Turnbull, Walter J.

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Walter J. Turnbull


Founder, executive director, singer

As the leader of the Boys Choir of Harlem, Walter Turnbull specialized not only in cultivating the love of music in children, but in turning lives around. His work with the choir—which toured the world, appeared on film soundtracks, and released recordings—as well as with the Choir Academy that choristers attend—helped to highlight what inner-city kids can achieve under the right circumstances. "We try to provide an entire environment that encourages discipline, hard work, and self-respect," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "Everything in terms of their academic and artistic work is based on mutual respect and hard work." Turnbull's own life story was an example of the rewards of discipline and faith. After overcoming numerous obstacles in his youth, he achieved advanced degrees in music, sang in operas around the world, and transformed the Harlem choir from a church-basement dream to an international success.

Found Joy in Music

Turnbull was born in 1944 in Greenville, Mississippi. His father, Jake Turnbull, Jr. "found inspiration in the bottom of a liquor bottle," Walter wrote in his autobiography Lift Every Voice: Expecting the Most and Getting the Best from All of God's Children. His parents thus split up early in Walter's life, and he and his siblings were raised by their mother, Lena. Her devout faith was a life-long inspiration to her son, and even when she abruptly switched her allegiance to the Seventh Day Adventist Church—one reason for her marriage's collapse—he was guided by her strong spirituality.

Reflecting back on his youth, Turnbull noted in his autobiography that "Music had begun to grab my heart." He took piano lessons and sang in the church choir, though the Seventh Day Adventists ironically took a hard line on music, considering most forms of popular music—even gospel—as "sinful." Young Turnbull found the hymns and other sacred music of the church satisfying. "It was very beautiful and moving when the congregation and the choir raised their voices," he recalled, and such memories no doubt played a part in his future vocation.

Equally influential, however, was the authority of Turnbull's choir director. "Miss Jones was tough," he remembered in Lift Every Voice. "She would do anything for you, but she was not afraid to ridicule you or your family if you messed up." While Miss Jones's heavy-handed approach often relied on tactics that might be considered abusive, she shepherded her singers to glory; they became the finest school choir in the state. And her young charges were so desperate for her affirmation that they would sometimes gather hours before school began so as to greet her with demonstrations of their progress.

Turnbull's successful years in the choir resulted in a number of scholarship offers. He elected to attend Mississippi's Tougaloo College, and soon excelled in the choir there. Chosen as a soloist during his freshman year—a rarity—he became increasingly interested in opera. During his junior year he made the decision to become an opera singer. He graduated cum laude from Tougaloo, and, subsequently, attended summer sessions at Chatauqua, New York, which he described in his book as a "totally musical world."

Turnbull worked hard, cleaning toilets for a living, and was ultimately accepted for graduate study at the Manhattan School of Music. He characterized the institution as "small and a joy to attend. I knew on the first day that I had made the right choice." His choir experience stood him in good stead, since his knowledge in this area exceeded that of his classmates. He became an operatic apprentice at Lake George during the summers, and thanks to the occasional illnesses that befell members of the casts, sang in productions of such operas as La Traviata and Die Zauberflote. He ultimately earned both Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the Manhattan School.

Started Choir to Help Children

Turnbull sought a place of worship in New York City and found it in Harlem's Ephesus Church. But it was while working as a singer at the Trinity Episcopalian Church in Connecticut that he became newly interested in boys choirs; the Trinity choir was noteworthy and suggested new possibilities to him. Soon he found himself proposing a boys choir at Ephesus; in 1968, 20 boys gathered in the Ephesus Church basement for the very first rehearsals. "The rehearsal wasn't memorable musically," he recalled in his memoir, "but I was satisfied that they could sing, and more important, that they wanted to do something other than hang out on the streets."

Turnbull's enthusiasm was infectious, and his dedication and relentless enforcement of discipline had dividends. The choir—with its repertoire of Bach chorales, Mozart pieces, hymns and some original songs by friends of Turnbull's—was soon the pride of the area, and other churches began requesting performances. Though Turnbull was able to raise funds to maintain the choir, he continued to struggle to gather the funds needed to keep it operating even after it achieved international fame years later.

Turnbull worked as a teacher in a public school, where he witnessed first-hand the lack of compassion and discipline that he worked so strenuously to correct as leader of the boys choir. He also observed a bitter teachers' strike, which affected not only life in the classrooms but life in the community. Increased racial strife and social tension took its toll on choir enrollment. Ultimately, Turnbull and his allies decided that the choir should incorporate as a nonprofit organization. His decision to call it the Boys Choir of Harlem, however, had a surprisingly negative impact on many members of the congregation; they wanted nothing to do with the name Harlem, since for them it suggested to them all the negative attributes of the inner city.

The choir found a new home at the Marcus Garvey Community Center, and Turnbull continued to pursue his dream of a world-class chorale that at once interpreted great classical works and maintained the "unique and warm" qualities of the African American singing style that pervaded pop, jazz, and gospel. In Lift Every Voice he explained, "No one had developed a standard for black voices. Though a certain amount of flexibility is afforded the voices of soloists, choral music styles are largely measured by a Western European yardstick. I needed to expand those limits and define our sound within the context of the black experience, where hallelujah has a different ring, a soul of its own." In the midst of this high-minded pursuit, however, he was still subject to harsh economic realities and had to drive a cab to supplement his income.

The choir moved to yet another headquarters, the Church of the Intercession, in 1975. Four years later, a girls choir was founded. And though his labor of love continued amassing fans, Turnbull also confronted—as he related in Lift Every Voice—the difficulty of trying "to reverse generations of urban pathologies." Many students were unable to handle the rigors of choir membership, sidetracked by the lure of the streets and unstable home lives. "I thought that I could save every child that I taught," he reflected ruefully. "I was naive."

At a Glance …

Born July 19, 1944, Greenville, MS, son of Jake Turnbull, Jr. and Lena Green; died on March 23, 2007, in New York, NY. Education: Tougaloo College, BA, 1966; Manhattan School of Music, MA, 1968, DM, 1984; attended Columbia University School of Business Institute for Non-Profit Management.


Professional singer appearing in numerous operas and musical performances, 1960s-. Boys Choir of Harlem, founder and executive director, 1968-2006; New York Public Schools, teacher, 1970s-80s; New York City, taxi driver, 1970s-80s.


President Ronald Reagan, Volunteer Action Award, 1986; State of New York and National Association of Negro Musicians, William M. Sullivan Award; President Bill Clinton, National Medal of Arts, 1997; numerous honorary degrees.

Even so, the creation of a summer program and the choir's first European tour—which took them to Harlem's sister city, Haarlem, Holland—helped inspire Turnbull's students. A made-for-television movie was made from one child's experience on the tour, which encompassed performances in London and at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The choir's first national tour took place in 1983. Yet even audiences who cheered the chorale's mastery of difficult compositions had little inkling of the hard work required to keep students motivated. "Our effort is to help a child have a better lifestyle, to help navigate a very difficult period of growing up in a major urban environment," Turnbull told the Los Angeles Times at the time. "Many of these children—90 percent of them—are from single-parent homes. It is extremely important for them to be part of something positive and exciting."

Established Academy to Do More

Keeping it exciting required great patience from both students and teachers; Turnbull repeatedly emphasized that teachers who give up on students have themselves failed. Still, it became increasingly obvious that the choir needed its own school. "The defining moment was when we realized we needed to do more for the children's lives," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Were we really going to be able to have a school, or just a choir and only be concerned about singing and making music? We had to do more. We work with their families. That's what we do. It's more than a choir. Lives have been saved."

Thus, in 1986, the Choir Academy of Harlem was established. (That year Turnbull received the Volunteer Action Award from President Ronald Reagan.) Starting with elementary school students, the institution added grades as the students got older, graduating its first 12th grade class in 1996. In the Academy coursework the same exacting standards apply as in the choir itself, and students must achieve at least a B average in order to stay in the choir. Turnbull realized impressive results from his demanding regimen: 98 percent of his students went on to college, and many continued on to graduate study and careers in music. He wrote movingly in his book of watching a performance by a choir alumnus: "His artistry was excellent, and my chest almost exploded with pride."

Yet the challenges faced by the choir staff were immense. Paramount among them was helping kids overcome the taunts of their peers who might consider choir singing unmanly and helping them to learn to avoid solving problems with violence. "I'm sure they're teased by their friends," Turnbull once told the Los Angeles Times. "But how many kids can look at their friends and say, ‘Have you ever been to Japan, to the Caribbean, or California?’ Most kids in our city don't even have the chance to get out of the borough, even in a lifetime." Meanwhile, the choristers' families had to be educated, too, about the necessity for patience and steadfast involvement; some simply expected to deposit an unruly child and collect a disciplined one.

A 1989 story on the television news magazine 60 Minutes told the choir's uplifting story so effectively that it drew in scores of new fans. When asked by the program's reporter Morley Safer how his kids were different from the victims of urban decay who dominated the news, Turnbull pointedly replied, "My kids are no different. They come from the same projects. They come from the same kinds of families. The difference is that there is somebody here willing to do something for them, and they are willing to do something. There is an opportunity here."

Turnbull's ensemble contributed to a number of film soundtracks, notably Glory (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Malcolm X (1992). The choir recorded its first full-length album in 1994, but had already made guest appearances on recordings by Quincy Jones, Mandy Patinkin, Kathleen Battle, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. 1994 also saw them perform a smash two-week run on Broadway headlining The Boys Choir of Harlem and Friends, Live on Broadway. Turnbull was even named one of the "15 Greatest Men on Earth" by McCall's magazine. By the 2000s, the choir had recorded 16 albums.

Enjoyed Students' Success

But for Turnbull, none of these laurels could compare to the testimony of his students, whose letters are collected at the end of Lift Every Voice. "In my eight years at the choir," reported student Jimmie K. Kimbrough, "Turnbull has been my mentor, a father and someone that you can talk to about anything. Like myself, a lot of members have single parents, and Dr. Turnbull fills that gap. He's on you 24-7 (24 hours and seven days a week) and always brings the best out of someone." Tyree Marcus referred to Turnbull as "a father figure, a role model, and someone to look up to. If it wasn't for him and some of the other teachers," he added, "I don't know what I'd be doing." Keron Nixon reported that Turnbull numbers among the many "caring people that are willing to improve the lives of people," but is "greater than all of them because he is like the hardest worker of them all, and I give my respects."

In 1995 Turnbull published Lift Every Voice, which he co-wrote with Howard Manly. Emerge magazine noted that while it takes a while "before Turnbull finds his path and follows it," the volume "leads the reader to an enchanting place." Marian Wright Edelman wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the book would help readers in an embattled era to "remember the strength of innocence." As Turnbull himself noted in the Chicago Tribune, "It's not just about the choir, it's about discipline. It's about feeling good about yourself—that's hope."

The success of his former students remained the greatest pride of Turnbull to the end of his life. Yet the last years before his death were difficult and left the future of his life's work in question. The trouble started in the late 1990s. Turnbull was criticized for "turning a deaf ear to repeated reports of allegation that a music instructor had sexually molested one of the male students," according to the Los Angeles Times. The academic rigor of the school also started to slip, with two-thirds of the school's seniors in peril of not graduating in 2006, according to the New York Amsterdam News. Furthermore, controversy over Turnbull's financial management of the Academy led to the eviction of the Choir from its rent-free Madison Avenue address and intense pressure from the New York State Department of Education to replace Turnbull as director. The school closed and the 50-member choir was maintained by mostly volunteer staff. Turnbull suffered a stroke in early 2007, and died from complications related to cancer on March 23, 2007, in New York.

Though the future of the Choir remained in peril at the time, Turnbull's admirable efforts on behalf of urban youth remained worthy of note. Throughout the troubles he had maintained his good reputation among his admirers. "Turnbull not only sought to reach out and make sure our young people were educated well, but also had cultural values—of our culture and the culture of others," Rev. Edward Johnson, vice chairman of the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement told the Los Angeles Times. "Walter Turnbull made our children the ambassadors to the world," ex-Mayor David Dinkins said at Turnbull's memorial service, according to The Black World Today, "He did his best to keep them out of harm's way." Turnbull's brother Horace added that, though he had built a program that earned international acclaim, "Walter's life was not about the music. It was always about the children." The successes of those hundreds of children are Walter Turnbull's legacy.



Turnbull, Walter, with Howard Manly, Lift Every Voice: Expecting the Most and Getting the Best from All of God's Children, Hyperion, 1995.


Buffalo News (NY), March 24, 2007, p. D5.

Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1989; January 27, 1995.

Essence, December 1995, p. 78.

Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1990, p. F1; December 3, 1995, p. 2; February 10, 1996, p. F1; January 20, 2004, p. A8; January 30, 2004, p. E1; January 30, 2006, p. A9; March 24, 2007, p. B11.

New York Amsterdam News, January 12-18, 2006, p. 1.


"Walter Turnbull Joins the Ancestors," The Black World Today, www.tbwt.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=900&Itemid=2 (April 11, 2007).

                                                                —Simon Glickman and Sara Pendergast