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Gospel Challengers: Memphis sound with a jazz swing

Photo by Jim Massara
The Gospel Challengers. Seated: Lee Moore and Anecia Harps. Standing behind drums: Anita Harps, Anthony Anderson, DeAndre Head and Nikeeta Moore.

Photo by Jim Massara The Gospel Challengers. Seated: Lee Moore and Anecia Harps. Standing behind drums: Anita Harps, Anthony Anderson, DeAndre Head and Nikeeta Moore.

The building is a small strip of office suites, situated on a side road near Griffin. Two tenants are standard-issue businesses — a roof repair shop and the All Eyes on Me Beauty Salon. The other tenants have a religious bent. One is the Abundant Life Tabernacle. Another is the Earsight Gospel Music School. A third is the Praise Is What We Do Ministry.

A suite in the middle of the building is unoccupied, and that’s where the Gospel Challengers are rehearsing on this warm spring evening.

Based on Atlanta’s south side and managed by Lee Moore of Jonesboro, the six-member group sings with what Moore calls the “Memphis Sound,” gospel with a “jazz swing” to it.

There’s a running joke among musicians that you should never ask them what they sound like, because any good artist sees himself or herself as unique. Still, Moore cites the Canton Spirituals, an iconic group from Mississippi, as an influence.

So you pattern yourselves after the Canton Spirituals?

“No, not really,” Moore says.

“We have our own sound,” adds Anita Harps of Locust Grove, who sings tenor.

Moore finally admits, though, that the Gospel Challengers sound somewhat like Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that the Gospel Challengers are old-school and proud of it.

“We’re quartet music,” Moore says, referring to the group’s four singers: lead DeAndre Head of Griffin, and harmony singers Anita Harps, her daughter Anecia Harps of Atlanta, and Moore’s daughter Nikeeta, also of Jonesboro. Guitarist Anthony Anderson of Decatur rounds out the group. “We’re going to stay quartet music, because that’s the foundation of gospel music.”

Moore says the group avoids a slicker, more contemporary sound because they’d rather “give glory to God than go over to the other side, although there’s more money on that side.”

The Challengers’ new CD, “Relax, God Is In Control,” is the group’s second and its first released through Oklahoma-based Tate Music Group, a division of Tate Enterprises, a Christian-oriented vanity publisher that charges creators an upfront fee to be refunded if sales are high enough. Tate promotes its artists to the media and sells their books and CDs via the Internet and outlets like Amazon.com and iTunes.

“It’s really just a way for groups who may not be able to get some exposure to get an opportunity,” says Weston Shepherd, a booking agent with Tate.

So nobody’s quitting their day jobs yet. Anecia Harps, for example, is an interior decorator by day, a gospel singer nights and weekends. Her mother Anita is “clerk three in the Spalding County Tax Commissioner’s Office,” handling delinquent taxes. Nikeeta Moore does medical billing. Anderson owns an auto-repair shop. Lee Moore is retired, so he gets to manage.

Moore, who plays bass, and Anderson are the senior members of the Gospel Challengers. Both played secular music in clubs back when James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke ruled the charts.

Eventually, religion rescued them both.

“I stayed away from the church for 13 years. I would go periodically, but I wasn’t really grounded in the church. So I rededicated my life in 1981and have been there ever since,” Moore says. “I can’t go back to doing that.”

Anderson is more succinct: “I gave my life to the Lord. I will serve Him.”

At 21, DeAndre Head is the baby of the group. He plays drums, sings like an angel, and says he’s been “in love with music ever since I was little.” All songs on the new CD are written by Head and Anita Harps, either solo or in collaboration with each other.

The group plays concerts most weekends, getting to venues by carpool. It might be a church one week, a school gymnasium the next. On June 2, the Challengers will play at the W.E. Knox Civic Center in Gray, Ga. The next week, they’ll sing at an Atlanta church. Moore isn’t sure which church, but he does know it’s on Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. and officiated by Bishop Danny Stillwell.

“We’re not making it now, but we will, I guess, make it later on,” Moore says. Until then, there’s serving the Lord . And they just got their first royalty check two weeks ago.

“A whopping 15 bucks for the whole group,” Moore says with a smile. “We just put it in the bank.”