It all started with the Mobile College Choir in 1963. Then there were the breakout ensembles like Chamber Singers, Sound Spirit , Witness, Company, and one of the first boy bands in the 1970s, Trust Company.
But the real genesis of today’s Center for Performing Arts traveling vocal and instrumental ensembles was the Mobile College Singers, aka MC Singers. Along with worship ensemble AWANA, these early 1980s groups under the direction of the music department used their talents to worship God while spreading the word about a college where God reigns.
The ’90s belonged to Vision, a vocal and instrumental ensemble that traveled under the direction of the Admissions Office with the intentional aim of introducing the university to more people, more places, and more prospective students. When Dr. Roger Breland joined the university – bringing with him 31 years of founding, directing, and traveling with groundbreaking contemporary Christian group TRUTH – Vision returned to the music department, now the Center for Performing Arts/School of Music.
Today, the CPA/School of Music has expanded, with the 194-member University Singers and 20 traveling and performing ensembles.
While all groups can trace their lineage back to those early years, the two groups that share the most in common with their predecessors, MC Singers and Vision, are Voices of Mobile and Impact. Just last year, those two groups combined performed more than 130 times, toured 13 states and two foreign nations, sang to well over 20,000 people, and logged more than 10,000 miles crossing the continental United States.
That is the quick, direct version of how the University of Mobile came to be known for the quality and professionalism of its performing groups such as Voices and Impact.
But while taking the highway will get you to your destination in a fastpaced blur of people and places, it is the leisurely side trip down memory lane that brings the journey into focus with lingering views of special moments.
Pack the amps and guitars. Are your uniforms pressed? Bring along a textbook to cram for that history test on Monday. Don’t forget your pillow to catch a few moments of sleep propped up in the van.
Hop in. Let’s go for a ride.
Mobile College Singers
The Mobile College Singers made their first on-campus appearance in 1978 at the annual Thanksgiving feast. According to the 1979 Rampage yearbook, “practice, practice, practice – is what makes a great performance, but it doesn’t increase pay. The group performs free but will accept donations.”
The group was directed by Dr. Kenneth Bergdolt, then associate professor of music, and voice instructor Cherri Fussell. Collette Herring directed choreography, and MC students providing backup were Rory Elmore on bass, Greg Burleson on drums, and Tonya Green at the piano.
Fifteen auditioned for that first group of six, which consisted of George Beck
, Brenda Isbell
, Scott White
, Cherri Fussell
, Elizabeth Munger
and Sammy Flores
. The standard program lasted about 20 minutes and included a medley of songs called “Winds of the Sixties” including “Can’t Help Loving” and “Everybody Rejoice.”
, a full-time contractor and part-time minister of music and administrator at Crawford Baptist Church in Mobile, said the Mobile College Singers “were kind of a song-and-dance-type thing.” He recalls choreographer Herring “tried to make us walk and sing at the same time.”
The yearbook pointed out that “getting one’s hands and feet to do different things at the same time presents a problem, and George Beck asks: ‘But suppose you’re uncoordinated!’”
“We pulled it off,” Beck said today. The group was mainly a publicity arm for the school, he said, and had a Broadway-style repertoire they took primarily to area high schools and junior colleges.
Beck was also a member of AWANA, which was mentioned for the first time in the 1981 Rampage. AWANA took its name from 2nd Timothy 2:15, “All Workmen Approved Not Ashamed.”
“AWANA was more of a worship leading type of group. We were trying to be the TRUTH wannabes,” Beck said.
But it was the Mobile College Singers that had the most lasting legacy.
The 1983 Rampage refers to the group as MC Singers, and later yearbooks would go back and forth between the abbreviation and the full name of the college. The growth in members reflected the growing popularity of the ensemble.
In 1984, the Rampage noted the group was sponsored by the Admissions Office and “they do a wonderful job recruiting new students for our college. During Spring Break they toured jr. colleges, large high schools, and Baptist churches.”
TRUTH held a concert on campus in 1985 to help the Singers raise funds for the choir. Breland remembers the concert being held at Pharr Gym. The Rampage cited the concert as one of the highlights of the year.
According to the yearbook, “The MC Singers sang with TRUTH. It was definitely a night to remember. The group had the opportunity to experience what it was like to be swamped for autographs….” A cryptic addition to the description continued: “…and that cashew nuts can contribute to the excitement of a concert.”
The Mobile College Singers earned a two-page spread in the yearbook as they performed on the Moorer Auditorium stage in Martin Hall.
Performing, working on choreography, traveling to schools and churches in Alabama, singing with TRUTH – all created wonderful memories. For Marsha Roberts Scarborough ’85, her most favorite memory she posted on the University of Mobile Alumni Facebook page was: “Dr. B, of course.”
Allen Harrison remembered one gig where MC Singers played one night of the Miss USA Pageant, which was being held in Mobile. He was drummer his freshman year, 1988-89.
“I really wasn’t that great of a drummer, but they needed a drummer. I got talked into it, and I’m glad I did,” he said. Allen said the encouragement he received during that year helped give him the confidence to later follow his dreams, go to flight school, and become a pilot.
Janeice Hales DeLange ’89
said being a member of MC Singers was special – being a representative for the school, making music, ministering to different churches and traveling.
“I’m still really good friends with a lot of people in the group that year,” she said. Friendships formed during the long rehearsals, hours of travel, mishaps and funny moments are friendships that continue.
Kim Burgess Leousis ’86
remembered the Mobile College Singers as a well-regarded group.
“People that were in the group were all very likeable, prominent students. I don’t know that they had the exposure that Vision had (later), to have a broad following. The student body enjoyed them, and they sang in chapel and locally.”
Leousis, now vice president for enrollment services, campus life and athletics, said changing musical tastes brought changing times for the MC Singers. The music they performed was starting to be dated as the contemporary Christian music scene gained prominence.
Leousis said then-president Dr. Mike Magnoli ’67
wanted the music to change. “He wanted them to travel and be more public-oriented.”
Herman Shoemaker arrived at the University of Mobile in 1987
as assistant to the president for enrollment management. He came to the school after a successful career wearing a variety of hats in the Mobile County Public School System, from principal to state lobbyist to overseeing maintenance for the state’s largest school system.
It was his first time to be responsible for recruiting students at a college campus. He had been on board only a few weeks when he was called to Dr. Hazel Petersen’s office, then academic dean.
“I was up in my office, minding my own business,” Shoemaker recalled. He walked into Petersen’s office in Weaver Hall, where the dean and a young man were sitting.
Shoemaker recalled the conversation vividly. “She said, ‘This is Kim Noblitt. He’s your director of the MC Singers.’ I said, ‘Ma’am, who are the MC Singers?’”
It was the first time Shoemaker knew his recruiting team included a singing group.
“I went back to my office and sat down and said, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t know one note from another!’” Shoemaker remembered.
Fortunately, Kim Noblitt did.
Noblitt had just come off the road after eight and a half years with TRUTH, the longest of any vocalist, and he knew what it would take to bring the group to the next level.
He said he asked the students what they wanted to do, and was told, “We want to be a TRUTH group. We want to recruit and travel for the school.”
He started the process, arranging music specifically for MC Singers, purchasing coats for outfits that mirrored the edgier TRUTH look, and dropping what he described as “old school madrigal” singing from their performance.
“The big deal was we had guitars and plugged them into the wall,” Noblitt recalled. He said there was some resistance, both on campus and in churches, to the idea of MC Singers performing contemporary Christian music, complete with electric guitars, but Shoemaker “was in my corner.”
The quality and professionalism of the group earned them respect.
“Everywhere we went, the reaction was they couldn’t believe a college group is doing this,” Noblitt said.
Now founder and CEO of G3 Music Publishing and a worship leader helping churches around the country, Noblitt remembers his time at the school as “a lot of fun. To see them want to do it, and then they went out and did it.”
The pattern for the next decade was set. A year later, new director Keith Martin changed the group’s name to Vision, and a new era began.
The Admissions Office would hire a local music minister to direct the group. Directors such as Kent Vincent, Alicia Williamson, Chuck Newman and others poured their knowledge and heart into developing the group throughout the years.
The Admissions Office would evaluate where they wanted to try to increase recruitment and get the school’s name out. Students auditioned and were selected by the Admissions Office, trained during the fall semester, and traveled every weekend during spring semester and a week into the summer. They earned partial tuition in exchange. A student leader was responsible for traveling, and enrollment counselors would meet the group at various locations.
They recorded cassettes, and later CDs. They traveled beyond the state’s borders. In 1991, Martin took Vision to the Christian Artists Seminar of the Rockies at Estes Park, CO. They were named Grand Champions. As part of the honor, Vision returned the following year to lead worship for the 1992 competition.
Martin poured his life into mentoring young people, said his wife, Lee Ann. “He loved all those kids,” she said. Martin was serving as worship arts pastor at Woodland Baptist Church in Bradenton, FL at the time of his death in July 2011.
Leousis said the mentoring and professional development training that took place from music ministers like Martin was an unexpected benefit to students. The hands-on, on-the-road practical experiences taught students more about communicating and reaching people with the Gospel message.
“Now those students have turned into people who have some really key positions in the church world and music world. In terms of an ambassador program, that’s far more lasting than any song,” Leousis said.
Brett Burleson ’93
, lead pastor of Dayspring Baptist Church in Mobile, sang in Vision his junior year and had the experience of performing on the last trip to Colorado. Martin asked him to be student director the following year.
“I embraced that task. It meant being in churches week after week after week and, on my end, that involved being a spokesperson for the group. If we did evangelistic events, I would present the Gospel. Practically speaking, I was in front of people a lot and speaking a lot, which was good for me, particularly since that is what I do now,” Brett said.
He said the group itself functioned almost like a small church.
“The way Keith had it structured, every week at rehearsal he would sit down with every one of us and ask us which scripture we memorized for the week, how much time we spent with God. He invested in us, and made sure we spent quality time with God and reading the Bible. We had accountability, community and fellowship, and, with Keith, we had an actual pastor among us.”
It’s where Brett met April Williams, a freshman who would become his wife when he went to seminary the next year.
Recently the couple had occasion to think back on those years. Their church small group session included a question about what mile markers in their lives contributed to their spiritual growth, and April spoke about her year in Vision.
“I know it had a great impact on those of us who were in it,” Brett said. A lot of us are in music ministry, or are student pastors or lead pastors. It wasn’t just the musical influence; it had a ministry influence. We were in churches and saw how they functioned. We saw the good, the bad and the ugly. We saw the climate of church life, and saw what the church needed.”
Shoemaker said Vision accomplished its recruitment mission. The first year after Vision went on the road, enrollment grew by 156 students. The group was representing the university well, and university students were proud to have them perform in their home churches.
There was one new student in particular that he remembered – Joy Dickson.
“When she was in high school, she came to my office one day and said, ‘I want to be in Vision and I’m ready to try out today.’ She stood right there and sang a song in front of me,” Shoemaker said.
Joy said she remembered the audition with Shoemaker and two more administrators as “pretty frightening. It is easier to sing to a sea of people than to sing to a few people who are only inches away from you – especially when they are determining whether or not you can do what you are aspiring to do.”
Joy Dickson Lockwood ’01
, the 1998 Miss UM, met her future spouse, Chris, when both were members of Vision. Chris Lockwood ’05
has gained recognition through his group 33Miles and as a Nashville musician.
“God confirmed to me in Vision that this sort of ministry/lifestyle would definitely play an important role in my future,” Chris said. “Performing was always fun, but my ability to adapt and connect with church leadership as we traveled from place to place is probably the greatest thing I was able to take away from my time with Vision.”
Chris said he was asked to be road manager during his last year with Vision.
“I hated it at the time because I never really wanted to do it and felt I was ill-equipped (and I was), but little did I know that God was preparing me for decisive leadership down the road in my own company, 33Miles,” he said.
Joy said the most moving thing was that “Despite our youth, God’s hand was always on the Vision concerts. I was privileged to pray with people at the end of our concerts, moved and humbled by their heart cries to the Father, leading some to Christ for the first time. You can’t help but grow and mature in Christ when you can visibly see His hand using something you are a part of.”
Chris Bell ’00
said Vision was more than a music group – it was a ministry. Chris was lead singer, road manager and platform speaker from 1995-2000.
“We would get letters from churches about how it changed people’s lives and changed the church. In those five years, we had literally hundreds and hundreds of people come to Christ in those concerts. My favorite memory was seeing people respond to the Gospel message.”
Chris is lead pastor of Church on the Eastern Shore, one of the fastest-growing churches in Alabama with campuses in Fairhope and Thomasville, AL, and Gautier, MS, with more planned. The church’s worship pastor is former Vision member Zack Adamson ’09
“Whatever success I have today comes from those five years of preaching and singing,” Chris said. In one weekend, the group might perform at a Saturday night youth event, a Sunday morning worship service in a Baptist church, and a Sunday night service at an Assembly of God church.
“Being in all those different environments forced me to be a better communicator. It taught me how to be comfortable in front of any audience in any situation. On any given weekend, you had no idea what you were about to walk into. We could be in front of 10 people or 2,000 people,” Chris said.
During those five years, Vision recorded three albums and traveled thousands of miles.
“The value of that for the college is one thing – it gets the word out about University of Mobile in such an effective way,” Chris said. “The value of it to the people in that group is just amazing. When other guys at other places were just studying theology, I was going out and preaching every weekend. It was a unique opportunity for me to get better at what God called me to do.”
Chris said Shoemaker became like a grandfather to him, and continues to have an impact on his life today.
“He really believed in Vision, and he believed we could be a ministry. For me, when you have someone who believes in you, that’s powerful. And Mr. Shoemaker believed in me. He taught me a lot about life and leadership,” Chris said.
Alicia Morris Atcheson ’02
said it was an incredible experience to be able to be part of the ministry of Vision.
“It’s hard to pick just one memory that stands out. There were soooo many–funny, serious, life-changing, souls won to the Kingdom, hearts being ministered to (often times our own). God really used Vision to help me become more like Him and to fuel a passion for ministry,” she said.
Shoemaker took a personal interest in setting the performance schedule, hiring the director and helping decide the stage dress.
“I just enjoyed the kids. I would go over sometimes and listen to them rehearse,” Shoemaker said.
Brian Boyle ’94
, now vice president of institutional advance and former admissions director, at one point was in charge of Vision. He said Shoemaker would attend as many concerts as possible.
“He was the biggest cheerleader of Vision, and they loved him,” Boyle said.
Leousis, who oversaw the group when she became vice president for enrollment services, said the ensemble kept getting better and better.
“Every group that came along, every single year, you would think, ‘this is the best one ever,’” Leousis said.
Boyle said the group’s nickname was “Little TRUTH” because of the similarities in style and performance to Breland’s award-winning group. When Breland joined the UMobile faculty, it was a natural fit to move Vision back to its beginnings as a part of the music program.
Voices of Mobile & Impact
Breland, now executive director of the College of Christian Leadership and vice president for project development, said Vision’s role as ambassadors for the school and worship leaders continues – but in a different form.
Voices of Mobile and Impact have their genesis in MC Singers and Vision.
Kara Jones, a senior majoring in early childhood and elementary education, said she is in her third year as a member of Voices of Mobile.
“I think Voices has shaped and further defined the call the Lord has placed on my life,” she said.
Steven Stewart is student director of Impact and a worship leadership major.
“You put everything you learn in the classroom into practice, especially groups like Impact where you’re literally doing your degree every weekend,” Stewart said.
Singing UMobile’s Praises
The quality of performing groups over the years has parents and students singing the university’s praises – and bringing them to campus.
Stacy Miller Hart ’98
, who holds a master’s in marriage and family counseling from UMobile, said she first heard about Mobile College when Vision performed at her high school in the early 1990s.
“I later attended Centrifuge and wanted to go to college there even more. I went to a local college for my undergraduate degree then decided to attend UMobile for graduate school. I got a master’s degree and a husband out of the deal, so it worked out pretty good!” Hart said.
Twin brothers, Robert and Madison Copeland
said they first heard about UMobile when Vision played at a 5th Quarter in Andalusia, AL. It was their 10th grade year, and they noticed the large UMobile display.
“The Lord used the band’s appearance to influence us in two ways,” Robert said. “First, the band enabled us to see the school’s ministry in action. It made us think, ‘Here’s this really cool praise and worship band performing, and it’s made up of Christian college students who attend a Christian school and seem to love what they’re doing. That sounds like a school we would like to attend!’ Second, the fact that the band had promotional materials for the school helped us to find out more information about UMobile.”
Madison added, “Talking to an admissions counselor is one thing, but having a student give you information and speak from their heart about their UMobile experience means a great deal. It’s almost like taking UM Expo on the road, except you don’t have to be admitted first!”
The twins originally planned to double major in worship leadership and theatre, then changed their majors to theology with minors in computer information systems. They graduated with bachelor’s degrees in ’09 and Master of Arts in religious studies in ’11. The owners and operators of Copeland Computer Solutions have since applied for a doctoral program in theology.
Sarah Calhoun, an elementary education major and member of the women’s soccer team, heard about UMobile when Voices of Mobile came to her church in Jacksonville, FL, first in 2009 then again in 2011.
As she wasn’t interested in majoring in music, Calhoun said the concert itself didn’t seal her decision to attend UMobile – “but the people I met and what they told me about it made the school sound amazing, and it definitely is. I got all the information I needed from the concert and they answered any questions I had.”
The recruitment strategy that began with Shoemaker has come full circle. One day in October, Seth Peacock walked into Roger Breland’s office. His parents, Shane and Susan Knight Peacock ’91
, were bringing him for a campus visit and to learn more about the School of Worship Leadership and a concentration in film and theatre. For Susan, it was a return to memories of touring choir, Dr. B, and a chance to recall her years as a member of Vision.
“We had lots of fun, lots of amazing ‘God moments,’” she said. “It was just a wonderful time in my life. Now, to think about my son considering this school, I am excited about the opportunities he would have here.”