Tony Cummings recounts the history of the group who brought Trinidadian-flavour to UK church music, THE SINGING STEWARTS
The death of broadcaster Frank Stewart in Birmingham on 2nd April 2012 is the closing chapter in a key part of the development of British gospel music. For although in recent years it was Frank's radio work where for more than a decade he presented The Frank Stewart Gospel Hour on BBC Radio WM it was the many years he spent running the Midlands-based The Singing Stewarts which was arguably his most significant contribution to UK Christian music history.
The Stewart family arrived in England from Trinidad in 1961. They settled in Handsworth, Birmingham. They were a large family of five brothers and three sisters and all were devoted members of the Seventh Day Adventist church. The strict and devoted mother of the house trained the family in singing acapella and they sang a mixture of traditional spirituals and Southern gospel/country gospel songs written by composers like Vep Ellis and Albert Brumley. To this material they added a distinctly Trinidadian calypso flavour and by the mid '60s were performing all around the Midlands.
The Singing Stewarts came to the attention of a local BBC radio producer and folk enthusiast Charles Parker who heard in the group's unlikely musical fusion of jubilee harmonies, Southern gospel songs and a Trinidadian flavour something unique. Parker helped them get exposure to a national mass audience and in 1964 the Stewarts were featured in a TV documentary The Colony which gave a voice to the new working class Caribbean settlers of the Midlands. The Singing Stewarts were able to undertake a European tour where they played to crowds of white non-churchgoers. Then in the US in 1967 a Berkeley-based ensemble called the Northern California State Youth Choir found that a track on their independent album - a soulful arrangement of a Victorian hymn penned by Philip Doddridge - started getting plays on a San Francisco pop station. The choir, renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, were quickly signed to Buddah Records and "Oh Happy Day" went on to become a huge international pop hit.
In Britain the British record companies, alerted to the commercial potential of US gospel music, looked around for a British-based version of gospel music and in 1968 The Singing Stewarts were signed to Pye Records. Hardly surprisingly, The Singing Stewarts' single of "Oh Happy Day" didn't sell, nor did the album with the clumsy title of 'Oh Happy Day And Other West Indian Spirituals Sung By The Singing Stewarts'. It was produced by band conductor Cyril Stapleton and released on the budget line Marble Arch Records. Also in 1969 The Singing Stewarts appeared at the Edinburgh Festival where their folksy Trinidadian flavour delighted the arts festivalgoers.
The singing Adventists continued to perform to black and white audiences and even performed on the same stage as Cliff Richard. In 1977 the group were signed to Christian label Word Records, then in the process of dropping their Sacred Records name. The Singing Stewarts' Word album 'Here Is A Song' was produced by Alan Nin and was another mix of old spirituals ("Everytime I Feel The Spirit"), country gospel favourites (Albert Brumley's "I'll Fly Away") and hymns ("Amazing Grace"). With accompaniment consisting of little more than a double bass and an acoustic guitar it was, in truth, a long, long way from the funkier gospel sounds that acts like Andrae Crouch were beginning to pioneer.
The Singing Stewarts soldiered on for a few more years but clearly their popularity, even with the middle of the road white audience, gradually receded. In his book British Black Gospel, author Steve Alexander Smith paid tribute to The Singing Stewarts as "one of the first black gospel groups to make an impact in Britain" and "the first gospel group to be recorded by a major record company." They clearly played their part in UK gospel's continuing development.