When retired Senior Minister Bob Russell asked Melanie Wood to lead an all-male choir at Southeast Christian Church 40 years ago, no one knew how that would unfold.
Twelve men showed up to the first rehearsal in January 1980, but the choir grew with the church. Twelve members grew to 50. When there were 75 in The Master’s Men, Russell said it would be good to have 100. Once there were 100, he mentioned 150, and Wood said, “Whoa.”
This January, The Master’s Men will celebrate 40 years of music and ministry. What has happened since 1980 is remarkable.
In 40 years, they have performed 398 songs in 105 different settings. Their repertoire ranges from “The Hallelujah Chorus” to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” an iconic song from World War II. They sing 28 songs in Spanish, four in Latin and one in German. They sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in three languages.
The Master’s Men have sung in 31 different churches, have visited Cuba seven times and have performed with the Louisville Orchestra and singer Larnelle Harris. They have sung at several North American Christian Conventions and for countless patriotic concerts, dinners, parades, Veteran’s Day celebrations and football games.
But those in The Master’s Men never talk performance; they talk ministry.
They have seen tears flow down the cheeks of Cubans as they listened to “How Great Thou Art” and watched veterans salute the flag as they sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They have given concerts for adults with special needs and been honored guests at two inaugurations, always ready to sing for patriotic crowds that gather.
They have practiced in a bar in Cuba where Mary Helen Vaughn, their accompanist for 40 years, played a piano with half the keys missing.
They are a large, small group that meets every Sunday to rehearse and stays in contact daily for prayer requests.
John Miller has been in The Master’s Men for 20 years.
“When I had my shoulder replaced, I had more than 70 emails from members,” he said. “They are the best, most rewarding small group I’ve ever known–my church within the church. No matter what you are going through in life, someone within our group has been there before and is willing to offer prayer and support.”
The most difficult performances are singing at funerals for one of their own.
For 40 years, they have been led by one tough, very gifted director, Melanie Wood, who loves them like sons.
“Melanie has been an impeccable, marvelous director,” said Bob Drane, who has been in The Master’s Men 39 years. “She is so gifted and such a good leader. We could not have performed 40 years without her making it all work behind the scenes. She has helped us show how much we love Jesus through song and testimony.”
Wood has missed two practices in 40 years. Her ability to lead and know when someone is off key is legendary. They all know “the look” and her own sign language.
Since there is little published music for four-part, all-male harmony, Wood created what she could not find. As the supervisor of music for Jefferson County Schools, she had the background and enjoyed the challenge of creating arrangements for the chorus and orchestra.
Though every performance is memorable, some stand out above the rest.
In 1992, The Master’s Men were invited to sing for World War I veterans for their last national convention in the Crystal Ballroom of The Brown Hotel. Veterans who filed in for the program were fragile, many in wheelchairs. Wood directed with her back to the audience.
They were singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” when she noticed men in the chorus holding hands first at their sides, then above their heads. She turned around to see veterans on their feet, hands clasped above their heads, tears running down their cheeks.
“That was a moment we’ll never forget,” Wood said.
The Master’s Men also have performed for World War II veterans, a National Medal of Honor convention, the VFW National Convention and the Kentucky Retired Teachers Convention.
When The Master’s Men went to Cuba for the first time in 2002, no one knew how the trip would progress.
“We were never just going to Cuba to sing,” Wood said. “We went to minister to the people, many members of the Communist Party. We developed great relationships with choir members and the director. Now going back is like a family reunion.”
When they sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “How Great Thou Art,” many in the audience sang along.
“God has done more with this group than we ever imagined,” Wood said. “We thought it would remain a small group of about 30 guys. He’s given us a ministry.”
The Master’s Men will sing as part of Christian Academy of Louisville’s School of Arts “The Joy of Christmas” concert Sunday, Dec. 8, at 5 p.m. at Louisville Memorial Auditorium.
Admission is $8.