Curtis Lewis, the music minister for more than half a century at Aliquippa’s Church in the Round and a member of the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame, died Thursday of natural causes at a Pittsburgh hospital. He was 74.
“Words can’t fully express what he meant to the community,” Lewis’ eldest daughter, Carsetta Lyles, said. “If you go on Facebook now and see all the tributes and condolences from people locally and across the nation it’s amazing.”
Raised in South Bend, Ind., Lewis moved to Detroit as young man, working from 1960-61 as the gospel organist at the Hitsville, U.S.A. recording studio, later to be famously re-branded Motown.
Destiny brought him to Aliquippa, where the Rev. Melvin Clark was forging a new worship site, the First Church of God in Christ’s Church in the Round, and wanted the best organist he could get.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Leave Detroit for Aliquippa?'” Lewis recalled in a 2006 interview with The Times. “‘No way,’ I told him. ‘No, no, no, no.'”
But providence had its way, and in 1961 Lewis accepted the challenge and relocated to Aliquippa, a year later becoming the church’s music minister. He grew roots quickly, charmed by Billye, the woman he married and with whom he would raise a family.
By 1964, he had turned the Church in The Round choir into a large and mighty ensemble that earned the “Most Outstanding Choir” award at an international Church of God in Christ convention in Buffalo, N.Y.
Lewis served as the Aliquippa church’s music director for the rest of his life, with his lively organ work a staple at Sunday services. After he suffered a stroke a few years ago, an assistant organist was hired, though Lewis remained a regular presence and inspiration to the church’s members and others who crossed his path.
“He had a good listening ear, and would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it,” Lyles said.
Lewis also served as a praise and worship consultant for Geneva College, and directed Beaver County District Choir high school performances. The Beaver County Musicians’ Hall of Fame inducted him as a member.
His musical and mentoring skills put Lewis in demand across the nation.
He was named international dean of music for the Church of God in Christ, for which he traveled throughout the country and as far as Belgium and Israel to work with church choirs.
In 2012, Lewis taught two music seminars at a Kansas City church convention attended by 15,000 people, and later that year he went back to Missouri to direct a gospel performance by the Heritage Singers, an all-star gospel group, performing at the Church of God in Christ’s 107th Holy Convocation held inside the St. Louis Rams’ domed stadium.
The International Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Detroit recognized his accomplishments by inducting him as a member in 2005. Enshrinement in the same hall of fame as CeCe Winans, Aretha Franklin, Della Reese, Yolanda Adams and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama was an honor Lewis accepted with characteristic modesty.
“It’s not going to win me any brownie points with anyone. Yes, it’s an honor and a privilege to be inducted, but I recognize God didn’t call on me to be inducted into the hall of fame. He called on me to be a witness,” Lewis said in a Times interview.
Because no matter how celestial they looked or sounded, Lewis always made sure his choir singers didn’t lose sight of their purpose.
“We’re not just here to exhibit our pretty robes and to show how well we can sing,” Lewis said. “The purpose of the choir is to prepare (the church) for the presence of God.”
Around 2008 or 2009, a megachurch in Washington, D.C,. made a lucrative offer to Lewis, hoping to hire him to become their minister of music, but he declined.
That wasn’t the only time a bigger-city church tried to recruit him though “his commitment to that ministry here in Aliquippa is so great that he won’t do it,” Melvin Steals, a former church member, retired Aliquippa principal and professional songwriter, recalled in a 2012 interview in The Times.
Lewis’ son, Curtis Lewis Jr., is a national recording artist who won multiple competitions at the prestigious “Showtime at the Apollo” in Harlem, and sang the national anthem before a Pittsburgh Steelers game, and now serves as minister of music and worship leader at Love Fellowship Church in Turtle Creek.
People took to Lewis Jr.’s Facebook page on Friday to post their testimonials on how his father has affected their lives.
“Words can’t describe the value of such a person and what he added to so many of our lives in so many same yet different ways,” posted Michele Witt, who also uploaded a video of Lewis Sr. playing organ. “And it was all done out of love. Love for God and Love for God’s people.”
“He was such an encourager and he loved to see other people take up the mantle of music ministry in the church,” posted singer Zanetta Wingfield, part of a gospel group that performed at Heinz Hall on Thursday. “He shared so much. He taught so much. He gave so much. And we are all grateful.”
Lewis died at UPMC Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh from multiple health complications, including pneumonia and blood pressure issues, Lyles said.
Article By Scott Tady
Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.