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A musician and a rabbi write a show about partnership between a white Jewish woman and black singers

PGM PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Rabbi Alan Berg listens to musician Michael Allen Harrison play a Christmas song hes working on for the holiday season. Berg and Harrison worked together on a project, Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and the Orioles, A New Musical.

Talent, faith and determination.

Those are just a few of the positive attributes Michael Allen Harrison and Alan Berg have called upon in developing their musical, "Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and the Orioles, A New Musical." The musical details the unlikely partnership between Chessler, a young Jewish woman, and a dynamic black male vocal group who launched a whole new genre of music.

PGM PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Rabbi Alan Berg holds a picture of actors who were featured in Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and the Orioles, A New Musical. Berg and local musician Michael Allen Harrison teamed up on the project.

Berg, a musical scholar, said the rise of Sonny Til and the Orioles in the late 1940s and early '50s signaled a major change in American popular music taste. Until that time the charts were dominated by vocalists and the big bands of the day, like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. By the end of the '40s a new sound was catching on — a street-corner harmony call doo-wop.

The Vibranaires were a new group on the Baltimore scene, headed up by Earlington "Sonny" Tilghman, along with George Nelson, Alexander Sharp, Johnny Reed and Tommy Gaither. The group featured two lead singers, Sonny Til (he shortened his name) as lead tenor and George Nelson as second tenor, with the other members harmonizing. The only accompaniment in the early days was the solo guitar of Tommy Gaither. Their style was sweet harmony.

Chessler, who had started writing songs as a teenager, had built up her own following in Baltimore through hard work and determination. She was a songwriter whose songs you could actually hear on the radio. One evening she received a phone call from Abe Schaeffer, saying he had five guys who wanted him to manage them, he had made demos but didn't know what to do with them. Could she help? Would she listen to them?

PGM PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Rabbi Alan Berg and musician Michael Allen Harrison hold Pamta 2015 awards they won for their work on Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and the Orioles, A New Musical.

The Vibranaires sang over the phone to Chessler. Their sound was exactly what she heard in her head when she composed her songs.

The rest of the story — of how the Vibranaires became the Orioles and how they all succeeded with Chessler's songwriting and management skills — is the basis for "Soul Harmony."

The duo, along with Janet Mouser, were inspired by "The Deborah Chessler Story," an essay written by Greil Marcus. Berg and Janet Mouser took two years to write the script, which is a series of tableaus to accompany the songs. Berg points out that segregation was commonplace in America in the 1940s and early '50s. Touring would have been difficult for the black group and made doubly so with a white female manager.

"What motivated them?" Berg said. "Where did they find that kind of courage? I am always fascinated by the more courageous moments. She (Chessler) told me 'We did it because we all needed the money. Yes, we were all people who knew racism. We were a long, long way from home and just trying to survive.'"

As serendipity would have it, while Berg was doing research he came upon a YouTube video of Sonny Til and the Orioles singing "It's Too Soon to Know" by Chessler, with this post by De-Sean Dooley attached to it:

"It feels so wonderful to know that people really respect and love my granddad's music. The crazy thing is that I think in this video he's performing at the Apollo and I'll soon be doing the same in March! I'll make sure my father gets to see this. I'm sure it would make his day ... thank you very much!"

"Kurt (Mouser, Stumptown Stage's artistic director) invited De'Sean to come out and audition for 'Aida.' He knocked it out of the ballpark. And he hired him to be Sonny," said Berg. Dooley was also a big asset in developing the script, providing an inside voice.

PGM PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Musician Michael Allen Harrison and Rabbi Alan Berg look at pictures that inspired them to work together on a project Soul Harmony: The Story of Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and the Orioles, A New Musical.

Stumptown Stages produced "Soul Harmony" April 17 through May 3, 2015. The production included Chessler's classic rhythm-and-blues songs and many original songs written by Harrison with lyrics by Berg, Janet Mouser and Harrison.

Starring with Dooley, in the role of Deborah Chessler was Monica Rodrigues, and Julianne Johnson-Weiss appeared as Ella Fitzgerald.

The production was honored with four PAMTAs (Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards) in 2015, including Best New Musical, Best Score, Best Orchestration and Best Song.

Harrison and Berg took the cast to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for a 10-day run in June 2018, where it met with high acclaim by both the Jewish and African American communities. Accompanying the singers were members of the Temple University jazz school in Philadelphia.

"It was a live R&B experience," Berg said. "And what Michael did with the recording was jaw-dropping." Harrison had live-recorded three performances, then mixed them in mono to capture the feeling of the era. He selected the best of the recordings and that was released as a two-cd set Oct. 11.

"Unexpectedly and welcome to us, we received Monday (Sept. 9) an order from the national distributor for the entire first pressing of the cd set," said Berg.

Sonny Hill, former basketball player and color commentator for the Philadelphia 76ers, attended "Soul Harmony" and was so moved by what he experienced he invited Berg to be interviewed on his talk radio show.

"He just embraced the show," Berg said. "It was like getting a huge hug of gratitude."

As well received as "Soul Harmony" was by audiences night after night, Harrison and Berg spent the six-hour flight back to Portland compiling a long list of revisions they wish to make on the musical.

"It is a quest," said Harrison. "We want to make the perfect musical, where not one word or one note feels out of place, or is unwelcome. Do you hear anything in 'Hamilton' that needs to be fixed? We are taking this to the next level."

The creative duo says next steps include taking the musical to Baltimore, where the story began, and then on to the Apollo Theater in New York City.

"And from there we will welcome whatever happens," said Harrison.

Harrison said he and Berg are committed to making "Soul Harmony" a perfect musical, which could take time.

"We work on this when we can fit it in," he said. "It's not a hobby, but a passion. We believe it is an artistic duty."

"And we are patient," said Berg.

You can hear stories behind the production of "Soul Harmony" at a special event taking place at 3 p.m. Nov. 10 at Music Millennium, 3158 E. Burnside in Portland. The event celebrates the release of "Soul Harmony" as well as Harrison's latest cd "Heavy Mellow" of classic rock solo piano songs.

You can also order the two-cd set online and learn more at soulharmonymusical.com.

Learn more and order "Heavy Mellow" online at michaelallenharrison.com.

PGM PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Musician Michael Allen Harrison released a new album, Heavy Mellow.


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