MONTREAL - They have sung for everyday folk and dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela. Their soaring voices have risen with such music icons as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, U2 and Celine Dion.
But for the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, which marks its 30th anniversary this year, it's not about the fame. It's all about the music.
"We're nothing more than a musical family," says Dr. Trevor Payne, the distinguished choir director who has held the position since its inception.
He has seen more than 700 singers and musicians pump up the institution with rousing and soulful gospel and negro spiritual songs that have their roots in the black church.
"We're not bible-thumpers, we're not trying to save any souls," says Payne. "We're there to perpetuate the gospel tradition."
The current group, which numbers around 60, is getting ready to raise the rafters in a hand-clapping, swaying, rockin' concert at Place des arts on Sunday, which is considered a highlight of the city's Christmas season.
The concert will reunite the choir with singer Kat Dyson, described by Payne as one of the "most gifted, most professional and most humble" members of the group. She went on to perform with Barry White, Prince and Cyndi Lauper.
It will also mark the choir debut for 12-year-old piano prodigy Daniel Clarke Bouchard, who Payne says is also being scouted by the National Hockey League as a potential goalie. Payne, however, sees the possibility of him taking over as choir director when he eventually retires.
Internationally renowned, the Juno Award-winning choir is a cornerstone of Montreal's black community although it attracts performers of all races to its ranks.
It has its roots in an appeal in 1974 by Daisy Sweeney, a gifted piano teacher and sister of legend Oscar Peterson. Sweeney asked Payne when he was studying symphonic conducting at McGill University if he could help her retain some of her more promising students.
Sweeney was frustrated that often many of her gifted students would walk away from the keyboard when they hit their teens.
Payne brought along some of his students and the result was the formation of the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir.
In 1982, that group joined with the Union United Church Senior Choir as the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir under Payne's direction for a concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of Union United Church, the oldest black church in Montreal.
The choir has gone on to tour internationally and record 11 CDs, winning a Juno Award in 1995 for best blues / gospel album for their "Jubilation V: Joy to the World."
The last 30 years have been a whirlwind for the group.
"It's just one big blur," Payne, 63, says with a slight smile when asked to sum it up.
Still, he can remember the awe he felt when the choir sang with Charles, one of his personal idols, and when Mandela spontaneously walked across the stage during a concert for him in Montreal in 1989 and hugged him at the end of a song.
"That's a moment that will certainly stay with me."
The Order of Canada recipient also remembers performing for the Queen twice in two days in 2010, once at the unveiling of a statue honouring Peterson at the National Arts Centre and then again at Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill.
"She was there and kind of shook my hand as if to say, 'Not you again'," he recalled with a chuckle.
One of the most surprising things considering its polish is that the choir isn't a full-time job for its members.
"We couldn't afford to have them full time," Payne says with a laugh. "No, they're amateurs, I suppose, with a professional reputation."
The members come from all walks of life and mainly share a love of music, he explained.
"They're just normal, everyday people, just like your typical church congregation. They just do what they do and sing."
It can be challenging, he added, when the choir gets calls for bookings in Spain or Belgium or Haiti or Germany, for example. Then arrangements have to be made with teachers or employers for them to be freed up for travel. Luckily, the majority are happy to be flexible.
Dayhana Maria Santos, one of the choir's sopranos, says it was always her dream to be in a gospel choir and she calls the Montreal group "the best school I've ever had."
"Dr. Payne is one of the best directors I've ever met and he has a big range musically so he really makes us do different things musically," Santos said.
Echoing Payne's description of the group as "a big family," Santos said it was tough for the choir when Payne underwent treatment recently for prostate cancer.
"One of the nicest blessings that the Lord could have given us is the fact that he's still with us and that he's healed," said Santos, who has been with the choir for 10 years.
Payne's curiosity and the makeup of the choir contribute to the variety of influences that it brings to its music. While traditional gospel is the cornerstone, the music of African countries like Senegal, which is the homeland of some of the members, also figures in as does jazz and Bach chorals.
Payne's interest in gospel goes back to his childhood when he would pile records by Mahalia Jackson on the family record player and spend his Sunday listening to them.
"It's open to everyone as long as you can carry a tune," says Payne, invoking the music's egalitarian, communal nature.
But it also touches people in different ways.
Tenor David Gordon says he's very nostalgic so it makes him think of his loved ones.
"I think of family," he said. "It just kind of gets to my heart . . . . I take the soul thing from it."
Santos says it also spreads hope.
"There is joy in life," she said. "There's other things than the bills to pay and the waking up and the 9-5 work. There's other moments where you can rejoice, get together and shout how happy you are. I think that's the gospel, that's what it is, spreading the truth out there to people that forgot or need to be reminded."