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Despite being the most diminutive member of the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, Deacon Randy Green was always clearly the one in charge. Gifted with an impish charisma, the man had no need for hammy theatrics; all it took was a sly glance at the audience, and he possessed them, ears, hearts and all.
Green founded the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers in 1945. When he died on July 27, 2017, at the age of 95, the group had been around for 72 years. It’s hard to wrap your head around anything lasting that long, let alone a semiprofessional musical outfit. But even though the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers never achieved commercial fame, they were a Boston institution. Once they made their way into your awareness, you wondered how you had ever missed them.
For seven decades the Silver Leafs have gigged persistently throughout New England, appearing in nursing homes and churches, on concert stages and in radio studios. They performed at Club Passim and Sanders Theater, Symphony Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival, and even opened for the Blind Boys of Alabama. (And once, unwittingly, booked a hempfest in Maine.)
An old item in the Harvard Crimson, recently disgorged from the internet’s infinite archives, touts them on a concert bill to benefit the March on Washington. That was in 1963, when the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers had already been around for a respectable 18 years.
At the center of it all was Green.
'The Life Of The Party'
“He was the life of the party,” says Melvin Francisco, who has been singing with the group for 20 years. “Sometimes he’d get out there and do a little fancy step, you know. He’d do anything to get the response from the audience.”
With Silver Leaf, Green carried on a style of music that predates gospel’s divas: the all-male, a cappella jubilee quartets. Green tried his hand at just about every part — tenor, baritone, bass — but most often he took the lead, his voice rising buoyantly over the chugging chorus provided by his comrades in song.
Green was a senior deacon and, until his death, the oldest living member of the Concord Baptist Church in Milton. To the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, he was known as Deacon Green, or more often just The Deacon. They remember him as a leader of infinite patience and a steady hand. When arguments broke out at rehearsal he simply sat back and watched, like a distantly amused father waiting for his tussling children to exhaust themselves. But he was an exacting director who expected precision from his singers.
“He wanted it right in rehearsal and he got it right. He was professional,” says Jeffrey Thornton, who joined the group nine years ago. “When I started, they were pretty hardcore. If we were in concert and I hit a bad note or something like that, they’d give you a little jab in the side — on the stage.” He chuckles with mild amazement. “And you’d get it right.”
But what Thornton says he’ll miss most is Green’s wisdom: “He was like a book.”
Thornton recalls consulting the Silver Leaf founder when he was going through a divorce. Green’s advice? Listen to the words you’re singing, and let them guide you.
“This music, especially in bad times, you can draw from it,” Thornton says. “And it somehow, it makes you stronger, and I think that’s why he was so passionate about his music. He lived it, he breathed it. It was just in his spirit.”
Randy E. Green was born Nov. 13, 1921. He grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, one of six children. His parents were farmers — sharecroppers, or something similar — and Green grew up in poverty. In a biography posted on his website he recalled walking five miles to school and having to scrounge for wood to heat the schoolhouse’s single pot-bellied stove. He only made it through the third grade.
I visited Green back in June, when I was working on a story about Silver Leaf for "The Talking Jukebox" on WBCA in Roxbury.
At the time, he was living in a long-term care facility in Jamaica Plain — a world away from the sun-baked fields of Tuskegee’s former plantations.
Green seemed to regard his family’s survival through those early years with a touch of wonder.
“It's just one of those things, you would never figure out how it happened,” he said. “But it happened.”
He would end anecdotes with certain favored truisms, phrases that at once summed up life’s bewildering scope and yet somehow understated the magnitude of it all. “And that’s life in general,” he was fond of saying. “And that’s how it turned out to be.”
Green’s father died when he was 13: “Something we never found out,” he told me. At 18, Green joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era work program that employed rural youth. He was paid $30 a month.
The CC Corps was disbanded when the U.S. entered World War II. Green worked as a head waiter in the Air Force, waiting on white officers in a dining room that was separate from where the black pilots ate. He also served a stint in the 9th Cavalry Regiment, a historically segregated unit. (The 9th Cavalry did not end up seeing any action in WWII.)
“I knew how to ride a mule, but I had never rode horses before I went in the cavalry,” Green told me. “Riding a horse is much different than riding a mule. Mules are very stubborn.”
Green followed one of his brothers to Boston in 1943. “It was so cold when I came up here, it was 18 below zero. I still have icicles in my nose,” he said, and laughed. “But anyway, I just decided I wasn't going back south.”
Green settled with his wife in Roxbury. They were married 75 years and had 11 children. Green outlived three of them.
Singing At The Sink
“My dad used to sing at the sink all the time, washing dishes,” remembers Green’s youngest daughter, Kim Stubbs, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. “I used to sit in the kitchen and listen to him. I used to love to do that.”
Green is survived by his wife, Melba Green, who is now 94. “He was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, provider,” she says. “Loved the church. And he was just really a shining example to all my children.”
In addition to leading the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, Green worked as a welder, and even held a few patents for inventions related to his work.
“He was not an educated man. He didn’t finish the fourth grade,” says Melba Green. “When you think of the things he was able to do and accomplish, I’m still awestruck.”
Stubbs remembers her father as a man of integrity, driven as much by a sense of duty as justice.
“For me, my dad is my hero,” she says. “He wasn’t afraid to speak up and speak his mind. … He stood up for what was right.”
Making Harmony Together
When Green founded the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers in 1945, he barely knew what he was doing. Francisco likes to relate the tale of the group’s disastrous debut: “The first time they sang at Concord Baptist Church, they sounded so bad they had to walk around the block and come back and [do] it all over again.”
Green was inspired by outfits like the Golden Gate Quartet, one of the most successful jubilee quartets to emerge during the genre’s heyday. (A few years before he died, Green traveled to Europe to see the group perform.)
“Singing was one of the things that we had to do that made us feel good, you know?” Green explained. “Because I could sing my part, and you could sing your part, and there was five or six of us, you know, and we were standing here, seeing if we could make harmony.”
Despite his accomplishments, Green was habitually humble.
“We were just tickled pink that people were interested enough to give us a chance to try to see how good, or how bad, we were,” he told me with a self-deprecating chuckle.
Over the years he was repeatedly recognized for his work with Silver Leaf. Stubbs remembers Mayor Kenneth Reeves presenting her father with the key to the city of Cambridge. In 2004 Green and two other founding members of the group were awarded a certificate of lifetime achievement from the New England Conservatory.
More than that, music was part of a drive toward something greater — a connection with other people and, perhaps more significantly, a higher expression of the self. Singing, Green told me, “made you want to do more than you just could normally do.”
He summed it all up with characteristic restraint.
“That's the way it went. And anyway, I guess I had my share.”
This segment aired on August 4, 2017.
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