Larissa Tucker says her grandmother, Lee Toland, didn’t sing a lick as far as she knows. Her kids and grandkids, however, weren’t so bashful.
Tucker is director of the Duryee Voices of the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church on Schenectady Street in Schenectady and also is in charge of the church’s combined choir and the children’s choir. Along with her duties of directing the groups and organizing them, she also lends her own voice to the music, and that is usually something very special.
“Larissa is blessed,” said fellow Duryee church member Marsha Mortimore. “She has a gift from God.”
“She and her voice reflect and describe what it’s like to ‘magnify’ the Holy Spirit,” said Joe Doolittle, a member of the choir at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady. “I was awed when I heard her sing. It’s a blessing she shares well.”
Tucker’s beautiful voice isn’t trained or manufactured. It comes very naturally.
“No, I haven’t had any lessons, ever,” she said. “I just started singing in the church, probably when I was around 7, and I’ve just kept on singing. I guess it comes from my mother. She sang at Carnegie Hall with the group that my grandmother started. My grandmother never sang but most of her 18 kids did.”
While maybe Lee Toland didn’t enjoy singing herself, she certainly must have loved
music. It was the Carver Chorale Ensemble that she began back in the 1940s, in Schenectady and her daughter Geraldine, Tucker’s mother, was one of seven sisters that spent time singing with the group. Toland, also instrumental in the formation of the Carver Community Center, died when Larissa Tucker was just a young girl. Geraldine Tucker died in November of 2010.
“I was just a baby when she passed away so I don’t really remember too much about her,” Tucker said of her grandmother. “But I know she got her daughters singing, and she got them to church. That’s what she and my mother did for me. They got me to church and they got me singing.”
Tucker comes from a family of eight, including her sister Jennifer Perry, a fine singer in her own right and a member of the Duryee Voices. Their grandmother started attending the Duryee Church soon after moving to Schenectady and the family seems firmly entrenched there.
“I feel like I was born and raised there,” said Tucker. “It’s my family church and I have no reason to go anyplace else.”
Tucker says she enjoys listening to gospel music and some R & B, and calls herself a big fan of Mary Jane Blige.
“A lot of her music is about her struggles and what she went through and how she came through it,” Tucker said of Blige. “She’s a better person now and her story affected me. But we listened to a lot of different music growing up. My mother would play a lot of different things, even some rock ’n’ roll. I can listen to it. We were very cultured kids.”
While Tucker, 44, has been singing with the church her whole life, she has been director of the choir for the past nine years. The Duryee Voices usually perform in church the first and third Sunday of each month, while the male chorus sings on the second Sunday and the children’s choir on the fourth Sunday. On some occasions, all four groups get together and perform at the same time.
The Duryee Voices, with Tucker directing, also performed at “We Are Our Brother’s Keepers — Early Schenectady Voices: The Union College Relationship With the Abolitionist Spirit, 1800-1865,” a special theatrical event held at the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady last month. For many in the audience, the highlight of the occasion was Tucker’s rendition of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” a 19th century African-American spiritual picked for the program by Mortimore.
Doolittle portrayed Union College president Eliphalet Nott in the program.
“Larissa’s solo on ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ will echo in my heart for more than a while,” he said. “She is a presence; a holy presence.”
“The songs for the program were chosen by Marsha, and we were familiar with all of the songs except ‘Good News,’ and we learned that one pretty quickly,” said Tucker. “The song, ‘Balm in Gilead,’ is a great song. It’s about healing and how you can get it, if you just have faith.”
Tucker, who has three children of her own, says she can’t imagine music being out of her life.
“It keeps me pretty busy, but I enjoy it a lot,” she said. “Our pastor is talking about getting our combined choir together and singing down in Carnegie Hall and Harlem. I don’t know if it’s going to happen yet, but with God’s help and will we’ll be ready.”