James Attlee talked to singer VANESSA BELL ARMSTRONG, thought by some to be the greatest female singer currently singing out-and-out gospel.
In 1984, an album was released by a virtually unknown mother of five from Detroit that took the worldwide gospel audience by storm. A new voice had arrived - astoundingly confident, with a dazzling emotional range, and a battery of vocal acrobatics that had London's aspiring gospel singers running and re-running their tapes, as they tried to match her astonishing technique. Among singers, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.
Six years after the release of 'Peace Be Still', and the lights dim to blue for Vanessa Bell Armstrong's first solo concert appearance in the UK. What we get, first of all, is Vanessa on video. The singer appears on two large screens either side of the stage, singing her latest US single release, 'So Strong'. Footage of her performance is intercut with scenes of deprivation and protest in South Africa. Nelson and Winnie Mandela appear to roars of applause from the crowd who have surged forward. The camera cuts from a black American congregation singing the anthemic chorus, to chanting demonstrators in Soweto. Then Vanessa and her band hit the stage and launch into the super-heavy funk of "What He's Done For Me". It all seems a long way from the traditional sound of 'Peace Be Still'. Is this gospel music coming of age in the 1990s, or selling out? The oldest questions are the hardest to answer. I began by asking Vanessa about her background in Detroit.
"My father has a church named Mount Everett Church of God in Christ - a nice little-sized church, it started as a storefront, and he himself took off his Sunday clothes and come out there with his hands, and a couple of deacons with him, and built on their church, and made it what it is today. When I was going there it was just a storefront, and I would be over the choir, and it was just fun, it was like that's what I lived for was for Sunday, directing the choir and singing."
Having a father who was pastor of a growing church meant Vanessa and her sisters were actively involved on the ministry from a young age. "A lot of times I played the drums, my older sister Charlene Bell played the organ, and my little sister Margaret Bell would play the tambourine, and the others would clap their hands and we would have a good time."
As the congregation grew and more musicians came in, Vanessa was able to relinquish her drum stool, and concentrate on directing the choir, and accompanying her father on crusades. "I used to run with my father all the time. When he ran revivals, I used to go with him - I was like his right hand man! I would always go and work the altar -people that was receiving the Holy Spirit or what have you, I'd be praying over them - and I was young. It was something that just amazed me, because a lot of times it felt like somebody had just took over me and told me to go up and do it, you know - which I know that was the Holy Spirit, but after you do it, it was like 'why did I do that..." I think it was all in the plan for getting me prepared for my ministry, because there's times now when I have concerts where we have sho'nuff prayer service. I've had a line of people to pray for and to minister to, and it's just wonderful. The Lord will prepare you for whatever is coming up in your life, you know."
Vanessa has gone on record as saying she was called to be a gospel singer at an early age. Exactly when and how did that call come? "First of all, I was in my mother's stomach, and my father had not received the Lord yet, he wasn't no preacher or nothing like that - matter of fact I think he was still in the world - he was drinking or whatever, and my mother was the one who was in the church first. It happened that she had a dream, and the Lord showed her that I was going to be a little girl, and my daddy was going to become a minister. Then me and her was in this dark pit, like down in the dungeon, and my father was standing up out of the pit and he had a bright light shining on him, and she said 'well Lord, how can me and my baby come out of this pit?' And He said 'promise me the little one, that she will follow in her father's footsteps'; and when she said 'yes, Lord', we came out, and all three of us was in this bright light. Back then they wasn't doing the tests for is it a boy or girl, so I believe the story - and I was a little girl, and I was singing since I was four."
I said that I imagined a story like that could put a certain amount of pressure on a child growing up. Vanessa agreed.
"Now, it was cute at first to hear this story, right - but the thing was I heard it so much, until I started being rebellious about it after I got to a certain age. It was like 'don't tell me that story no more - I'm tired of hearing it. You got a chance to pick your life, what you wanted to do. Whether you wanted to be in the Church or you didn't - you telling me that I got to be, because of this dream you had?' I think all Mum and Dad did was pray, they couldn't really force it."
Most newcomers seemingly burst on the scene from nowhere, but in fact Vanessa had already had a considerable recording and performing career. At 13 she came under the influence of legendary choir director and mother of the Clark Sisters, Mattie Moss Clark. Soon Vanessa was soloing in Mat-tie's choir, and led two songs on each choir album that was released. At 16 she was singing with another choir. The Voices of Heaven, and she even recorded an album with her school, McKenzie High, where she was a bit of a child star. By her late teens however, she was well into her rebellious phase, and ready to turn her back on the Church for good. What happened to change her attitude?
"The Lord dealt with me with it. He whupped me too - the scripture says He chastens who He loves...oh, he got me - I got stricken with arthritis in my bloodstream, so the doctor told me it could end up anywhere on my body, and when it first got me I could not move - they had to drag me, or I had to hold onto someone's neck - and I couldn't understand. Then my father said 'read the book of Jonah - how Jonah tried to run. That fish just swallowed him up. Then he said OK God, I'll do whatever you say, just let him spit me back out - and he did.' That's what He had to do to me. He had to let me know, look, I'm not playing, I chose you - so you're gonna do what I say, or you gonna die! I don't think naturally I would have died, I think spiritually He would have cut Himself off from me; so I'm glad I took heed.
"Even now, everybody has a tendency to stray now and then, but it's like He's got a leash on me - He pulls it when I get too far outside of His will -'Alright Van, come back'. I love that about Him, He's so personal, He moves heaven and earth for me because He's got a plan for me. I am in the will of God - I do believe that."
Vanessa already had five children when her first husband persuaded her that she should be doing more than singing solos at church and entertaining the family in the kitchen. A demo was recorded and despatched to various companies, and then Vanessa went and sang at a James Cleveland gospel music workshop; when she got home her phone "lit up". Suddenly everybody wanted her to sign on the dotted line, and her life was dramatically changed.
Her career since those heady early days has not been uneventful. The fact that 'Peace Be Still' achieved instant classic status meant that any follow-up would be put under the microscope, and she has had her share of criticism from the church for moving into a more contemporary gospel style. She's currently signed to a secular record company, Jive, after label owner Clive Calder heard her while on holiday in the Bahamas, and decided he must have "that voice" on his label. As is so often the case, the advantages of big recording budgets, and increased exposure in the media, have almost been outweighed by lack of understanding of her motivation from her record company, and suspicion from traditional gospel fans. Her first album on Jive, the eponymous 'Vanessa Bell Armstrong', was a definite crossover attempt in the 'inspirational' mould, and earned criticism for being couched in such generalised language that it scarcely mentioned Jesus at all. Vanessa is unrepentant, committed as she sees it to forging a new kind of gospel music and breaking new ground. On her current release "Wonderful One" the message, at least on some songs, is more explicit, and the music state-of-the-art. Musical conservatives get short shrift.
"Clapping your hands, stomping your feet, and beating a tambourine, the organ and the drums and the guitars, people think we're taking that from the secular world, but it's no way, it started in the gospel! The devil stole the beat, he really did! So I'm out here fighting a war to take it back, because in the Bible it says praise Him with the strings and the harps and the cymbals and all of that - praise the Lord with everything that you have, not just with your vocal chords. Praise him with every instrument there is on this earth. He gave men the talent to make them and figure out how to use them, so I think we should use that.
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