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Mendhi hands by Pushpa Jain. Photographer unknown. All rights reserved.Fish decoy. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Embroidered dress detail. Photo by Pearl Yee Wong. All rights reserved.Cedar bird by Glen VanAntwerp. Photo by Al Kamuda. All rights reserved.
Michigan Heritage Awards


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Thomas Kelly
2016 awardee, Detroit (Wayne), A cappella gospel singing

Thomas Kelly is an institution in the Detroit gospel scene. He was born in East Irondale, Alabama, in 1913. His family moved to Detroit in 1922, and he began singing gospel music five years later.  No stranger to hard work and dedication, he is a World War II veteran and worked as a hi-lo driver at the Chrysler Detroit Axle Plant for thirty years. Beginning in the 1930s, as there was high demand for religious programming on the radio, he made time to sing live on Sundays on Detroit station WJLB-AM.

At age 103, Thomas has a literal lifetime of experience, singing a cappella gospel for the last eighty-nine years. The music as he learned it was not written down, but passed on through repetition and practice. He specifically says that he “got [his] education in the singing from the chording,” or the harmonies present in this genre of music. He remembers a time when he and others would sing on the street corners until the wee hours of the morning, or until the police told them it was time to go home. Thomas has formed many groups throughout the years, including the Marine Harmony Four in 1926, The Famous Wandering Four in 1930 and most recently with the Masters of Harmony (with members David Grear, Neal Lewis, and O’Bryant Walker).

The Detroit gospel scene has gone through many transitions and evolutions through the years, such as the move from a cappella singing to the addition of instruments like the Hammond organ and the electric guitar, but Thomas has remained stalwart in the a cappella tradition, bearing this music forward and keeping it alive. He even composes new music in this style. He has taught countless individuals with his “ministry through music,” including his four-year-old great great-granddaughter.

For his outstanding commitment to and skill in the tradition of a cappella gospel singing, and his lifetime of experience, Thomas Kelly is awarded the 2016 Michigan Heritage Award.

-Micah Ling

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