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The Arts

Bruce Talbot: The man who brought the joy of gospel music to Brattleboro

Joyce Marcel, a Commons columnist, reports and comments about arts and commerce (and their commonalities) for a variety of publications. Sutphen is arranging a memorial celebration at the Barre Opera House on Sunday, Feb. 13, at 4:30 p.m. People can share memories and online condolences by visiting or Gifts in Talbot’s honor can be made to the University of Vermont College of Medicine Department of Neurology — “In honor of Bruce Talbot” —  Medical Development and Alumni Relations, Courtyard at Given, 89 Beaumont Ave., Burlington, VT 05405. The money will be used to establish the Bruce Talbot Fund to enhance Parkinson’s disease research, education, and care in Vermont.

DUMMERSTON—It happened overnight.

In the spring of 1992. Brattleboro woke to find itself plastered with posters announcing a concert by an all-black, 100-voice church gospel choir from New Jersey. The poster photo alone was a revelation — all those black faces coming to one of the whitest towns in the country! Lift up your voices! Make a joyful sound unto the Lord!

Truth be told, I was irrationally exuberant about this concert. I was a music critic back then, in love with old-fashioned blues and rhythm and blues, which is the other side of black gospel. As T-Bone Walker sang in Stormy Monday, “The eagle flies on Friday/and Saturday I go out and play/Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray.”

Same beat, different words.

The concert had the potential of being a topnotch musical event, and all I could think of was, “How in the hell can this be happening in Brattleboro?”

The answer, I discovered, was Bruce Talbot, who died on Jan. 23 at the age of 61.

Talbot had been living in Brattleboro for only a few months when he decided to bring the choir to town.

He had already worked in the Montpelier bureau of United Press International. He had been a high school teacher, the editor of company publications for the National Life Insurance Company, and a public relations guy for the Barre Granite Association, and he was then organizing tours for Basketville.

But gospel music?

* * *

It seems that a few years before, Talbot had had an epiphany involving an Aretha Franklin gospel song — and who hasn’t?

But Talbot took his enchantment deeper than most. He and his close friend, Paul Erlbaum, started seeking similar epiphanies in Harlem churches. And the people of Harlem told them, “If you want to hear the best gospel, you gotta go to Newark, to the New Hope Baptist Church.” So they did.

Soon, they were adopted as family by the New Hope congregation and realized they had found musical as well as spiritual nirvana.

The 11 O’Clock Choir of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., had some serious musical chops. Its director was the elegant Ann Drinkard-Moss, sister of the great singer Cissy Houston and aunt of the celebrated pop singers Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston.

Talbot and Erlbaum decided to share this wealth of musical talent with Brattleboro.

“The purpose of my life is to enable people to have joy-filled, fulfilled lives,” Talbot told me then. “I make it up as I go along; I’m not looking at church or religious work. There’s a love that occurs in the music that to me goes beyond all differences and transcends everything.”

When the three buses from New Jersey pulled into Brattleboro, the singers and their friends and families murmured: “Everybody’s white here. What are we going to do?” And then someone said, “We’re going to sing for the Lord.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

As the 100 singers, in their navy blue robes, started marching down the aisles of the First Baptist Church, the audience was swept up by their majestic, stirring, thrilling sound and the power and the glory of their faith. Later, I wrote, “For me, ecstasy was followed by rapture, and there I stayed.”

* * *

During the next week, I called Drinkard-Moss in New Jersey to get a follow-up from the New Hope perspective.

She said, “All our hearts came together, and we were one in the spirit. If Jesus had come walking in the door, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“It was the best experience the choir ever had. It didn’t have anything to do with black or white. The exuberance that the audience had was so great, we responded accordingly and sang our hearts out.”

Talbot brought the choir back four more times to Vermont, the last two times to the Barre Auditorium, which holds an audience of 2,000. All the concerts were sold out. In 1999, he also brought, for a separate concert, the Newark Boys Chorus to the Barre Auditorium. It also sold out.

After the Talbot family moved to Barre, we stayed in touch mostly by phone and e-mail. But in 2001, Talbot and Erlbaum took me down to New Hope for an elevating musical experience from the source. By then, he and Erlbaum were habitually introducing Vermonters to African-American culture and vice versa. Cross-cultural communication without confrontation: it was a revelation.

“There was such a built-in cultural rift,” Talbot told me. “Yet over the years, Paul and I and others from Vermont have been completely and unexpectedly embraced. All we had to do was reach out a little bit and snap, there were these instant, loving relationships.... We’re all inherently anxious, if not fearful, about other people. If someone just makes a little step, boom, snap, these things just open up.”

In 1994, Talbot was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It didn’t seem to slow him down at all. With energy and great good humor, he wrote, exercised. and founded and served as the president of the Vermont chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association. In 2007, Talbot was named to the first national patients’ advisory council of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

In February of 2010, Talbot was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. It didn’t seem to faze him. According to his obituary, his reaction was, “I’ve had a wonderful life."

He fought the good fight, surrounded and supported by his family and many friends, and he died peacefully among them. Besides his wife, Judith Sutphen of Putney, he leaves three children, his brother and sister-in-law, and their four sons and families.

* * *

Erlbaum, who contacted me with the news of Talbot’s death, refused to speak about him in the past tense.

“Bruce is all about joy,” Erlbaum said. “He finds his joy in his daily morning meditation and spends the rest of each day spreading that joy to others. In meditation, Bruce gives his thanks and praise silently. At New Hope Baptist Church, Bruce finds people who shout their thanks and praise. This completes his world.”

After the first concert, Moss said, “Bruce, you have fulfilled your purpose.” In his life, this lovely, brave, and irreverently funny man managed to fulfill many purposes. He spread a lot of happiness, took many people on great personal adventures, and enriched the cultural life of Vermont. I have always felt honored to know him.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #87 (Wednesday, February 9, 2011).

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