Master Sgt. Alvy Powell Jr. didn’t enlist in the Army to be a soldier in combat — he was there to sing.
With the U.S. Army Chorus, Alvy performed for nine American presidents and at some of the country’s most-decorated institutions. Alvy, now 65, retired in 2017 with a special distinction: the Army’s oldest enlisted soldier.
He first joined the Army Chorus in 1983. But if not for his sister, Yvonne Powell, 71, he may have never pursued his career in the first place.
“I started singing because of you,” he told her during a StoryCorps conversation in Norfolk, Va., last week. “The way you sang, the beauty of your voice, it made me stop whatever I was doing.”
So, he tried to mimic her sound, he said.
They often sang duets in church, as Yvonne recalled fondly. “I like your voice, always did,” she said.
While Yvonne never liked to be the center of attention as a singer, Alvy pursued singing professionally.
While performing at a dinner theater in Washington, D.C., a member of the orchestra mentioned to Alvy that there was an opening in the Soldiers’ Chorus.
Alvy had no knowledge about what it meant to be a musician in the Army.
“And, I said to him, ‘You mean join the Army? No, no, thank you,’ ” he said.
Alvy did ultimately audition but didn’t hear back. His voice teacher, George Shirley, the first Black tenor to sing leading roles for the Metropolitan Opera, then pointed Alvy to the U.S. Army Chorus. Shirley had belonged to the chorus, and helped him get an audition.
Alvy said he warmed to the idea of auditioning to be a musician in the Army when it became clear that the role meant “just to sing.” Even so, he said, “We’re probably one of the military’s secret weapons.”
Entrusted with entertaining generals from different countries, he said, their music offered a degree of diplomacy.
“Sometimes, the negotiations weren’t going very well,” he said. “And the Army Chorus would come in and sing something from those people’s native country in their native tongue.
“All of a sudden, you could see the faces light up and they would start to smile,” he said.
Yvonne once asked her brother whether he gets nervous when he prepares to sing. “And you said, ‘That’s a part of it,’ ” Yvonne recalled.
“If I don’t have little butterflies, something’s not right,” Alvy said. He said he’s learned to “channel the butterflies” into excitement when performing — like when he was asked to sing at the inauguration of George H.W. Bush.
“I remember, to this day, walking down the aisle and standing in front of that podium and seeing what felt like close to a million people standing out there,” he said.
Alvy, a member of the Army Chorus for a total of 26 years, took an eight-year hiatus from 1993 to 2001, when he spent time singing around the world.
He never thought he would find that kind of success in doing what he loves.
“When I say success, what I mean is the ability to keep a roof over my head and do nothing but sing. To me, that’s success.”
For that, he thanks his sister for inspiring him to pursue music.
StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Eleanor Vassili. NPR’s Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.