ELDER GOLDWIRE Mclendon could be a contender for the Guiness Book of World Records. Yet he already considers himself blessed.
"I'm highly favored, more than a conquerer through Christ," testified the Mount Olive Holy Temple church elder in a recent chat. "But if they want to put me in the book," he added with a chuckle, "I'm all for it."
For his great and abiding gospel vocal abilities, still enthralling at the tender age of 81, Mclendon has already earned much earthly praise.
In 2009, he was honored as a Philadelphia "Living Legend" in a local awards ceremony alongside Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp and Billy Paul. A year later, he almost made to the mountaintop in TV land — as first runner-up on Season 3 of the BET gospel -singing competition "Sunday Best." And April 24 he released "The Best of Elder Goldwire Mclendon," a seven-track mashup of traditional and contemporary gospel material for Music World Records — a release that has led the label, a pet project of Matthew Knowles, to proclaim Mclendon "the oldest American contemporary solo artist signed to a record deal." How about that?
Among the album selections are renderings of "How Great Thou Art," "The Battle is the Lord's" and "Oh, Happy Day" — songs that elicited many a "hallelujah" and tears of joy from celebrity judges and millions of votes in the final stanzas of the 12-week "Sunday Best" competition.
And talk about life changing. Ever since this TV triumph, Mclendon said, he'd been "much in demand for singing appearances" and "enjoying a new lease on life," riding in limos and airplanes to perform and meet his admirers.
Still new to this celebrity thing, the experience of confronting a whipped-up group of fans really freaked the man out first time it happened in Cincinnati, Mclendon recalled last week.
"We were in a large venue, and when we came into the lobby, I looked at the other end, where they had opened the door, and the women were running toward me," he said. "They wanted to hug me, they want my picture, they wanted my autograph. Oh, it was an awesome experience." (Maybe there's another Guiness citation in there for him too: American's oldest gospel stud?)
"He has the energy and enthusiam of a young man," said Music World CEO Knowles, an industry pro known best as father of Beyonce Knowles and mentor to Destiny's Child. "As I watched him in Season 3, he competed with vigor and stamina. He proved that he can connect with people in a wide range of demographics as he won the hearts of over a million supporters — especially women."
Spiritual singing has long been central to Mclendon's life, since his childhood in Jacksonville, Fla. His aunt Anna, blessed with a voice "like Mahalia Jackson," took him first to the Mount Airy Baptist Church, then to the Church of God, where he began to sing solos before he'd even hit double digits. By the time he was 16, Mclendon had organized the Cosmopolitian Gospel Singers of Jacksonville.
He moved to Philadelphia to live with his mother and find work, first at a restaurant, then at the Campbell's soup factory and later as a ship welder.
He met future wife Ruth Augusta Byrd as the organist of North Philadelphia's Mount Olive Holy Temple and later joined her as a soloist in the Savettes Choral Group, a mighty and much-beloved choir that recorded sporadically from the '60s forward on the Savoy label and that ministered with music at nursing homes, prisons and even in the streets. He'd also be a featured artist with the Philly-based Brockington Ensemble and Victory Choral Union. When he and Ruth's five children were old enough to travel, they all performed as the Mclendon Family in venues around the Northeast.
Mclendon was ordained as a minister in 1967 and honored as an elder in 1978, which entailed leaving Philadelphia to pastor at St. James Christian Fellowship in Tennille, Ga., "A lovely place, another world," he said of the country community where he lived and worked for 17 years before returning to Philadelphia.
Jumping into a singing competition was the furthest thing from Goldwire's mind in March 2010, when one of his "spiritual daughters," Jackie Bullock, told him about the "Sunday Best" tryouts here at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. "I'd never even heard of the show and told her I was too old," he said. Fortunately, Bullock was persistent. "Please, go and try it anyway," she said.
A field of 3,000 hopefuls showed up for the tryout. Yet just "30 seconds" into his performance, he recalled, Mclendon was singled out and on his way to the final rounds of the competition in New Orleans. His daughter Patricia and granddaughter Tiera (who'd also tried out for the show, unsuccessfully) came along to lead the cheering section, along with many a newfound admirer, starting with the judging crew of contemporary gospel greats: Donnie McClurkin, Tina Campbell (of Mary, Mary), Kirk Franklin and Kim Burell, whom Mclendon says "almost fell out of her seat" on first hearing him sing.
"It turned my world upside down, too," Mclendon remarked from the back seat of a limo, on his way to yet another appearance. "Who'd ever think a man my age could suddenly get this active? A church group calls, a TV or radio station wants an interview, I'm there. Never thought I'd get to Las Vegas, be in the same town where Sammy Davis and Dean Martin played, seeing things I'd only seen in the movies. Not that I'm playing the same kind of theaters, mind you. But they pay for my transportation, my pianist. They take good care of me."
While the album's stripped-down, old-time ballad testifiers "How Great Thou Art" and "I Know It Was the Blood" have been "part of my nature" since his childhood in Florida, Mclendon also was game to record a surprisingly contemporary take on Sam Cooke's "Jesus Be a Fence Around Me," the Yolanda Adams' hit "The Battle Is the Lord's" and the foot-stomping, "He's All Over Me," a song that first gained widespread recognition from Whitney Houston and Shirley Caesar's performance in "The Preacher's Wife."
"That one expresses how I really feel because I know that the spirit of the Lord is all over me and it's keeping me alive — literally," said Mclendon.
Living smart is part of the master's plan. He eats right and light — Wheaties or oatmeal every morning, good vegetables whipped into a blended drink. Goldwire hasn't puffed on a cigarette since 1964, when he got a dark vision while walking in front of a church, a story he intones like a sermon.
Oh, and with all those decades of singing experience, he doesn't have to work that still pliant, multi-octave voice to excess. "I recorded all but one of the songs on the album in just one or two performances," he allowed. "The only one I had trouble with was the Staple Singers' hit, 'I'll Take You There.' "
Ironically that's one he sang on "Sunday Best" with the only artist who bested him in the competition, Le'Andria Johnson.