Since their inception in 1983, the LONDON COMMUNITY GOSPEL CHOIR have gone on to become the most consistently popular act in British gospel as well as frequent backing-singers to many a pop luminary. Yet, LCGC have managed to record only five albums in their own right. That's now changing, as George Luke discovered.
When historians look back at 1998, they will remember it as the year in which Britain's multicultural make-up was acknowledged in the most unusual ways. First we had fans of the England football team singing the praises of Indian food all the way to No. 2 in the charts. Then that most quintessentially British of musical events - The Proms -was brought radically up to date with a large dose of Soul, courtesy of our very own London Community Gospel Choir. With that in mind, it's perhaps appropriate that the choir have borrowed the American motto, "Out of many, one" (E Pluribus Unum) to use as the title of their latest album.
Out of Many - One Voice might be the choir's fifth album, but in the minds of many of their fans, it's the first one that really shows the choir's true heart. "On a one to one basis, from people in our community, it's been well received, and people say it's a good album," says founder/leader Bazil Meade. "A lot of musicians from the community - and musicians can be very critical - have been very positive; they say it's one of the best albums recorded by a UK gospel act. There's an air of optimism in their voices, which means we've hit the right spot, and it definitely has the stamp of our identity on it. This is all original material, so straight away it stands head and shoulders above the others. I think in terms of achievement, you have to be prouder of an album that contains songs you've penned yourself. It's making a powerful statement in regard to creating something that's unique to us here in the UK. It makes a strong comment as to where we are musically.
The album is the debut release of FAR Records, one of British gospel's newest commercial ventures. The label belongs to author/studio owner Viv Broughton and veteran songwriter/producer Nicky Brown. "I felt good signing with FAR, because Nicky and Viv are people I know, who've been involved in the gospel music industry for years," says Bazil. "I prefer that type of thing, as opposed to going to a big company, because you're going into a situation where you don't know people." I think I can vouch for the commitment of both players here. Viv has been involved in gospel music for so many years; he's always trying to promote it, so his commitment to gospel music is quite evident. Nicky was born in it.
"It was a matter of discussing what connections they had and would use to promote whatever recordings we would make - that was the deciding factor. I could feel their respect and earnest desire to develop what I'm doing with the choir; that made the decision easy to make. I'm not into wanting to become a star, signing big recording deals with huge advances. You put a noose around your neck when you do that sort of thing."
FAR's bosses had quite a hands-on role in the making of the album; Nicky produced it, and Viv is credited as executive - producer. Viv was also partly responsible for the eye-catching cover art. "He had a book containing a lot of photographs," says Bazil. "We were looking for ideas we thought would make a good album sleeve, and that one kind of stood out to us. We thought it would be great, because of what I read into it whenever I look at it. You've got one fish - a different colour to all the rest - going in the opposite direction. Not being influenced by everything else around, but going in the direction that he feels he should be heading in. It's a powerful picture; it stimulates the mind into thought."
The aim now, according to Bazil, is for the choir to record an album a year. "We've got to keep them coming off the conveyor belt now. We've got the voices, and people with the commitment and talent to write songs, so we're working towards that."
The choir's most recent jaunts include trips to Israel and Japan, plus backing vocal duties for Celine Dion and African star Manu Dibango. They were part of a star-studded line-up celebrating the Windrush's 50th anniversary - and then there was the gig at Glastonbury, where a power cut forced them to perform acappella.
"It's the sort of thing people have come to expect of us," says Bazil, "because they see a gospel choir such as LCGC as being so versatile that a situation like that wouldn't cause panic. They said: 'We know you guys; we know of your reputation - will you go on?' Things are set in concrete at that kind of festival; each act goes on, performs for 45 minutes, there's a 15 to 20-minute change over, and the next act goes on. I said, 'Okay, fine - if we've got to do it, we've got to do it. We came all this way to do a 45-minute slot, and we'll do it.' We went on, and it was fabulous. For me, even though there's an element of disappointment in situations like that at first - because you've brought all your equipment along and can't use it - they're an opportunity to demonstrate the skills and abilities of gospel artists. We can play; we're talented; we can sing - with or without instruments. We can present the gospel in whatever situation we find ourselves in."
America hasn't called yet, but Bazil isn't holding his breath. "Unless something sound comes from the States, I don't really think about it, to tell you the truth," he says. "It's not a priority. There are many other places where gospel isn't heard much, where the appreciation and expectancy levels are different because it's new, whereas in America there are gospel choirs and groups everywhere. I much prefer going to untapped areas and presenting the gospel there.
"I'd love to take the choir to the West Indies. It'd be great for the Caribbean islands to experience the LCGC - and vice versa - because the majority of what the Caribbean hears is American gospel. That's a pet project with me -I really want people to appreciate the talent that's here in the UK."
Another pet project closer to home involves taking gospel to Britain's school kids. Bazil has been developing a work project for the choir within schools, with a two-fold purpose. "It will maintain the Christian message within schools, as well as teach the culture behind the music, and the skills and discipline that go with it," he explains. "It will give children a chance to express themselves artistically in a lot of schools, where the amount of music being taught is diminishing. My aim is to get it included in the national curriculum."
Probably the most controversial aspect of the LCGC's work is providing backing vocals for mainstream pop acts. In the past, they've received flak from the church for singing with the likes of Boy George, and there was a much-publicised incident a few years ago, when they pulled out of a session with George Michael after objecting to a line he wanted them to sing. I asked if that sort of thing was a regular occurrence. "As I run a session agency, I have both Christian artists as well as non-church people on my books," replies Bazil. "If there's a situation which I don't want to put my Christian members in, I appeal to the non-church members to see if they're interested. If it's an artist who's just outright offensive to work with, I just tell them no."
In the not-too-distant past, the LCGC has served as a sort of apprenticeship or training ground from which aspiring gospel/R&B acts have launched their careers. Bryan Powell, Lavine Hudson, Paul Johnson, Ronnie Jordan and others did their time and moved on, but according to Bazil, those out of the current crop of singers with the potential of going solo are staying put. "They want to pursue their dreams," he says, "but they also want to maintain their involvement with the choir -which, I think, is much more productive in terms of putting something back into the group. If I come across a singer or singers who have the tools I need and think will benefit the choir, and they have the right personality and Christian commitment, I would invite them to be part of the choir -but I'm not recruiting. In fact, I'm looking to make it harder for people to get in!"
Having been a sort of surrogate father figure in a very large family, what changes has Bazil noticed in his children over the years?
"I've seen people become much more confident and sure about their faith," he replies. "I think that because of the closeness and family atmosphere in which the choir lives and moves, and so forth, people have become more sure about their faith in God, and the importance of maintaining it. I think they've become more aware of themselves, and have learned to value who they are. I just see confidence as the area people have grown in - in their faith, the role they play in their own churches - growth in many different areas."
And Bazil himself? "It teaches me daily to be more patient. To see, to be real, because inasmuch as I help people develop artistically and in these other areas, it's a reflection on me. Many times, it's like mirroring all the things I'm trying to do. I see my own weaknesses; sometimes I feel totally inadequate and doubt whether advice I give to people might be right, because people tend to depend so much on advice I give them or things I might say -and that can be frightening at times. But I realise I've got to do that if people seek my help, and are working with me. Learn to be patient and understanding, and trying to be supportive.
"I think in those areas, I've grown more. I've learned to be more
tolerant. My own confidence has grown, because I haven't always been
confident; I've been in this position for years, but I've had my very
low periods when I've lacked confidence in terms of playing, singing,
and doing everything else. But it's part of the experience, and I've
learned to depend more on God, and remember the things he's given me
and blessed my life with. I've been able to tap into that when I need
to, and be encouraged."