Organist James Hewlett turns heads with his gospel glam in inner-city churches
Published: August 10, 2011
He taught music for 15 years in Detroit Public Schools, and still gives private piano and voice lessons at his home. He also runs his own unanchored ministry, the Joy of Living, making guest appearances at halls and churches around Detroit. His flamboyance sometimes doesn't earn him a return engagement.
"At this one church I came out, I had this bad robe on, and I had a diamond cross and I had my hair up in waves and stuff, and I stepped out the office and up to the pulpit and the whole church said, 'Whoo!' And then after I got through preaching, the deacon of this church said, 'See, I ain't got but a little hair on my head, but when you got to preaching that little hair stood up.'"
It contrasted unfavorably with the church's low-key pastor, who didn't issue another invite. "You get some playa' haters," Hewlett notes.
It's Sunday at the Calvary A.M.E. Zion Church on Detroit's west side, a modest, subdued place, with the soft purple tones of an inner-city church, and about two dozen mostly older congregants sitting politely in the pews. It's the third hour of services. And in the corner there's an organist on fire.
The preacher just stopped speaking for a time, and a Hammond organ screams to life as one traditional gospel song after another bursts out of Hewlett. "I make that thing talk," he brags. "It picks people up."
The small choir behind him rises to his intensity, and suddenly the small church has music that's bigger than the room.
"He brings a lot of spirit," says the comparatively reserved Rev. Vernon Shaw. "He really does. And he has picked the choir up a little bit. They open up their mouth a little bit more."
Hewlett already played at another church this morning, and he's on his way to another one afterward. The rest of the week he'll be tutoring students in piano and voice. Music really did become his life, just as he dreamed.
Church wraps up, and everyone's filed out into the social hall next door, but Hewlett keeps on playing and singing, as his jewelry and his hair sparkle under the bright church lights. He looks and behaves like some kind of star, and in a way that makes him one around here. Because wherever he goes, strangers will treat him like one based on how he stands out.
"I'm in this music thing and I want to live to the full totality of it," he says, as his fingers still work the keyboard. "A musician is supposed to stand out. I could be a normal person, but it ain't that interesting."
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