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Directors Bio / History of The Bentley Concert Choir

From Humble Beginnings…

Jerry Jackson Smith was born in Paris Tennessee in 1934 to Pearle & Raymond Smith, and the eldest of 2 children (sister Sylvia lives in Waterford, MI). After playing the piano during church services as a child, his musical gifts were apparent at an early age.  Graduating high school when he was 16, Jerry headed to Ann Arbor, and earned a Bachelor of Music Education (and eventually a Masters of Music degree) from The University of Michigan.  At the age of 20, Jerry embarked on his first teaching job at Lincoln Junior High in Pontiac, as a vocal music instructor.  It wasn’t until the spring of 1959 that Jerry received a call, looking for someone to build a vocal music program for the then 12 year old Bentley High School in Livonia.  Although the school had a marching band and chorus, the growth of the school justified the expansion of the music department for “the most modern high school for many miles around”. 


The Bentley Concert Choir (BCC) was formed in January of 1960, performing for the first time for the Livonia PTA on Founders Day, a tradition that carried on for several years. In March of 1960, The Detroit News featured BCC in a photo essay, followed by a radio broadcast on WMUZ in May and a television appearance on Channel 56 at Christmas.  As the popularity and reputation of the choir grew, they were featured on WJR, WXYZ & WJBK on Good Friday 1961, along with appearances on WJBK & WWJ-TV on Good Friday 1962.  Appearances at choral festivals as well as their own concerts were receiving their share of attention, as BCC consecutively received superior ratings at both District and State levels.  Back in those days, Jerry was known for taking his students to Mama Mia’s Pizzeria or letting them use his red 1958 Chevy Convertible if they recruited students for one of his ever growing choruses. One of the popular “perks” was touring, as BCC not only made appearances at various Metro Detroit high schools, but also for General Motors, at the Fox Theater, Detroit Country Club, Sheraton-Cadillac (aka Book-Cadillac) Hotel, along with performing at Central Michigan University and Kincheloe Air Force Base in Spring of 1963. After the first Michigan choir tour concluded in Fall of 1960, the need for a tough tour chaperon became apparent. Spring Tour of 1961 saw the introduction of Pearle Smith as chaperon, who became a stalwart of every BCC spring tour until the school’s closing in 1985. 


Love comes knocking…..


Although Jerry was busy recruiting students for his program in the early 60’s, he seldom had time to even consider dating, with his hectic schedule. It wasn’t until Jerry received a letter in the fall of 1962 from Sharon Hubbs, former choir accompanist and BHS grad.  Sharon was attending Belmont College in Nashville, and decided to write a letter to her former director.  As Jerry was admittedly one to “rarely respond to letters”, he decided to make an exception.   After a visit home from college during the holidays, Jerry and Sharon went on their first date….along with The Bentley Choir, during one of their fall socials.  Soon after, Jerry proposed, so in June of 1964, members of The Bentley Concert Choir performed at their wedding, as Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Smith walked hand in hand down the aisle.


And baby makes three….or four….


As the years went on, The Bentley Concert Choir became one of the most active and honored high school choirs in Michigan, as they continued appearances on television, radio, along with state and national conferences.  In the fall of 1964, Jerry and Sharon found out they were expecting, and  Darrell Jackson was born in April of 1965…which also happened to be right in the middle of a BCC Spring Tour! Three years later, Kimberly Kay was an early Christmas present for the family, as she was born on December 19th in 1968. 


The “Doctor” comes calling…..  


As Jerry attended summer choral workshops hosted by Robert Shaw, it became apparent to him that in order to move forward in his directing career, he would need to further his education as well, so in 1968, Jerry returned to his Alma Mater in pursuit of a Doctorate of Music Education. After taking a one year sabbatical during the 1969-1970 school year, Mr. Jerry Smith became Dr. Jerry Smith in 1972.  Over the next few years, the nickname of “DOC” would forever become synonymous with the Bentley Vocal Music Department.


As students attitudes and attire changed dramatically during the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of the “constants” at Bentley was the Concert Choir’s formal appearance and ability to represent the school throughout the country. Another constant over the entire existance of the choir was a student run “officers board”, who not only ran most of the day to day functions of each rehearsal (including taking attendance & serving as music librarians), but also planned the choir socials, concerts, tours, along with all choir public relations functions. 


As the years went on, BCC continued to participate in state and national festivals and competitions, winning such awards as “BEST CHOIR” (out of 43 entries) at The Mid-American Choral Festival in St. Louis, participation in the prestigious Albion Invitational Choral Festival for five consecutive years, and receiving highest honors at International Choral Festivals.    


Work, Work, Work….

As the family grew, so did their bills, and working a second job was typical for many public school teachers at that time.  Although Sharon taught private piano lessons to supplement the household income, Jerry also worked two jobs, as he maintained directing positions as various churches, including Redford Baptist, and Trinity Baptist of Livonia. In 1972, Jerry met with Dr. Bartlett Hess, who was looking for someone to take over the part time role of director for both the adult and teen music programs at Ward Presbyterian Church. As the church was less than two miles from both Bentley and the family home, along with Ward’s rich history in the Detroit area for many years, Jerry eagerly accepted the position.


During the midst of the “heyday” of BCC, the Smith family officially became five, as Carole Renee was born on February 13, 1975. Although Sharon had her hands full with three children ages 10 and under, she still found time to accompany the Bentley Music Department groups whenever needed, and eventually resumed as full time accompanist for many of the choirs during the late 70’s and early 80’s.


As the choir itself won several awards over the years, it wasn’t until 1979 that Dr. Smith himself was honored by his fellow colleagues in the Michigan School Vocal Association as “TEACHER OF THE YEAR“, recognizing him for his outstanding performance in vocal music education, an honor only given to one Michigan vocal music teacher each year who “must have been influential in creating a love and understanding in music”, and for his extensive work with the Michigan School Vocal Association over the course of 20+ years.      


Times they are a-changin’…..

Although Bentley High School was considered an academic landmark for the 1000’s of Livonia residents who graduated from BHS since the late 1940’s, it also became apparent that the aging building would one day close, as the other three Livonia high schools attendance were growing, Bentley’s enrollment had begun to decline from it’s peak in 1971. Initially thought to be a rumor, the reality of the schools imminent closure came, as the formal announcement of Bentley’s demise was released by the Livonia Public School office in the fall of 1983.  As the rumors circulated at the north end of the school, Doc realized that the choir needed to “pull out all the stops” to celebrate the upcoming BCC 25th anniversary, prior to the school’s closing in June of 1985.  During Memorial Day weekend of 1984, BCC alumni gathered to celebrate with a lavish banquet at Roma Hall, with a Celebration Concert to be held the following day.  There wasn’t a stage large enough anywhere in the Metro Detroit area to hold a massive choir, so the Churchill High School gymnasium was chosen as the concert site (which was fitting, as all the Bentley Christmas and Spring concerts had been held in a gymnasium).  On May 26th 1984, almost 800 BCC alumni performed in a once in a lifetime concert, an event unlikely to be duplicated anywhere for many years to come. 


During the choir’s existence, they performed at major universities, churches and high schools in over 30 states. In June of 1983, several members of BCC participated in a 19 day European tour, delighting audiences in 9 different countries, including performing behind the “iron curtain” in Czechoslovakia and East Germany.   Many Bentley choir alumni have performed in national operatic companies, professional choirs and ensembles, while others have become music educators, church musicians and conductors. 


After Bentley closed it’s doors in 1985, Doc was asked to establish a school to serve the needs of the “fine arts” students in the Livonia School District, and in 1986, The Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA) opened its doors on the campus of Churchill High School.  As CAPA began to flourish, Doc decided to officially retire from the Livonia school system in 1988 and become full time Minister of Music at Ward Presbyterian, to concentrate his energies on their 200 voice adult Chancel Choir, 100 voice Teen Choir, Orchestra and multiple ensembles that were very active at the corner of 6 Mile & Farmington.  Sharon also served at Ward, conducting the woman’s and contemporary ensembles, along with playing for 100’s of weddings and funerals over the years, adding her own very special touch of class to every event.  


During the 90’s, Dr. Smith led several tours with the Ward Chancel Choir to England, France, Switzerland, and the former Soviet Republics of Belarus and Ukraine. Just like the BCC, Doc also maintained a 15 member officers board to administer most of the choir activities, concerts and tours. It was also no surprise that several of the Ward Choir members and officers were BCC alumni as well.  In addition, their annual Christmas and Easter productions were always “standing room only”, as the tradition of musical excellence established at BHS continued over the years. Along with elaborate sets, many concerts highlighted “themes”, such as the 1992 concert that celebrated the 250th anniversary of Handel’s Messiah, complete with Dr. Smith conducting in authentic 18th century apparel.   During the early and mid 90’s, The Ward Madrigal Ensemble were highlighted in the music department’s holiday “boar’s head” dinners to sell out crowds each December.  In addition to his duties at Ward, Dr. Smith continued to serve as a judge for District and State Choral Festivals, as guest conductor for conferences throughout the U.S. and serve on The Livonia Prayer Breakfast planning committee.  He taught music classes at William Tyndale College (former Detroit Bible College) in Farmington Hills as well.


Y2K and beyond…..

In 2000, Dr. Smith retired from Ward Church, and along with his daughter Kimberly, went to work full time at Tyndale College serving as Music Department Chair, along with directing student and adult vocal ensembles. Even though Tyndale closed its doors in December 2004, The Tyndale Artists Ensemble still maintains an active concert schedule, and includes several BHS and BCC alumni. In 2002, Dr. Smith returned to a church ministry as he accepted he position of Director of Music Ministries/Coordinator of Worship at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Plymouth, where each Sunday he directs their 50 voice Chancel Choir.


Anyone who has ever sang under Jerry Smith over the years always remarks that he must be part Energizer Bunny, as his musical groups are just as exciting today as they were almost 50 years ago.  It came as a shock to find out that Dr. Smith had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in summer of 2007; however fighting with the same determination he’s always shown,  he was declared cancer free spring of 2008!  After living for 25 years in “the family home” just blocks from Bentley, Jerry and Sharon are now enjoying the “maintenance free” lifestyle in a condo at 7 Mile and Farmington Road.  Jerry still takes pride in his green thumb, enjoys reading and spending family time at their Florida timeshare. 


Sharon continues to teach private lessons, and accompanies the First Presyterian Chancel Choir with Jerry each week.  Even as they celebrate their 45th anniversary in June of 09, Jerry’s face still lights up whenever Sharon enters the room!


Although Jerry lost his father Raymond in 1981, his mother Pearle, better known as “Ma” Smith, always remained active in supporting her son’s choirs and ministries over the years. After teaching in Michigan for many years, she and Raymond moved back home to Paris, Tennessee after retiring.  It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that that Ma decided it was time to pack up and head back to Michigan, to be closer to her family. Ma enjoyed her “golden years” by staying active with friends and family, and although her health was in decline for several years, she always had a smile on her face, and amusing story on her lips.


Pearle Winston Smith went home to be with The Lord on October 20, 2007, at age 95.