By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Seventeen-year-old organist Arthur "Buddy" Strong II is ready to lift the congregation of the Faith Tabernacle Church to a higher place.
The setting for this musical levitation is South 24th Street, between Broadway and Roeser. The neighborhood is commonly considered among the Valley's most dangerous, but all the madness temporarily is of no consequence.
What is, at 10:37 a.m., October 12, is joy.
Seven little girls stand shyly before the congregation at the Sunday service. Buddy's father, Pastor Arthur Strong, has just anointed the girls in the name of Jesus Christ.
"Jump!" the pastor commands them in a powerful baritone. "Jump for joy!"
But the girls, who are about 7 or 8 years old, are too scared to move.
"I guess they didn't get it," Strong tells the 100 or so in attendance. "When I was their age, I would have been jumping for joy. Maybe the spirit's not really in them, huh?"
As he speaks, Alva Owens slowly makes her way to the girls from her seat of honor left of the pulpit. Mother Owens, as the 85-year-old woman is known, slips off her heeled shoes and puts her hands on her hips.
Though she's frail, Mother Owens suddenly raises her arms in the air and jumps. Buddy immediately signals to his 18-year-old cousin, Chris Strong, who's at a drum kit behind the Hammond B-3.
Just as Mother Owens jumps again, Buddy starts a double-time bass line with the organ's foot pedals; Chris cracks his snare drum. Buddy quickly invents a bluesy two-handed line that begins at the keyboard's low end and snakes to the top. By now, the little girls are jumping for joy, as is just about everyone else but Mother Owens, who has plopped back in her chair.
"Hallelujah!" Pastor Strong bellows, swiveling his large body to face his son, his youngest child.
"Meditate on that, y'all. Meditate on Brother Buddy! Whew! Lord, have merrrrrrrcy!"
Buddy has been playing the organ at Faith Tabernacle services since he was about 8, six years after he debuted here on drums. When he started playing the Hammond, he couldn't even reach the foot pedals. Though he never had a formal music lesson until last year, his level of invention is profound, his technical prowess formidable.
"The best stuff in church and the best stuff in jazz is alike," he says later, in a voice as soothing as a lemon drop. He is a towering, dark-skinned young man, with a round face and a countenance that appears somber until he smiles, which he does easily and often.
"We feel the spirit, the mood, the life, in church. Me and Chris improvised to fit the moment. Mother Owens, she the same way. I just followed her lead, like a good musician do. The girls just needed something to get them going."
Buddy Strong already is renowned in his world--church, community, school. He has the makings of a musical master, and on three instruments--keyboards, drums and bass guitar.
Though not yet old enough to vote, Buddy is Faith Tabernacle's musical director, and leads three choirs there. He's won numerous jazz-band competitions (as a drummer), and is in demand around the Valley in many musical genres.
Fellow students at South Mountain High, where he's a senior in the school's magnet music program, gravitate toward Buddy, and not just because he's a killer player. He's a warm and generous spirit most of the time (just don't play the wrong notes or sing flat on his watch).
The school's gangbangers and druggies leave him alone. The girls, however, don't. But Buddy insists with a boyish giggle that they haven't yet posed too much temptation.
Other than his exceptional talent, Buddy Strong is a normal kid: He earns pocket money cutting hair (guys only), and by playing organ at other churches after his Sunday duties at Faith Tabernacle are done. He eats too much junk food. He's not prompt (though always on time for church). He played varsity football as a junior, but gave it up this year because of time constraints and the memory of those taxing late-summer workouts.
Faith Tabernacle youth choir member Monique Miller provides a clue to Buddy's essence: "Buddy knows that God gave him this chance, this talent, and that he'd better go with it. It's all about music and God for him. But he's a lot of fun, too."
Bob Diaz, his music teacher at South Mountain: "Buddy can do whatever he wants to do. He's a monster musician and, more important, he's an excellent person who was brought up right by his folks."
Kathy Strong, his mother: "We've raised him and our other [four] children to live right, to do right. That's the big thing. He's a good son who happen to have the music deep in him."
Arthur Strong, his father: "Sometimes on Sunday, I say to myself, 'Wow, how does he do this?' He's gone so far past me musically, he can't even see me anymore. We can't hardly remember when Buddy didn't play good. He's touched."
Though he just turned 17 in July, Buddy is approaching a crossroads. High school graduation looms, and, with it, decisions.