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Better Call Kenny

One of our mild-mannered security guards has, or rather once had, a big secret.  Kenny Alston, brother of longtime BFS faculty member Valarie Alston, has worked here for the past four years in relative anonymity. That all changed in September 2014 when he sang backup for multi-talented actor-singer Jared Leto’s group 30 Seconds to Mars on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The story of how he got there is a yarn worth unspooling.  “I’ve been playing bass since I was 12 years old,” said Kenny. He grew up in the Bronx.  “The school I went to was Arturo Toscannini Community Junior High School.”  With a name like that, naturally they had an orchestra.

“I wanted to play the [stand-up] bass and they gave me the violin,” he lamented.  “Then they gave me the trumpet.  I bounced around on different instruments. Finally for one term I got the bass chair in the orchestra.” His dream had come true.  “We played classical stuff.   I started learning to read music.”

KennethHis musical journey that started in Middle School has carried him throughout his life.  Today he plays electric and stand-up bass, and he’s the music director at his church, Christ Temple Baptist. “It used to be in Harlem but now it’s in the Bronx,” he said.  “I grew up in this church.”

He can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t so funny when, as a boy trying to play bass in the church choir, many in the congregation begged him to stop.   “They used to tell me, ‘Stop making all that noise!'”

Fortunately he had a friend in a high place.  “The founding pastor said, ‘Leave him be. One day he’s gonna be in charge of the choir.'”  Kenny smiled.  “She passed away a long time ago but it came true. She’s the only one who saw the potential.”

Ironically his connection to the late night world happened through church.  For a time he played bass in The Great Divas of Gospel, a long-running show that pays tribute to the most stellar women in Gospel music history.  “They were trying to get on The Late Show With David Letterman.”  Finally their big break came. “Paul [Shaffer] got in touch with them on short notice in need of a choir.”

The final group was made up of a number of Gospel singers from various churches across the city, and it included Kenny, who not only plays bass but sings bass and baritone. “We had one day of rehearsal and the next day we taped.”

This being Letterman, “the first show we did was a joke,” Kenny explained. “A skit. There’s a deli right next to the stage door where a lot of the staff get their food.” Longtime Letterman fans know exactly the one. “They were doing a tribute to the owner so we were in on the joke singing him a song.”

Since that time the producers dubbed the group the Late Show Gospel Choir and they’ve made numerous appearances on the show.  “We have men and women. It ranges from 10 to 30 of us depending on who we’re backing up.”  Sometimes they appeared in skits but increasingly they sang backup for the show’s guest artists.  “When Enrique Iglesias first crossed over and came to the US they called us to sing. I don’t speak Spanish. They taught us the song and we sang it.”

Jared Leto also once called on the group to sing backup on a previous recording and was happy with the result. “So he called us when his group was going to be on Jimmy Fallon to back him up.”

Kenny and some members of the group also appeared in a church scene on an episode of the Showtime series The Big C.  On his own, he has played bass for major R&B artists and was even in a street combo for awhile to make extra money.

Recently Kenny became a superstar of sorts at BFS. “He sang a Nat King Cole-inspired rendition of The Christmas Song at this year’s traditional holiday sing,” recalled BFS Special Events Coordinator Emily Cowles. “It was a magical moment. As soon as he sang the first note the entire community, at a usually rowdy event, stopped and listened intently. He received a standing ovation. He’s incredibly talented.”

Kenny invites anyone interested in seeing him in action to come on up to Christ Temple Baptist in the Bronx any Sunday morning. “Believe me, they’ll love it. We’ve got a full orchestra. They’ll love it.”

April 15, 2015