Mike Rimmer spent some time with Rev Bazil Meade, leader of the LONDON COMMUNITY GOSPEL CHOIR.
It's actually a little frightening to think that it's 21 years since I stepped into the independent Jumbo Records shop in the centre of Leeds to buy the 12" debut single from the London Community Gospel Choir on Island Records. How very contemporary it sounded! And now 21 years later as the choir celebrates its birthday with a live album recorded at London's Abbey Road studios, choir founder Bazil Meade is on the telephone.
"Thinking about that first single he says, "You've got a copy! There aren't many people with one of those." Sadly the relationship with Island didn't last for very long. He recalls, "I think that we both just ran out of steam. We had just broken out of this bubble from within the black church community, we were treading carefully and not wanting to rush ahead into no-man's-land. We were wanting to know more, wanting to know what was going on. This was where our ministry was taking us but it was a bit like a minefield having seen and heard so many things about secular bands and some of the pitfalls. We found it necessary to proceed carefully. I think Island ran out of steam and ideas of how to market the group. I suppose they just ran out of patience after awhile and we both went our separate ways and began to re-assess everything.
"From what might seem like a shaky start, the choir has lasted for more than two decades which isn't bad considering it was initially founded to perform one gig in London! Bazil explains, "Music was a major part of our worship. There were many young talented people at that time who were playing instruments and singing. We felt that it would be great to bring all these people together. We knew each other because we met occasionally. We wanted to bring all this together with one vision in mind, and that was to have a concert in London. A choir of about 150 voices. We thought it would be quite spectacular and would just make us feel good. And maybe it could be something we could repeat the following year. But that was the original idea behind it.
"LCGC wasn't Bazil's first venture into pioneering gospel music. He'd been an integral part of Kainos, a funky gospel group who had appeared at Greenbelt, recorded one album and featured the now very respectable Joel Edwards, the besuited statesmanlike leader of the Evangelical Alliance, leaping up and down and playing guitar. Even in Kainos, Bazil faced flak for developing contemporary gospel. "Unfortunately, that goes with the territory," he reflects. "When you're wanting to introduce change there will always be some criticism and opposition. But I think that is a good sign. It means you're wanting to break certain chains that people have felt secure within. It will bring with it a breath of fresh air.
"The choir have always found favour beyond the walls of the church with mainstream artists. "There are so many wonderful stories I can tell about doing that particular thing." He explains, "Many of the artists had never ever come across a Christian group backstage! And here was a gospel choir of about 40 or 50 young people, having a prayer session before they go on stage. It was unusual and on a number of occasions, some of these artists would come to the room or the area that we were given and just stand in the atmosphere of what was happening, because they had never ever experienced it. They certainly had no intention of going to church but here we were bringing church backstage at a rock festival! Even if it's only for a few moments of prayer that was sowing and feeding into people's lives. We've had our opportunity to pray with quite a few of those guys and sow seeds. They certainly felt the impact of the music once they heard the choir. They'd never heard voices like that, they'd never seen such intensity and passion. That's what made them, when they decided to record an album, call us, because they wanted to feel those sensations again and wanted that in whatever music they were recording.
"When it came to recording their 21st birthday album, the choir called in some of their friends for guest slots. Contributions from soul legend Sam Moore, blue eyed soul boy Paul Carrack and modern worship pioneers Matt Redman and Martin Smith all add an extra dimension to the proceedings. Bazil observes that when Matt sang "Blessed Be The Name", something special happened. "His song was such a blessing on the recording. The actual atmosphere and the sense of worship that it ushered in was just an amazing blessing to us.
" The choir had recorded at Abbey Road before with other artists. "We had been in a number of the smaller studios but never in the big studio 1, so that was the first time. I think I might have peeped in the room, just a quick glance but I had certainly never worked in that room before. So it was quite an amazing experience for the choir. I felt that we were turning that place into a temple and for that night, it was going to be turned into a church. We certainly had church there and enjoyed worshipping God. We took it over, and whatever it had been used for before was unimportant. On that particular night we dedicated it to God and used it to lift up the name of Jesus.
" Bazil made sure that he took time to take stock as the day of the recording unfolded so that he could treasure the memories. "I remember walking into the studio and there was activity all the time. The sound guys were setting up, there was the TV crew filming the DVD and making sure the lighting was right and their camera positions were right. There were times when I just sat to the side and watched everything happening around me. I looked at the ceiling, I looked at the walls and just imagined what it would be like when we actually started the recording. We also took time to pray as a choir. We had a lovely devotion period and we just committed the whole thing to God. We talked about all our feelings and what it felt like being there. We talked about our hopes for the project. It brought the whole thing home to me, the reason for being there. It's going into what some might consider 'the enemy's territory' and taking it over for God. That was very powerful to me for the whole evening.
" When thinking of a special moment, Bazil was particularly moved by working with Sam Moore. In the '60s Sam had been a huge soul star as half of Sam & Dave enjoying hits like "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Coming". Bazil explains, "That was so special because this was someone I'd listened to as a youngster. He's from church and there's an old traditional song that he chose to sing called "In The Garden". We talked and he told me about church and about how much God meant to him. During the rehearsal he just wept because he said, 'This song means so much to me. It brings me so close to God and reminds me of where I first learned to sing and how special God has been to me and protected me all these years. ' So listening to him and hearing him singing that song was a very special moment for me during the evening." The choir are celebrating their 21st anniversary for the whole of 2003. They are playing shows at London's Royal Albert Hall and in Birmingham, Glasgow and Dublin as well as further afield. Bazil explains, "We'll be travelling to Japan as we have done for many years. We will be travelling to Zimbabwe very shortly as well as France and Eastern EuropeÉ so there is a lot on the agenda this year. Obviously releasing the album and DVD are major highlights for us. The DVD shows some behind-the-scenes recordings of the preparation and talks to some of the musicians and choir members. So you feel the heart of the choir.
" Bazil is rightly excited about the new album and DVD and reflective about the journey so far and all the opportunities LCGC has taken. "This is what I feel the music's all about. It's bringing artists together, whatever culture, whatever background. We can all work together because we all come in the name of Jesus and we want the same thing, and that is for people to see that serving God is the best thing they can do with their lives. The recording of the album reflects the wonderful time that we had there."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.