Gospel artist Cora Harvey Armstrong hasn’t always lived the life she sings about. While she’s been singing and playing piano in churches on Sundays for most of her life, she spent decades drinking, partying, and living a “hellacious life” the other six days a week. Health problems and an abusive relationship compounded her struggle. When her father passed away in 1999, Armstrong rededicated herself to her faith and her music, and has started to earn the recognition that her talent as a singer, songwriter, and pianist deserves.
Armstrong still lives in her tiny hometown of Newtown in King and Queen County, Virginia. Her father was a deacon at First Mount Olive Baptist Church where Armstrong served as minister of music for four decades. Her mother started the Harvey Family singing group, which included Cora and her sisters. “When I was coming up my mother was a real big fan of Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward Singers so that’s a lot of the music I heard around the house,” says Armstrong. “She and Daddy both used to sing in the choir at church so they knew all the hymns.” Armstrong’s songwriting was inspired by the verses of her poet grandfather Rev. Watson Harvey.
That songwriting blossomed at Virginia State University (VSU), where she directed the internationally acclaimed VSU Gospel Chorale. An association later in life with another shining light in the state’s gospel community, Rev. Earl Bynum, led to tours of Italy and Japan. Richmond-born musician and producer Bill McGee has described Armstrong as “Aretha Franklin on piano, Mahalia Jackson with her voice, and Shirley Caesar with her style.”
In recent years, Armstrong left her secretarial job to pursue music full-time and has also become a minister, studying for a master’s in divinity from Virginia Union University. She released a CD that focuses on her own compositions. With her sisters she starred in Those Harvey Girls, a musical that played at the Swift Creek Mill Theatre in Chesterfield County. Music remains a family affair for Armstrong. At the festival she’ll be joined by her sisters Clara and Virginia and her nieces Kimberly, Ruthy, and Clarissa. The group is rounded out by bassist Juan Nelson and drummers Kevin Jackson and Cora’s great-nephew Davin Jackson.
While her nieces convinced Armstrong to update the group’s attire, the sound remains traditional gospel. “We do my own songs,” she says, “but I also like to do traditional songs like ‘Precious Lord’ and ‘Amazing Grace’—I’m a fan of singing music that says something, so people can leave with a good feeling.”
On Sunday at this year’s festival, she will join Larry Bland & the Volunteer Choir, a Richmond institution that is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, for a special performance. Bland, a Virginia gospel legend, founded the VSU Gospel Chorale some years before Cora’s tenure as director.