Leeora Daniels doesn't just tell a story straight-out. A retired schoolteacher who runs the business aspects of six different gospel groups, sings in three of them and is promoting the 16th Annual Gospel Super Bowl this Sunday, Daniels lets her stories leak out in tantalizing dribs. Persist in repeated questioning, however, and eventually a conversation with Daniels reveals both the tale behind the event and the often surprising details of her life.
"The idea was brought to us by a young person from Mississippi," Daniels says of the Gospel Super Bowl. "He suggested we bring six national recording artists to St. Louis, and that each year we could do something for somebody. That first year, we contracted with Union Electric and Laclede Gas so that we could give people who needed assistance with their utility bills a voucher number that would pay them."
This statement leads to obvious questions for further probing: Who suggested this? To whom was he suggesting it? What happened with the first show?
Daniels answers each of these questions in turn. "Curtis Watson," she replies when asked the name of her muse. "He was actually originally from St. Louis; then he moved to Mississippi, where he made a name for himself singing gospel."
Were you involved in the beginning? "Yes," Daniels says matter-of- factly. "We were at a concert at the old Victory Center, located at Page and Union. He was in the audience, and he had this idea, and he just kept telling me how we could do it. It was his idea to call it the Gospel Super Bowl, because there were so many acts on the bill."
How did the event do? "We brought in more people than we could handle," recalls Daniels. "We had so many acts on the bill, all the costs kept rising. We drew 2,500 people for that show, and we didn't have much money left to help people with. So we cut it down to two national acts per year."
The event has been running since 1984. Although Watson has appeared at some of the shows, he spends so much time touring with his group that he can't always make it to St. Louis for the show. Daniels had such a good time, however, that she started singing herself after a couple of years.
"My mother never much cared for gospel music when I was growing up," Daniels says, explaining her belated musical career. "And then, when I got married, my husband really didn't like it, so I just wasn't involved. He died 19 years ago, and I slowly started working with singers."
Again, pressing for details leads to some fascinating elaboration. Her mother may not have cared for gospel music, but it was certainly in her family. Leeora Daniels' maiden name is Staples; her father, A.J., was the brother of Roebuck "Pops" Staples, patriarch of the famous Staple Singers. (Asked about Pops' unusual first name, Daniels also reveals that she had another uncle named Sears, which reflects the powerful hold on the imagination that mail-order companies once had in America's farmland.)
Daniels fills in the family history: "My father was raised on a farm in Drew, Miss.," she says. "He worked on that farm even after Pops Staples left and took his family to Chicago, where they made their name as gospel singers. In 1952, my father brought my mother and 10 brothers and sisters up here to St. Louis. He tried to go to Chicago for a couple months, but he couldn't find work. So we wound up living here."
Daniels got to see her uncle and her famous cousins perform from time to time, but she respected the wishes of her mother and husband, becoming a schoolteacher, not a singer. In retirement, and after her husband's death, Daniels started volunteering. She now volunteers for three or four organizations, including the JVL Child Development Center, which is this year's recipient of Gospel Super Bowl funds.
Once Daniels started singing, she threw herself into the game wholeheartedly. She is a member of Something Special and the Missouri Mass Choir, two of the five acts on this year's Super Bowl bill. In addition, she helped organize the Jays, a group of children from the JVL Center who will also perform. She works with other groups as well and is trying to get a record deal for any of the six groups she reps. "Something Special tours a lot," Daniels notes. "We're going to Germany in September, and we go out of town at least two weekends every month."
The Gospel Super Bowl's national acts this year are Darrell McFadden and the Fantastic Disciples, and Willie Neal Johnson and the Gospel Keynotes. "Darrell McFadden is the pastor of a large church in New York City," says Daniels. "He would rank as probably the eighth-best gospel-quartet singer in the country right now, but he doesn't leave his church very often. It must be a very special event for him to travel. It has to be something to help somebody."
Johnson is probably the best-known performer on the bill. "He's from Tyler, Texas, and he's been performing for a long time," says Daniels. "I'd rank his as the third-best gospel-quartet group, behind the Canton Spirituals and the Williams Brothers." Johnson and his varied assortment of Gospel Keynotes have recorded nearly 30 albums, with around a dozen currently in print.