Dr. Kenneth Brown Billups

Dr. Kenneth Brown Billups

Choir programs in St. Louis Public Schools are greatly indebted to the determined efforts of Kenneth Billups. After receiving a master’s degree in music in 1947 from Northwestern University, the St. Louis native returned to his hometown to become a music teacher for Sumner High School, his alma mater and the oldest African American high school west of the Mississippi. He would go on to found and supervise the honors music program in the St. Louis Public Schools. As president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Billups received wide acclaim for his influence on the development of music in St. Louis. He was perhaps most recognized for directing the Legend Singers, a renowned choral group that featured greats such as Grace Bumbry and Robert McFerrin.

Relentlessly active, Billups also taught as an adjunct professor of music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the late 1970s. He even hosted a television show called God’s Musical World. Billups served as director of the Legend Singers, who continue to perform, until his death in 1985. Billups Avenue in the Ville, the neighborhood where he was born, is named in his honor.

The St. Louis American
Tribute concert Sunday for legendary Sumner music teacher Dr. Kenneth Brown Billups

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2014 9:09 am

Tribute concert Sunday for legendary Sumner music teacher Dr. Kenneth Brown Billups

The A’Cappella Reunion Choir Concert , under the direction of Dr. Doris Jones Wilson, will lead a tribute to Dr. Kenneth Brown Billups at 4 p.m. Sunday, September 14 at the Antioch Baptist Church, preceded by a Dinner Dance at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 13 at the Renaissance Airport Hotel.

The tribute will feature several former choir directors and student directors of the Sumner A’Cappella Choir, as well as melodious voices coming from far and near representing Sumner High classes of the fifties through the eighties. Participants have been rehearsing all this summer, filled with an abundance of anticipation and aspiration to sing the songs formerly taught, arranged and directed by Dr. Billups.

His work in music included his service as Minister of Music and director of the Chancel Choir at Antioch Baptist Church and as choral director and music teacher at Sumner High School, 1949 – 1976, before becoming Superintendent of Music for St. Louis Public Schools for the school year 1975/1976. The choir won many awards while he was the director.

He also was a visiting professor of voice, composition, and choral technique at Northwestern University, Lincoln University and Texas Southern University.

He loved music throughout his life. He sang in the choirs at Antioch Baptist Church where he was baptized by the late Dr. William L. Perry and went through every department of the Sunday School from Cradle Roll to Adult.

Dr. Billups wrote six original pageants: "Rolling Along in Negro Song," 1945; "NOAH"; "Alpha to Omega," 1974; "Sumner High School 100th Anniversary Festival,” 1974; and "The Magic of Black Music" presented at Westport Playhouse in 1982. He wrote and arranged “Cert'ly Lord,” “I Stood on the River of Jordan,” “I want Jesus to walk with me,” “Cain and Abel,” “My Soul is a Witness,” “New Born Again” and “Stand the Storm.”

Dr. Billups states that his trademark has been coming forth with unusual musical ventures such as the Legend Singers; God's Musical World, which is a KTVI Channel Two weekly musical program; the Wings Over Jordan Choir; and guest choral director for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on more than 20 occasions.

He was recognized by and received awards from the City of St. Louis, National Urban League, Northwestern University, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, St. Louis American newspaper, St. Louis Argus newspaper, National Association of Negro Musicians, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Missouri Music Educators, National Guild of Community Music Schools, and the Antioch Baptist Church. Lincoln University conferred on him the Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1978 of which he was most proud.

Dr. Billups, a native of St. Louis, was born April 15, 1918, the second son of the late Rev. and Mrs. Louis Billups. He was educated in the St. Louis Public Schools and graduated from Sumner High School. His college training began at Lincoln University, where he played varsity basketball and earned a Bachelor's degree in Biology. He earned a Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees at Northwestern University, 1945-47. Further graduate work was done at Washington University in St. Louis.

Born to the union of Kenneth and his wife, Florence White Billups, were four children, Kathleen, Karla, Karyl and Kenneth Jr.

This tribute concert is one of several “Kick Off “ events leading toward the 140th Anniversary of the Charles Sumner High School to be held in June of 2015 at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Charles Sumner High School, founded in 1875, was the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi.

These tribute events were organized by Elaine Smith, Sumner High School alumna.