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Lena McLin

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Lena McLin
Lena Mae Johnson

(1928-09-05)September 5, 1928
DiedOctober 3, 2023(2023-10-03) (aged 95)
Years active1955–2023
FamilyThomas A. Dorsey (uncle)

Lena Mae McLin (née Johnson; September 5, 1928 – October 3, 2023) was an American educator, composer, author, and pastor, who served as a music teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system at Kenwood Academy.

Early life[edit]

Lena Mae Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 5, 1928.[1][2][3][4][5] At the age of five she was sent to live with her uncle, Thomas A. Dorsey.[6] She attended the Pilgrim Baptist Church as a child, where she was exposed to gospel music[7] and served as an accompanist to her uncle's choir.[6]

McLin had 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.[5][8]



McLin taught in Chicago at Hubbard High School, Harlan High School, and Kenwood Academy. At Kenwood she taught Mandy Patinkin, Deitra Farr, and Kim English.[1] Her other students included R. Kelly, Tammy McCann, Chaka Khan, Da Brat, Mark Rucker, Robert Sims, and Jennifer Hudson. She was called "the woman who launched a thousand careers" by art critic Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune.[9][10][11]

R. Kelly stated that it was McLin that convinced him to pursue a career in music over basketball, that he considers McLin his "second mother", and that she has remained an influence in his career continuously since his high-school days.[12] With her encouragement, R. Kelly wrote his first song, about poverty in Africa.[13]

McLin officially retired from teaching high school in the mid-1990s but continued teaching voice lessons.[6] She taught for 36 years, all at Chicago area public schools.[8] She has also given lectures at the Peabody Institute.[14]

McLin published the book Pulse: A History Of Music in 1977.[15] She also has a library of choral works published by the Neil A. Kjos Music Company.[16]


McLin founded the McLin Ensemble in the 1950s, 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.[17]

McLin and her husband Nathanael also founded the McLin Opera Company in the mid-1950s, funded with their own money.[18] 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 stage, as well as on radio and television networks.[19]

Her own opera, Oh Freedom, was played at Carnegie Hall in 1983.[20]

McLin composed a wide range of music, including cantatas, masses, and rock operas.[21] Her work has built from both European classical traditions and tradition African-American music, and "works large and small that, in essence, merged European and African-American languages", according to Reich.[11] She also fronted the gospel group Lena McLin & the McLin Singers.[22] In all, she has composed more than 400 cantatas, masses, solo and choral arrangements of spirituals, anthems, art songs, gospel songs, rock operas, soul and pop songs, works for piano and orchestra, and electronic music arrangements, including Free at Last: A Portrait Of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Musical Portrait.[6]

In 2011 a tribute to her musical career was held at the Emmanuel Baptist Church.[11] She was an honoree of the Human Symphony's Foundation living legends award in 2007.[8][23]

Religious service[edit]

In a resolution passed by the Illinois House of Representatives in 2008, the House stated that:

"Prompted by a calling from God on August 9, 1981, Lena McLin started a bible class in a small meeting room in the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago; during the next several months, Dr. McLin fervently studied the Holy Bible and attended divinity training classes and on February 26, 1982, Dr. McLin was officially ordained as a minister; the bible classes became services as Holy Vessel Baptist Church, and Dr. McLin was the pastor and the Minister of Music; and [o]nce established at a permanent address, Dr. McLin implemented outreach programs to help the Hyde Park community; the church began providing food, clothing, bus and train fares, temporary shelter, and Christian counseling to distressed men, women, and children; in 2008, Holy Vessel celebrated its 27th anniversary, and Dr. McLin celebrated her 26th anniversary as an ordained minister of God."[6]

Personal life[edit]

McLin had two children, Nathanael Jr. and Beverley, with her husband Nathanael McLin.[18]

In 2008 the Illinois House of Representatives adopted a resolution "that we congratulate Reverend Doctor Lena J. McLin on this momentous occasion and wish her continued health, happiness, and music in her life" upon the occasion of her 80th birthday.[6]

McLin was awarded honorary degrees by the Virginia Union University and Spelman College.[24] She was also a 2003 recipient of the lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Music Awards.[25]


Lena McLin died on October 3, 2023, at the age of 95.[26]


  1. ^ a b "Rev. Lena McLin". The HistoryMakers. Archived from the original on September 28, 2015. Retrieved April 11, 2013.
  2. ^ American Opera – Lena McLin
  3. ^ Encyclopedia of African American Music – Lena McLin
  4. ^ Women & Music: A History
  5. ^ a b "Len McLin". PBS. Retrieved April 11, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "LRB095 22469 KXB 52837 r: HOUSE RESOLUTION". Illinois House of Representatives. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  7. ^ Karen Hawkins (January 8, 2006). "Gutted church was noted for music Gospel stars lifted up voices at Chicago site". Boston Globe. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  8. ^ a b c "Lena McLin: Composer/Educator". Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  9. ^ Emmett George Price (December 17, 2010). Encyclopedia of African American Music, Volume 3. ABC-CLIO. p. 232. ISBN 9780313342004.
  10. ^ "Man in the Mirror". Vibe Magazine. November 2000. p. 112. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Howard Reich (March 24, 2011). "A celebration of Lena McLin's music". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  12. ^ Kevin Chappell (July 1996). "R. Kelly: His Exciting Mansion and His Controversial Mix of Shock and Salvation". Ebony. p. 134. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  13. ^ "A Soul Divided". Vibe Magazine. March 1996. p. 64. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  14. ^ Adam H. Jenkins (August 19, 1972). "Workshop on black music a success at Peabody". Baltimore Afro-American. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  15. ^ Lena McLin (1977). Pulse: A History Of Music. Kjos West. ISBN 9780849756009.
  16. ^ "Choral Publications by Lena Mclin (43)". Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  17. ^ "McLin Ensemble to Present Two Opera's". The Bulletin (Chicago newspaper). Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  18. ^ a b Dorothy Witte Austin (March 15, 1966). "Half Paid, Half Free Opera Company". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  19. ^ "McLin Opera plans Fashion Fair". Washington Afro-American. September 14, 1965. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  20. ^ Bernard Holland (February 15, 1983). "Opera Ebony: Black History". The New York Times. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  21. ^ "Lena McLin". Human Symphony Foundation. Retrieved April 11, 2013.
  22. ^ Dave Hoekstra (November 29, 1998). "The Righteous Brother: R. Kelly's ambitious album of genre- spanning songs finds him updating the spiritually grounded R&B of such greats as Al Green and Donny Hathaway". Los Angeles Times.
  23. ^ "2007 Honorees". Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  24. ^ Oxford African American Studies Center (2006). "McLin, Lena" (PDF). Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  25. ^ "Dr. Lena McLin nominated for Life Achievement Award". Chicago Defender. January 11, 2003. Archived from the original on June 10, 2014. Retrieved May 14, 2013.
  26. ^ Chatman, Samantha (October 4, 2023). "Rev. Dr. Lena McLin, Chicago pastor, music teacher for Jennifer Hudson, Chaka Khan, dies". ABC7. Retrieved October 5, 2023.

External links[edit]