Most 75-year-olds don’t get overly excited about a gospel concert, but John Weninger is not your average 75-year-old, and The Hoppers aren’t a run-of-the-mill Southern gospel group ... they are one of the best in the world.
“It’s going to be a great show; we’re still pinching ourselves,” said Weninger, music director at St. Andrew United Methodist Church since 1998. “Some members of the congregation still don’t think we’re going to pull it off. They are waiting for us to sell all the tickets. The Hoppers are an enormously popular group. They have performed around the world, including along the hillsides and the River Jordan in Jerusalem.
“We had the fire marshal come in and tell us how many people we can seat. We redesigned the sanctuary so it can accommodate 340 people,” he said. “Many people will be shocked to find out that we are bringing in a group of this caliber. Maybe some people will get out of their recliners and come to our church. Then they can see what we have to offer. We are the church on the corner that cares.”
The Hoppers were founded in 1957 by siblings and vocalists Will, Virginia and Claude Hopper, who were soon joined by Claude’s future wife, Connie, a pianist and vocalist. They appeared at the inauguration for Ronald Reagan in 1981 and were recognized as the best mixed vocal group at the Southern Gospel Music Awards in 1982 and ’83 and in subsequent years.
Sopranist Kim Hopper joined the ensemble in 1989, after marrying lead vocalist and drummer Dean Hopper (Claude and Connie’s oldest son). “Here I Am,” a popular song in 1990, was followed by “Milk and Honey,” “Mention My Name,” “Anchor to the Power of the Cross” and “Shoutin’ Time,” their biggest hit.
The group, which also features vocalist Karlye Hopper (Dean and Kim’s daughter), has frequently appeared on the Bill and Gloria Gaither Homecoming Tour. Drummer Mike Hopper (Claude and Connie’s youngest son) appeared on the television show “Touched by an Angel.” The Hoppers have recorded numerous albums and compact discs and were inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2012.
Weninger, head usher for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has seen them many times and authoritatively states that “They are the best there is.”
And he is a pretty good judge of character. His love of music dates back to when he began playing the keyboard at age 4. “I was a child prodigy and performed my first classical concert when I was about 5. I started to play the church organ when I was 8, but my legs were not long enough to reach the pedals. If you weren’t stupid – and I was smart – you could set the pedals a certain way to get the sound you wanted.”
Born in 1939 and adopted at 6 months, he lived north of Fort Wayne before moving and attending Reynolds and Roachdale high schools. At Roachdale he was a baton-twirling drum major and the head of the baton corps, a feat which he said was only performed by him in the four-state area. He also played in bands that performed at sock hops.
“I prefer pop standards, big band, swing and gospel music. I like rock ’n’ roll as long as it isn’t hard rock,” said Weninger, a Westsider who noted that he can play about 5,000 pieces of gospel music from memory, as well as about 8,000 secular tunes.
Upon graduation he joined the Air Force and was stationed for four years in Merced, Calif., the gateway to Yosemite National Park. While in the military Weninger served as the music director at First Baptist Church.
He returned to Roachdale after leaving the Air Force and helped to start a Southern Baptist church in 1969. By 1977 the membership had grown to 475. He directed the choir, The Gospel Four and The Gospel Echoes, the latter of which recorded music and performed in surrounding states. “We had a very successful ministry,” said Weninger, who also was the staff organist at Perkins Funeral Home (now Servies-Morgan). I have played at more than 6,000 funerals and 600 or so weddings.”
From there it was off to work in the Appalachians Mountains before becoming controller of Cumberland College (Ky.) in 1977. For six months in 1979 he had a cabaret show at the Sahara, Caesars Palace and the Flamingo in Las Vegas. He then toned it down a little to become the associate music director at Crooked Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis from 1988-92.
He joined Barnes United Methodist in 1992 and attended there until becoming affiliated with St. Andrew, 2560 Villa Ave., where the concert will be staged at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23. As a warm-up act, the The Front Row Boys will make their debut.
Most of the hard work has been done, and this is the calm before the storm for Weninger, who was married from 1959-77 and has three children and two grandchildren. “I’ve been told that tickets sales will be crazy during the three or four days leading up to the concert. I guess that’s when the chaos will break out. Older people will wait to see what the weather is going to be like.”
Tickets are $20 and $25 and available by calling 224-4430 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
No doubt, Weninger is hoping for a pleasant forecast and a lot of chaos.