Living

BETWEEN THE NOTES

Jeffery Sligh directs a rehearsal of the Rock Hill Ecumenical Chorale at Mount Prospect Baptist Church in Rock Hill.
Jeffery Sligh directs a rehearsal of the Rock Hill Ecumenical Chorale at Mount Prospect Baptist Church in Rock Hill.

He is inside the music, his head and shoulders capturing every nuance between notes as he plucks piano keys, his huge, dramatic tenor voice resonating off sanctuary walls.

"OK, sopranos," he shouts, "let's go." His speaking voice has the same impact on the walls.

"'Silver and gold, silver and go-old. I'd rather have Jesus, than silver and gold.'" Sweat runs down his brow. He directs the Rock Hill Ecumenical Chorale with gusto -- the kind of gusto he invests into everything he does.

Mayor Doug Echols established Jeffery Sligh Day in Rock Hill last month as a tribute, in part because Sligh has formed bonds across the community when he founded the multi-church, multi-cultural, multi-racial chorale a decade ago.

But friends also admire the nuances in Sligh's life between the music -- a hospital visit between rehearsals of the four choirs he directs, or his time with the Praise Team at Mount Prospect Baptist Church. His stature is as robust as his voice, but children call him "Uncle Jeffery," and elderly church people regard him with admiration.

"My focus is to bring people of all races, religions and creeds together to glorify God," said Sligh, 48.

In between music, he unsnarls federal red tape for constituents in U.S. Rep. John Spratt's Fifth Congressional District. He has worked for Spratt for 24 years and is deputy district administrator at the congressman's main Rock Hill office.

"He's a great person to have on your side if you have a problem with the federal government," Chuck Fant, Spratt's deputy administrative assistant in Washington, D.C., said of Sligh.

It requires patience and perseverance.

"You are dealing with people's lives when they have nowhere else to go," Sligh said. "You have to do things as timely as possible. Sometimes it's the difference between existing and not existing."

Sligh employs similar fortitude with choir members. Although he is classically trained, most chorale members aren't. Many cannot read music, but they learn by ear as he pounds out harmony on the piano a section at a time.

If a member's home church needs more voices, the chorale rallies its forces.

"These are the most loyal people in the world," Sligh said. "Once you sing with us, you are family. If someone loses a family member, we have been known to put huge choirs together."

Sligh's ecumenical choir is predominantly African-American, and the adage that "11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the country" still remains generally true.

But the Rev. Bob Shrum, senior minister at Oakland Baptist Church in Rock Hill, where Sligh's chorale gives its largest performance at Christmastime each year, points out that the audience at those concerts is very mixed.

"The things Jeffery is doing through the gift of music are helping to move us in a direction beyond that highly segregated hour," Shrum said.

The chorale "kind of morphed" out of his musical activities, Sligh said.

He was born in New York. When he was 6 his family moved to Batesburg-Leesville, where his father was a school principal. That's when he learned to play piano.

His only segregated school experience was in the first grade. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in music education with performance certification at the University of South Carolina, where he soloed with the concert choir.

After working for two years in Spratt's Sumter office, he moved in 1985 to Rock Hill, doing graduate work at Winthrop University and studying voice with Jerry Helton.

He became music minister at St. Mary's Catholic Church, then served simultaneously as New Mount Olivett A.M.E. Zion Church music minister for several years. Sligh has been music minister both at Mount Prospect and St. Mary's since 1994.

He also directs the choir at Clinton Junior College, where music is considered a growth experience and every freshman must sing in the chorus.

He was attending an AME Zion conference with the Clinton choir when someone suggested the choirs sing together. The Rock Hill Ecumenical Chorale was born. It gave its first concert in the Sullivan Middle School auditorium.

"We started reaching out to other choirs," he recalled.

Spratt describes Sligh as someone with "a whole array of talents," with energy numbering near the top of them. "He maintains his enthusiasm, which is reflected in his music, especially the Rock Hill Ecumenical Chorale," Spratt said.

He's an accomplished soloist who has won numerous music and community awards. He has attended two Bill Clinton presidential inaugurals, though he spent about 20 minutes of one inaugural ball standing overcoat-less in the snow in his tux while Al Gore's party was escorted into the Washington Hilton.

It all pales in comparison to his choral work. On Sundays, he leaves home at 9 a.m. to set things up at Mount Prospect, and arrives at St. Mary's by 10. At 11, he's on his way back to Mount Prospect, where the service is postponed 15 minutes to fit into his tight schedule.

"If he had to choose, he would choose music over money," said Ann Cain, a parishioner who helped organize "The Man and His Music" tribute for Sligh on Feb. 24. About 300 people attended.

And, during a recent rehearsal, Sligh led the chorale in music: "Silver or gold, silver or go-old. I'd rather have Jesus, than silver or gold," they sang.

"The greatest friendships have been born out of this organization," Sligh said. "It's not like any other choral organization. This takes on a different shape because it's here."

He pointed to his heart.

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