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An Interview with Alfred Pinckney


Lifelong St. Philippian, Founder of the Charleston Men’s Chorus

Walchesky PinckneyChris Walchesky, Director of Music and Organist, and Alfred Pinckney (right) wrap up their interview on March 13.

Chris Walchesky: You’re well-known as Alfred Pinckney, tenor. How old were you when you began to sing?

Alfred Pinckney: I don’t know how old I was, but I was young. And I was a boy soprano, and I was pretty good! I was one of the better sopranos and became a better tenor when my voice changed, but I was always a first line soloist when I was a boy soprano. You learn so much by singing at a young age. I met friends that I still have today in this church, as we were all in the choir together. It was a wonderful experience. Dottie Leonard, Garden Frampton, and many other of my friends at St. Philip’s began singing in choir together. It was at the end of the Depression and the church was so magnificent: it was air-conditioned, and that was before air conditioning was all over Charleston. It was nice: the church was cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

CW: So you started singing at a very early age and it all started with the music ministries at St. Philip’s?

AP: Yes.

CW: That’s awesome. Can you tell me your earliest memory of John Stainer’s Crucifixion?

AP: I guess it was Cotesworth Means.* I looked up to him, and he was very kind to me as a boy soprano. When my voice changed, they became more interested in me as a singer as they had a male chorus at that time, and as soon as my voice got settled and I became a first tenor––first tenors were very much in demand, as you know––and with that Cotesworth just loved it and he encouraged me as he was also a first tenor. He and Dick Voigt were the steadfast folks on the first tenor side.

* Cotesworth Means was a member of St. Philip’s and was credited in the 1948 Crucifixion program as having instituted the annual service beginning with the 1924 premiere.

CW: Would The Crucifixion have been an ongoing concert in those days? Was it being sung yearly?

AP: It was yearly. And it was always on Good Friday at 5:30 in the afternoon, and I remember the sun coming through the south side windows of the church. It was magnificent and it became a part of my life as it did for many others in those days. Cotesworth Means wanted it to be ... you know, it was very important to him, and he made sure it was important to everybody else.

CW: Do you remember how long The Crucifixion remained a yearly institution?

AP: 25 years?

CW: From that moment?

AP: Well, definitely before then. I don’t remember when it stopped. Cotesworth died and it stopped after that.

CW: Do you remember the first time you sang the piece?

AP: Dick Voigt was getting older at that time and they gradually moved me into the role he had. I took the easy ones first and eventually sang all the tenor solos.

CW: Did you sing it as a member of the choir before then rather than as a soloist?

AP: Yes, I’m sure I have.

CW: With your best guess, over the years, how many times do you suppose The Crucifixion has been sung in Charleston in your lifetime?

AP: Well I’m 84, so maybe over the course of 55 years? Here and at [Church of the] Holy Communion where it was last sung.

CW: They had a tradition of singing it there?

AP: Yes.

CW: Can you tell me the story about Cotesworth Means… when he came to thank you for your leadership in the children’s choirs?

AP: I was playing in front of the house and Cotesworth drove up in his car. This was at the end of the Depression and everyone was still pretty poor. He called me over and he gave me a gross of Milky Ways and at that point I don’t think I had a candy bar in my life! And he gave me a gross of Milky Ways and I thought “this singing isn’t a bad deal!”

CW: Incredible. Will you share with me another important thought you have in regards to The Crucifixion or your experience singing here over the decades?

AP: Music at St. Philip’s Church has meant a lifetime of service for me. I’ve sung in the choir for over 50 years, and I learned music here and I’ve probably gotten better in my 50s and 60s than when I was younger and I guess that’s normal. It’s always important. I started the Charleston Men’s Chorus, and there’s a direct relationship between the CMC and what I learned here. When I went to college and high school I sang. I sang my way through the Coast Guard. I was a soloist in the Coast Guard chorus. I almost didn’t get in, but they let me in the door and then they needed me after I got in. It’s been a lifetime of help. The Good Lord gives you… when he takes away, he gives you something else. I was a great singer… no, I was a good singer, but he gave me the opportunity to sing and he have me the ability to sing. I think it’s important to use the gifts he’s given me for his service. The youth and children’s choirs are so important to the church because it trains children to do what they can do for a lifetime and I applaud the work you all do to keep it going!

CW: Alfred, it’s been a real treat to talk with you. Thank you!