A Grammy For Mr. Gospel?

For the Contra Costa Times
Posted:  07/01/2013 12:00:00 PM PDT


Silvester Henderson Silvester Henderson, acclaimed music teacher and a gospel singer semifinalist for a Grammy, in his Pleasanton, Calif. home on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

Silvester Henderson has been known as "Mr. Gospel" since 1990, when someone came up with that nickname and it stuck.

There may come a day, however, when people start calling him "Mr. Grammy."


The Pleasanton resident is a quarterfinalist in the inaugural Grammy Music Educator Award, designed "to bring attention to the excellent and impactful work being done by thousands of music teachers across the U.S."


Henderson, a music professor at Pittsburg's Los Medanos College who has also taught at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, is one of about 200 to make it this far in the Grammy vote. The original pool included more than 30,000 nominees.


The award comes with a $10,000 honorarium, but that's not what has Henderson so excited.


"My goal is not for me to gain money," says Henderson, who is also the longtime music pastor at Palma Ceia Baptist Church in Hayward. "My goal is to impact and affect the lives of young people."


One of those young people is Ryan Mouton-Moore, who enrolled at Los Medanos in 2009.


"I had never sung a day in my life," he says. "But he really pushed me to throw myself into the fire. It put me in a good place."


Henderson says the Grammy recognition will shine a light on his crusade to promote education through the arts. In particular, he sees music as a gateway for at-risk students to pursue higher learning.


He's lived that theory, growing up in East Oakland and avoiding trouble by keeping himself busy with music, often spending as much as eight hours a day practicing piano.


"I had this compulsive, undying passion for classical piano and gospel," Henderson says. "Music was like my girlfriend. Classical and gospel were like my relationships. They gave my life meaning."


Gospel had his heart, but classical music stimulated his mind, with its formality, structure and scholarly nature. What Henderson really wanted, though, was to approach gospel in the same fashion as classical. He enrolled at San Francisco State, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's in choral conducting. In 1984, at age 23, he was hired at the school's music department.


"(That) is really where I feel like my life began," says Henderson, who was married with two children by then. "When I first started teaching, I made $641.30 per month. I was deeply struggling (financially). But I didn't want to give up on my dream." He spent 10 years there, followed by 20 years teaching music and African-American studies at UC Berkeley.


Henderson says San Francisco State felt "like being part of a family," while UC Berkeley "was really where I had to sink or swim." Part of his reaction was founding the Young Inspiration Gospel Choir in 1985. The chorus drew huge crowds at such venues as Zellerbach Hall, toured internationally and recorded albums, and was crowned by the Smithsonian Institution as "the finest university gospel choir in the nation." Henderson was fulfilling his dream.

Henderson knew he'd have to venture outside the classroom to reach his other goals.


"You were not going to become wealthy being an educator," he says. "That's where real estate came in."

Henderson began investing in real estate. His company -- naturally -- is Mr. Gospel Properties, and his home in an upscale gated community in Pleasanton is testament to his success.


"I'm considered a very hard worker," he says. "I worked my butt off for this home."

Still, teaching -- which has since taken him to Pittsburg and the music faculty at Los Medanos College -- remains his greatest passion.


"We were really smart people to hire him," says professor Erma Smith, who was on the committee that interviewed him.


Henderson's passion there continues to inspire.


Take his student Mouton-Moore, who came Los Medanos in 2009 with no singing experience, landed a music scholarship at San Francisco State and earned his degree in music this year, the first in his family to graduate from college.


"He's played a major role in my life," says Mouton-Moore, a 23-year-old Richmond resident. "One of his famous lines is, 'Life is like clockwork. If you succeed at one thing, go on to the next thing. There has to be order."


Silvester Henderson
Age: 52
Hometown: Grew up in Oakland; lives in Pleasanton
Occupation: Gospel music professor at Los Medanos College
Milestone: Quarterfinalist for the inaugural Grammy Music Educator Award
Quote: "I strongly believe that, in all you do, education is the most important thing."