By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
The year was 1954. An up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley was beginning his musical career. The inaugural edition of new magazine titled Sports Illustrated hit the newsstands. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in the nation’s public schools.
And in the mountains of Western North Carolina, a young Glenn Draper first set foot on the grounds of Lake Junaluska, along with the Keelser Air Force Base Male Chorus and Orchestra
Draper would remain an indelible figure at Lake Junaluska for another 55 years, serving as music director at the Methodist Assembly and as director of the world-renowned Junaluska Singers since 1956. The group has provided musical entertainment at conferences and worship services, toured extensively across the Southeastern United States and beyond, and produced 35 recordings.
During a career that has spanned more than a half century, Draper has mentored legions of young vocalists. In addition to the Junaluska Singers, his groups have included his own creation, the Glenn Draper Singers, as well as the Chattanooga Singers and the Singing Mocs at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where was a professor of music for more than 30 years.
His vocal groups have appeared on national television programs “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Hour of Power,” have shared the stage with the likes of Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Liberace and Wayne Newton, and have performed in such illustrious venues as Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House.
“I feel that this is my calling,” Draper wrote in his 2003 autobiography. “I know that to some people that would sound trite, but my calling at Junaluska is not just to do better music or to educate people; that has never been in my plan. It is to sing music that people consider to be worshipful, and that they are going to like.”
His Junaluska Singers have spent this spring and summer on a farewell tour of sorts, as the 2009 season marks his last year as director of the vocal ensemble. And his swan song summer performance is set for Saturday, Aug. 8, at Lake Junaluska. As that bittersweet performance approaches, former members of the group recently shared their thoughts about the career of a man they call mentor and friend.
“He is the master of melody, the consummate showman,” said Bill Dixon, a vocalist with the Junaluska Singers from 1980 to 1990, who is now an elementary school music teacher and music minister in Quincy, Fla. “The repertoire in his head is incredible. It’s amazing that year after year he has consistently reinvented the singers and their ministry, yet kept the cohesiveness in the groups.”
Ron Whittemore, a singer with the group from 1975 to 1985 and sound technician in 1986-88, called Draper a major influence on his life and career. “He demands excellence, and expects a song to come from the heart and a belief in what you are singing. He is passionate and loving, he is a great motivator and doer, and he has a tremendous drive,” said Whittemore, director of music ministries at Arden Presbyterian Church and emcee/worship leader at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove.
“He is a unique individual, one of those ‘time and place’ individuals. I’m not sure there will be another like him,” he said. “Glenn is one of my greatest mentors. At 81, he still does it better than most in music ministry even today.”
When asked for his favorite memory of his time with the Junaluska Singers, Alan Miller, who is now associate dean of the Center for Performing Arts at the University of Mobile in Alabama, replied, “Oh my, do you have several hours?”
A singer with the group for 13 years beginning in the early 1970s and a sound technician for a year, Miller got his first exposure to Draper in the late 1960s as a participant at a music camp for youth. “Glen would stand up on a platform and direct the 600- to 1,000-voice youth choir, and it was amazing as we sang some of the greatest musicals, like ‘Celebrate Life’ and ‘Godspell,’” Miller said.
“I met some of my closest friends at Junaluska, sang the greatest music, learned to change costumes 14 times in one program, understood variety in music and how to thrill an audience from the master, Glenn Draper,” he said. “To this day, I often think ‘what would Glenn Draper do?’ when I plan a program at the University of Mobile.”
Those who have followed the Junaluska Singers over the years also credit Draper’s wife, Lounelle, with providing the behind-the-scenes support necessary for the group’s success.
“Glenn and Lounelle Draper are a great team,” said Minna Appleby of Lake Junaluka and Dothan, Ala. “They have given of themselves and worked together these 55 years in making the Junaluska Singers a world-renowned choral group. You cannot listen to this group sing under Glenn’s direction without marveling at their gifts and witness, without having your spirits lifted and being inspired.”