Walter Turnbull, who founded the Boys Choir of Harlem in a church basement and led the organization to international acclaim that included performances in the White House and the Vatican, died Friday. He was 62.
Turnbull died just after 3 p.m. in a New York City hospital, said his brother, Horace Turnbull. He said Turnbull had suffered a stroke months earlier.
“He was a genius of a man who managed to take his talents in bringing out song in young people who had no training,” said U.S. Rep Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who helped raise funds for the choir. “To take that talent and turn into academic achievement, it was just remarkable.”
Turnbull’s death marked the latest in a sad string of events for the famed choir, which has been reeling from scandal since a choirboy accused a counselor six years ago of sexually abusing him. City investigators chided Turnbull for his handling of the allegations.
The chairman of the choir’s board, former New York Mayor David N. Dinkins, called Turnbull “a giant in American choral music performance and arrangement.”
He said the board was dedicated to preserving the choir. The renowned institution has fallen into debt, and the 50-boy choir was evicted last year and now has a reduced, mostly volunteer staff.
In 2001, 15-year-old David Pinks told choir officials he had been abused by Frank Jones Jr., who directed the choir’s counseling and summer camp and chaperoned members on trips for more than two decades. Choir leaders — including Walter Turnbull and his vice president, Horace Turnbull — did nothing, Pinks and investigators maintain.
In late 2002, Jones was convicted of 24 counts of sexually abusing Pinks and sentenced to two years in prison.
While it is the policy of The Associated Press not to identify victims of sexual abuse by name, Pinks came forward last year in hopes of encouraging other victims not to feel ashamed.
In 2003, city investigators concluded that the Turnbulls “failed to report serious allegations of abuse” and continued to allow Jones to be near students.
Walter Turnbull said at the time that what happened to Pinks was “very unfortunate.”
“We have done over the years all the things that we could to make sure that we did the best thing, the right thing,” he said.
Choir will live on
Born in Greenville, Miss., Turnbull studied music at Tougaloo College and moved to New York to become an opera singer, eventually performing with the New York Philharmonic.
He founded the choir at the Ephesus Church in 1968 and built the after-school program into the 600-student Choir Academy of Harlem, which opened in 1993. The choir has released albums and been heard on the soundtracks of films such as “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and “Glory.”
Beyond its musical training, the choir provides educational and personal counseling each year to hundreds of inner-city children ages 9 to 19.
City education officials evicted the group from the Choir Academy of Harlem, a public school, in February 2006. Susan M. Shapiro, a lawyer for the city, said the choir was evicted because it refused to make administrative changes after the abuse case.
The choir has been rehearsing at another Harlem church, but it was difficult for the group because most of their equipment was still at the academy.
“We’re really not functioning on the high level that the Boys Choir is used to functioning on,” Turnbull said in April 2006.
Rangel said fundraising efforts to keep the choir going would continue.
“The boys choir is not going to die with the great doctor,” he said.