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December 2000

Path Finder

Singer Albert C. Humphrey — from ghetto to get up and go

“I am a seed that God planted in Munich,” laughs Albert C. Humphrey, one of Germany’s top black entertainers, blues singer and local gospel choir director. “The popularity of gospel music in this country grew from that seed. I’m happy there are so many choirs out there now. I don’t think of it as a competition.” Former founder and leader of the St. Lukas gospel choir — a seven-year position that ended in disagreement a couple of years ago — Humphrey has reached star status with a talent that, until 20 years ago, he never knew he possessed. “Someone told me I could sing,” shares the 49-year-old personality. “So I figured I could make money with it.” Though Humphrey’s booming voice, lightly laced with the raspy qualities of Louis Armstrong, has certainly improved his lot in life, it has also provided him with joy and inner peace. “Singing is the best thing you can do with your body,” explains Humphrey. “I put all my stress, all my heartache into my songs — and my happiness too.”
Much of the anguish and emotional scarring of which Humphrey speaks began in the late 1950s in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. One of nine children, the African American recalls the impoverished L.A. neighborhood made famous by violent riots in 1965. “It was a war zone. You couldn’t go outside without looking over your shoulder, hoping not to be robbed. I was never particularly religious. I hated going to church. Even as a small boy I used to ask my parents ‘we ain’t got shit, and you wanna pray to who?’” But in the end it was my parents’ belief in God that rubbed off on me and saved us kids from doing drugs or getting killed back then. I wanted to be a bad guy, but I couldn’t.”
The Humphreys moved to nearby Compton in 1959, a relocation that placed the large, hungry family a rung up on the socio-economic ladder. At 12, after a bout of rage over 1960s racism that led him to consider suicide — “I wanted to exit and come back when the world was ready” — young Humphrey vowed to build a career in politics. “I planned to help poor people everywhere.” Though Humphrey eventually chose crooning over campaigning, he intends to run for a seat on the city’s council for foreigners (Ausländerbeirat) and enjoys slipping his good friend, and Munich mayor, Christian Ude the occasional tip or two.
At 15, Humphrey left home. Tired of strict house rules enforced by his father’s strong hand, church and chores, the fledgling Malcolm X follower shaved his head and adopted some of the renowned reverend’s harsh, anti-white sentiments. Having taken a cheap apartment, Humphrey continued to study and make good grades and took odd jobs — all the while surviving on instant soup and Saltines.
Two years later, when Uncle Sam called several of his brothers to fight in the Vietnam War, Humphrey enlisted, with the youthful idea of performing a heroic act that would later enhance his political image. “In boot camp I was brutally beaten. The white guys called me ‘the nigger from Watts.’ I lost my desire to serve my country. I thought ‘you are just another black asshole in the makers’ [white man’s] army.’” A bitter Humphrey was not sent to “Nam” but stationed in Fürth, Germany, near Nuremberg. It was there the boy, who had once shined shoes and sold newspapers to feed his family, shed his pessimistic attitude and found love and a new life.
“After I completed my service, I moved to Heidelberg to study at Schiller University. The army was to pay for my tuition, but the money never came through. As I had fallen in love with, and married a German girl when I was 19,” shares Humphrey, “I stayed here.” Comfortable in an environment — ironically one in which the quest for racial purity once played such a grisly role — safer than that of his childhood, an inspired Humphrey cleverly plotted each career move. “Once I had worked my way up to wearing a suit and tie and serving as cashier at the local army base’s Officer’s Club, I quit and took a job as a janitor at a Harman Kardan stereo store. I took brochures home with me at night, and sometimes secretly borrowed the equipment, because I wanted to learn all I could and get a high-paying job in sales. One day they posted an opening. When I applied, they all laughed. Then I spilled my knowledge and got the position!”
Humphrey and his wife came to Munich in 1980. It was shortly thereafter that the expat was informed of his vocal prowess. “I memorized the lyrics to a bunch of blues songs, then placed an ad in the newspaper for bandmates,” says the gifted singer. “I taught them the songs, gave us the name ‘Albert C. Humphrey and the Backyard Blues Band’ and got us gigs. Soon, we were performing all over Germany, and, in fact, we were one of the few groups allowed to play in East Germany.” This six-man ensemble comprises three Americans, an Australian, a Hungarian and a German, all of whom have performed with internationally acclaimed recording artists including Four Seasons, John Farnham and the Weather Girls. Humphrey has shared the stage with such names as Dizzy Gillespie, and Jose Feliciano.
In 1992, Humphrey was recruited for the position of gospel choir director at St. Lukas Church in Munich. “God gave me the job,” grins Humphrey. “I knew nothing about gospel. Well, of course, in my childhood I heard it in church. What do blacks do on Sunday if not go to church? [laughs] I told them, ‘I have had no music lessons. I can’t read music, I can’t write music.’ They said I could sing and that was more than most could do, so I taught myself some of the songs and took the directorship.” For the next seven years, Humphrey groomed the predominantly German choir to a respected, sought-after group. “When we started, I told them, ‘You have three strikes against you: you are white, you are German and you can’t sing.’ They were a bit taken aback, but I had to be frank. Soon, I took them to America and to competitions. I am proud of what we accomplished. I don’t dwell on the negative. I think of the positive things that we all gained from the choir.”
Albert C. Humphrey and His Voices of Gospel is the breakaway choir that resulted from a multi-member split with St. Lukas. “My choir’s gonna be cookin’, cookin’, cookin’! I’m not lyin’ to you!” says Humphrey while rocking, slapping his thighs and displaying his goosebumps. The ensemble, which includes several black American gospel singers, will perform a holiday program in the Herkulessaal at the Residenz on Saturday, December 16, at 15:00. The group’s new CD, “He’s the Light”, as well as Humphrey’s solo CD — “Changing Times,” original songs that the singer calls “cool jazz/message music” — will be in stores by the first week of December. In addition to beefing up his group’s presence, Humphrey is planning to launch an annual gospel festival in Munich.
Humphrey, father of a 21-year-old Münchner, amicably divorced his first love and is now remarried, to “Angie, the angel of his life.” The couple make their home in a bi-level luxury pad in an office building in Schwabing. Humphrey and his bride of four years own a second residence in Las Vegas and a collection of rare matchboxes and bottle stoppers. “I have all I want,” declares the man who thought his skin color would deter his success. “I act, have been on numerous TV shows, sing and enjoy a manage-able amount of fame. When I’m 54, I’m going to retire.” For the insatiable go-getter, retirement means work with his choir, the occasional blues gig and jetting around the globe with his angel. After a sluggish start, the seed that God planted has blossomed and aims to enjoy the glory of autumn. <<< Liz Vannah

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