Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: The Sacred Music of the African American Diaspora

Albert J. McNeil

Albert John Joseph McNeil is an American choral conductor, ethnomusicologist, author, and founder of the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers. His career has been dedicated to upholding choral music traditions with the presentation of Negro spirituals and concert music by African American composers. He is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of California, Davis, where he was director of choral activities for 22 years and headed the Music Education Program.

McNeil was born Alfredo Morales Sanchez on February 14, 1920 in Los Angeles. He was adopted by John and Rodia McNeil, former vaudeville and minstrel show performers. He grew up in Watts with his two sisters, Dorothea and Rena. McNeil's adopted parents maintained friendships with a variety of musical and theatrical artists in Los Angeles, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton, as well as distinguished names in choral music such as Hall Johnson and Jester Hairston. McNeil was frequently called upon by Central Casting of Hollywood to be the on-set choral assistant whenever they needed black singers or background actors, including Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones, and The Land of the Pharaohs. McNeil earned his undergraduate University of California, Los Angeles in 1942 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music education and teaching credentials in elementary and secondary education. Soon after, he was awarded his master's degree in choral conducting from UCLA. In 1953, McNeil married Helen Rambo. Their son, Richard "Ricky" John McNeil, was born 1959.

In 1968, McNeil was invited to teach courses in music education and direct the choral ensembles at the University of California at Davis. He was the head of the music education program and director of choral activities for 21 years, and took the UC Davis chorus to England, France, Russia, China, Tahiti, and Australia. While at Davis, spent 10 years as the director for the Sacramento Chorale and co-founded the Sacramento symphony chorus.

In 1968, inspired by the renown Fisk Jubilee Singers, McNeil founded the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers. The Singers have traveled the globe on 18 European tours, 12 tours of the United States and Canada, tours of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America, and were selected three times to serve the U.S. State Department and USIS Cultural Exchange Program. They have played a significant role in the development of African American sacred music traditions in the United States and are among the most honored singing ensembles in the world.

In addition to his teaching and work with the Jubilee Singers, McNeil was active in the church choir community. While McNeil was a student at UCLA he directed the church choirs at the First Baptist Church and the People's Independent Church of Christ. He was Minister of Music at the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles for over 30 years, as well as the Director of Music at the Founder’s Church of Religious Science.

McNeil retired from UC Davis in 1990. In retirement, he devoted much of his time to the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers and their tours. In 2003, McNeil was inducted as a "Living Legend" into the California State University Dominguez Hills Georgia and Nolan Payton Archive of African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musicians. Explore the Albert J. McNeil Collection.

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