The sermon ends, the choir is ready, but the pianist is asleep.
The young musician, hung over from a night of partying that didn’t end until 5 a.m., is dozing on the piano bench, her head drooped toward her lap. Maybe it’s the sudden silence, maybe it’s the disappointment emanating from her mother, but something startles Cora Harvey awake. Every eye in the church is on her and she is ashamed.
A world of change exists between that hard-partying girl and the seasoned woman Cora Harvey Armstrong is now. She wears wisdom like a mantle woven from countless lessons and many tears.
Armstrong’s voice is a marvel of contrasts. Mellifluous yet guttural, whisper-quiet yet thunderously loud, heart-wrenching yet joyful, born of pain and colored by rebirth. When she speaks, warmth coats her hearty tenor, which is often punctuated by bursts of laughter.
Cora Harvey Armstrong, doing what she does best. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
“I’ve been through so much — everything you can imagine,” she says. “But God has always, always kept me. He is my sustainer.”
That faith is the foundation of Armstrong’s 50-year international gospel music career, culminating in the release of her gospel album Greater Is He last summer.
Raised in King and Queen County’s tiny Newtown community, Armstrong is the daughter of a deeply religious family who went to church each Sunday the Lord sent. When she was about 5, she started playing piano by ear. “I could hear things and play them, but my parents didn’t want me to do that, they wanted me to learn the notes.” Soon afterward, she began music lessons.
“When I first started playing, I hated it,” she recalls with a wide smile. “I didn’t like to practice.” But she continued the lessons, and her family encouraged her obvious talent. Soon, her mother had her playing for the family’s singing group, and her cousin, their church’s musician, recruited her to play two selections during the service each Sunday. She went on to serve as the musical director of her home church for more than 40 years.
In 1974, she left home for Virginia State University, dreaming, surprisingly, of becoming an undertaker. “Mama said, ‘Uh-uh. You’re going to be a teacher,’ ” Armstrong says.
Neither of those professions panned out, because music took over. She joined the university’s gospel choir, under the direction of Larry Bland, a noted gospel composer, choir director and founder of both the Virginia State Gospel Chorale and the regionally renowned Volunteer Choir (which he still directs).
“Cora Armstrong is an extraordinary musician; more so, she is an extraordinary person,” Bland says. “One of the things I most admire is her humility. She has gone through so many challenges … but she has been steadfast in her faith.”
At Bland’s urging, Armstrong began accompanying VSU’s choir on piano and directing the group. Word got around campus, and then around town, that she was an artist to watch. She began writing music while at VSU, and recorded an album with the choir, Everyday with Jesus, in the 1970s.
Two and a half years into college, Armstrong started skipping classes; her grades slipped as her partying increased. “I started drinking men under the table, smoking all the dope I could find,” she says. “Thank God I never got into any hard drugs, but I was out there.”
Late Saturday nights led to groggy Sunday mornings. But no matter how late she’d gotten in, her mother insisted that she go to church and play music. “Mama didn’t care,” Armstrong recalls. “She made me go on to church.” It was at one such service that, to her horror, she fell asleep and missed her cue to begin playing.
Even as her star ascended in the Richmond-Petersburg region, Armstrong’s life spiraled down. In the 1980s, after a long streak of promiscuity, “I got tied up with the wrong man,” she says. “I put him ahead of everything, even ahead of my music.”
Her husband frequently abused her, she alleges. Years of personal trials followed: two more marriages that turned bad, a house foreclosure, the repossession of her van, Crohn’s disease and other health challenges.
And then life changed.
“I wasn’t truly saved until my daddy died, in 1999,” she says. Her father’s death shocked and nearly debilitated her, but it also motivated her. He’d wanted the best for all of his children, and for them to know the peace of Christian salvation, like he did. Armstrong says she realized that life was too short to waste on chasing empty good times. She stopped drinking and smoking, and wherever she sang, she started telling people her story. “God lets me be transparent about my life because people need to hear what’s real,” she says.
In addition to singing solo at churches across Virginia and with her family group (comprising her sisters, the Rev. Virginia “BB” Young and Clara Jackson, and nieces Clarissa Jackson and Ruth Young), Armstrong began collaborating with successful gospel musicians and directors.
In the early 2000s, she started performing with gospel pioneer Ronnie Rucker, who produced the first gospel music workshop in Japan. At one of Rucker’s events in Tokyo, she directed a 600-voice choir of Japanese singers. “They didn’t even speak English!” she says, laughing. “But when we put those voices together, that feeling, whew!”
She traveled for five years with Earl Bynum, director of the award-winning gospel ensemble the Mount Unity Choir, based in Chesapeake.
Armstrong completed several European tours with the group, and wrote “Keep on Believing,” one of the hits on their 2013 album, the Stellar Award-nominated Bishop K. W. Brown Presents Earl Bynum and the Mount Unity Choir.
Bynum says working with Armstrong was a joy.
“We were overseas, and we were getting ready to check out of a hotel to go on to the next city,” he remembers. “There was a piano in the lobby, and Cora was sitting there playing, ‘Keep on Believing.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, I love that song! I want to record it.’ She said, ‘Are you serious, Earl Bynum?’ We recorded it, and when people heard it, people heard the testimony about her life in the song. We were truly honored to have her on the project.”
The album debuted on the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart at number eight and continues to inspire church choirs across the country.
Bill McGee, a seasoned jazz trumpeter, producer and former director of instrumental music at Morehouse College in Atlanta, helped record and promote Armstrong’s latest release, Greater Is He, at no cost. “He said God told him to record a CD for me,” Armstrong says, “so we went to work.”
The album, "Greater is He," was released in August. McGee says he was blown away by Armstrong’s songwriting. “I already knew that she was one of Richmond’s most gifted gospel singers,” he says, “because we go all the way back to VSU, when she was about 18. I’ve heard her perform many times. But I didn’t realize she was such a prolific composer. She’s as able a composer as she is a performer.”
McGee mentored a musically gifted 12-year-old Richmond boy named Michael Archer (who would become the Grammy-winning neo-soul artist D’Angelo), and he has recorded with the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, the O’Jays and many others. He says Armstrong is a combination of “Aretha Franklin on piano, Mahalia Jackson with her voice, and Shirley Caesar with her style.” He tapped Armstrong to sing on his smooth jazz album, Still Bill, which debuted in November.
Aside from singing, playing and composing, early last year Armstrong revealed a hidden talent: acting. She and her sisters starred in "Those Harvey Girls," a musical celebrating the family’s talent and triumphs. Written and directed by Tom Width, it played from January through March at Swift Creek Mill Theatre in Chesterfield County and was praised by critics and attendees.
Armstrong continues to promote her album as she studies for a master’s degree in divinity at Virginia Union University. Known as “Mother Cora” to many Richmond-area musicians, she inspires others through her talent and indomitable spirit.
"I"m just trusting God," Cora Harvey Armstrong says with a smile. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
“A lot of people on the Richmond gospel music scene are like my children,” she says. “I’m thankful that so many musicians respect me here.”
Armstrong, like everybody else, still has challenges. Her knees aren’t in the best condition, and she sometimes struggles to hold her tongue when people “piss me off,” she says.
But her future is brighter than ever. She will keep singing, playing, touring, and teaching the next generation of gospel musicians.
“People look at me and think I’ve got it going on,” she says. “But actually, I’m just trusting God.”