New Jersey Mass Choir: The US choir who shot to fame through "I Want To Know What Love Is"

Tuesday 1st May 1990

The NEW JERSEY MASS CHOIR flew into Britain, sang up a storm and departed leaving clamorous crowds dancing in the aisles. James Attlee caught the show...and the bus.

New Jersey Mass Choir
New Jersey Mass Choir

It's a strange irony that it should be a white pop record that would make an American black gospel choir a household name around the world. Nevertheless, it was their collaboration with Foreigner on their internationally massive hit "I Want To Know What Love Is" that first brought the New Jersey Mass Choir to most people's attention.

As I hurried to the Dominion Theatre in London's Tottenham Court Road, I reflected that an hour before the show was not an ideal time to speak to any performer. At the theatre, my worst fears seemed to be realised. Various members of the sound crew were wandering about, a man from BBC radio's Religious Programmes was talking to a journalist by the mixing desk, but of the choir, or of Donny Harper, the choir's director, there was not a sign.

Just then I saw three American-looking ladies clutching Big Macs and thick-shakes, walking down a side aisle to a back exit. Sure enough, I was told, the choir were just getting on their bus to go to their hotel. I gave chase, and latched on to a pleasant man in a leather jacket who turned out to be a choir member, sure, I could get on the bus, and he'd point out Donny in the crowd.

So it was that I found myself on board a coach with the New Jersey Mass Choir, inching through the back streets of the West End. As the driver negotiated the massive vehicle around a particularly tight corner, his passengers burst into spontaneous applause. "We need more like you in New York" someone shouted.

Donny Harper sat calmly in the front seat, as his tour manager counted the choir members. No, they'd not lost any yet. He seemed unperturbed at the thought of yet another interview - in fact, I got the impression it would take a lot to disturb this man - and back in the hotel we spoke as he renewed his acquaintance with a sandwich he'd been forced to abandon when he'd left for the sound check some hours before.

Yes, he'd had a traditional gospel music background. "I grew up with gospel music - my father was a preacher. The people who raised me, my Mom and my Pop - at least they were my grandparents, but I call them my Mom and my Pop - raised me in church and I started out in a choir, and it all just started out from there."

Donny always wanted to form his own choir-"you can do so much more with a choir because of the voices, you know - " but it was the encouragement that came from his involvement with James Clevelands Gospel Music Workshop of America that finally got him started.

I said that, watching choir directors work, it struck me that they needed very special abilities - did he agree, and if so, what were they?

"Yes, listen, yes, takes a lot of stick-to-it-ness, it takes a lot of perseverance, it takes a lot of patience, a lot of takes talent also. You have to be called, I guess you have to have the natural leadership abilities as far as not just song-leading, but leadership, holding an organisation together, it takes a lot of God, a lot of prayer, because you have much prayer, much power - no prayer, no power. So you really have to get into the Word of God and prayer, then He'll direct you!

The New Jersey Mass Choir is interdenominational, and has long since extended beyond its New Jersey roots, with members drawn from all over the US. It's also a small choir by British standards, with only 20 singers coming on the European Tour. Was this to facilitate travelling?

"Listen, trust me! Its good - because the New Jersey Mass Choir was once comprised of 150, almost 200 members, it might have been more, I lost count. We needed three of four buses to get from one state to another. For good travelling purposes you compact it to around 25. These are your picked voices, the main voices, the good voices who do the job of 150. Everybody is in their place, and doing what they're supposed to do," he said.

Donny declared himself pleased with the response of British audiences to the choir's appearances in Manchester and Birmingham. While these show's drew predominantly the black church hard-core gospel fans, he was hoping for more of a mix in the audience at the Dominion. The choir is attracting more and more white people to concerts in the US "and that's the way it should be. I like it".

"We would like to reach as many people as we can with the gospel - the gospel is capable of doing that for the word says 'if I be lifted up' (meaning Jesus) 'I'll draw all men.'"

So he's convinced that gospel music can be instrumental in winning people for Christ?

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Reader Comments

Posted by Dargai Eric Bemah in Liberia @ 18:42 on Oct 30 2010

Well I have been hearing about the New Jersey Mass choir and people told me alot about this choir. Well i want to thank God first and appreciate you guys for the great job done, and it is only God who will reward you people for his work.

Well, I am the founder of the Sinkor Community Mass Choir (SCMC) in Liberia/west Africa.

well just to say little bit about the formation of this mass choir, it all happen, after seeing the need of churches coming together in unity to form a mass choir which will comprise members from all the church in the area. But than I thought for a while and started thinking how i could make this work, while in the struggle of putting ideas together, something told me to organize a musical contest and from there, I can than share the vision with other churches choir directors and others that will be present, I organized the contest and everything went on fine.

As i speak to your now, we have started practice sections and we have pretty close to thirty (30) members as I speak to you now. In this like, we will like to establish a contact with you people in order to propagate the Gospel through songs and other things worth doing in other to spread the gospel.

We hope to hear from you people
the choir and it leadership is hoping and wishing that you accept their friendship as we all work to the glory of God.

Dargai Eric Bemah
General Coordinator
Sinkor Communiy Mass Choir (SCMC)

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