The Lesters still going strong
LEBANON – Their roots run deep at Tower Grove Baptist Church, but their bus keeps them on the road carrying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in music to thousands of people nationwide.
For more than eight decades, The Lesters, often dubbed “St. Louis’ First Family of Southern Gospel Music,” have been traveling the interstates and back roads of America sharing the love of Jesus through their four-part harmony music.
“I’m in this for the long haul,” said family patriarch and lead singer Brian Lester, prior to the group taking the stage at the 38th Annual Brumley Sing Aug. 4 at the Cowan Civic Center here (The Lesters have performed in all but two). “This is where God wants me.”
The stage is nothing new for Brian or any other members of the famous singing family who are long-time members of Tower Grove. In fact, Brian’s brother-in-law, Dan Pitchers, serves as youth pastor and his wife, Ginger, who does the group’s arranging, also serves as a church secretary.
Brian’s father, the late Harvey Bryant Lester, who was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2004, is widely credited for the expansion of Southern Gospel Music west of the Mississippi through the avenue of concerts.
Harvey Lester and his family owned the Kingsland Theater on South Gravois Avenue in St. Louis. In the early 1950s the venue became a favorite place for the groups of that day to appear like the both controversial and exciting Statesmen Quartet and the beloved Singing Speer Family.
“I was only 12 years old and remember seeing and hearing the great Blackwood Brothers Quartet. They were my heroes,” recalled Brian Lester, now 54.
Of course The Lesters would perform as well, featuring “Momma” Opel Lester with her accordion.
Radio and television played a key role in the expansion of Southern Gospel Music in the Midwest and The Lesters were one of the first groups to have a weekly radio and television show. Their television show, “The Lester Family Sings,” aired on the St. Louis NBC affiliate for an unprecedented 27 years.
“I’m not in this because of what my family has done,” Brian explained. “I’m thankful for the heritage, but it’s got to be a calling.”
Brian, who began his singing career at the age of four appearing on television’s “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” in the early 1960s, acknowledged that Southern Gospel’s popularity has been like a rollercoaster, but he feels it still has plenty of good days ahead.
The immensely popular Gaither Homecoming videos and CDs have helped revive Southern Gospel. The Lesters have appeared on a handful and they have proven to be memorable experiences. In the 15 years since Bill Gaither began recording his Homecoming series of videos, four have been certified multi-platinum, 45 certified platinum and 50 certified gold. To date, Gaither Homecoming videos have sold more than 15 million units.
“The ones I’ve enjoyed the most were the ones taped in the Gaithers’ home studio in Alexandria, Ind.,” Brian said. “The Homecoming series has helped revive Southern Gospel and being a part of it has been an honor.”
The group has changed over the years and now consists of Brian as lead singer, his son, Jonathan, singing baritone and bass; Liz McMillan, as alto and soprano Trecia Cisneros, who will be leaving the group at year’s end.
“Trecia is planning to resume her college education, Brian Lester said. “We of the Lesters truly appreciate her seven years of service to our family ministry and we wish her the very best. Please pray for us. We look forward to what God has in store for our ministry.”
The group maintains a grueling schedule, traveling between 85,000 and 100,000 miles to give an average of 225 performances a year. Some of them have been as far away as the Holy Land, India, Italy and Switzerland.
“We find that when people are exposed to our kind of music for the first time, 99 percent of them fall in love with it,” said Brian.
“I was saved at age 12 at Crondalet Baptist Church on the south side of St. Louis. When the Lord saved me, there was a real change in my life. It’s just been a marvelous time ever since.
“I am thankful the Lord has always given me this opportunity to take my family and extended family on the road. It doesn’t matter where we go, we preach Jesus. That’s what we’re called to do.”