By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
It was at the age of 15 that Elias Hendricks III first felt his inspiration.
He remembers seeing a group of three Black tenors perform at the Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham and wanting to be like that group – Three Mo’ Tenors just as he was beginning his own career as a budding singer in styles as varied as that group’s, which encompassed everything from soul and blues to opera.
“It was not only just the representation of them being Black men performing opera and also infusing it with our cultural, musical elements of gospel, blues and soul … it was just the ease in the way that they were able to do all of those things at once,” Hendricks said.
The next day, Hendricks was among a number of local students who were invited to participate in a master class with the group, where the singers further encouraged Hendricks.
“I remember when [the group] told me, ‘Hey, you can have a career at this. You sound great. I love your tone. You seem to have such command of this music,’ and I was like, ‘What? me, for real?’ That was a huge endorsement … as far as a confidence booster,” Hendricks said.
That inspiration led Hendricks to form Vox Fortura, the only Black male classical crossover quartet in the world, which will make its Birmingham debut at the Lyric Theatre on Nov. 6.
Hendricks said the group, which he put together in 2016 to compete on “Britain’s Got Talent,” performs a style he calls “classical soul.”
“We’re taking music that is unique to Black people and stylings that are unique to the African American historical musical experience, and we combine those elements into classical music,” he said.
Classical soul, Hendricks said, is an extension of the classical crossover genre, popularized by singers like Andrea Bocelli, which pairs contemporary musical styles and techniques with orchestration and vocal styles associated with opera and other older European musical forms.
‘Opera And Soul Together’
Putting together Vox Fortura in 2016 was simple, Hendricks said, as the list of required skills and the tight-knit nature of the Black musical theatre scene limited the selection drastically.
“The amount of people that can sing opera and soul together is a pretty small community worldwide, so we pretty much know who we are. If I haven’t seen you in an audition, then we probably did a show together,” Hendricks said.
Because of Birmingham’s cultural significance as a cradle of Civil Rights, Hendricks said he couldn’t think of “a better place in the entire world to debut this new classical soul show.
“Everywhere I go, everywhere I’ve lived, I tell them I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. The very first thing that they think about is Civil Rights and the struggle that Birmingham kind of spearheaded for Black rights in this country,” he said.
Vox Fortura, made up of Hendricks, Thomas Goodridge, Bruce Bean and Birmingham-based American Idol finalist Dominique Posey, is led by music director Dave Crenshaw, a Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist and songwriter also from Birmingham.
Some of the members of Vox Fortura originate from the United Kingdom, and Hendricks said Birmingham’s Civil Rights history may affect the way they perform the music in the show.
“When [Goodridge] comes here [Birmingham] and goes to the Civil Rights Institute and walks through Kelly Ingram Park and learns about the history of Black people in the city, it informs even how he can sing the song,” Hendricks said.
Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham was one of the primary locations used during demonstrations for Civil Rights in the 1960s.
The show will also serve as the world premiere of a piece from Birmingham composer Sam Robinson, titled “African Lament.” Robinson, a cousin of Hendricks who previously served as a music minister for New Pilgrim Baptist Church and the Carlton Reese Memorial Choir, gave the piece of music to Hendricks in 2018 but died in 2020.
Hendricks said the song, originally for piano and voice, has been reworked for Vox Fortura and will be premiered with an accompanying dance, choregraphed by Alabama School of Fine Arts instructor Germaul Barnes.
“[Robinson] passed away, unfortunately, before we had a chance to do it together, and some of the things that we spoke about were taking this music and building upon it, so I took it upon myself to do that, in honor of him, and kind of finished the work on his behalf. This is the first time anyone’s ever heard this song,” Hendricks said.
Re-arranging songs to fit Vox Fortura, Hendricks said, often involves switching pop vocals for an operatic style or swapping drum kits for more traditional percussion. However, with each song, the approach can vary.
For the show at the Lyric, the group will perform with a 13-piece orchestra and the Miles College “Golden Voices” Choir.
The night will also feature Alabama Poet Laureate Ashley Jones, Opera Birmingham, soprano Allison Sanders and soul singer Deidre Gaddis.
Joining The School Choir
Hendricks, a Mountain Brook native, is a graduate of the Altamont School, where he said he first became aware of his vocal talent. A soccer athlete at the school, Hendricks said he initially joined the school’s choir in seventh grade for fun.
“I decided I want to join the choir because it the cute girls were in there, and…a third of our upper school was in choir, so it was a really, really popular thing to do,” Hendricks said.
At that time, Dewin Tibbs served as Altamont’s choral director. Tibbs introduced Hendricks to opera and choral music, Hendricks said. He still learns under Tibbs to this day, he said.
After graduating from Altamont, Hendricks participated in a summer program at the Tanglewood Music Center at Boston University, before going to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, TX, where he studied opera.
After graduating from SMU in 2009, Hendricks went on to the Juilliard School in New York City, where he started putting together his concept of combining music from the African American tradition with the older European music he had come to love, he said.
After finishing up Juilliard in 2012, Hendricks left for the Disneyland in Hong Kong, China, where he played Simba in the musical version of “The Lion King” until 2014.
Following a six-month stint where Hendricks performed his own show on a world cruise, Hendricks decided to move to London, United Kingdom in 2015, where he auditioned for “Motown: The Musical.” Hendricks secured his spot to play Dennis Edwards, a Birmingham native in the show, in in 2016.
That same year, Hendricks put together the first incarnation of Vox Fortura, originally called Vox Fortis, with a lineup that included Goodridge, and auditioned for “Britain’s Got Talent” with their first classical soul arrangement, a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.”
“I knew from the very first time that we sang that, that this was going to be something special…We went to the first audition, the one where you stand in line, and you’ve got to wait with all the crazies and hopefuls. We did our first audition, and then we didn’t wait in line ever again,” Hendricks said.
Vox is the Latin word for voice, and “Fortura” is a combination of “fortis,” the Latin word for strong, as well as the words fortune and future.
“Strong voices of the future is kind of what we call it,” Hendricks said.
That first edition of Vox Fortura made it all the way up to the competition’s semi-finals — amid a lineup including “a really cute dog,” a huge gospel choir and a “really, really annoying guy dressed in a Superman costume that played the accordion” — but lost.
However, that loss may have been best for the group, Hendricks said. Losing meant that the group was able to more quickly to get out of the television contract than if they stayed for the full length of the competition.
“If we made the finals, we would have had two years…After the smoke cleared, it was really a blessing in disguise, because we went on tour with another…group called G4 within 90 days of leaving the competition,” Hendricks said.
Vox Fortura has performed at famous London venues Twickenham Stadium and the Royal Albert Hall and across the UK. Now they’ll be at Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre on Nov. 6.
Vox Fortura in Concert: An Evening of Classical Soul on Sunday, November 6 at 5 p.m. in The Lyric Theatre, 1800 3rd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203