Morris Chester Queen, 81, church music director


Morris Chester Queen, a retired organist and music director at Sharp Street Memorial Church who during his more than five-decade career there missed only one Sunday service, died of cardiac arrest Aug. 3 at Sinai Hospital. He was 81.

Mr. Queen, who was born and raised in Northwest Baltimore, developed his lifelong interest in music before he left the baby carriage.

"When he was a baby and in order to keep him quiet, his parents rolled his carriage over to the piano and let him bang on it," said his wife of 39 years, Ovella Dorsey, who retired from William H. Lemmel Junior High School as a guidance counselor in 1982.

His father and mother, who were not musicians, encouraged their son by taking him to Sharp Street to listen to musicians who often performed there.

Mr. Queen began studying piano when he was 7, and two years later he made his debut at Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, where his family were members. He played piano and organ at the church, sang tenor in the senior choir and by 17 was directing the youth choir.

A 1940 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, he enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and after completing training was in charge of musical activities at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois.

Mr. Queen directed, arranged music and sang with the Great Lakes Naval Octet, which regularly broadcast nationally over CBS Radio. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1945.

Mr. Queen began his 55-year tenure at Sharp Street when the Rev. Kelly C. Jackson appointed him director of the church's senior choir in 1947.

He also began his college studies at Howard University that year, majoring in voice and piano. In 1950, he started a second major in music education with a minor in choral directing. Mr. Queen graduated cum laude in 1952 with bachelor's degrees in music and music education.

He returned to Howard, where he performed with the university choir and earned a master's degree in 1955 in composition and advanced choral directing. His thesis, Passacaglia, was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall in 1957.

In 1959, Mr. Queen began teaching at Lemmel Junior High School, where he was also music department head. He transferred to Walbrook Senior High School in 1974, where he was head of the music department until retiring in 1984.

In addition to his teaching in Baltimore public schools, Mr. Queen became affiliated with a singing group that was founded in the 1950s by Frances Tillman.

He later directed the group, which was renamed the Morris Queen Chorale, and performed in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Jerome Kern's Show Boat at Ford's Theater and in other musical productions at the Lyric Theater. The chorale also performed throughout the Northeast.

Mr. Queen, who also directed the Baltimore Chapel Choir, which was composed of singers from his chorale and the Great Hymns Choir, gave annual performances for more than 20 years at Sharp Street of Handel's Messiah.

Until stepping down last year, Mr. Queen had served 11 pastors during his tenure and became a much-beloved presence to generations of church members.

He also enthusiastically took part in church repair projects.

Nothing deterred Mr. Queen from making his way every Sunday to Sharp Street -- except love. "He only missed one Sunday, and that's because we were on our honeymoon," said Mrs. Queen, laughing.

The Rev. Bruce S. Haskins, who was pastor of Sharp Street for six years and is now pastor of New Queen's Chapel in Beltsville, recalled Mr. Queen's hard work. "He took lots of care, and it was clear that he understood what worship was to be. It was to be God-centered, and while music was very important, he didn't want it to overpower the message that was being preached," Mr. Haskins said.

Peggy E. Williams, a choir member for 20 years, said Mr. Queen was "always very much to the point and insisted the work be done right."

"The only time he was impatient was when you were not doing it right, and then he let you know it. And once you got it right, he let you know how appreciative he was," Williams said. "He liked traditional church music with its hymns and anthems. He felt gospel music and hand-clapping were pushing out the traditional music of the church and nothing more than entertainment."

Mr. Queen said in an interview with The Sun last year, "Music is just part of the church. It's not all spoken word -- you have to tell the word of God through music."

Of his decision to retire, he said, "I've paid my dues. I just need to hang it up and let somebody else take over."

In his spare time, Mr. Queen liked listening to and playing jazz, ragtime and classical music.

Services were held yesterday at Sharp Street.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Queen is survived by many nieces and nephews.

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