Music the right music can inspire, uplift, build bridges.
Talk to members of Gladys Knight's Saints Unified Voices choir, and they'll tell you this is what their music does.
Kelly Eisenhour: "It's joyous; it connects with people."
Tema Hunkin: "It has a powerful message."
Aaron Campbell: "It transcends cultures; it speaks to the spirit."
Talk to these three members of the Las Vegas-based choir, and you'll discover one more power that music has. It motivates them to travel great distances.
These three members of the choir live in Utah and commute to Nevada for practices and performances (in addition to traveling around the country).
When they're gearing up for a performance, that often means weekly commutes, said Hunkin. "Right now, we've just returned from doing firesides in Atlanta, and our next performance isn't until June, so we have a bit of a break."
But, say all three members, the extra effort to get there is definitely worth it for the privilege of being part of the choir. "It's an honor," said Hunkin. "I've been a fan of Gladys since I was very young."
The all-volunteer Saints Unified Voices Choir, or SUV Choir as it is called, was formed in 2002 when Knight was asked by local LDS Church leaders in Las Vegas to put together a group that could perform for church firesides. The group has performed more than a dozen locations around the country, and, earlier this year, released its first CD, "One Voice."
Eisenhour, who serves as assistant director of the choir, has known Knight for about 15 years. "I sang backup for her back in 1989-90." At that time, Eisenhour was a jazz singer working in Las Vegas. "Her son heard me singing in a lounge and asked me if I'd like to sing with Gladys."
A few years later both Knight and Eisenhour joined the LDS Church independently of each other. "When I heard that she'd joined the church as well, I always kind of knew we'd do something more together. She called me in late 2001 and asked me to sing backup for her show at The Flamingo in Las Vegas. At that time, she told me she always wanted to have a gospel choir, and I told her if she ever did anything, I would like to be a part of it."
In the meantime, Eisenhour left Las Vegas to teach vocal jazz and improvisation at Brigham Young University, where she also directs two choirs (she also does private lessons). But when the call came about the SUV choir, she jumped at the chance to work with Knight again even if it meant a long commute.
Hunkin also lived in Las Vegas for a time. "I heard about the choir through a friend. I didn't believe it was true, so I took five people with me to the audition. When I got there and saw Gladys, I knew it was true."
Hunkin, who grew up as a Mormon in Samoa and Tahiti, and went to school at BYU-Hawaii, has also since moved to Utah. She works for the LDS Foundation at BYU-Hawaii, based in Provo. She didn't want to give up the choir, either.
Campbell, also a lifelong member of the LDS Church, grew up in Hawaii. He heard about the group through Hunkin. "I was in Las Vegas and went to a performance. Then Tema called and said they were having auditions that day. I went over to see what it was all about, and the next thing I knew I was onstage singing in front of the choir." Campbell also lives in Provo, where he works with commercial finance.
Eisenhour usually flies to Las Vegas for the practices; Hunkin and Campbell often drive down together. "It's a five-to-six hour drive," said Hunkin, adding with a laugh, "depending on who's doing the driving." (All three are single, which means they don't have to leave a family behind during their travels.)
They are all thrilled to be working with Knight. "You could pay big bucks to get the training we're getting," said Hunkin. "It's a humbling experience."
"Gladys can be demanding," said Eisenhour. "She's a perfectionist. She likes to have it right." Knight is also used to working with professionals, "so it has been a new experience for her to work with volunteers. She's had to learn to be more patient. But she's done a good job. They've learned from her, and she's learned from them."
One thing Campbell likes best about the choir is that "Gladys teaches parts. You don't just read the music." Not only is that traditional for gospel choirs, it's the way music is learned in Polynesian cultures. "You feel the music more. I love that. I love the way she teaches," said Campbell. "She's a wonderful person. She tells us once and doesn't expect to have to repeat it. That's good. That brings out the best in us."
Campbell grew up with music. "In the islands you're surrounded with it all the time. It's part of the culture."
That culture-sharing is a big part of the choir's message, said Eisenhour. "It lets people know the face of the church is changing, that the time has come to bring in the music of other cultures in a reverent and respectful way that is very appropriate."
One of the things Hunkin likes best about being in the choir is that "we get to look into the faces of the audience. We see expressions of every emotion. We see people in tears because of Gladys' powerful testimony. We see them laugh at the stories she tells. We can tell when they feel the spirit of the music. It's an emotional roller coaster but a good one."
And while it is true, the choir members say, that Gladys Knight's name gets a lot of people in the door who might not otherwise come where else can you see this musical legend for free? the power of the music reaches them all.
"By the end, everyone's clapping and saying 'Amen!' " said Hunkin.
"It opens people's minds," adds Campbell.
There's a song that talks about "singing when you're too full to speak," said Eisenhour. "That's what the music does. It transcends the spoken word. It's just amazing."
And they all say it's worth the time and the miles for the smiles it brings.