Before Darrel Petties sits down at the piano in Young Avenue Studios, he takes a few second to look at the keys, as if he’s preparing to be transported. The 26-year-old singer, choir leader and pastor with a small white streak in his close-cropped hair sits down and strokes a series of minor chords.
“ ‘Major’ and ‘minor’ have never been total excitement for me,” he smiles, glancing up for a second while continuing to play. “I just have melodies pop into my head.”
Petties’ easygoing personality, quiet demeanor and soft voice belie the fact that he’s one of the hottest gospel singers in the business. He has a big singing voice and an electrifying stage presence. He’s also featured in the documentary film “Rejoice and Shout,” which chronicles the 200-year history of African-American gospel music.
The movie features performances by giants of the past, such as the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Dixie Hummingbirds and Mahalia Jackson, as well as stars of today such as Petties, his Strength in Praise choir and the Selvey Family singers.
The Selveys, along with Petties with his choir and band, were filmed at Memphis’ Greater Community Temple Church of God in Christ. With this film, director Don McGlynn has added to his formidable musical filmography of biopics about Howling Wolf, Charlie Mingus, Teddy Edwards and Dexter Gordon.
“Magnolia Pictures contacted me about this film about a year and a half ago,” Petties said. “I had the good fortune to be among the narrators, along with Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples and (author) Bill Carpenter.”
Petties, who serves as pastor of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Olive Branch, also had the good fortune to be from Memphis, “the epicenter” of the gospel music world, according to Skip McQuinn, Young Avenue Studio’s manager. McQuinn, who has worked on all four of Petties’ albums, has been engineering and producing gospel music for more than two decades and points with pride to the young musician.
“I was blown away by Darrel’s musicianship the first time I ever heard him play,” McQuinn said. “And I’ve worked with people like Lee Williams (and the Spiritual QC’s) and O’Landa Draper. Darrel has wisdom beyond his years.”
“I hear that a lot,” Petties says, taking a momentary break from his minor chords. “If I had a dollar for every time someone has said I have an ‘old soul,’ I’d be a rich man now.”
Bishop Brandon Porter of Greater Community Temple COGIC has been a pastor and evangelist in Memphis since the mid-1970s. He readily agrees with McQuinn’s assessment of Petties’ talents and his mature approach to life and music.
“I know that Darrel sure can excite a crowd, but I think ‘old soul’ fits him perfectly,” Porter says. “So much of today’s gospel music has been going more and more for a contemporary sound. but he’s taken it back to more traditional levels.”
“Darrel’s a young guy with an older man’s approach to his music.”
When told that the “old soul” perception may come partially from the white streak in his hair, Petties smiles, chuckles and returns to playing.
“Maybe that has something to do with it. It (the streak) came in my last year of high school, and it came out of nowhere. It does draw a lot of attention.”
Petties, who describes his childhood as “challenging,” was raised by his mother and his grandparents. His grandfather, James Hailey, has pastored in Memphis for 36 years and currently leads the flock at Greater Kerr Baptist Church.
“Because of that strong faith-based family, I had no choice but to go to church all the time,” Petties says. “I sang my first solo at my kindergarten graduation and, literally, I’ve been singing every Sunday since. I’ve never missed a Sunday.
“When my grandmother and grandfather discovered I had this gift, they put it to work.”
Petties, who graduated from Fairley High and will continue his theological studies in August at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary here, says he was called to preach when he was 13 in “a total spiritual revelation in a dream. I heard the voice of God.”
“My grandfather told me, ‘Son, this message you’re trying to get out can’t be done just by singing.’ ”
Petties says there’s really no balancing act between his singing and his preaching. Preaching is his “calling,” and singing is his “gift.”
“The calling comes first, and most of the time they complement each other — like a washer and a dryer,” he says. “As far as traveling goes, most of the time when people send for me to do one, they like to experience the other. A song can always complement words.”
Petties and his choir have performed all over the country and last year played concerts in Costa Maya, Mexico, and Belize. He greatly reduced his touring schedule this year in order to give Mt. Pisgah his full attention. He has seen membership grow from fewer than 10 to almost 400 in the year he’s been there. He attributes the increase to “effective Bible teaching and preaching, careful administration and becoming the true hub of hope and faith for the community there.”
With Mt. Pisgah prospering, Petties will pick up his performance schedule. He has one or two concerts per week scheduled for August, “but I won’t miss a Sunday at Mt. Pisgah,” he adds. In December, he will begin a 17-city concert tour of Italy. He usually travels in the U.S. with a choir of 40, but says he will probably take a musical core of three musicians and a choir of 12 to Italy.
Although he has an “old soul” and a white streak in his hair, Petties realizes his journey is just beginning. He wants to explore every means possible to spread the message of God’s Word — television, movies, touring the world with his choir — and says he even wants to try his hand at acting, but his roots will remain in Memphis.
“I’m so excited about my music and my career. I’ve still got a lot of dreams, a lot of goals,” he says. “I owe Memphis so much.”
Brown Burnett is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis.