Gospel choir's sister act

Sandy Robinson took the reins of the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir from her brother in time for its 20th anniversary.

Sandy Robinson, new director of the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir.

Photo: McKenna Ewen, Star Tribune

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Even though their 85-member group is built on spreading faith and truth, Sandy Robinson initially had a hard time believing her brother's intentions to leave the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir after nearly two decades at the helm.

"I didn't really take him seriously," Sandy said last week, laughing at the memory. "So it was a pretty big shock when it turned out to be true."

Longtime followers of the choir similarly have been startled over the past year to see the beloved, multiracial vocal group performing around the state without its large-looming leader, Robert Robinson. The guy who founded the choir at Minneapolis Community College in 1990, Robert stepped aside at the start of the year to focus on a solo career.

As the year winds down, though, it's becoming quite clear that TCCGC has survived without its big kahuna -- thanks in large part to his li'l sis, who stepped in as director.

The choir heads into the holiday season with a new CD and 20th anniversary to celebrate. Both occasions will be marked with a concert Sunday at Park Avenue Methodist Church in south Minneapolis.

"I knew I had to leave the choir in the hands of someone who loves the work and the people, and who would broaden the vision of what a community choir should be," Robert Robinson said. "I didn't have to look too hard to find that person."

As Robert's sibling, Sandy obviously brought a similar pedigree. They both grew up singing in church under their father, a minister who started He Is Risen Church of God in Christ in north Minneapolis (where their brother Stan now preaches). As Sandy remembers it, "If we weren't at school, we were at church."

Sandy, 47, has been there from the beginning in TCCGC, when Robert made a call for auditions and was surprised (and soon inspired) to see anyone other than African-Americans. She has been at most of the Wednesday evening rehearsals and the unusually wide range of concert scenarios, performing everywhere from prisons -- a lot of prisons! -- to hospitals, palatial concert halls, wedding parties and even synagogues and other religious venues. The choir itself is made up of numerous non-Christians, including a few atheists.

In recent years, Sandy took on the assistant director's role behind Robert. Still, it was not carved in stone that she would take over. Said Robert, "She had to make the decision to do it on her own, which was a big commitment."

Sandy made it sound like an easy choice.

"After the shock wore off," she said, "I thought, 'I know all about this choir. I know its purpose, and I know how influential it is in the choir members' lives.' I really felt compelled to keep it going, because I believe in the choir's great purpose now more than ever."

Different styles

The change in leadership hasn't entirely been a case of "like brother, like sister," though.

"I'm more of a musical taskmaster," Sandy admitted. "Robert was a monster early on in the choir," she laughingly added, but he focused less on hitting all the right notes as he took on more of the business and organizational duties in recent years.

Sandy also made a point of broadening the choir's already diverse DNA. She made it easier to enroll in the choir, which bulked up its membership (and helped beef up its ever-challenged financial budget). She also opened it to youth choir members -- including her son, Jimmie, who's 13 -- and added Spanish-language songs and more contemporary music to the repertoire.

Other choir members confirmed Sandy's assessment of their leadership differences.

"Sandy made it clear she planned to relegate a lot of the duties Robert used to handle to other choir members," said Jeenee Lee, who joined TCCGC in 1991. "Fortunately, a lot of other members stepped up. Robert truly did everything before this, and it's a positive sign seeing other members pitch in a lot more."

They did it!

Of course, the choir not only lost its ringleader and friend when Robert left -- it also lost its biggest star.

"Robert's presence had become so big that a lot of people only wanted to see 'Robert Robertson and the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir,' and not so much the choir without him," said Aaron Burks, a co-founding member who wrote one of the songs on the new CD. "It was slow for a while, but we've been getting busy again."

Recording the new album was one of the ways the choir thought it could come out from Robert's shadow.

Titled "He Did It!," the 10-song collection shows off the choir's evolution to a more contemporary sound. All of the songs are new originals, including Burke's musical rendering of Psalm 150 and nine others written or co-written by co-producer Darnell Davis (another of the choir's stars). Among the spirited messages is the rousing refrain in the title track: "I'm so glad that he did it just for me."

One of the people most excited to hear the new CD is its former director, who has shown up at a couple of random TCCGC performances, but has mostly stayed away.

Doubling the fun

"I miss them all so much, and I miss all the good work we did together," Robert said. However, he doesn't regret his decision to leave.

"I had been working really hard on trying to develop my solo career alongside the choir, and it got to where I felt I needed to focus on my thing. It was time to try to do all the things I want to accomplish before I hit the grave, or get too old to accomplish them."

Robert recently issued a solo CD, "Signature," an intimate collection almost entirely built on voice and piano -- a sharp contrast to the choir's enormous sound. He already has plans for his next album, too, a live set he will record Feb. 12 at Hopkins High School Auditorium. He is also hosting a holiday concert at Hopkins Center for the Arts on Dec. 18 and has a club gig Sunday at the Dakota -- just an hour or two after TCCGC's CD release concert will wind down.

With his schedule heating up, Robert has unavoidably wound up becoming something of a competitor to the choir he founded and fostered for 19 years. Neither he nor Sandy sees it that way, though.

"We're all doing this because we love the work, and there's still so much work to be done," Sandy said. "I can't wait until next year to see what comes next for all of us."

Robert summed it up this way: "We're doubling our efforts -- and having double the fun."

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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