Roland Johnson Bell is better known as Roly, if "known" is the right word for a rock gospel singer who seems to defiantly shun any trappings of fame and fortune. Words by Tony Cummings, photos by Ian Bosworth.
Twenty perspiring eight-year-olds do their P.E. while Roly sets up his PA. Two tried and tested speakers, a battered Trucker PA, a couple of mike stands and a Yamaha keyboard which cost £900 new but which you could now pick up for £300; to the kids peeping excitedly through the assembly-hall window it might as well be a state-of-the-art 10k rig. Their assembly is going to be different today and something of the aura of showbiz hangs in the sweaty air. Blue Coats Church of England Junior School, Walsall, West Midlands has an old building, a nice headmistress and an enlightened regime, enlightened enough to see that religious instruction doesn't mean multi-faith free-for-alls and enlightened enough to allow a 'rock gospel vicar' (near enough) in to do their assembly on this cold winter morning. For Roly Johnson Bell, schools work, if not his bread and butter (he doesn't get paid for it) is the focus of much of his work. Blue Coat is unusual in that it has its assembly at 11.30am. Usually Roly carried out his calling to "let the kids know there's a God that loves them and that God's called Jesus" at hours when only mad dogs and cockerels are awake.
As he sticks batteries into effects pedals, and gaffer-tapes leads into position Roly entertains me with tales of packing his hernia-inducing equipment into frost covered transits at 4am in the morning. "I'll go wherever I'm asked to go...sometimes they give me petrol money, often they don't. What matters is taking the message to the kids." It's nearly time to do that now. Roly, in dapper floral shirt and spiky haircut, works with quiet efficiency as the P.E. class leave and the kids, 350 of them dressed in grey (boys) and blue (girls), begin to file in. A brief introduction and Roly's up and running, a human dynamo wrenching power chords from his flanged guitar over a backing tape loud enough to make the kids at the front wince "I found love, I found love, I found love, love in Jesus," he roars in his wonderfully gnarled rock'n'roll voice. Later I learn that "I Found Love" is written by friend Steve Lister an ex-biker with a staggering testimony of deliverance. Simplistic the lyrics might be but every syllable exudes sincerity and the kids love the thunderous boogie rhythm, glancing shyly at their teachers to see whether it's OK to nod a head in time to the beat. Roly begins to speak in a Geordie accent thick enough to need subtitles. "Whadyathinkmyjobis?" he asks the kids. As he unstraps his guitar, and moves to the Yamaha he rolls out the Truth in snappy, one-liners. "I'm a vicar but I don't wear my collar backwards; I've not got religion, I've got a relationship", "Just lately I've been learning what it means to be loved with an everlasting love". A slow rather soulful ballad backs up the last statement.
Roly wrote "Everlasting Love" in 1984 but it's still a favourite. He finishes with a prayer addressed to Jesus. At the end (15 minutes to the second) the headmistress asks whether the kids would like Roly to return. The screech of 350 voices laying their allegiance is the nearest to a pay cheque Roly will see this day.
Beaming he promises the headmistress he'll phone to fix up a return visit and then begins the backbreaking slog of getting his gear back in the transit. On the drive back to his Walsall home Roly talks, excited as the schoolboys he's been ministering to, about schoolwork.
"There are incredible opportunities in schools right now," he says, "stupendous opportunities. Christians should be coming into schools in their droves. It is actually legislation at the minute that schools are to indulge in a daily act of Christian Worship. That is law now. Now maybe that's not the best way of imposing it on people, but if we as Christians have been given that opportunity, we want our heads examining if we don't take it." Roly takes it. But it costs. For the last eight years he's been 'living by faith' as he ministers the Gospel through song. Roly is a rock-gospel singer. But his is a world as far away from the Dove Awards as it's possible to get.
"I've done a lot of schools work - assemblies, R.E. lessons, concerts outside of school time. Then my work ranges from hospitals, prisons, colleges, pubs, clubs.
"The toughest job I have ever done is singing in the Red Light district in Amsterdam."
In the middle of most heinous area there are some wonderful Christian coffee bars, which seek to be agents for the Gospel in that situation.
"I've sung in Belfast. On the Shankill Road the work is so varied but again the bottom line is availability. If I am to remain available to do work, especially in schools, I can't hold down a full time secular job as well."
Not that Roly is some kind of evangelistic prima-dona waiting by the telephone for the next exciting call to spiritual battle. He has a wife and five children to support and even when he gets remuneration for his gospel ministry, the pay is bad.
"I will not leave myself available 52 weeks of the year because it says in the scripture 'a man who doesn't provide for his family is worse than an infidel and has denied the faith'. so I actually divide my time where I might go and do some part-time work. A guy in the church gave me some part-time work recently but I had to go to a place to shovel 200 used nappies into a black plastic bag in order to make money. Clearing out Council houses that were going to be relet in the town that I live in. I don't want anybody turning round and saying I'm doing my music for the glory."
The idea is laughable. Roly has paid gospel music dues, which would make many a pampered American rock gospeller wince. Though he has a diploma in theology and a clear Bible teaching gift Roly Johnson Bell has gone through several bouts of near homelessness, five churches and more hassles in the eight years since God told him to use his prestigious musical gift to communicate the Gospel than seems possible when looking at his lean, grinning face.
As we pull up at his house he launches into a riotous rough-and-tumble with his pre-school kids, delighted to greet their returning father. We sit down to a delicious meal of (free gift) vegetables and afterwards go into his front room decorated with a psaltry his wife Polly still occasionally plays. Roly was born in Newcastle in 1954 and became a Christian at a local youth meeting. But by the time he'd become a pro-musician at age 19 he was far from the Lord.
His turning point came in Jamaica where, playing with a band, he'd gone out to check out the local reggae scene. "Within two days of being there I was nearly killed. I was lured on a pretence out to some hill where a bunch of guys surrounded us. I was about to be robbed and killed. I remember it was the most fervent prayer I have ever prayed in my life, it went 'God get me out of this and I promise you I will change'."
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