James Lott was 16 when his mother Dorothy and 15-year-old sister Tonjia were stabbed to death at their home in Woodlawn.
Bishop Larry D. Trotter tried to comfort him, but it was all too much for the young man.
“He took off running, the pain was so heavy,” said Trotter, the longtime senior pastor of Sweet Holy Spirit Church of Chicago, 8621 S. South Chicago Ave.
But soon young James did something that had the congregation marveling at his strength, Trotter said: “He directed the choir at his mother’s funeral.”
Mr. Lott, 53, who rose from being a teenage tenor singing in the choir to the church’s minister of music, died Saturday. He had been in declining health as the result of a medical condition, according to Sean Howard, a spokesman for the church.
“I’m so used to seeing this fella directing a song, and, if the sound wasn’t right, running from the choir to the back of the church, talking to the sound man, and then he’d be back hugging the singers,” Trotter said.
The role of music minister encompassed everything from making sure that choir robes are immaculate to overseeing rehearsals, song selection, the sound system and arrangements. Mr. Lott also assigned solos and handled the choir’s bookings and travel for performances that took the group as far as the Bahamas and Germany.
Sweet Holy Spirit Church has “one of Chicago’s finest contemporary gospel choirs,” said Robert Marovich, author of the 2015 book “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.” “They always had great albums, and they also have a traditional side, too.”
Mr. Lott helped start and was president of the church’s first record label, Utopia Music Group. He directed recording sessions at the church, which is known for its good acoustics. In addition to the choir, he recorded gospel artists including the Rev. Charles G. Hayes & the Warriors, Montrae Tisdale & the Friends Chorale and “Lady” La Varnga Hubbard.
Hubbard has sung all over the world, but she said Mr. Lott made her feel treasured. She said that when he handled the arrangements for her to attend gospel’s Stellar music awards, “Everything was just fitted for a queen.” Thanks to him, she walked the red carpet for the first time.
“I would call him my rock,” said Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter VaShawn Mitchell, who joined the church as a young man.
Mitchell said that whenever he was nervous, Mr. Lott would “calm me down. He’ll say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ’’
As gospel accolades and awards started to accumulate for Mitchell, he said, “James called me on my phone and said, ‘What’d I tell you? I told you you [were] a star.’ ”
Telisa Stinson, an Atlanta music executive who has run gospel record labels, used to book her artists to perform at Sweet Holy Spirit Church, where she said Mr. Lott would warmly welcome them.
“He was just kind,” Stinson said. “He helped everybody.”
Born in Greenville, Mississippi, Mr. Lott arrived in Chicago with his family when he was about 5 years old. He went to Luella grade school and Dunbar High School.
He started directing the choir at 14. And when it performed “Lift Him Up,” Trotter said, “It would tear the roof off.”
After his mother was killed, he was raised by his father Charles Almars Sr. and his wife Betty Holmes Lott.
“I felt like he was always mine,” she said. “He was an excellent son.”
He rarely got in trouble, Lott said. And when he did, she said, “If he smiled, he’d know I’d forget everything he did.”
Mr. Lott studied plumbing at Washburne Trade School and worked as a plumber, balancing that with his work at the church.
He is also survived by his siblings Michael, Keshia, Derrick, Demetrius and Charles Jr. and his best friend Antoine Bell. A service was held Saturday.
His stepmother said that, just before he died, “He said he was ready. He was ready for heaven.”