Lawrence Brownlee is a testament to the fact that if you have God-given talent, work hard and have the foundation of a nurturing family behind you, you have the ability to become a success.
Brownlee, who grew up on McGuffey Road on Youngstown’s East Side and is a 1991 East High School graduate, is now one of the world’s great opera singers.
He is featured in an article in the March issue of Ebony magazine, and is one of America’s most in-demand tenors.
And he is returning home thanks to the efforts of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. Youngstown Alumni Chapters.
Brownlee will be accompanied by pianist Damien Sneed for the critically acclaimed recital “Spiritual Sketches.” Sneed was the arranger for the 10 traditional spirituals. The performance will be at 6 p.m. April 19 in the Ford Family Recital Hall of the Eleanor Beecher Flad Pavilion located within the DeYor Performing Arts Center in downtown Youngstown.
To get a snippet of what you will hear, go to www.newmusicbox.org under its Sounds Heard link.
I spoke this week to Brownlee’s parents, Frances and Larry Brownlee, to get some insight into how a youngster went from the inner city to performing in Rome and other world venues.
“He hated opera until he got to college and then began to look into it,” Frances said. “We are church folks. He has loved music since he was a little boy. He was fascinated by music. He made noise all the time. He loved the drums.”
His parents also took him to guitar and piano lessons. He played the organ, and their son became an accomplished trumpeter. He performed with the Youngstown Connection, the city school district’s song-and-dance troupe under the direction of Dr. Carol Baird.
A family of faith, the Brownlees had nothing but praise for how their son grew up singing in Philips Chapel Church of God in Christ Church on Jacobs Road under the leadership of Superintendent Paul A. Loggins. The Brownlees are longtime members.
One of Brownlee’s favorite songs he sang as a youngster was called “Tomorrow,” by the famed gospel singing family The Winans, his father said.
Frances and Larry acknowledged they pushed their son, the fourth of their six children, to continue on in music.
Larry said his son once was enticed to sing with a contemporary gospel group. He gave him this short, but apparently effective, speech: “I told him if he stayed in college and pursued his music and education, I would back him,” Larry Brownlee said.
But the Brownlees take pride also in the accomplishments of their five other children.
Daughters Cynthia West and Cathy Kerner both have master’s degrees in business. Their daughter Paula Lett is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in nursing. Their daughter Carol Julious has her advanced degree in social work and is working at General Motors in Lordstown, and son Daryl Brownlee is a musician in a group called Half-Mile Home, a contemporary gospel group with a couple of CDs out. He also works at his dad’s small- engine repair business.
The Rev. Dr. Lewis Macklin, pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, a neighbor of the Brownlees’, said they are a fine example of “family and community all working together.”
The Brownlee children were encouraged by their parents that “whatever you want to do, do it with excellence,” the Rev. Dr. Macklin added.
Marcia Haire-Ellis, a city school board member who was a counselor at East when Lawrence Brownlee was a student, said he was “always full of fun and kept everyone laughing but was known by all for his beautiful voice that could move you to tears.
“He was voted best vocal talent by his classmates in the Class of 1991 at East High School. He not only sang in the school choir and the Youngstown Connection, but other church and local groups,” she said.
But what she said next, I believe, is the key to any child’s success, something that is missing in many of our homes today.
Haire-Ellis said, “His parents were so supportive and would be at all of the programs when Larry performed.”
Nikki Davis of Delta Sigma Theta provided me with the background of “Spiritual Sketches.”
It is a nonoperatic performance that takes its name from the critically acclaimed recording of spirituals Brownlee and Sneed recently released as part of the Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series recorded by PBS television.
“The performance is both a re-imagining of and a love letter to a musical tradition in which Brownlee was raised,” the press release says.
Brownlee is a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He has performed in Milan, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Rome and Berlin.
“We are very pleased to welcome Mr. Brownlee back home to present this unique musical experience,” Davis said.
Regular tickets are $40, and VIP tickets cost $60. The $60 tickets will allow you to meet Brownlee and Sneed after the performance in the Spanish Room of Powers Auditorium.
Contact the DeYor box office for tickets. Sorority and fraternity members have the VIP tickets.
Delta Sigma Theta and Kappa Alpha Psi are service organizations with a long-standing commitment to education, scholarship, public and community service.
For more than 200 years collectively, these organizations have established a well-recognized national and local reputation of providing financial assistance to deserving students through several scholarship programs, as well as providing valuable service to the Mahoning Valley. Both groups are interested in mentoring the black community’s youths.
I hope you can come out April 19, fill up DeYor, and show your support for Lawrence.
Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly minority-affairs column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org