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Local Gospel Legend Horace Thompson Hitting the Road Again

For more than 60 years, Horace Thompson has traveled the country singing and playing the bass guitar for Sensational Nightingales that was part of a gospel caravan serenading weary souls across the South.

The Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Gospel Keynote, the Canton Spirituals, Lee Williams and the QC’s and other groups like Slim and the Supreme Angels were all part of a musical brotherhood that navigated segregated roads across Dixie. Thompson also sang with the legendary singing preacher, Rev. Julius Cheeks.

Thompson didn’t have to worry about his wife complaining about his absence because every week, she would go from styling hair in one of the beauty shops she owned to managing and booking her husband and the other groups in concert venues.

But on Dec. 22, 2019, Rosetta Thompson, 80, died, and quartet singers came off the road to offer one final tribute to the glamorous gospel lady. Two months later, COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the country and Thompson has not yet returned to the gospel.

“Normally we would be in the New York or New Jersey area but we haven’t gone anywhere in more than a year, ” said Thompson, who came back to Maryland from staying with his daughter in Memphis. “I am ready to sing because people are hungry for gospel music.”

On Dec. 30, Rosetta Thompson was eulogized at Calvary Baptist Church in Lanham, Md., where she held numerous concerts. The choir stand and much of the church was filled with gospel performers, including Harvey Watkins, lead singer of the Canton Spirituals and Darrell Luster, an executive for Malaco Records.

For many years, Horace Thompson averaged two weeks on the road for every week at home. For most of his career, he and the other Nightingales traveled in a Fleetwood Cadillac kept by JoJo Wallace, the group’s legendary lead guitarist, who lives in Durham, N.C.

It takes about five hours to assemble the group members, who live in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. But despite her husband’s life on the road, Thompson never complained.

“I understood what he was all about,” she said in 1995. “I loved it.”

Thompson, with a high school diploma and her hairdressing skills, saved enough money to open a salon in Prince George’s County in 1976. Two years later, she opened a second Maryland store, and five years ago, she opened Hair Essence, an 18-booth shop in northeast Washington.

Horace Thompson exchanged the Mitchellville home he shared with Rosetta for a retirement community in Bowie. Despite the loss of his wife and his musical lively he remains optimistic.

“I am fine, ” said Thompson who spends time between various medical appointments and savoring special memories. “When I was a child my father picked cotton in the early 1940’s. He got $3 for 100 pounds and that was a lot of money back then. He took cotton and made me a palate. He said you sit there and don’t get up.”

Thompson had other memories of a musical career. “Everybody in my family could sing. I sang with Edna Gallmon Cooke, she was a special lady who had her own style, she was last and she applied the word of God to her songs.”

“I joined the Flying Clouds of Washington DC, and then in1962 I joined the Sensational Nightingales. I got to sing in Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Apollo Theater as well as 44 of the 48 States at that time. When I was singing Alaska and Hawaii were states.”

Viola Bradford moved back home to Montgomery in January of 2018. But Bradford joined the Montgomery chapter of Gospel Music Workshop of America that rekindles memories.

“Mother Shirley Berkley directed the mass choir when we met in St. Louis, ” said Bradford who remembers singing as Cleveland played piano after she had dinner with Berkley and Cleveland at her house.

Bradford recorded with the late great Donald Vails. Now Bradford said today she has been hired as chaplain at the Julia Tutweiler for Women where she teaches music, writing and biblical studies.

Bradford, who contracted COVID, said “God told me that my sickness was not unto death.” There was a traveling nurse who cared for me at home and I came through.”

Long before joining radio station WHUR on Sunday, Winston Chaney was the morning man on 1340 AM WYCB. Playing quartet music and hosting their concerts was his passion.

“COVID has not only had an impact on quartet singers but announcers, ” Chaney said. “People are not going to concerts, they are not buying records, they are not getting air play.”

Chaney said working at WHUR has been a blessing because many people enjoy gospel quartet music.

Thompson, who has had both vaccines, said he is eager to return to the road. But, he cautioned, “only the strongest will survive. I am looking forward to getting back on the road because singing for the Lord has been in my life.”

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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