Richmonder Robbie Cunningham can comfortably belt it out in the 1,300-seat sanctuary of St. Paul's Baptist Church in Richmond's South Side, but the size of his audience has just exploded.
Viewers who tune into NBC's mini-reality show "Clash of the Choirs," which premieres Dec. 17, will find Cunningham suiting up in a robe for Patti LaBelle's team.
Cunningham and LaBelle are competing against choirs headed by Michael Bolton, Nick Lachey, Kelly Rowland and Blake Shelton.
Cunningham, 44, hopes the experience spells a career move. He had to commute between Philadelphia and Richmond for rehearsals -- expenses NBC didn't cover. The demanding schedule led him to quit his temporary position in the mortgage department at Bank of America, where, he says, the tough housing market meant his job wasn't secure through the end of the year.
Cunningham grew up in church choirs but has been gaining momentum as a professional. Last year he released his first album, "Songs Nana Used to Sing," on Philadelphia International Records, and he wrote one of the tracks on local jazz musician James "Saxsmo" Gates' new album, "It's Time."
Cunningham reported for his audition on "Clash of the Choirs" filming in the same studio where he produced his record the week before Thanksgiving.
Competitors drifted through the gold-record-lined hallways performing vocal warm-ups while Cunningham sweated. He was scheduled to go on at 4 p.m., but didn't go on until after 10, the last audition of the night.
Before he entered the studio, a producer furnished a rose for him to give LaBelle and instructed him to say something "elegant" to her.
LaBelle, in an elaborate hat and flanked by cameras, was waiting inside the studio. She took the rose and brushed it across her face while Cunningham stumbled to say his name and that he planned to sing "Amazing Grace," which LaBelle suggested they dedicate to Kanye West and his late mother Donda, a Virginia Union University graduate.
"Once I opened my eyes and saw her kind of pull away a tear, I went, 'Yeah!'" Cunningham says. "I didn't care if I made it or not because I had really done something." The mostly live show airs at 8 p.m. Dec. 17 through Dec. 20. S