Q&A: Belinda Carter Hammond, director of the South High School Alumni Chorus

Belinda Carter Hammond will direct and accompany the South High School Alumni Chorus in its debut Sunday, July 22 with a concert to honor retired choir director Harold Mays.

How many South High alumni are in on this?

Well, that's a hard thing to say. I keep having people every day add on, writing us to say they're going to be in town and they want to sing.

Are the alumni from your time at South?

I graduated in ‘73, but this is everybody, some dating back to 1964, 1962, maybe even before that. We have a few coming in from South Young. I'm guessing between 65-70 singers, some coming in from as far away as D.C.

Did you first meet Harold Mays in choir?

My relationship with him goes way back. My mother was his first piano teacher, when he was 5 years old, in Lonsdale. My daddy was English, and I was born in London. We moved to the states in 1963, and my brother was singing in the chorus at South. We went to his first concert there, and after, my mom was walking up the aisle and Mr. Mays sees her and says, "I know you, you're the person who got me involved in this business."

Has anyone's voice changed?

I think everyone's voice changed, because they've gotten a lot older—and lower. A lot of people their range drops. If someone was a soprano in high school, they may now be an alto if they haven't practiced. Now me, I sung forever and still continue. My voice hasn't changed. I may not be able to sing quite as high—I was a coloratura soprano in college.

Is it all chatter at practice?

No! Everybody is so excited and we've been rehearsing a lot—Saturdays, Thursdays. Last night the girl group came over to the house and practiced, and the boys' octet practiced for two hours...

Why is Mr. Mays so special?

He taught us the love of music, instilled that. For many years he wrote the choir alumni a letter, that would be Christmas in July—a catchup, and on every single letter he would write a personal note. Through the years, he really kept in touch.

Why are you honoring him now?

Back when I was teaching school in South Knoxville, ending in 1989, I had the dream to do something like this. But there wasn't Facebook, and my children were little and I didn't know how to get anybody to help me. A few months ago, one of the guys sent me a Facebook message: "Some of us guys wanted to get the octet back together, would you be willing to play?" I said, "Oh my lord, absolutely." We got together and started singing some old songs, found copies of our old music. I told one of the guys about my dream of many years, and getting Mays here to hear the concert, and they all said, "Let's do it."

Mr. Mays has to travel to hear it?

He lives in Arkansas. They moved 18 years ago; that's where his daughter and grandchildren live. Normally he comes in every summer, or every other, and rents a house in Gatlinburg and invites a bunch of us up for a reunion. I called him, he said, "Belinda, I don't think I can come, I'm too old to travel!" He's 79. I said, "Mays, I will come and pick you up." And I got a little upset. The guys teased me, "Did you turn the tears on?" Mays asked, "Are you doing this because you're scared I'm going to die?" I told him, "We want to do something because of what you've meant to us throughout the years." I got a phone call a week or so later: "Okay, I'm coming."

Is the show open to the public?

Absolutely, and I want that place to be packed.

Will you do more after this?

We sure will; we're already talking about Christmas.

Any of the songs going to make people cry?

All of them. But our tradition is, at every concert we ever did, we sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." We have three of the guys who used to play the trumpets back in the '60s tuning up their lips. That and "The Lord Bless You and Keep You." We'll keep plenty of boxes of Kleenex backstage. Listen, we can't get through a rehearsal without someone tearing up. The blessings of this are just unreal.

The concert is 3 p.m. Sunday, July 22, at South Doyle Middle School (3900 Decatur Rd.). Admission is free.