A whole crop of British gospel artists make their CD debut this month with an album, not in traditional gospel style, but with a strong R&B underground flavour. Tony Cummings investigated.

People in the record industry have been saying it for years - if you want singing talent you need look no further than the black churches. For decades A&R men and producers have been trying to persuade gospel singers - acknowledged by all as prestigious vocal talents - to leave their God songs on one side and record something "commercial".

But now this scenario has been well and truly turned on its head. For with the release of a new various artists album, a dozen or so of Britain's grassroots gospel artists have recorded an eminently commercial R&B-style album yet one crammed full of songs of faith and salvation.

'New Flava Vol 1' offers tracks by a bevy of UK-based singers, namely John Gibbons, Marissa Anglin, Charlene Reid, Tyrone Henry, Samantha Edwards, Yolanda Sutherland, Janine Cross, Gillian Nembhard, Raymond Dyer, Stella, Jasmine Kirby and Sarah Abraham. Its 15 tracks offer compulsive R&B grooves with a strong underground feel, just the kind of British R&B sound currently being toted by the R&B pirate stations.

Andrew Fearon, one of the founders of New Gen Music Group, the new mainstream company who've released 'New Flava Vol 1' agrees: "I think it'll be the pirates, and the underground R&B-orientated clubs, which will give the album its first exposure. Though having said that I've just taken a call from an R&B deejay whose got a show on BBC Radio Sheffield who said, 'I've never heard a gospel album sound so phat.' Underground mags like 'Soul Trade' really like it - already there's a buzz out there."

Both Andrew, and his partner at NGMG, Austin Aggrey-Odoom, come out of Britain's black churches. Andrew feels that an album like 'New Flava' is long overdue. "There has been a lack of recording opportunities for British gospel singers. This project brings out a lot of new talent to the general public."

How, I asked, did Andrew go about finding the singers for the album? "Well, I knew lots of people on the gospel circuit. Then, some were recommended to me word of mouth."

Did he experience any resistance from singers asked to sing rhythms quite different from those heard in church on a Sunday morning? "None at all. ALL the singers we approached were keen to get involved. There ARE very conservative elements in the churches, but that tends to be the pastors, not the young people."

The album was produced in several different London studios by Paul Cumberbach, a committed Christian himself. "We were thrilled by what Paul achieved. Sometimes the singers would go into the studio with no tune, no arrangement, no words and by the end of the day we'd have a kicking song. I can't praise Paul highly enough for the work he did - the album's got exactly the underground R&B flavour we were looking for."

Tyrone, who lists Commissioned and Teddy Riley as major influences, is working towards cutting his first solo album before too long. In the meantime he says he feels positive about 'New Flava"s chances. "If the vibe is hot, I believe people will accept songs about the Lord."

Raymond Dyer

It was while in prison that RAYMOND DYER finally came to an end of himself and came back to Jesus. "I'd grown up in the church, my mum and dad are born again Christians and I was filled with the Holy Ghost when I was 11 years old," recalls the 23-year-old singer. But when I was in my teens I began to see friends leaving the church and bit by bit my faith weakened." On his release from prison and with a new zeal for the things of God, Raymond joined the local church and was soon singing in the choir. Raymond's uncle is pastor Noel Dyer, who'll be known to visitors to Cross Rhythms '95 as the founder of Britain's popular gospel reggae group Liquid Light (see CR20) while Raymond's brother is Bruce Dyer, the professional footballer currently playing with Crystal Palace. ("Bruce believes in God but just never had that personal experience of Jesus.")

Raymond has his own group, Raymond And Co, which also features another outstanding singer on 'New Flava', Gillian Nembhard. "She was only 15 years old when she recorded her track but she has an awesome voice." About this album Raymond says, "Taking this music, with its powerful message of Jesus, into the nightclubs is a wonderful opportunity. This record can achieve a lot."

Sarah Abraham

Sarah is a member of the renowned COGIC Choir (she sang on the COGIC's 'He Reigns' album some time back but is also beginning to work as a soloist on the gospel scene).