Christmas Benefit in Scotia Promises Help for 200 Needy Families
This Sunday, the iconic gospel group The Heavenly Echoes will take the stage at TJ’s Flightline on Route 50 in Scotia for their eighth annual appearance at my stepdaughter Tanneal Green’s annual Fruit Within Our Spirit benefit beginning at 2 p.m. The rock band JV and The Cutters will also perform.
For 15 years, this annual event has kickstarted our community’s holiday spirit as we raise money to give more than 200 needy area families a merry Christmas they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Once again, this amazing ensemble will open this holiday tradition with the best version of The Temptations’ “My Girl” I’ve ever experienced. “My Girl” becomes “My God” in a rousing presentation by a group that’s shared the stage with blues royalty’s Shemekia Copeland, Duke Robillard, and Rory Block, not to mention showcase appearances at Saratoga’s First Night, Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media’s “Moving Heaven and Earth” multi-group gospel extravaganza, and The Martin Luther King Day homage at The Strand in Hudson Falls.
Tanneal’s annual benefit has grown from a grassroots effort to help 10 families in Yates Village in 2006 to a total of tens of thousands over a decade and a half. Last year in the middle of the pandemic she marshaled a force of volunteers who brought joy to 239 families with presents that go way beyond the kind of generic gifts given out by Toy for Tots and other holiday charities.
She goes to each family and fulfills their wish list. Last year Fruit Within Our Spirit also donated 167 “blessing boxes” to those whose lives were directly affected by Covid-19, containing personal hygiene products, dry stock food kits, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and paper towels.
This unprecedented annual ritual is the result of the largesse of hundreds of individuals including more than 100 merchants who donate gifts you can win in the silent auction and table-side raffles. TJ Ruggerio is the proprietor of Flightline, the Route 50 bar that has hosted the celebration for 10 years. His father was Santa Clause for many years. My wife Michele once again has made scores of gift baskets that are literally works of art.
Michele told her daughter Tanneal about shopping with her dad Mickey when she was five years old. They bought presents for the needy to take to Father Raymond LaBatte’s church in the Chicago ghetto. Inspired by her mom’s story, Tanneal and her best friend, the late Paula Matterazo-Pemberton, came up with a list of 10 families she knew from her work at Schenectady Municipal Housing. Tanneal put a donation box at Stoney’s and Riccitiello’s Restaurants, went shopping with her mom and Paula, and a new tradition was born.
In the intervening 15 years, my stepdaughter has built a better Christmas for thousands of local kids, some of whom don’t even have a warm blanket for Christmas let alone that workout suit, doll, or pair of sneakers they’ve been dreaming about without a chance in the world of ever owning.
Jerry Deangelus from Slocum & Deangelus turned Tanneal’s efforts into a 501c3 in 2017. He and his wife Loretta have been Santa and Mrs. Clause on delivery day for years and are also financial supporters. Standouts among the many corporate sponsors this year are Muscos Complete Painting Inc. and Marshall & Sterling Insurance.
“I decided I wanted to adopt the 10 families for Christmas, hoping to provide the children with the necessities they needed and some things that they wanted and wouldn’t have otherwise received, delivering presents at Christmas time was something I had done with my mom as a child,” says Tanneal. “Paula and her profoundly beautiful heart found the families and we were able to successfully meet their needs and then some!!! Every year from that year forward we just grew. People would hear about what we were doing and reach out either asking for help or offering help.”
If you’re looking for that elusive Christmas spirit, this event is your cornerstone. As a music journalist, I find the annual performance by the Heavenly Echoes one of the premier “concert” attractions of the year. Just to hear such an iconic group outside the church in such a festive setting is inspiring. And to know that Tanneal personally fulfills specific Christmas dreams of her selected families is heartwarming.
The oldest Heavenly Echoes member Earl Thorpe’s legacy traces back to his tenure with the doo-wop group The Fidelities in the ’50s sharing the stage at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem with Etta James, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, and The Coasters. Their charting hit “The Things I Love” had them touring the country playing such high-profile venues as Washington’s Howard Theatre, Chicago’s Regal, the Royal in Baltimore, and the Uptown in Philadelphia. Their songs appear on 13 separate doo-wop album collections.
It was Earl’s idea to transfer the energy of such secular songs as The Temptations’ “My Girl” to “My God” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” to “Lean on God.” “I’m gonna take you to a place,” says Earl, echoing the Staple Singers’ line. “I’m gonna take you down memory lane, (but) I don’t want you to think you’re in the Soul Shack or you’re back at Kittles (two of Albany soul music venues of the era).”
Lead tenor Hayes Coleman is the longest-tenured member of The Heavenly Echoes, singing lead vocals on “Coming Home.” James Carr, a Memphis-styled soul man with in-your-face dynamics, is an original member of the group who rejoined the group several years ago.
Currently in preparation is The Heavenly Echoes’ first CD release with original material written by their bass player Joe Abbey. With The Heavenly Echoes for nearly two decades, Joe is a Renaissance man who also fronts JV and the Cutters. They will celebrate a 10-year reunion for this event with original members Pete and Louie Marshall on bass and drums respectively. Joe formed this blues/rock band after being fired from another area rock band for not paying close attention in rehearsals to the Huey Lewis and Eagles songs they were playing.
At a time when society is struggling with unprecedented challenges, we need an event like this to marshal our energies and spirit. In a Facebook message to her volunteers after last years’ benefit Tanneal wrote: “This year was a little more tough than years past, but I have recently realized it was still just as amazing and beautiful. The need within our communities was almost a bit stronger this year, all said and done we did 177 exact-list families, 49 age and sex appropriate families, and an additional 13 emergency home removals; we have also completed 167 blessing boxes dispersed to those whose lives have been directly affected by Covid 19.
“On more than one occasion this year I worried that we were not going to be able to fulfill the referrals that we were receiving and each and every time that there was a concern, almost instantly a call would come in, or someone would step in and offer to help, and we were able to successfully meet each need if that’s not the work of God, I don’t know what is!!!”
Fruit Within Our Spirit takes place at TJ’s Flightline Pub, Rte. 50, Glenville on Sunday, November 7th from 2 to 6 p.m.