If you're one of your parents' 11 children and are looking for something rewarding and fun to do with your 10 brothers and sisters, there are actually a number of options to choose from. You could, for example, form a football team. Or a soccer team. Or a field-hockey team.
Or, you could do what the children of East Moline's Charles and Barbara Westbrook did: You could form your own band.
"We did all of it," says Delores Westbrook-Tingle of her and her siblings' ensemble the Westbrook Singers, who began performing together in 1975. "I mean, some of us just played instruments - we had a couple of drummers, keyboard players, a guitar, a bass guitar ... . So when we actually started, all 11 of us, we had all our musicians and the vocalists, as well." She laughs. "We were pretty much self-contained."
Nowadays, however, the official number of full-time Westbrook Singers stops at four; after seven performers either moved from the area or retired from the group, the current lineup consists of Delores, brother Gary, and sisters Brenda Westbrook-Lee and Cynthia Westbrook-Bryson. Yet given the gospel quartet's smooth, stirring vocals and harmonies that clearly come from lifetimes of practice together, no one who has heard the group in its numerous concert and festival sets, CDs, or televised specials for the Quad Cities TV station WQPT could argue that they're getting only four-11ths of a great thing.
"Their sound is just so wonderful," says Lora Adams, the WQPT director of marketing and local content who produced the Westbrook Singers' specials for her PBS affiliate. "There's something that comes from a family of singers - like with the Osmonds or the Jacksons - where there's a similarity in the vocal quality, so their harmonies always sound different, and better, from others'. They really know how to follow each other, and every time you hear them, you can't help but be uplifted."
Chronologically the eighth of the 11 Westbrook siblings, Delores says her performance career unofficially began in kindergarten, when she started singing with family members at East Moline's Community Outreach Church of God in Christ. "Our father was the pastor and had his own ministry, and our mother played piano, and so initially, for the most part, we were the church choir." (Delores' parents were married for 70 years before Barbara's passing in 2011.)
But it wasn't until 1974, after several siblings had begun performing outside the Quad Cities, that Delores and her siblings united under the moniker The Original Westbrook Singers, a decision made following a near-fatal incident involving brother Ken. While touring with an R&B group in Minneapolis, an altercation led to Ken being shot by his band's keyboard player and left on a hospital's steps by fellow bandmates. The Westbrook siblings, consequently, brought their brother back to East Moline, and started their group in the hopes of aiding Ken's recuperation, and giving him a safe place to continue his music and ministry.
"It was all very, very scary," says Delores. "But a lot of times, situations like that have a great, positive outcome, and had that not happened, I'm not sure the 11 of us would have come together."
The Westbrooks, says Delores, began rehearsing "at a minimum of once a week. If we had a performance or something coming up, we would possibly do it more frequently, but for the most part, that was our consistent schedule. And different [siblings] would bring different songs to the group that they wanted to introduce. I think the younger ones probably relinquished some of the responsibility, in terms of decisions, to the older ones, but everybody had the opportunity to present whatever they wanted."
Regarding the selections for their gospel repertoire, Delores says, "We did a lot of quartet-style music initially. Most of the time we had, I would say, five or six singers while the others played instruments, and those singers wouldn't necessarily all sing at the same time. At most we would have five parts and the minimum was three. But we really enjoyed doing that quartet style - songs by quartet artists whose names probably wouldn't mean very much, because they weren't in the mainstream of music."
Yet despite the inherent squabbling that can arise among siblings, she adds that there was never any in-fighting about which Westbrooks would be showcased on which numbers. "It was actually more of a struggle to get people to lead songs," says Delores with a laugh. "There was nobody that was just raring to be front and center, so I don't think we ever really had any arguments about that."
Performing together as a group of 11 for, as Delores says, "10 to 15 years," the Original Westbrook Singers "performed locally, or performed around the country at different fests. And we had a ministry where we went to nursing homes, we went to prisons ... . Just wherever we could minister and deliver God's message is where we would go."
But she says that "with the manufacturing industry changing the way that it did, a few of our brothers, in particular, left the area to find work to support their families. We all also worked full-time, of course. I work for John Deere, which is where most of us were employed, and when the economy started changing, some wandered off to International Harvester or other places like that."
Yet for Delores herself, "I was pretty much focused on staying here. Both my husband and I were from the area, and we had jobs at Deere that we were happy with, so we were content to make a living here." It turned out that Gary, Brenda, and Cynthia were content to stay as well, and so, "about 10 years ago," the siblings' group officially re-formed as the Westbrook Singers quartet.
"We've pretty much kept the same schedule of rehearsing every week," says Delores, "and if we're doing something where we're learning new material or whatever, we may meet more often. But we're still performing at festivals and ministering at the same time. We haven't necessarily changed where we go. Just the number of people who go."
They've also begun to expand their fan base through the release of CDs - The Westbrook Singers' current discography includes 2008's The Westbrook Singers Live and 2013's The Promise, both available through TheWestbrookSingers.com - and their televised specials, with WQPT's Lora Adams a particular fan.
"I was doing a show called Artists in Profile," says Adams, "and I wanted to profile them, but I also wanted to do some concerts. So I literally built a set, and I had hair and makeup people come in, and I went shopping and got everybody costumed - I mean, I was having myself the best ol' time. And they did two concerts: the Christmas concert - which is not something that they typically do, frankly - and the gospel concert.
"I just smile every time I'm around them," she continues. "They're just delightful, wonderful people who just happen to be extraordinarily talented. You can definitely say, 'Lora Adams loves the Westbrook Singers.'" And to hear Delores tell it, the Westbrook Singers love being the Westbrook Singers.
"This'll be, I think, our third appearance in the Blues Fest, and we also participated with the Mississippi Valley Blues Society a few years back, where we were able to go into different schools and present gospel music as part of their residency program. And one of the things we're doing right now is we have a gospel-music camp that we do for kids that are 10 to 18 years old. This will be the third year since we formalized the program, and we're doing it in July at St. John's Lutheran Church in Rock Island, and it's a week-long camp where the kids are exposed to gospel music and its influences.
"It's so rewarding for us," she continues, "to be able to present that music to kids and hear them leaving the auditorium still singing our songs. I mean, for the four of us, this is our passion. And when you're always trying to experiment, and trying to develop your God-given talent, it never gets boring.
"For me, it's probably even more exciting now than it used to be, simply because what you sing now has more meaning because you've lived a little longer. You've experienced more things, and you're able to deliver the music with more passion for the song itself. I mean," says Delores with a laugh, "this is totally different from when I was singing a lot younger without any experience in life!"