Skip the ties: Celebrate Dad at the Father's Day Gospel Celebration at District Live

Skip the ties, socks, shaving kit, and ratchet set. This Father’s Day, celebrate Dad with a family experience that’ll be a memory for a lifetime.  Treat him to a Southern-style buffet, full bar and live music performed by some of the city’s best-loved gospel artists.

On Sunday, District Live at 400 W. River St. hosts its inaugural “Father’s Day Gospel Celebration.” Doors open at 12:30 p.m. with music sounding off at 1:30 p.m. The all-ages event features slow-smoked barbecue ribs, chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, chicken-fried pork chops and more. Reservations are required.

The afternoon also embraces Juneteenth, observed Monday, June 19, and recognized as the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally received word of emancipation.

Vocalists Gary Swindell Jr., Antwan Smalls and Calvin Ford are highlighted and backed by a seven-piece band of Savannah’s top gospel players. With extensive backgrounds in local church music ministries, each singer brings his unique nuance to the genre. Together, they’re a high-energy fusion of gospel, funk and R&B.

'To sing and celebrate our freedom'

Smalls considers the brunch an extension of years spent collaborating with colleagues he’s known from church most of his life. It’s a special, public opportunity for his friends to share their musical gifts with the community.  Smalls, who graduated from Grove High School and went on to earn a degree in music and vocal performance from Savannah State University, is married and father to two young daughters. He reflects mindfully on how Father’s Day this year falls just a day before Juneteenth.

“Performing on Sunday in the historic part of Savannah — we are all natives here, born and raised,” intoned Smalls. “We know about The Weeping Time. One of the largest sales of enslaved people happened not far from where we will perform.  To be there on Father’s Day so close to Juneteenth is to sing and celebrate our freedom. It’s monumental. We are free to express ourselves, to be a father, to have freedom, to express ourselves in gospel music. It’s a lot to celebrate, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

Smalls currently serves as minister of music at Kingdom Life Christian Fellowship and works at Savannah State as coordinator of student engagement and advisor for Wesleyan Gospel Choir.

Likewise, for more than 10 years he’s worked with and written songs for Swindell, who’s also part of the gospel brunch.

In April 2021, Swindell recorded and released “Strong Enough,” an epic choral and full band gospel arrangement written by Smalls. The tune speaks to resilience and faith with inspired, catchy lyrics while Swindell’s rich vocals powerfully deliver the song’s message of triumph. And for many familiar with the work of his father, life-long Savannah music and theater mover and shaker, Gary Swindell Sr., his vocal tone is comfortingly familiar. 

Gary Swindell Jr.
Gary Swindell Jr.

Tragically, eight months after releasing the song, Swindell's father passed away due to complications from COVID-19. “Strong Enough” then rose to new heights as an anthem of perseverance with wings reaching far beyond Savannah. The tune has upwards of 120,000 streams on Spotify and iTunes and more on YouTube and Facebook.

Swindell credits his father’s ministerial work in bringing together so many talented musicians for the performance. He chuckles, “it’s a sort of Brat-Pack-meets-the-Three-Tenors” that promises to be a high-energy afternoon of great songs with a positive message.

“I have known all of these guys for years,” emphasized Swindell. “My dad is a common musical thread running among us. And in putting this show together, we all just kinda sat and thought, what’s the story we want to tell with this? We have inspirational gospel, some Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Winans. We really want to use the day to encourage people, to uplift them.”

Under the tutelage of his father, Swindell started singing as a child in the church choir then went on to Savannah Arts Academy where he sang jazz in an ensemble that toured Asia. He worked within Savannah-Chatham County public schools for several years before stepping into his current role as worship leader at Branded Heart Ministries. Swindell also tours as public speaker and gospel singer.

Calvin Ford, a.k.a. Calvin J
Calvin Ford, a.k.a. Calvin J

At 25 years old, Calvin Ford, a.k.a. Calvin J, is youngest on the roster. A graduate of Bethesda Academy where he excelled in academics and sports, Ford was also the school’s chapel leader and active in church choir. All of his family is musical—his mother and father both performed in gospel quartets; his grandfather sang regularly with Huxie Scott.

Ford is quick to note how connected the performing musicians are through the gospel community.

“I grew up watching a lot of these people do great things in the city musically,” said Ford. “I’m honored to be able to collaborate and be on the stage. Gary’s father was worship leader at my great grandmother’s church, and Antwan Smalls was one of the kids who followed my uncle when he had a choir. He grew up watching my uncle. Then I grew up watching Antwan.”

Ford is also father to a two-year-old daughter, who will be at the event along with his father. He, like Smalls, is contemplative about the close dates of Father’s Day and Juneteenth.

“Not only are we celebrating men, but also celebrating Juneteenth,” said Ford. “As men we often get ties, socks and tools on Father’s Day, but with this we have an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate great fathers and men. And I get to do it with God and my family and friends. We are family, connected, the older generation going back to pick up the younger. And I love how we support each other like this.”

If You Go >>

What: Father’s Day Gospel Celebration

Where: District Live, 400 W. River St., Savannah

When: 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., June 18

Tickets: $50 adults, $25 children ages 5 to 12,

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Celebrate Dad at District Live's Father's Day Gospel Celebration