Heavenly Echoes

Christian music

By Katia Peralla

Name: Heavenly Echoes (HE)

Members: Earl Thorpe, James Carr, Hayes Coleman, Edward (Earl) Cornegay, Joe Abbey (Anthony Faison, Decky Lawson not present at the interview)

Music Style: Gospel

Year Started: 1961

Location: Albany, NY

The new generation of Christian music has come a long way. It has improved & progressed. In fact, it has changed so much that the older generation might have a hard time recognizing the music as “Christian” in its classical understanding – hymns, choirs, few instruments, well known verses, old fashioned clothing. It’s almost all but gone now. 

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In the midst of this new movement of Christian music & entertainment, there are still some that are standing strong. Heavenly Echoes is one of those Christian groups. Everything about them is classy - their music, their songs, their clothing & demeanor. 

When I meet them for an interview at the Mount Olive Southern Missionary Baptist Church in Albany, NY, I immediately feel nothing, but respect for these gentlemen. They came on time, they were together & they were very well dressed. All of the present members of the group are deacons at the churches. Their music can be described as soulful gospel. When they perform, they are all in. They sing, dance & involve the audience. Their joy is evident in each song. They are old school, doing music to please God for longer than half of my life. 

Although Heavenly Echoes members have changed over the years, the heart of the band stayed the same. It started in 1961 by deacon James Edmonds, who has passed on in 2012. James joined the ranks of many other quartet singers in the area, started the group “just singing for the Lord!”, group member Hayes Coleman says. He formed the group with other men from different churches. And, as another member Joe Abbey puts it “had an open door policy…& was very welcoming”.

Joe Abbey calls their music “accessible” to people “who don’t spend any time in church”. He calls their songs “uplifting & positive”. He talks about making others life “a little better in that moment”. Hayes talks about “that energy” he feels when performing, singing the gospel. That energy unites all the members & is what pushing them to go forward & give their best.

They all are also blessed with supportive spouses, partners & families. 

I specifically asked each member for their age. I wanted to share it with the readers & encourage you. No, you are not too old to do what you love, what God made you for. You are not too old to be creative. You are not too old to pursue dreams. You are not too old to do great things for God. Your are not too old for change. You are important, valuable at any age! Heavenly Echoes members have shown time & time again that God can use you at any age.

Meet the group members (from right to left). See photo above.

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Meet - Joe Abbey, 69, base guitar. He joined the group in 2004. He’s not married, but has been with the same person for over 40 years. Him & Earl Cornegay both started out playing guitar, but Joe later transitioned to base.

Meet - James Carr, 76, vocalist & piano. Married for 50 years & has 3 boys & 2 girls. He moved from North Carolina in 1964 at the age of 28 & was told that “he could sing” & he was looking to join a band. Late JC Chapman took him into the Heavenly Echoes group. Through that he was able get experience working together with others in one band. James tried to leave the band twice for various reasons, but he would come back & rejoin his brothers in Christ. After James Edmonds passed, James Carr was asked to take his position as a vocalist.  

Meet - Hayes Coleman, vocalist. He’s been with the group for about 21 years. He’s been married to his current wife since 1989 & they share 4 children between them. “There’s something about singing gospels & hymns that really touches me”, he says. He shares how he had offers to do secular music, but declined. “I’d much rather do the gospel”, he explains.

Meet - Earl Cornegay, 63, rhythm guitar. He’s been in the group for 24 years. Married for 40 years & has 6 kids. He’s the quietest member of the group when it comes to speaking. He lets others go first, doesn't mince words & answers questions straight & to the point. And he is the original member’s James Edwards’s nephew. 

Meet - Earl Thorpe, 81, vocalist. He’s been a part of Heavenly Echoes for about 20 years.

He calls himself an “old man”. He is a deacon at a Metropolitan Baptist Church, married for 57 years with 5 children. He stays for some time for the interview, but leaves shortly after to pick up his wife.

The Fire Magazine (TFM): Do you feel like God gave you a gift…& you were trying to use it for His glory?

Hayes Coleman (HC): Oh yes!..If He hadn’t given me the talent, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It’s a gift & I try to use it for the purpose of serving God…

TFM: Do you think it’s important to use that talent & why?

HC: I think you should be wanting to give back God some of what he’s given you, because, you know, it’s a waste to just not use it….Sooner or later, you’re gonna loose it. We had people come up & tell us that because of us, they went back to church. This is what makes me feel good, because I’m doing something that, I think, is necessary to help people understand word of God through songs…I love the reaction that we get from people, especially, when they enjoy [our music]…I think that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me. 

Joe Abbey (JA): A gift that’s also a responsibility…In our own small way, I believe, we try to reflect that…purpose in terms of spiritual & social justice. And try to encourage people to carry on. 

TFM: I have to ask about the outfits, because you guys look so dapper, so stylish. Is it on purpose for the band or is it just who you are & you just naturally wear that?

Earl Cornegay (answers swiftly) (EC): Naturally. 

TFM: How important do you think it is to present yourself in such a manner?

EC: Depends on occasion. Sometimes we play in parks, sometimes in play in churches…But we normally try to dress appropriately. 

HC: I’ve always been taught that you should present yourself the best & people will appreciate you more. Because the style of the young person of today, I mean, ugh. I just don't understand how they feel that they are presenting themselves in the best & natural way. In comparison to how I was taught. Even in school we were taught how to dress & how to carry yourself. I was taught to be presentable…As far as dressing is concerned, it’s just something I do. 

JA: I think we all feel that we don’t have to dress in the same suits. I think trying to dress a little special no matter where we play…We sometimes play in a park. We don’t go to the park in shorts & sandals. Because I think the way you appear, if it looks like you put a little effort into the way you got dressed, it shows that you consider what you're doing important…You are also showing respect to the people that you're going to be playing for. And it shows that you respect yourself, you respect what you’re doing, you certainly respect the music that you're playing. But you also respect the audience. Kinda like getting dressed to go to church.

TFM: What are your families saying in regards to your involvement with Heavenly Echoes? Are they supportive? What kind of influence do they have on you?

HC: As far as my wife’s [part], she’s always been in my corner. She never tried to stop me doing what I do. She knows that it’s important to me. And she supports me…It can take a lot of your time. She has never complained about it. Sometimes she tries to tell me - “you need to slow down”. But it’s something I get a pleasure out of doing. I don’t seem to get tired when it comes down to serving God. 

EC: They love it! They are in my corner. They respect it. And I like doing what I’m doing…It has brought me a long way spiritually. I just like doing it. God has blessed me.

James Carr (JC): She’s been very encouraging, because before we got married, I made it known to her that signing was my passion. And if she couldn’t deal with it, we just “get things done”. (chuckles) She’s been very supportive. Because most of my time has been spent singing, you know, praising the Lord. So, I’m glad He sent me down this path, because if I went the other way, I don’t think I would've made it.

HC: (jumps in) I’m gonna reiterate on something said…Going down that other path, most of the people that I know that were involved in “that” [alternative lifestyle], somehow they wound up ruining their life, getting involved with drugs & stuff. And that’s something I’m very thankful about, that I never ever got involved in that. I tell ya, I feel sorry for the ones that have allowed that to come in to their lives. It really doesn’t do anything for you. Anything. 

JA: I’ve been a musician since before [my partner] met me. And we were pretty young. And music was part of my life then. And it stayed with me…And she’s completely understanding. And really is understanding. It’s not simply tolerance. There’s never any kind of conflict or demand…I think probably, you know, [she has] certain amount of pride.

TFM: Why “Heavenly Echoes”? Who came up with that name?

HC: It was the HE when I first met them. I used to sing with the group called “Heavenly Flyers”. That was an offshoot of the HE. That was back in the early 60’s. Hanging out with [Heavenly Flyers] I found out that they weren't about really what they were singing about, so I backed away from them. HE - I guess it’s because of the sound…It sounds heavenly.

JA: Once I joined…and someone would say: “Are you with the house band?”… And I would say: “No, I’m with the “Heavenly Echoes”. And it felt really good to say that…At least in our area, there’s a general memory of the group…It resonates with people. 

TFM: It does. I can say that myself.

HC: We are trying to please…God. Trying to draw His people back to Him. 

TFM: What about some of the influences in the music? Be they secular or Christian music.

JA: James Carr mentioned one of the groups that inspired him - The Dixie Hummingbirds. Which is in the quartet style…One of the greatest inspirations that I got from Earl Cornegay was The Canton Spirituals. They are long standing, very popular group in a quartet style. Some of our original music that we are working on is in that style…And outside of that, for me, the soul music of the South from the 1960’s is…before I even knew that it was gospel derived, what I found interesting & fun to listen to on the radio. Long & behold later on, i find out, I’m in a group that is playing the real thing. 

JC: I was basically influenced a lot by Sam Cook. I liked his style & I could imitate him pretty good…Later on, I remember listening to the Blind Boys & any group that I can imitate…At the time…I didn’t really get the message behind the song, I was getting the sound, what I liked to hear. It didn't come to me till I gotten older & gotten endowed with the Holy Spirit, I began to understand a lot of the songs that I learned before…

TFM: Do you feel like you are the “Davids” of this generation?

HC: I don’t compare myself with [people like David]…I don’t know how people feel about me…I try to carry myself in a way that people will show respect & I try to respect everybody else. As far as…like David, or Job, or Joseph or them fellas…You gotta go some. (Laughs) Those were special picks of Jesus & God. 

TFM: Do you feel like you are a “special pick of Jesus”?

HC: Well, I feel like I’m a blessed person…very blessed. 

After talking to Heavenly Echoes I realize that I didn’t just get a glimpse into the history of the group & their lives, but also into the gospel music groups history. Long before the Christian music of today, there were people like Earl, Hayes, Edward, James, Joe, who have been working hard, laying down the foundation, fighting to stay heard & relevant. They are the forefathers of the bands we see on stage today. The lyrics might sound different, the music might not be exactly the same, but the message is. Their songs are treasures, their wisdom is eternal, their love of God lives on through generations. 

You can see Heavenly Echoes perform at the Conqueror of Christ International Youth Conference this July, 2019 (7/26/19 - 7/2/19). 

For more information, visit www.ConquerorsofChrist.com 

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