The Prodigious Son

Buddy Strong will be a famous musician someday. Will he cross over, or cling to the cross?

Buddy knows he has a phenomenal gift, and he won't engage in false humility. But he doesn't seem stuck on himself, even though he's constantly told he's going to be famous.

"I have a long ways to go," he says. "I want to be able to improvise and to have the discipline and knowledge that the great jazz players have. My goal is to sound where people say, 'That's him, that's Buddy Strong!'"

A few weeks ago, Bob Diaz attended a Faith Tabernacle service for the first time. He later marveled at Pastor Strong's stirring sermon, at how Buddy meshed his youth choir so seamlessly and magnificently into the service, and at the musical telepathy between Buddy and his cousin, Chris.

"I understand a lot more about where Buddy and his father are coming from now," Diaz said. "It takes so much work, hard work, to put something together as good as all that. Everybody working on the same page. Amazing."

Pastor Strong was asked where he envisions his son in 10 years, when Buddy will be 27.

"I'd like to see him take the choir here [at Faith Tabernacle] and make CDs, to see him advance in the church and in the music as far as he can go," Strong said. "I'd like to see him teaching music. I think what he have need to be shared."

The 52-year-old pastor explains something by way of autobiographical sketch:
"I grew up on a farm near Safford. I'm one of 12 brothers and sisters, and six of us became preachers. Been preaching since I was 13. I served in the Army as a medic assigned to Korea. They used to call me 'Rev' over there, 'cause I preached and preached. I would hope and certainly do believe that Buddy have the same calling I have. I believe there's a preacher inside of him, too."

Buddy says he knows his father feels that way, even if he doesn't.
"I don't want to see it," he says of his possible future in the pulpit, "but I see it. The preaching at the service is the fun part. But you also have people always lookin' at you--high expectations--and they expect you to solve all of their problems. Everything that take away from the music, I don't want to mess with."

It was last Wednesday night's youth choir practice at Faith Tabernacle when Buddy Strong's abilities shone most brightly.

The rehearsal began with a group prayer. Then, for the next hour or so, Buddy taught nine women and five men the parts to several new tunes by cutting-edge gospel artists. He started with the sopranos and worked his way to the tenors, singing every section effortlessly and urging them to do their best work.

After the work was done, the rehearsal transformed into a full-blown service. The church was empty save but a few onlookers. But the choir sang, and Buddy, Chris Strong and a saxophonist played as if there's no tomorrow, or rather, as if there is a brighter tomorrow.

Buddy grabs the microphone and starts preaching, carrying a soft, meditative riff on his Hammond all the while.

"Let's not stop praising just 'cuz I turned the music down," he tells them. "Praise His name. Thank you, Jesus! This is what we came for tonight, to give the highest praise, not just to practice songs. This is not just a choir rehearsal--this is a service for God!"

In response, the choir murmurs its praise to Jesus, crying, shouting, gesticulating. The music is trancelike, as Buddy continues his sermon.

"Give all your troubles and your problems to Jesus tonight. He has an answer for every situation. As the song says, my God will supply all of your needs. Come on, everybody! Lift your hands up for Jesus!"

With that, he inexorably speeds the tempo, riffing on a hot, jazzy line. Chris is taking care of business on the drums, as usual. Buddy growls into the microphone like a young Howlin' Wolf, while playing impossibly fast and fluid runs with both hands.

The music rolls on for minutes, building to an exhilarating crescendo. It's magical, majestic, even miraculous. Finally, Buddy brings it back down, slowly and carefully, to the contemplative mode from which the moment sprung.

"Thank you, Jesus," he says, his music now soft and sweet. "Thank you so much. Thank you for this night. . . . And remember why we came here tonight. You can look good, sound good, rock good, do it all good. But if you're not in church, it's just a show. God, thank you."

Arthur "Buddy" Strong II looks skyward and smiles.
"Amen!" he shouts.

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