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Music: Choir Straits

The Boys Choir of Harlem navigates difficult waters.

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The holidays are usually prime time for the Boys Choir of Harlem: The acclaimed group performs sellout concerts, and its choral albums make beloved gifts. But this season, as the choir stumbles back from a highly unsuccessful makeover, its backers aren't feeling very merry.

It all started in 1995 when Rick Levin -- a onetime promoter of New Kids on the Block -- encouraged the choir to seek MTV stardom. The result was Up in Harlem, an album of hip-hop and ballads. It was released with all the accoutrements: a music video, a single, a dance remix -- even a line of hip-hop fashion.

An institution founded to rescue children from urban crises was cultivating a street-tough image. But the arrangement was unusual in other ways, too; Levin was acting as producer, booker, and manager -- roles that are usually separated to avoid conflicts of interest.

Two and a half years later, the album's distributor is out of business, and Up in Harlem is so scarce that the choir's had trouble scrounging enough copies to sell at concerts. A subsequent Christmas album, which included Hillary Clinton's recitation of "The Night Before Christmas," was not, Levin admits, "actively distributed." The ensemble has not been paid any of its advances or royalties, nor has it received an accounting of sales, says Bob Chiles, who oversees its finances.

Levin has landed the Boys Choir some well-paying gigs. Last month, to promote a cruise line, they performed with Loretta Lynn, Jessye Norman, and two British military bands. In terms of prestige, it was a far cry from the group's well-known White House appearances. But singing before heads of state does not pay the rent, and so the choir, always scrambling for donations, has become increasingly dependent on such bookings to support its tuition-free Choir Academy of Harlem.

To help straighten out its finances, the ensemble has retained the pro bono services of Helene M. Freeman, an entertainment lawyer with Dorsey & Whitney. Freeman has just begun to pore over the choir's dealings with Levin and his company, and she's blunt about what comes next. "They are out," she says firmly, adding that the choir formally terminated its recording agreement with Levin.

Freeman's looking toward the future: "When I first got this client, I said, 'These people should be making a ton of money.' " Until they are, however, the failed Up in Harlem will stand as a reminder of a great institution's less-than-great experiment. Or would, if anyone could get his hands on a copy.


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