MUSIC | Tonia Hughes brings Gospel glory to Sanford Moore’s “My First Loves”


It’s some new, improved stuff over Northside Minneapolis. The landmark Capri Theater, after some time off for renovation, has been all dressed up and is back in serious effect. On top of which, the theater’s newest production showcases acclaimed composer, arranger, musical director, and pianist Sanford Moore—as in the jazz singing ensemble Moore By Four (Sanford Moore, Dennis Spears, Connie Evingson, Yolande Bruce, Ginger Commodore). Moore performs with vocalists Tonia Hughes, Greta Oglesby, and Yolande Bruce, all of whom sport handsome track records. For good measure, Moore’s hit production My First Loves plays a return engagement on Saturday, January 9 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, January 10 at 3 p.m. as part of the Capri’s popular “Legends” series.

Ogelsby is known for her award-winning work at Penumbra Theatre Company. Yolande Bruce is renowned even outside Moore By Four. Tonia Hughes is the ringer, bringing a crowning contribution to My First Loves. When Hughes sings, she is passion personified—as anyone who’s experienced to her CDs I’m Ready Now and Just For Hymn will tell you.

I’m Ready Now is a study in irony. Once upon a time, it was a matter of singers taking a sound steeped in traditional gospel (i.e. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin) and going with that to transfix listeners with some old-school R&B—secular music for which they caught holy hell from black folk who felt church music belonged in church. Hughes’s I’m Ready Now brings that transformation, you could say, full circle. This album calls on jazz and pop (think Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan) to hold listeners spellbound to scripture-inspired message after message about the wonder of The Word. Just For Hymn would please those early critics of Charles and Franklin to no end. It’s that good old-fashioned testifyin’ and brings to mind images of family matriarchs at Sunday worship, patting their feet, swaying in their seats, nodding their heads in solemn serenity. Tonia Hughes sings beautifully and, in fact, wondrously connects the days of old to contemporary music. She is, to say the least, a fascinating vocalist.

Hughes is known for her work with the Grammy Award nominated Excelsior Chorale Ensemble, Minneapolis Gospel Sound, and in Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre Company. She also has worked with iconic figures Tremaine Hawkins, Paris Bennett, and Mary J. Blige. She lives in the Twin Cities with her husband, drummer Brian Kendrick, and their children. Gearing up for Sanford Moore’s My First Loves gig, Hughes took a moment to sit and chat at a South Minneapolis coffee shop.

You live in North Minneapolis. Where are you from originally?
St. Louis.

What on earth are you doing all the way up here in this frozen wasteland?
I know.

I used to sing with a friend of mine, Nesey Davis. She moved here, I think, in ’93, with her mom, Jo-Anne Greene [of] Minneapolis Gospel Sounds. In ’95, she called me because one of the singers couldn’t make [a] gig. She called me to come and do that. I’ve been here ever since.

I guess it wasn’t winter when you got that gig, was it?
No, it was summer.

Of course, you’re looking forward to doing My First Loves.
I am! We did it last year. What it is is Sanford [Moore] and his first loves, which are jazz, gospel, and theater. He chose singers in each genre to convey that. Myself [on] the gospel portion, Greta Oglesby doing a theatrical part, and Yolanda Bruce will sing jazz.

Your new album I’m Ready Now—these are all original songs.
All original. I wrote a couple songs. Brian wrote four or five of them. His production partner Darnell Davis wrote some as well.

As in F. Darnell Davis and The Remnant?
Yes. That’s [Brian’s] production partner. Brian’s also the drummer with that group.

Get outta here. I’ve listened at them. Your husband’s drumming ain’t nothin’ nice.
Oh, yeah. He’s pretty good.

When you write songs, who are your influences?
It’s interesting, because I don’t really consider myself a songwriter. I actually just started writing this [past] year. [For] this project, I’m Ready Now, I wanted to be very personal, to convey experiences I’ve gone through. Trials and tribulations. Also, my joy [in life]. There’s the song, “A Part of Me,” my son Cameron wrote with me.

What was it like working on a project with your spouse?
I get that question quite often. When we were in the studio, both Brian and Darnell pushed me to bring the best. There were times where it was difficult. I had to take time out. Times I had to remember, “Okay, he’s the producer.” But, at the same time, I had [artistic] input. I enjoyed it. I would definitely do it again.

Billy Steele was on board for Just For Hymn.
He had all to do with it. Went in the studio at Atomic-K. Just me, Billy on piano, and my favorite hymns.

You sing religion.
I’m called to reach God. Between generations. Between cultures. Denominations. Doesn’t matter whether it’s African-American, Hispanic, Caucasian. It is about the soul the Lord has given you.

Sanford Moore’s “My First Loves” sold every single seat last year. Recession or no recession, it’ll probably do so again. Don’t sleep on this. Tickets: $25 (Saturday), $20 (Sunday). Order at or OvationTix: (866) 811-4111.