Willie Archie and the UCOP Singers
On a recent Wednesday, a non-descript conference room on the 10th floor of the Franklin Building was temporarily transformed into a concert hall.
Inside, music director Willie Archie put a dozen singers and keyboardist Jim Cooper through their paces: hitting the high notes on Gloria in Excelsis Deo, nailing an elaborate four-part harmony on Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and tackling a complicated rendition of O Chanukah.
Through it all, Archie conducted, coached, and cajoled, — “don’t die on me –
they’ll remember how it ends!” — all with an ear toward ensuring that the UCOP Singers sound their best at the holiday party on Dec. 16. The group has been practicing once a week at lunchtime since mid-October.
This is the 34th – and last – year that Archie will lead the group. He’s retiring in February as University Research Security Manager, and says it’s time to hand the conductor’s baton off to someone new.
“It’s time for me to be in the background. If they invite me back, I’ll sing in the bass section,” Archie says.
He won’t be the first retiree who has kept ties to the UCOP singers. Alto Sandra Douglas, who retired when OP was still in Berkeley, comes each holiday season to sing with the group, as does tenor Sue Taylor.
Archie is the main reason people keep coming back, says alto Charlotte Strem.
“They just love him so much. That’s the kind of dedication around the table,” Strem says.
Although the UCOP singers rarely get together except for those few months around the holidays, it’s a fairly tight-knit group, with a core that has been singing together for years.
Archie and Betty Kerley formed the group in the mid ‘70s as an antidote to low employee morale.
“Back then, the songs weren’t elaborate like they are now. There were no complicated arrangements,” Archie says. The group would often practice in a stairwell at the UC printing plant in Berkeley. “It had the best acoustics, and no matter how bad you sounded, it made you sound good.”
Over the years, some wonderful singers have come through, and new singers are always welcome. Most of the UCOP Singers can read music, but it’s not a requirement and other members are usually happy to help a newcomer.
“We’ve been really lucky through the years. We’ve had some really good voices – solo kinds of voices. Voices that can bring the house down on ‘Oh Holy Night,” Archie says.
One of those new voices belongs to Sarah Goodheart, who Archie introduces to the group as “one of our new good sopranos.”
After giving her a moment in the spotlight on Silent Night, Archie moves the group on to Hi-ney ma Tov, taking a moment first to read an English translation.
“How good it is living together, how good it is living as brothers in peace,” Archie reads in his rich, resonate voice. “I thought you should know what you’ve been singing all these years,” Archie tells the group. “I want you to feel what you’re singing.”