Gospel music has a new heir: 12-year-old Tyrone

HE has appeared at the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts, at Howard University, and at many large churches. He has been featured in the press. Not long ago he was the Reagans' guest at the White House and was lauded in the President's State of the Union address. And he's 12 years old.

All that public attention is fine, says gospel singer Tyrone Ford, a slight, friendly, good-looking youngster. But what he really likes to do is go to evening services at the churches surrounding his home -- ``when I'm allowed,'' he adds, with a meaningful glance at his grandmother, Burter Carelock.

At church he can drink in the ringing gospel music he's grown up with. His family's modest two-story brick-front house here is smack in the middle of this tradition. Next door is the storefront Holy Mystery Mountain Church, and nearby, the Fishermen of Men Church and the Christian Tabernacle Church of God.

From this rich heritage, Tyrone has emerged as a kind of boy wonder who conducts the youth choirs of three different churches, plays piano, and sings gospel. And if things work out right, ``I'd like to make a record this year,'' he says. ``I believe I'm going to.''

It started when Tyrone was four. ``I knew there was something unusual,'' explained Mrs. Carelock as we sat with Tyrone before a kerosene heater in their living room, while his little cousin Natasha -- an obvious favorite of Tyrone's -- jumped on and off his lap. ``You know how children start going to church and then come back home nd start imitating that what they saw and heard?'' Mrs. Carelock asked. ``Well, Tyrone would pretend he was the pianist. One time he was watching the pianist at church, and he told her, `I can play what you play.' He couldn't even reach the pedals, but he got up there and played the same notes she was playing.

``This friend of mine -- right across the street -- had an organ, and Tyrone would go over and play `When the Saints Go Marching In' and `This Little Light of Mine.' He could play those tunes by ear. People would ask him, `Who taught you how to play?' He said, `God did.' ''

In his State of the Union address, the President referred to Tyrone's ``towering talent'' and said, ``With God as your composer, Tyrone, your music will be the music of angels.'' Mrs. Carelock recalls vividly what happened the day before: ``That morning -- it was about 8 o'clock -- I saw these three people coming up the steps. I said, `Who in the world is that coming here and we haven't even gotten up?' I went to the door and they said, `You must be Mrs. C. I'm a representative from President Reagan, and he sent us over here to invite Tyrone down to the White House tomorrow.'' I said, `Tomorrow!' He said, `Yes.'

Tyrone speaks of the event respectfully but in a tone suggesting it was all in a day's work to him. ``I met the President, and he told us right then we would be there for the State of the Union speech.''

Since that heady day, Tyrone's life has resumed its nicely related balance of school work, church services, and music, music, music.

After school, Tyrone says, ``I first do my homework, if I have any.'' Another significant look at his smiling grandmother -- did she notice this exemplary attitude? ``And then I practice the piano, like for my lessons on Thursday.''

These are the first formal lessons he's taken since his impressive native talent began to show itself. ``I started to take lessons when I was eight or nine years old,'' he explains, ``but they tried to change the way I was playing. They wanted to change my whole style. I told them I didn't want to do that.''

A wise attitude. After all, he's been hearing gospel music all his life, he says, and ``I'm part of it. I do quite a lot of improvising. I didn't have to practice. At the rehearsals they have new songs mostly every week, and I'd just hear them and then do them.''

But now he's taking lessons again and likes it. He rehearses each of his three youth choirs on rotating Saturdays and performs with them the next day in church -- a tough schedule with schoolwork and other things. ``Sometimes, it's a little hard,'' he concedes. ``I usually take a nap in the afternoon. And I like to look at wrestling on TV. I also go down the street to the arcade and play video games.'' And he loves to wrestle with his friend and adviser, Issac White, a minister who lives upstairs. ``But he can hardly wrestle,'' reports Tyrone.

Is Tyrone a local celebrity? Not really. ``A few kids in my classroom ask me about songs to rehearse and things like that,'' Tyrone says, ``but usually my friends and the teachers at school don't treat me any different than anybody else. And that's the way I want to be treated, the same.''

Somewhere in his mind -- behind the weekly routines of choir leading and churchgoing -- he kindles a rather different desire. ``I would like to start acting and do commercials,'' he says.

Has he told other people about that? ``No, I don't tell them. But that's what I would like. But I also want to be known for being a gospel singer.''

About that, there can be little doubt.

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