Mark Bennett: Curtis Mitchell still plays music, with a changed tune | News chronicles
After a rough break several years ago, Curtis Mitchell considered putting his guitar down for good.
Music is a lifelong passion for him. Then, a health problem intervened.
Mitchell was chaplain for the court-appointed special advocates program in Terre Haute when he contracted the MRSA virus. It damaged one of his fingers – obviously crucial for guitarists. It was then that his son Jared showed him a video of Django Reinhardt, the legendary Belgian gypsy-style guitarist of the early 20th century.
The clip showed Reinhardt skillfully plucking notes and chords with a hand that had two misshapen fingers. At 18, Reinhardt’s hand had been burned in a fire. He gave up the banjo and the violin, but continued to play the guitar, using an adapted method, and became one of the most influential instrumentalists in music.
Mitchell was impressed.
“So I stopped complaining after watching Django,” Mitchell said, laughing Wednesday. “If he could do this with two crippled fingers, I could do it with one.” Her son’s gesture “inspired me. It kind of pushed me forward. And now I’m doing what I love.”
Indeed, Mitchell – who developed his playing and singing skills among his musical siblings as a child – is the associate pastor of the Saints Home Church of God In Christ in Terre Haute. Mitchell plays guitar and sings during services, and also manages the church’s small music production company, Covenant Love Music. He also writes commercial songs and jingles.
Mitchell’s musical resume dates back to 1970, when he and the band Seven Expressions began performing in venues in Indiana and Illinois. After a stint in the military, he played for groups such as Collage, Peek, Max and 6-70-5.
On Sunday afternoon, Reverend Curtis Mitchell, now 66, will be inducted into the Wabash Valley Musicians Hall of Fame, along with 20 other people in the Zorah Shrine Dining Room. The annual event runs from noon to 6 p.m. and includes a dinner, induction ceremony and jam session featuring inductees. Tickets cost $ 15 per person and are available at the Music Shoppe at 1427 S. 25th St. or at the door.
The crowd may be smaller than in previous years due to concerns over COVID-19, said Andrew Hayes, longtime Wabash Valley Hall of Fame board member. Servers will wear face masks, he said, while masks are optional for attendees. CDC guidelines recommend masking indoors in high transmission areas.
“We look forward to everyone having a good time and being as safe as possible,” said Hayes.
Mitchell and his fellow inductees form a collection of singers and instrumentalists who are “extremely diverse, from all aspects of music,” said Hayes.
They include David L. Archer, Jeffrey D. Archer Sr., Thomas L. Bridgewater, Brian Butts, Jay Carpenter, John M. Ford, Jack Gibson, Cartha Gustafson and Richard Gustafson, Rob Hawkins Jr., Tim Huber, David Hunt, Phil Hutson, Phillip Ivy Sr., Don Keegan, Richard LeDune, Bill Pennell, Bill Smith, Ricki Sparks and Robert Wolff. The diversity of their styles ranges from Gustafsons, a pair of Illinois trumpeters to Carpenter and Gibson, who have harmonized in the Terre Haute 10th band and Hulman, to performers from many other backgrounds, explained Hayes. Several played together.
“It’s amazing how the stories and stories of these musicians come together,” said Hayes.
Hayes remembers attending class reunions with his wife and seeing Curtis Mitchell entertain the crowd. “He always shows up, plays and sings for everyone, and they’re having a blast,” Hayes said.
Mitchell was young when he saw members of his family perform in the popular Terre Haute band, the Soul Messengers. “They were big and I was trying to emulate my now deceased big brother,” Mitchell said. Daron Mitchell played the saxophone and sang with the band. “I was always a little on their heels. By the time I joined a band, I had been playing for eight years.”
He started playing with the Seven Expressions at the age of 15. Mitchell obtained his union card, with the Federation of Musicians of Terre Haute Local 25, in 1970, which allowed him to play in clubs as a teenager. The Seven Expressions have performed at local venues like the Terre Haute Elks Club, as well as Expressions Nightclub in Indianapolis and venues in rural southern Illinois such as Oblong and Teutopolis. Their setlist contained mostly covers of popular soul songs, but also rock “because I was a fan of Santana,” Mitchell said with a laugh. They took over groups such as Rare Earth, War and the Temptations. He also continued to play the cello as a high school student first in Gerstmeyer and then in Terre Haute Nord, graduating in 1973.
After his stint in the military, Mitchell performed in a trio of other groups and then experienced a life-changing experience.
“I literally had a comeback moment and started playing in the church after coming to Christ,” he said.
There were ups and downs that followed. Mitchell went through a divorce, “walked away from church,” he said, then returned, serving in the ministry full time. Musically, he played for a while with the 6-70-5 group, along with his younger brother, Brenton. They played Blues at the Crossroads Festival.
Mitchell later performed at the Blues Fest with the Saints Home Church of God in Christ choir. “It was so beautiful. I was so meaningful,” he recalls.
That day, they performed the song “I’m a Friend of God,” and Mitchell intends to perform it at the Hall of Fame inductions on Sunday. The induction is an honor for Mitchell, as well as his family, which includes his wife of 20 years, Nicole, six children and eight grandchildren. Her mother is also delighted.
“I like to tell people that I still play music, I just changed the melody,” he said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]