Leslie Anne Tarabella was in elementary school when her father, Cordell Harrison, minister of music at Myrtle Grove Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, began to make plans to produce “Celebrate Life!”
“I believe he heard it as a demo performance at a conference. He came back very excited about it and wanted to be one of the first churches to produce it,” recounted Tarabella, who now lives in Fairhope.
“Celebrate Life!” was an early Baptist expression of what was happening in the Jesus music movement on the West Coast. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the musical.
Harrison, who died four years ago, was building toward a moment like “Celebrate Life!”
“A lot of people in the church were against any kind of contemporary music aimed at teenagers,” Tarabella said. “So in the morning, he would always have traditional hymns, but in the evening, the youth choir did more and more contemporary music.”
Reaching young people
“Some people would call our house after church about how they didn’t like guitars and drums being used. He would just smile and say, ‘Yes, yes, I understand,’ and then he would hang up and shake his head because he knew what was important — trying to reach the young people. And because of that, he had a large youth choir that overflowed out of the choir loft and down both sides onto the platform.”
“‘Celebrate Life!’ won over even the harshest critics when they heard the music and saw it was biblically based,” Tarabella said.
“And once the parents saw their kids coming home from practice excited, they joined in the excitement and helped with the production.”
Myrtle Grove produced the musical several times during the ’70s and ’80s, once in conjunction with churches in the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association at the former Bayfront Auditorium.
Former choir members have gathered twice for reunions, each time including “He Is Alive” and “The Truth Shall Make You Free” in their performance at Myrtle Grove.
“It was just like yesterday. A lot of us, even though we need reading glasses, didn’t even need the music because we remembered it by heart,” Tarabella said. “If the accompanying musical score wasn’t equally as powerful as the lyrics, I don’t think it would have stuck with us all these years.”
Tarabella is not alone in her fond memories of “Celebrate Life!” The musical enjoyed a broad acceptance among Baptist and other evangelical churches, said Roy Hayes, a former music minister in Alabama, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana.
“It remained an important work [that was] performed for many years, and a number of individual songs from the musical retained a performance life of their own … for choir tours and festivals and as a staple in the repertoire for weekly worship in local churches.”
One of the songs, “In Remembrance,” is in the Lord’s Supper section of the 1991 “Baptist Hymnal” and the Communion section of the 2008 hymnal.
The late Buryl Red — a prolific New York-based composer, member of Manhattan Baptist Church and longtime musical director of The CenturyMen, a 100-voice chorus of music ministers — wrote the music for lyrics penned by Ragan Courtney, who turned 81 this year.
“Celebrate Life!” emerged from Courtney’s plan to end his life the previous year after the one-week failure of a Broadway musical he had written with a cousin.
Walking into the Caribbean to drown himself, he suddenly began singing “Jesus Loves Me,” recalling distant memories from his childhood days at church in Ruston, Louisiana.
“Stumbling back to the beach, I was overwhelmed with what I had experienced. Gasping in surprise, I ran to the house, grabbed a pencil and started writing as though I were taking dictation about a vision I was having,” Courtney recounted.
The musical is told from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, “but not in a way with pretense — just very real, with [informal contemporary language]. … It goes back to the Scripture that the word of God does not return void. We are declaring the gospel, and we expect the Lord to move,” said Clint Kimmel, worship and arts pastor at Sugar Land Baptist Church in the Houston area.
Earlier this year, Kimmel led a 50th anniversary rendition of the musical with a 79-voice adult choir and 34-piece orchestra.
On June 24, 2023, a 50th anniversary performance will be hosted at New York’s Carnegie Hall under the leadership of Hayes, who is now president and artistic director of True North Presents. The organization focuses on enhancing the ministry of Christian artists and of church choirs.
True North Presents is bringing together music ministers, worship pastors, choir directors, singers and instrumentalists from around the nation to perform “Celebrate Life!” at Carnegie Hall. Hayes expects 200–250 choir members and 55–60 orchestra members to participate.
“It’s an interesting thing to be in a historic setting like Carnegie Hall … possibly the most famous stage on earth … and to be present when the Holy Spirit comes into an environment like that in a very powerful way,” Hayes said. “I fully anticipate that’s going to be the case when we perform ‘Celebrate Life!’”
‘Greatest story ever told’
The idea of presenting the musical at its half-century mark started with Bruce Greer, a composer, songwriter and musical director as well as pianist at First Baptist Church Dallas. Greer first heard the musical when he was 11 years old. He was captivated then and remains so today.
Church music since the 1970s “owes a debt of gratitude to Buryl and Ragan’s vision,” Greer said. “It will remain significant for years to come because we’re telling the greatest story ever told. We just have to keep introducing it to future generations so the church doesn’t forget this beautiful work.”