Music News & Reviews

Fresno hosts popular Southern gospel concerts

Wilbur Daniels is a Fresno piano tuner who is making more than pianos sound good these days.

Try Southern gospel music locally.

A small army of fans — 800 to 900 — regularly shows up for the Wilbur Daniels' Southern Gospel Sing Time, a concert held the third Friday each month at New Covenant Community Church in northeast Fresno.

That represents the largest Southern gospel and quartet music fan base for a monthly gig west of the Mississippi River, says Herb Henry, president of the Western States Gospel Music Association. He and his Herb Henry Family group also perform nationwide.

"Wilbur has come upon something that has been successful," Henry says.

The central San Joaquin Valley has deep roots in Southern gospel music, possibly because of the migration of so many from the Dust Bowl during the Depression. Don Smith's Gospelaires Quartet and his radio show, "Don Smith's Gospel Favorites," which began airing locally in 1947, were hits. But the style of music has waned over the years, Henry says.

Waned, but not disappeared.

Daniels, 74, has presented Sing Time gigs with his wife Dena for the past 15 years. He sings tenor with his group, The Chordsmen, and she books other acts, usually local performers.

Previously, Sing Time events were held at College Church of Christ, but crowds didn't start flocking to them until two years ago when New Covenant Community Church opened its new 900-seat sanctuary — and Sing Time moved in.

It seemed to give Daniels a new lease on Southern gospel music. He began his career at age 14 with the Gospelaires. Sixty years later, he says he's having the time of his life.

"The Lord has blessed us," he says.

Other Valley churches regularly hold Southern gospel concerts, including Northwest Church, Calvary Worship Center and Faith Community Church of the Nazarene in Clovis. None draws crowds like Sing Time.

"It's Wilbur's events that have been really impressive as far as turnouts," Henry says.

So what's the appeal?

Wilbur Daniels.

"Anywhere he and the Chordsmen will appear, I'll be there," says Gerald Lawless, a Sing Time fan and former Fresno County sheriff's sergeant.

Lorraine Redman agrees: "I love them."

New Covenant Community Church's pastor, the Rev. Jän van Oosten, says Daniels' stage interaction with fans is similar to Southern gospel legend Bill Gaither's style — full of friendliness and humor.

"Wilbur's a hoot," van Oosten says. The Chordsmen's piano player, Ken Hurley, says Wilbur and Dena Daniels have perfected the program.

"They're honest, they're down to earth and they share the fundamental truths of the Gospel message in an entertainer's way," Hurley says.

"I always say that a spoonful of humor helps make the messages go down."

Born and raised "between Caruthers and Selma," Daniels says he's had a lot of time to improve his style.

He credits brother JC — 17 years older than him — for playing in a cowboy band, becoming a Christian, then getting twins Wilbur and Wilma and other brother Raymond, together, saying, "We're going to sing."

And sing they did — with the Gospelaires.

Twenty-three years later, Wilbur and Dena Daniels decided they wanted to concentrate on their family. In 1972, he quit.

But God apparently wasn't done with his voice, he says.

In 1990, Daniels says, he awoke on his 55th birthday hearing the words, "If you're going to again sing for me, you'd better do it now."

Daniels remembered JC Daniels died at age 65.

"I said, ‘Lord, if you open doors, I'll do it again,' " he remembers, and Dena Daniels says "those doors opened fast."

Soon they were launching Sing Time events, and when the doors opened at New Covenant, his musical second act was well under way.

"It's Wilbur's personality," Herb Henry says. "It draws the people. It doesn't matter who's there performing. He brings them in. People love Wilbur."