices” have been singing gospel music together for nearly three decades, and it shows.
Their tight vocal harmonies, charismatic stage presence, and the energetic groove of their backup band all work together to get crowds on their feet everywhere they go.
In early January, the group released a virtual concert in honor of its 27th anniversary. Lead singer Tobie Blanch said before the pandemic, the group had covered a lot of ground.
“We’ve been as far north as Rochester, New York, as far south as Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and everywhere in between,” he said. “We’ve been on the road running heavy since about 2010, and we’ve never had a serious breakdown. We’ve been blessed.”
The 43-year-old Blanch said he joined the group before he graduated from high school.
“I was in my junior year of high school at Shannon,” he said. “I’m 43 now, so I guess that makes it 26 years I’ve been with them. I love it; it’s just in my blood.”
Backing Blanch up vocally are his uncle, Calvin Brown, and his nephew, Sedarian Berry. Keyboard player Gaython McKenzie, bassist Cortez Kennedy, drummer Jeremy Jones, and guitarist Justin Garner round out the lineup. Blanch said his bandmates are more than happy to let him be the group’s spokesman on stage.
“I’m the frontman,” he said. “I do most of the talking. They turn me loose and let me go. I’ve been told many times that sooner or later, I’ll be called to preach.”
Blanch said his nephew and his uncle provide both reinforcement and positive critique.
“My nephew is my biggest encouragement,” he said. “He pushes me. He’s in the background, talking into the mic, saying ‘Go, unc!’ Calvin’s my biggest critic. He’s always motivating me to go harder and be better. He wants me to be the best; always has.”
55-year-old Calvin Brown has been the group’s baritone singer since the beginning. His low, mellow voice and quiet demeanor are a counterpoint to his nephew’s larger-than-life persona. He said he tries to encourage Tobie to make every word and every song count.
“Tobie can be a jokester at times,” he said. “I try to encourage him to speak the word of God in a way that won’t lose the crowd.”
Calvin said he uses a hunting analogy to explain why it’s so important for the group to “come in with a bang.”
“I always say it’s like hunting a deer,” he said. “When you go into the woods, you’re not going to try to hit him in the calf. That first shot, you’re going straight for the neck, to lay him down. That’s it. When you go out to sing, don’t go out there and play with them. Go ahead and get them right then. If you don’t, it’s going to be a long night.”
Brown said if the energy is right and the crowd is receptive, concerts in Black churches can last for hours.
“Black churches are just different than white churches,” he said. “Black people will stay in church till 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning. We have gotten off stage before at midnight, and then you still have to break everything down and drive home.”
Brown, who is a supervisor at Stewart Environmental Construction in Tupelo, said it was not unusual for him to forego a night’s sleep for the sake of music.
“There’s been many times when I’ve gotten off the van at 7 o’clock in the morning and gone to work,” he said. “I change my clothes in the shop and go straight to work.”
Brown, who writes many of the group’s original songs, said tempo, as well as a hard-to-define rhythmic element, are signature elements of Black gospel music.
“It’s what we call a ‘drive,’” he said. “A lot of Blacks love that drive. If you give them that drive, they want to get up and run through church. We have to throw that in.”
Blanch said he often adds his own dash of personality to his uncle’s song creations.
“As a group, we’ve always been known for the words of our songs,” he said. “All our songs are attention-getters and they’re easy to relate to. Calvin usually writes them, and I put the salt and pepper to them, if that makes sense.”
Blanch said after 27 years of singing, his goal is still the same, and the music is still in his blood.
“As long as somebody gets something out of the songs that helps carry them into next week, my job is done,” he said. “It’s purpose-driven by God. Sometimes I tell my wife, ‘When they lay me down, tell them I loved quartets.’”