The guitars and keyboards hum in the relaxed, easy way of a gospel band, slipping imperceptibly from the sounds of warming up to a sound someone can speak over.
Lenora Harris begins the evening with some words from Scripture. "'Let them that fear the Lord' -- that's us -- 'say, His mercy endures forever,'" she reads from Psalm 118.
As the band starts the intro for the first song, the women of Golatt Links of Harmony walk with confidence to the front of the church, take their places, and begin. Their voices blend; they step side to side in sync; their faces are full of emotion.
"I can tell the world about it," they sing. If you were in a pew, you'd feel the vibrations in the wood against your back. You'd think they were belting it out for an auditorium full of hundreds. But they're singing to 40 mostly empty folding chairs at Living Word Praise and Worship Center on a Tuesday evening rehearsal.
They rehearse weekly, "unless we're tired," says Oletha Golatt, the family's matriarch, looking younger than her 75 years in fuchsia hair, a trim T-shirt and capri jeans. "You have to keep your voices together. Mine'll get lazy in a minute."
"The family that prays together stays together," goes an old church slogan. It can also be said that the family that sings together stays together, and the Golatt Links of Harmony have been singing together for a long time.
It began as a foursome: the dad and mom, Roger and Oletha Golatt, who married when they were teenagers, and the two older girls, Ceola and Lenora.
Roger passed eight years ago. The Links continue, with a third generation getting into the act. This year the group marked its golden anniversary, 50 years of music together and on the road, by recording a CD, The Golatt Experience. On the cover, Oletha Golatt sits surrounded by the rest of the group, all in black formal dresses with a little silver bling around the V-necks, all showing some attitude.
Ceola Bailey, 60, the oldest of their six children, started singing with her father at the age of 2. She has worked at Arkansas Children's Hospital and Timex, and as a hairdresser. She handles the group's correspondence.
Lenora, 57, is the second daughter, and the organizer. "I try to be," she says. "It's the gift the Lord gave me." She's at rehearsal early, standing at the church's Lucite podium with a day planner fringed with papers sticking out. Band members and family members arrive, unpack instruments, check in with each other. Two of Oletha's great-grandchildren play among the rows of chairs.
After they've warmed up with their first number and grounded themselves with a prayer, Lenora moves back to the podium. It's time for a less fun but equally important part of every band's life, the business meeting.
The group's name turns up often in the religion calendar in this newspaper, singing around town for various church events. The weekend after this rehearsal, they would sing for a regional convocation of the Church of God in Christ at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. For their next engagement, they'd be on the road to Atlanta.
A crucial question: What to wear?
Ceola suggests the teal dress, the long elegant one.
"The green?" Lenora asks.
"It's sage," says Lenora's daughter, Tamika Myers.
Once they're clear on which dress they're talking about, it's agreed. For the guys in the band, black slacks and green shirts.
The CD has gotten them some bookings, and Lenora promises to have a list of all their coming travels at the next rehearsal. It's time to sing again. "Let me have a C sharp," Ms. C tells the band.
The set list is so ingrained that no one has to ask what's next. Most of the guys in the band are local and many play at their own churches, but Wesley Clardy, the newest band member, travels from his home in Fort Smith. He also ministers in Sallisaw, Okla.
The only woman in the band, drummer Venus Johnson, has grown up watching some of the ladies in church. "They've been my idols for a long time." She invited them to sing at a church appreciation event for her. They'd been watching her too, and asked her to join the band.
Alice Nelson Woolford, 49, is the youngest sister. She remembers singing "ever since I've been able to," from age 8 or 9, traveling all over with the family when her father was in the lead, mostly in cars, sometimes in a van. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, she recalls. Tulsa, Chicago, Nashville, Clarksville, Detroit.
Recording the CD with her family was exciting, she says, but the process was surprising, "an eye-opening experience." As they sing, their voices blend together in that way achieved by singers who share DNA. Listeners might imagine the harmony of voices gathered around a single microphone. In the studio, though, they achieved the sound with each person recording solo, one by one. The separate tracks were melded through the skillful mixing of studio owner Ricky Porter.
They've gotten some invitations from the CD and expect more. "It makes you think that this CD could be a propelling opportunity," says Alice, who has a day job with the state's department of long-term care services. She also has a sideline, Anointed Collections Inc., a women's and men's fashion business, which means life is constant coordination: "Where am I going? When am I going? Who's going to get my time today?"
Her favorite song in their repertoire is "Christian Journey," on which she sings lead. It's the first song on the CD.
The rehearsal represents their usual set list, what someone would usually experience in a performance -- "unless the Holy Ghost changes it on the spot," Lenora says. That happens sometimes, she says. "Sounds came out of us that we didn't know we had in us."
Sounds come out of them in rehearsal, too. The lineup shifts slightly with each song, someone stepping out to sit down, someone else subbing in, a little like a basketball team. La-Kisha Smith, Ceola's daughter and the self-described shyest member of the group, is on the bench more than in the game.
There's also teamwork in their harmony; tight backup vocals provide a foundation for the lead singer of the moment to let the spirit carry her. A single singer might go through the depth and height of her vocal range in a single song.
All the members give credit to Roger Golatt's enduring influence. Ms. C introduces "Deep," the fifth song on their CD, by saying her father wrote it in 1972 but never recorded it. She starts low, and a slow, soulful echo of what must have been his deep voice reverberates off the walls. "I got the love of Jesus down in my heart," she sings.
On another number, she alerts some visitors, "This is going to be loud, this is going to be fast." Toward the end of the evening, Oletha's great-grandson can't help but dance along in the aisle and lip-sync to the chorus.
Like any band, like any family, they have their creative differences, their tensions, even though those are not on display tonight. "We hash it out and then come back to the next one," Lenora says. "It's just part of being a family."
Ceola announces one of the last numbers by saying, "This is my testimony."
It might also be a testimony for a family with a long history of praying together and singing together. "Stay in the will of love," the chorus repeats. "Stay in the will of love."
More information about the Golatt Links of Harmony is available at their website, blessyaheartgospel.com.
Religion on 08/02/2014
Print Headline: Tuned-in family