Just minutes into the Georgia Festival Chorus rehearsal the other night, I’m struck by its choirmaster Frank Boggs.
Even at 90, he is no doubt an incredible force — disciplined, intense and charismatic, possessing the sort of persuasive rigor it takes to coax music out of a choir of any sort, even this one, a mix of retirees and working folk. Lawyers and nurses and schoolteachers and engineers.
The music, though, is what really grabs you, carrying you to a place you hadn’t anticipated.
“Sit up, feet on the floor, lean forward,” Boggs tells them before launching into a hymn I’d not heard before.
“In this very room there’s quite enough love for one like me,
And in this very room there’s quite enough joy for one like me,
And there’s quite enough hope and quite enough power to chase away any gloom,
For Jesus, Lord Jesus … is in this very room.”
Slowly Boggs moves his choir through each verse, his hands, the left clad in bandages, slicing the air inside the choir room at First Baptist Church Smyrna.
It might not have happened at all except after Boggs taught for 23 years at Westminster Schools, a good friend of his intuitively knew retirement promised him little more than misery if he didn’t have a choir to direct.
Of course, he was right, and sometime in 1987, Boggs announced in the Marietta Daily Journal his plan to form the Cobb Festival Chorus. Eighteen people, former high school and college students who loved the classics, turned out to audition. Boggs accepted 16 and immediately began work on Handel’s “Messiah.”
“For 16 singers, it was amazing,” he said.
Those few voices are now 108 strong and one of the few professional choruses in Atlanta that sing traditional classics and sacred music. Come April 30, the chorus will mark its 30th anniversary with a free concert at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta.
“They literally raise the roof,” Boggs said.
These days they are known as the Georgia Festival Chorus, the name Boggs selected after a trip to Europe in 1995 made him realize that Cobb had absolutely no meaning there.
Boggs might not have either except he shared a history with England. Music, too.
Indeed music has pretty much permeated Boggs’ entire life, beginning when he was just a boy tagging along with his parents to choir rehearsal at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.
“I’d go to sleep to it and wake up to it,” he said.
Boggs was a boy soprano until he turned 11 and began singing bass in his school choirs. Even then, he had a commanding voice, but he never believed singing was his calling. Journalism was.
That is, until he attended a North Texas church retreat one summer.
There is a young person in this audience tonight headed in one direction and God has said to you, you need to go in another direction, Boggs remembered the minister saying.
The next day, he told his mother he wouldn’t be going to the University of Missouri after all. He needed to go to Baylor and figure out what God wanted him to do.
Boggs was the first of his parents’ four children and the only one still living. The others died within a year of their birth.
“My whole life, my mother would say, ‘Honey, your brothers and sister didn’t survive, so God wants you to live your life for those three who passed away,’” Boggs recalled recently. “All my life, I tried to live up to that.”
It was 1944. Because of the war, there was plenty of room for men on the Baylor campus.
It was there that he discovered his calling in music, and four years later, Boggs, who with his roommate, Dick Baker, banged out the Baylor fight song in 45 minutes, graduated with a degree in English literature. He went on to study sacred music at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before heading in 1952 to New York’s Columbia University just when Rodgers and Hammerstein magic was happening.
“It was the time to be there,” Boggs said. “I loved it.”
And everyone who heard Boggs’ voice loved him, too. His professors, radio audiences, Tom Rees of England and Maj. Gen. Sir Arthur Smith, both of whom invited Boggs to England, where he recorded 200 hymns for the Church of England’s radio broadcasts and six television specials for the BBC, sang in Royal Albert Hall and was the featured soloist at the prayer dedication service for Queen Elizabeth II on the eve of her coronation.
The latter, he said, “was an evening to remember.”
Boggs returned to Columbia in 1954 to finish work on his master’s degree and teach at Stony Brook School on Long Island. Two years later, he was named minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Tallahassee, where he turned the church’s once struggling program into six choirs, 300 voices strong.
“Doing that and doctorate work almost killed me,” he said. “I decided to let the doctorate go.”
He was teaching a seminar late one evening in 1955 when Doris Lyons from nearby Stetson University got his attention, and he invited her to take a walk. For three hours, there and back, they talked about everything.
“I came that close to asking her to marry me that afternoon,” Boggs said.
When he popped the question on the third date, Lyons told him she’d have to pray about that.
Boggs wasn’t thrilled, but he told his mother that Lyons was just the kind of girl he wanted to marry.
Lyons finally accepted and they were married Nov. 23, 1956, settling in Tallahassee. They had been there three years when the pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta told Boggs he should be singing all over the world and invited him to sing at his church.
He and Doris would soon move to Atlanta, and Boggs would indeed begin to sing around the world from England to Sweden until he felt a tug to be home for his daughters Elizabeth and Catherine.
“I saw that they needed a father,” Boggs said.
In 1969, he accepted a position at Westminster, where he spent the next 23 years, building its choral and orchestra programs.
He was en route home from a Rotary Club meeting in 2007 when he ran his new Lexus under the rear of a stalled truck in the middle of I-75 North. When he came to, the ceiling of the car was pressing on Boggs’ right cheek. The airbag had cut off his left hand.
When he looked out the driver’s window, there was a man on his knees praying for him. He recognized Boggs from a performance at his church and called the police.
At the hospital, the surgeon asked him if he needed his hands. “I’m a pianist,” Boggs told him.
It would take eight hours, but the surgeon reattached Boggs’ hand to his wrist. On Monday, doctors finally removed the pin that has held the hand in place all these years.
“I almost let out a Tarzan scream,” he said.
On Tuesday, it was covered in bandages but seemed to be working just fine.
“Now I’m 90 and a lot of my friends think I should retire, but my idea of how to die is to direct the best concert this choir has ever given, turn around, take a bow and keel over,” he said recently.
I hope Boggs will be around for a long time to come, but if Tuesday’s rehearsal is any indication, his wish could very well come true.
Georgia Festival Chorus’ 30th anniversary
5 p.m. April 30. Free. Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, 955 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta. http://tgafc.org.