Aldonia Cooper’s first album of gospel songs, Look and Live, is sold out everywhere except in a few record stores in her hometown. So anyone who wants to hear her mighty voice sing praise to the Lord will have to attend one of her concerts—or drive alongside her car as she commutes to work on the George Washington Parkway near Washington, D.C.
“I sing on my way to and from school,” says Cooper with a throaty laugh. “I turn on the 24-hour gospel station, and if some song comes on and I feel like it’s too short, why, I turn the radio down and I just keep on singing.”
Cooper’s voice is mellifluous but powerful, intended, as are all gospel voices, to reach into the souls of sinners and to the ears of God. Her style is reminiscent of both Aretha Franklin’s and Nell Carter’s, who, like Cooper, learned their craft in church choirs, singing timeless hymns that have their roots in old slave songs of sorrow and deliverance.
But, unlike them, Aldonia Cooper did not devote herself to show business. She became a teacher. Today, married to a computer consultant and the mother of a teenage son, she teaches physical education to prekindergarten-through-4th-grade students at the tony Potomac School in McLean, Va. But the gym may be the only place she doesn’t sing.
The 38-year-old Cooper, who is about to start work on her Ph.D. in administration, gives dozens of concerts every year, from her native Louisiana to Pennsylvania. She has performed at the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival five years running. She also conducts a children’s choir at her church, and is cutting her second album at Harbour Lights Studios in Clinton, Md., where some of gospel’s top groups record. “Making an album is a lot of work,” she notes. “I’ve been in the studio until one in the morning, because we put a song down one layer at a time—my voice, then piano, organ, drums, tambourine. The best part is when they play it back in my ear and I get to hear it all come together. That’s exciting.”
The fourth of 13 children of a New Orleans policeman and a nurse, Cooper was cursed by poverty but blessed by music. Both of her parents sang in gospel groups—her father used to travel with the globetrotting Zion Harmonizers—and she first performed at the age of 2 in her church’s children’s choir. But her real inspiration came from her great-grandmothers, both the daughters of slaves, who taught her many of the old spirituals.
“Sometimes people just learn a song and sing it, and maybe it means something to them and maybe not,” she says. “I have to sing something that’s meaningful. Many of the songs I sing, like ‘Carry My Burdens to the Lord,’ are very real to me.”
With good reason. Growing up at the height of the civil rights era, Cooper lived daily with poverty and prejudice. She dropped out of Louisiana State University (finishing her studies later at Grambling State University) because she was uncomfortable with the subtle bigotry she encountered. “I remember waiting to see an administrator and watching all the white students walking in and out of his office while I sat there,” she says.
Though her music career seems about to take off, Cooper does not see herself abandoning her students for the stage. “I have my teaching and I have my singing ministry,” she says happily. “I love them both, and I’m going to hang on to the two of them as long as I can.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Gospel According To Cooper