Andrew Long ran after LCGC's leader Bazil Meade to get the London Community Gospel Choir's story.
When you talk about the music of British black gospel choirs there is one name that immediately springs to mind as a pioneering spirit in that field, a name which has opened doors for gospel music in television, live concerts and secular work. That name is, of course, The London Community Gospel Choir. I recently met the Choir's musical director, Bazil Meade, at his home in London to talk about their new album and also to look at their history. He began by telling me about his own background.
"I'm from an island called Montserrat," said Bazil. "It's a small volcanic island with a population of about 12,000 people. I left when I was aged nine for England: my dad gave me over to a friend who was just asked to keep an eye on me, a nine year old travelling by boat for a month with all my worldly goods in a little case.
"I first lived in the Clapton Pond area of East London. I had my first experience of trains when I came into Waterloo. I'd never seen a train or a bus before. It was overwhelming for me as a country boy; it was a whole new experience. Here I was in built up areas when I was accustomed to the animals, the goats, the sheep, the cattle, being able to go to the sea whenever I wanted to, so it was a completely different way of life and I had to learn. I'm not unique in that way because there was a generation of West Indians who came to England aged between eight and ten and I meet a lot of them now whose experiences are exactly the same."
I moved on to ask Bazil how he became interested in listening to and learning to play music.
"It was compulsory that I went to Sunday School. My mother went to church at the time so the rest of the family had to go. She went to a branch of the New Testament Church and the minister there was a musician, he loved playing the guitar. He was particularly good at that, a very keen guitarist. I suppose I began showing some interest in the music side of things and what really prompted me to start picking up a guitar was that when my older brother came to England, the first thing he bought with his first wage packet was a guitar. So I learned a few chords from him and I eventually developed sufficiently to be able to play in church. The minister then took me under his wing and started showing me more chords so I actually bought an electric guitar and started playing in church and it was all very exciting. The then assistant pastor of the church, Rev Parris, who was a travelling evangelist, didn't have a musician with her so she invited me to her home and she had some small organs which she had just bought with the intention of learning to play. She said 'have a go', so I said 'well, I can't play, I've not played keyboards before' and she showed me my first few chords. The first key I learned to play in was C sharp; by the end of that evening I was accompanying her. She had her first London meeting two weeks after that which I played in and it was just phenomenal, it amazed me that within two weeks of being taught my first few chords I was able to play sufficiently well in a public meeting, and I just went from strength to strength."
When Rev Parris left the New Testament Church she went on to form a church called The Latter Rain Outpouring Revival Church. Bazil went with her and it automatically fell to him to put a singing group together. Bazil remembers that time with fondness. "Yes, LROR," (Bazil revelled in pronouncing the name 'LeRoar'!), "my first really great choir. That organisation grew from about 15 people to a regular congregation of about 350 in a few years. We had three choirs, a youth choir, an intermediate choir and a senior choir, and we just developed the music side of that church. I was in charge of the music and that is where I cut my teeth and grew and learned a lot. I had this great passion to learn, I loved gospel music. I wanted to be able to play like the people I was listening to on albums, people like Billy Preston, who became my organ-playing idol. That was my passion. The LROR choir was the first gospel choir that made inroads into a lot of areas. We had a documentary made about the choir by an independent company which was shown on Channel Four and I was trying at that time to tease the choir from doing things purely within church circles because I had this desire to do something different than preaching to the converted. But there began to be objections to that in those early days and I think that is one of the things that led me to follow the route which later developed because I didn't want to be causing too many problems within the church that I belonged to. So I preferred being in a position where people were independent. I think that's where LCGC came in."
But before LCGC began Bazil and a few friends formed a funk-orientated band called Kainos, which at the time was considered quite radical within the black church. Bazil explained: "Kainos was brought together by Joel Edwards, Joe Pitt and myself. We wanted to do something that was a bit funky, there were other groups like The Heavenly Hopes for instance who were doing things on the gospel circuit, but were still fairly safe and traditional. We always tended to be a bit radical and Kainos, we felt, would produce music that would tend to cross over a little bit, and it did that, particularly in our live shows. For the first time I saw Christian youth within the black-led church get up on their feet and actually dance and that was in a Kainos concert down in Willesden, one of the more fiery churches at that time. The elders were amazed at what they were seeing but the music was really driving and the kids just got up the front, they came down and started letting their feelings be seen in their feet and in their hands."
Of course Bazil went on from that to begin forming the choir that would become LCGC. Not many groups in any style of music can legitimately claim to have given their first ever performance on national TV. "Yes," said Bazil, "that first performance was on 'Black On Black', which was the magazine programme for the black community presented by Trevor Phillips. We had already begun talking to various people who we wanted to invite to form this choir that we were talking about and at the same time I was approached to form a choir to come and do the Christmas show. We had already accumulated about thirty to forty people who were interested in being in this new choir and I responded to Trevor's request and said 'Yes, I can bring a choir to do it'. We rehearsed about three or four songs and went on the 'Black On Black' Christmas show and the response, Trevor told me, was just phenomenal, because it was the first time they'd ever tried it. We hadn't got the name yet, we tried it on the show and he started getting phone calls and letters in from people everywhere saying 'We'd like to hear more of that type of music'. He then decided to have for the following Easter a competition asking gospel groups from all over the country to send in tapes and a panel would then select a few of those to come on the Easter show and perform. The Inspirational Choir sent in a tape. They were invited and were spotted by the band Madness and were invited to come and sing on the "Wings Of A Dove" single, and I think what followed after that was a mini-album, I think they signed to Stiff Records. The COGIC Choir were also invited on to the show so the whole thing just came together as if it was all planned and it just launched this new push to bring gospel music to the community here and I really appreciated Trevor Phillips' risk. It was a good risk and it really helped to launch LCGC."
After finally deciding to christen themselves the London Community Gospel Choir they performed their debut concert at Kensington Temple in May 1983 which is still considered one of their best concerts during the 80s. The next decade saw the choir sometimes huge, more often scaled down as the logistics of putting a big choir on the road gradually sank home. Numerous TV appearances back-up sessions on numerous pop-sessions, concerts before diverse audiences - Christian and non-Christian, black and white - followed. Only their own albums proved to be a problem.
Considering their international reputation in concerts, TV and sessions, recordings in their own right have been thin on the ground. Including their hot-off-the-laser CD they've managed only four in ten years. The recording session for one album for EMI, carrying the snappy title of The London Community Gospel Choir Sing The Gospel Greats' raised a smile from Bazil when he recalled it.
"We loved doing that album because we had to improvise in so many ways. We were asked to do an album of gospel songs and hymns and we just spiced them up and put the LCGC stamp on them. A team of us got together, myself, Lawrence Johnson, Howard Francis, Wayne Wilson, we did all the re-arrangements and rehearsed the choir. The producer, Gordon Lorenz, hired a church in Finchley and everything was just put straight down. There was no cubicle for the drummer - our drummer was Nicky Brown, big guy, very loud, the only way to stop the drums from dominating everything was to get a lot of old mattresses and build a box and put him in there with just a peep hole so he could see the conductor. He recorded the whole album in there, and the choir was lined up out in the same room and we put all the songs down straight, just like that. Every time I listen to that album now the whole scene comes back to me. We did it all in about three evenings, people came straight from work down to Finchley to record the album. I love to listen to it, particularly on a Sunday morning."
In the mainstream pop/rock field LCGC have played at several rock festivals and performed on a lot of secular albums. They've done live shows with people like George Michael, Stevie Wonder and Foreigner. They also did three series of The Rock Gospel Show on BBC TV and have sung in several Royal performances. Bazil told me that some of his favourite memories come from touring in Scandinavia.
"They were very enjoyable and we made a huge mark on the Scandinavian people, particularly Sweden where our longest tour was for three weeks, full houses all the time, 750-2,000 seater venues, two concerts in some places. From this current crop of singers I think there may be only one or two who've actually been on those tours, so I'd like to take LCGC back into those areas and re-introduce ourselves because there are people who haven't heard us for many years, and people are asking when we are going to go back, so there are plans afoot to tour this year. I'd love to do that."
LCGC were also credited as the choir on Boy George's "Jesus Loves You" project. I suggested to Bazil that this was a rather controversial thing to be involved in. "That particular project came about as a job for my company. Unfortunately I wasn't in the country at the time and I'd left someone in charge of keeping things running for me and the booking came in so the person took it on and booked session singers for it who went on and did it as a job, and I became aware of it when I came back. I realised it was going to be of a sensitive nature but there was actually nothing I could have done about it at the time. I did instruct the record company that LCGC should not be credited for that but as record companies they went straight ahead and did that. So LCGC's name came into it and because I am the face of LCGC, whatever I do people tend to label it as LCGC but I realise it was a very sensitive thing. I do try and be selective about the type of artist I work with and ask for a lyric sheet of the song to make sure they're not saying anything that I am going to be uncomfortable with."
LCGC's new album 'Hush And Listen' is one of cover versions with a distinctly funk-based feel and contains a variety of songs including The Temptations' "Ball Of Confusion" and Marvin Gaye's "Abraham, Martin And John". Said Bazil, "The seed of an idea for an album of covers was sown about three years previously. Steve Mahler, who was then working for an agent called John Sherry (who used to find work for the choir), dropped this idea down on me one day of recording an album of Motown songs and soul greats. I said 'Sounds like a good idea, something we can think about'. He left that company and I never heard from him for two or three years and then one day he phoned, saying 'Bazil, remember that idea for an album of cover songs? Well, I'm working for a new company now and they're very keen. Are you interested?'. I said 'Why not?' so we had the meeting and he sent me a tape of songs he had in mind and really the choice of songs came from that."
The first single release from the album was the old Staples Singers' hit "I'll Take You There" with guest vocalist P P Arnold, who appears on several numbers. Curiously, this was followed by the release of a version of Bob Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door", not exactly a Motown classic, so why was it chosen? "I suppose the message of the song tended to fall within a theme that I wanted the album to have, and when I heard the arrangement that was done by the producer Myles Benedict I rather liked it. Once we put the vocals on and mixed it down I really felt very good about it but just as we were about to release that the Guns 'n' Roses version came out, so we had to put it on ice for a while."
The album has a large mainstream distribution deal and is also being distributed to the Christian trade by Kingsway. The full line-up of the choir on the album now numbers only eighteen. I asked Bazil why this was the case when they had been so large in previous years. "Economics," said Bazil. "In real terms the choir had 110 people on the register in 1984 and to move the choir round at that time we needed two coaches. You can imagine the cost. At the time the majority of people in the Choir were in their late teens and early twenties and single. I think I was probably the only married person in the choir. What happened was a lot of those people now have families and the rest of it, so numbers have been dropping, and the interest in being in choirs has also dropped. In the early 80s there was this great surge in choirs - you had LCGC, The Angelical Voice Choir, The Inspirational Choir, The Majesties etc. That has gone though a lot of the soloists from choirs have gone into solo careers or formed groups, so there's not that sort of interest in being in choirs and I think from our economic point of view as well it's advantageous to keep choirs down. I prefer having an average of twenty to thirty now."
Finally then, what does the future hold for Bazil and the Choir? "I'd like to see new singers coming through. The standard of lead singers is not as it was in the 80s. I'm sure there are very talented young people out there who'd like to be singing in choirs. We have to be very selective because I get a lot of non-Christian people who want to sing in choirs and really those are not the people I'm looking for. To sing gospel music effectively you need to believe what you're singing and if faith is not there then it's not coming from the heart and it really is a no-go area for non-Christians. However, I like to see committed Christian people and invite them to audition for the Choir. I'd like to see the group establish itself as something that will last and remain after most of us have packed it in and gone.
"Also," added Bazil, "one of the exciting projects we've been asked to get involved in is the 'Galleria', which is a shopping precinct on the A1 where they are planning to hold arts events and concerts from April this year. They've asked me to provide six gospel acts to do one appearance a month through the summer. It's a great opportunity for Christian artists to reach a lot of people as they estimate something like ten to twelve thousand people visit the site on weekends. So it's very exciting."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.