Reverend Dr. Lena McLin is a musician, music teacher, author, pastor and composer. Born Lena Mae Johnson on September 5, 1928, in Atlanta, GA, one of her childhood friends was a young Martin Luther King, Jr. Her uncle, Thomas A. Dorsey, is known as the father of gospel music. McLin earned a Bachelor’s degree in music, specializing in piano and violin, from Spelman College, and a graduate degree in music from the American Conservatory of Music. She and her husband, Nathaniel McLin, have two children, Nathaniel Jr. and Beverly.
Quite simply, Rev. Dr. Lena McLin is a living legend.
McLin taught school in Chicago at Hubbard High School, Harlan High School, and Kenwood Academy High School (the writer’s alma mater). In all, she taught for 36 years at Chicago area public schools, and created a pilot curriculum in public schools that includes all types of music, from classical to popular. She officially retired from teaching high school in the mid-1990s, but continues teaching voice lessons. Her vocal training students include Tammy McCann, Mark Rucker, and Robert Sims. McLin is often referred to as “the woman who launched a thousand careers,” a title given to her by art critic Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. She has helped launch or enhance the careers of singer and actor Mandy Patinkin; Metropolitan Opera star Mark Rucker; jazz singers Maggie Brown and Kim English; and R&B artists Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Da Brat, R. Kelly, and Jennifer Hudson. R. Kelly credits McLin with convincing him to pursue a career in music over basketball, and that he considers McLin his “second mother” and has remained an influence in his career continuously since his high school days. He wrote his first song, which was about poverty in Africa, through her encouragement.
McLin has published over 400 compositions, cantatas, masses, solo and choral arrangements of spirituals, art songs, gospels, rock operas, soul and pop songs, works for piano and full orchestra, and electronic music arrangements, including Free At Last: A Portrait Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Musical Portrait. She has given lectures at the Peabody Institute, and published the book Pulse: A History Of Music in 1977.
In the 1950s, McLin founded the McLin Ensemble, during which time she was serving as the public relations director of the Park District Opera Guild. She and the ensemble made their operatic debut in November 1960 at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago with a performance of The Cloak. She and her husband also founded the McLin Opera Company in the mid-1950s, which they funded with their own money. The company was named the “nation’s leading small opera company” by the Washington Afro-American in 1965. Under her direction, the company performed on radio and television networks. McLin’s own opera, Oh Freedom, played at Carnegie Hall in 1983.
Rev. Dr. McLin is the recipient of the Chicago Music Awards 2003 Lifetime Achievement award and the Human Symphony’s Foundation living legends award honoree in 2007. In 2008, the Illinois House of Representatives passed two resolutions, one commemorating her 27 years as an ordained minister, the other celebrating her 80th birthday. She has been awarded honorary degrees from Virginia Union University and Spelman College, and in 2011, a tribute to her musical career was held at the Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Throughout her life, McLin has been a trailblazer and a force to be reckoned with. She has received numerous accolades and has helped so many, selflessly and with little to no compensation. She hasn’t even been properly compensated for all of the great music that she created in the past. She is currently living on a teacher’s pension and was in danger of losing her home; the apartment building which she has called home for decades is being converted into condominiums. She was notified by the board that she would have to pay over $17,000 to modernize and convert her unit and then pay another $130,000 to actually purchase the condo. To continue living there, she needed a total of $147,000. Thankfully, one of her former students, Deacon Regg Truitt, stepped up and put together a GoFund Me housing fundraiser and in six short weeks, raised more than $16k to convert her apartment to a condominium. She was also granted a pro bono attorney to help with her real estate issues.
There are also two benefit concerts planned to honor her: For “A Performers Concert: A Benefit for Lena McLin” on October 13th at The Promontory Chicago, McLin’s invaluable contribution to music will be on display as her students perform virtually every genre of music, featuring current students and former students.
The second benefit concert, still being scheduled, will feature some of her more world-famous students. R. Kelly has already given his commitment and is adamant about helping. Her plight has been featured on news stations and newspapers. Lastly, a foundation is being formed in her name, which would preserve her legacy and provide support to musicians, composers and music educators.
Rev. Dr. Lena McLin is a proud woman and thanks everyone for their help and many prayers. From this point on, her daughter Beverly Jones will take the reins, continuing the effort to save her mother’s home.
—Pierre A. Evans
Writer Soultrain.com, Ndigo.com, EmpireRadioMagazine.com, UrbanMuseMag.com, TheSOUL etter.com; Singer/Songwriter; Actor; Model; Poet; DJ; Media Director – The Soul Train Impact, Friends for Life Resource Center; Booking Agent – Chicago Talent Factory; TV Host – A Taste of Theater / Festival; Owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Productions. Follow me: Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram.