By Stefanie Jackson – An Eastern Shore native who became a nationally recognized opera singer and member of the U.S. Army Chorus will open the annual Juneteenth music festival at Exmore Town Park to be held Saturday, June 15. The festival continues Sunday, June 16.
Alvy R. Powell Jr., who became known for his performances for U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries, was raised in Cheriton with four older sisters who influenced his interest in music.
He grew up singing gospel music in the African Baptist Church.
Powell was first inspired to become an opera singer at age 14 when he heard a recording of William Warfield singing the part of Porgy in the opera, “Porgy and Bess,” written by George Gershwin.
“I had never seen anyone black in something so classical. I knew it was right for me. I said I was going to sing it someday,” Powell said.
He graduated from Northampton High School in 1974 and took a musical tour of Europe the following year.
Powell held various jobs; he was a DJ and he performed dinner theater in Washington, D.C.
In 1983, he graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in vocal performance and joined the U.S. Army Chorus.
Four years later, he got his wish to sing as Porgy from “Porgy and Bess” in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.
Powell once described the difference between U.S. Army Chorus members and other soldiers. “We are taught to march, do our drill, and carry a rifle. What is different is that we are on call 24 hours a day to sing at VIP functions.”
He sang solos at President Gerald Ford’s funeral and the rededication of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library. One of Ford’s favorite songs that Powell sang for him was “Ol’ Man River.”
He performed at George and Barbara Bush’s Christmas parties before George Bush became president, prompting Barbara Bush to ask Powell to sing an a cappella rendition of the national anthem at her husband’s inauguration in 1989.
Powell left the U.S. Army Chorus in 1993 but returned in 2001.
Over the years, he reprised his “Porgy and Bess” role more than 2,500 times. Powell sang at Carnegie Hall in 2008 and 2009 and played in the BBC television production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
He was the Army’s oldest enlisted soldier when he retired on his 62nd birthday, Oct. 31, 2017.
Juneteenth is a celebration of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the Civil War was over and slavery had ended. Also known as Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day, it’s the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S.
The Exmore Town Park Juneteenth music festival begins June 15, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Powell and others will perform, including Billy Mercury, the Resurrection Gospel Group, Eastside Band, Purnell “DJ Satch” Satchell, and the ESVA Spartans Dancers.
The festival will continue June 16, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., with special guests the Rev. Roland Major and elder Dorothy Giddens, Ethel Giddens, New Hallelujah Gospel Singers, New Heavenly Wings Over Jordan, and Robert Boatwright.
Prizes will be awarded for the Save Our Youth poster contest.
There will also be karate presentations, local and state police K-9 demonstrations, Ident-A-Kid, a voter registration booth, health booths and exhibits, a bouncy house, games, snow cones, popcorn, and other food vendors. Admission is free.
For more information or to reserve a spot, call Jane Cabarrus at 804-513-0532 or Barbara Boggs at 757-678-2137.