Sat | Dec 10, 2016

Musical honour for Shirley Willis

Published:Friday | November 14, 2014 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
File Lester Lewis
Adrian Frater photo Joan Flemming
File Sam Wisdom (left) with a music student.
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Latoya Messam encountered gospel singer Shirley Willis in two of her formative childhood spaces, the church and school. Willis was a friend of Messam's pastor "and she would frequent my church and I would watch her ... She would even come to my school (St Catherine High)."

Then, Messam was about 15 years old and, being also a singer, Willis made an indelible impression on her.

"She is very charismatic and vibrant. When I saw her performing, I said that is what I want to do, to be like her," Messam said. "She kicked off her shoes and I was amazed."

An unabashed fan, Messam said she would attend any concert that Willis was performing on. Now, many years later, Messam is staging an event that Willis is performing on, one that serves the dual purpose of also honouring the gospel singer.

Through her LM Productions, on Sunday, November 16, Messam will stage An Evening With the First Lady of Gospel at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel, New Kingston. It begins with a walk down the red carpet at

3 p.m., with a concert from

4 p.m. to about 7:30 p.m.

Strong line-up

An extensive roster of performers will pay homage to Willis by performing material from her extensive catalogue, in addition to their own songs. Joan Flemming, Sister Pat, Lester Lewis, Diane Bennett, Pat Archer, Jai Kingston, Judy Mowatt, Portmore Vision Choir, Andrea Hinds, Sam Wisdom, Denise Wright, Dawn Martin, Tifanny Hall and Leroy Smith. Willis is slated to perform after being officially honoured. Code 5 band will support all the performers.

Admission is $2,000 presold and $2,500 at the gate. VIP costs $3,000.

Messam has had the idea of recognising Willis in this way for about five years.

"I am a big fan of Aretha Franklin. Every time she is being honoured, I think about Shirley Willis. She is like our Aretha Franklin in gospel, Shirley Caesar in Jamaica," Messam said. "I asked myself what about our legends?"

LM Productions has not been dormant in between Messam having the idea of honouring Willis, and it is actually happening. Last year, Messam staged From Porn to the Pulpit, bringing in a speaker from Los Angeles, USA. Also involved was a therapist to deal with victims of sexual abuse.

Messam indicated a focus on events with an intention to educate and inspire persons, LM Productions' slogan being 'Produce to Empower'.

"We talk about topics that Jamaicans do not want to talk about," Messam said - and that includes the church.

The second time around is very special for Messam, who has been buoyed by the strong response from the public and performers, a common sentiment that Willis is as deserving recipient.

"This is my second event. I felt I had to do it," Messam said.