Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Shirley Caesar, and nine choirs

“America's Best Church Choir” Finale

Staples Center

October 28, 2011

Last night's competition for “America's Best Church Choir” proved that you can take the girl out of the gospel choir, but you can't take the gospel choir out of the girl.

Whereas many genres of music often sound better after a producer has doctored the vocals and tweaked the levels, gospel singers usually have the goods in their own right. Spirituals are about creating kinship both with God and with each other — the songs help us feel that we're not alone in screwing up or getting screwed. And spirituals are about, well, catchin' the spirit: “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”

Shirley Caesar; Credit: Wireimage

Shirley Caesar; Credit: Wireimage

Last night was good clean fun, the kind that doesn't leave you hugging the toilet or slinking home at 5 a.m. with mascara under your eyes.

It was the finale for “How Sweet the Sound,” the fourth annual search for the best gospel choir. Out of 70 choirs, nine were chosen to come to L.A. and compete for a $25,000 grand prize. Marvin Sapp, Israel Houghton, and the incredible, feisty Shirley Caesar were the judges.

Queen Latifah joined Dolly Parton — clad in an amazingly gaudy outfit featuring gold crop leggings underneath a skirt made of gold tinsel — for a song from their upcoming movie Joyful Noise. But Shirley Caesar stole the spotlight. Listen, this lady is a legend – even Fishbone was inspired by her. She proved why during her solo performance, during which she tore down a song and did little jiggs across the stage.

The choirs, meanwhile, did not disappoint. The Anointed Voices of Higher Ground Young Adult Choir started off vogueing and somehow pulled off the Matrix. The James E. Jordan, Jr. Adult Choir had the lone female director, and she worked everyone into a frenzy, including herself. Oakland's Christian Life Center Mass Choir, who won the $15,000 runner-up prize with huge bursts of sound followed by dead silence, was precise despite its massive size.

The winners; Credit: Wireimage

The winners; Credit: Wireimage

North Carolina's Salvation and Deliverance Church Choir won first place with a theatrical performance. They began by singing the Hallelujah chorus from Händel's Messiah in traditional robes. But they quickly stripped down to preppy collegiate cardigans and bowties, and launched into the night's most aerobic arrangement. They sang in Latin and in German, with their eyes all the while glued to their director, who led them cleanly through an intricate combination of harmonies, styles and choreography.

All Nations Choir, meanwhile, made everyone reach for the paper fans that were handed out as we walked in. During their slow anthem, giant waves of sound crashed over the stadium, causing tears. “That's church,” somebody exclaimed. Does that mean everyone can now can sleep in on Sunday morning?

Critical bias: I might've sung in a church choir or two.

The crowd: Friendly people who compliment you in the line for the ladies' room. A few were bathed in perfume and dressed up in their Easter Sunday best.

Overheard: Lots of positive affirmations. The worst criticism came from a girl next to me: “You know, 'A' for effort.”

Random notebook dump: CeCe Winans first wore a floor-length red carpet-ready sparkly tan gown, and then a purple and aqua Rachel Zoe-esque silk caftan that I wish I owned to wear around the house.

LA Weekly