by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment
It all started with a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday.” On a family trip to watch the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Bill Cornelius stopped to eat in an old house-turned-restaurant in Social Circle, Ga. It was there, after watching a server sing the song to an unsuspecting customer, that he fell in love with gospel music.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” says Cornelius. “I thought that was so special. I remembered that when I wanted to open this place. I wanted people to have that feeling.”
Cornelius opened Blue Rooster with his wife, Ellen, in the Rosemary District in January 2013. He wasn’t an experienced restaurateur. He knew nothing about Southern cooking — he’s from Detroit. All he knew was he wanted to open a place where tourists, but mainly locals, could come to eat and listen to a genre of music they might not be used to hearing.
Cornelius started Gospel Brunch in 2013 as a simple meal with regular table service and a single musician playing keyboard. He booked a few gospel groups without much positive reception, so he took a different approach. He then changed the setup to a buffet line and introduced a local gospel group called Truality who had inquired about playing at the brunch.
The band’s debut performance was an instant hit, and Cornelius asked them to play every Sunday.
“It’s the real deal,” he says. “People from the local church are coming out and sharing their musical experiences with the rest of the crowd. People sometimes get so emotional that they start crying because they’re really touched.”
Cornelius has always considered himself more of a music guy than a foodie. His top priority is booking the best bands Sarasota has to offer. Truality, he says, is perhaps the best example.
“They don’t do it for the money — I think they do it to reach people, to make them feel blessed,” he says. “People can pick up on that.”
Truality consists of six members: founder and music director Dennis Clove, drummer Darrell Johnson, tenor and lead vocalist Kimla Murrell, feature vocalist Shantel Norman, soprano vocalist and manager Shemeeka Murrell and alto and lead vocalist Joycelyn Corbert. They’ve been together for two years and, though their weekly brunch performance makes up most of their gigs, they also perform with the choir at Trinity Church and occasionally at other churches and community events.
Clove says it’s an honor for his group to perform at gospel brunch, especially because groups like this rarely get the opportunity to perform for audiences outside their historically black churches. Sharing that music with new listeners is what he enjoys most.
“We sing for church folk all the time, but to come perform for — if you look around — mainly Caucasian people, and for them to appreciate our music, that’s it. They love our music,” Clove says.
Clove says the gig has helped the band expand. It released its debut album this year, called “L.O.V.E,” and has earned more out-of-town shows. The group’s main goal, however, is helping others.
And for Clove, there’s no better tool than music.
“How many people do you know who don’t like music?” he says. “Everybody likes some form of it. We can use this tool to try to reach out. You see all these shooting and killings, but I think we can use music to make that stuff go away.”
Although he hears them every Sunday, Cornelius never tires of hearing Truality perform. He believes the group offers more than just a performance. It’s a spiritual experience that anyone can appreciate.
“You don’t have to be a religious person to come here and enjoy the music,” he says. “But I think after you see them and experience it, your attitude might change.”
Sitting in the back of Blue Rooster, in his attic office, Cornelius can hear Truality begin to wind down a recent Sunday performance. Echoing up and through the walls is the song that sparked his love for gospel music.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you …”