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The Preacher's Choir hide

Robes to riches? Not exactly, but Georgia group is happy to be in film with Whitney and Denzel

For the 13 years of its existence, the Georgia Mass Choir has been offering its gospel praises to the heavens. But these days it's belting out hymns right alongside the stars.

Stars like Whitney Houston, that is.

With the release this Friday of Houston and Denzel Washington's version of "The Preacher's Wife" comes the choir's on-screen introduction to big-time holiday filmmaking. Returning the favor, the Georgia Mass Choir legitimizes Houston's bow to traditional gospel. Listeners are already getting an earful of its talent on the movie soundtrack, which was released Nov. 26. The Grammy Award-nominated choir accompanies Houston on six of the 15 tracks, including her pew-shaking duet with Shirley Caesar, "He's All Over Me."

It's an experience and a kind of exposure that choir founder Rev. Milton Biggham hails as "a pinnacle that we never dreamed we would reach.

"I never dreamed as founder that we would be standing on this mountaintop. And whatever the uniqueness that ('Preacher's Wife' director) Penny Marshall found in us, we don't flaunt it. We're just glad we have it and grateful to God for the opportunity."

The choir actually snagged Hollywood's attention four years ago when Disney executive Robert Greenhut was looking for gospel music for "A League of Their Own," also directed by Marshall. Though it never made it into the movie, Greenhut was so impressed with the choir's album "Hold on Help Is on the Way" that he remembered the group when Marshall's second call came. So the director journeyed to Atlanta last December to audition the choir, and before the new year could be celebrated, Biggham and company were in southwest Atlanta's Greater Rising Star Church recording with Houston.

"I've never told anyone else this before, but it didn't really kick in that we were doing a record with Whitney Houston until Whitney walked in," says Steven Brown, a southwest Atlanta resident who plays drums in the movie. "And I tried to be cool, but I kind of lost it. I was shivering and shaking and breathing heavy."

"It was love at first sight on both ends," says choir vocalist and director Dirk Chaney of Stone Mountain. "But it was even more special to sit down and work with Whitney. You see people on TV and you watch them and you read the interviews and you hear them and you know they're talented. But to see her in her element, I had a greater appreciation for her.

"I mean I'd heard all the talk about her having an attitude, and she is a perfectionist," he says. "But she was so grounded and just so extremely nice you would think she was just a member of the choir."

The relationship the choir and Houston formed here made it easier when they hit New York in mid-March to film. "We got to hang out with her a couple of nights after the rehearsals," says Atlanta alto vocalist Sharon Mitchell. "We would just sit around and sing and take pictures. She is such a bubbly person. Denzel came through a few times while we were shooting, and I think every woman wanted him to spend a little bit more time with us!"

The Georgia Mass Choir's participation in this movie and its soundtrack probably won't do much for the members' bank accounts down the line, Biggham says, without despair. "We are not in the position to make any money directly from the album," he says. "We were paid for our services as background singers and in some instances we received funds for the choir's treasury." He would not be more specific.

"But when you are on an album with Whitney Houston and she's doing gospel music, given her track record, maybe there will be a new appreciation for it that all choirs will benefit from," said the group's minister of music, the Rev. Kenneth Paden of Conley. "You see all these artists 'thanking God for this award' and the ability to do their music. Maybe now with this kind of exposure they'll really thank God by giving a new consideration to God's music."

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