The Escoffery Sisters have long been doyens of Britain's gospel scene (remember their appearance on 'The Rock Gospel Show'...no?) Amazingly, they never recorded... until now. James Attlee spoke to THE ESCOFFERYS.
Hipsters who tuned in to Dance Energy on BBC2 one Monday evening as 1991 drew to a close received a slight variation to their usual menu of hip-hop, rave and rap. Sandwiched between a guide to the hottest clubs in New York and shots of bug-eyed jivers trying to hog the camera with flashy moves was a clip from a video of The Escofferys' debut 1 2-inch, "Look Who's Loving Me".
The track first made an impact in British clubs as an Atlantic import, before being released here by East West; Stateside the four sisters' gospel-funk had already made inroads into the black charts and been play listed by radio and cable TV stations. Those not in the know might wonder where the talented family originate - New York? Chicago perhaps? In reality they hail from Brixton and have long been at the forefront of British black gospel; in fact they scooped the Black Gospel Association award for Best British Gospel Group four years running.
Their jazz-influenced close-harmonies, their ventures into acappella and the dignity and restraint of their performance (a reflection of their Adventist background) set them apart when I first saw them appearing on the London gospel circuit in the early 80s. All a long way from the up-to-the-minute street sounds of their soon to be released Atlantic album 'Opinions'. So why, I wondered, did the London-based group end up with an American deal before the UK had sniffed ink on a contract, let alone vinyl?
"We signed to Atlantic simply because we met our manager (Robert Butler) through a family friend. He was based in the States and he was interested in seeing if there were any artists to sign here. Our number was given to him and we got talking and eventually a rough tape got passed to Atlantic. They liked it so then we did a demo and they signed us around September of 1990," explains Marcia.
The sisters have been given remarkable artistic freedom by their company. "With Atlantic, they loved what they heard on our original demos and they just let us go in the direction we were going in," says Sharon. "They haven't tried to influence us, that's what we like about them. It hasn't affected us that they're a mainstream rather than a gospel label. They want to see us do other projects like acapella, jazz and even traditional gospel."
The album 'Opinions' (only available in the States as we go to press) was cut in London using all British musicians. It was produce d by The Ethnic Boyz, otherwise known as Marcus Johnson and Steve Campel I, two veterans of Britain's black gospel scene.
The group first began to sing together in early childhood. The three older girls, Sharon, Sandra and Marcia, have had 20 years to perfect their technique, while newcomer Michelle, still only 17 and in the throes of completing her A-levels, has only been at it for 10. As in the stories of so many family singing groups there is a forceful parent lurking in the shadows, in this case their father George Escoffery, himself a gospel singer of no mean repute with seminal British outfit The Golden Chords.
"We listened to a wide variety of music and have been influenced by many different styles because our father was a great lover of music. We listened to everything from gospel to The Jones Girls, The Emotions, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Marley," says Sharon. When a general discussion gets under way of influences, names from the world of pop, jazz, and black and white gospel rub shoulders. Shirley Caesar, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Karen Lafferty, Stevie Wonder, The Wings of Light, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Glad... Eclectic or what?
Under the expert tuition of their father the girls developed their vocal skills performing at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brixton, often acapella, learning harmony and swapping parts mid-song to increase their range and leave listeners baffled as to exactly who was singing what. After their appearance at the debut concert of The London Community Gospel Choir at Wands-worth Civic Suite in 1983 the word was out that the Escoffery Sisters (as they were then known) were hot - in terms of music if not in frenzied stage performance.
"We were more expressive vocally and musically than most groups like us from an Adventist background," explains Marcia. "They wouldn't normally have a full band and we don't use drums in our church like the Pentecostals, so to Adventists we were probably quite radical. Yet in the eyes of the Pentecostals we were conservative! Gradually, as we mixed more with people from other backgrounds we got less restrained."
Friends made on the gospel circuit led to work in the secular market. When Paul Johnson, erstwhile LCGC soloist, went on to gain a solo pop deal he hired Sandra and the girls to come and provide backing vocals on his albums. This led to further work from an unexpected quarter.
"Paul 'phoned one day and asked if we would like to do a session the next day and when we said yes he told us it was with Stevie Wonder!", says Sandra. "We definitely weren't going to turn that down even though it was at short notice. It was an eye-opening and enjoyable experience. We had a lot of contact with Stevie during the sessions (for his 'Characters' LP); he wanted to know a lot about the people he was working with like our dates of birth, our names and general things about our personality. He was a very humble man, humorous as well and very down to earth. When he came over to do his concerts at Wembley and Birmingham we were in the choir and we worked on the video as well. Doing the video was useful experience; singing the parts over again, getting them right, getting the positioning right, being directed - it's totally different working to a track when you know you're being filmed. It's how you have to look, your faces have got to come over and the song's got to come over. The spirit and the message in the song and the enjoyment of the words have to be expressed in the way you look."
When it came to making their own video The Escofferys not only stayed in Britain but made sure they used a British director as well, as they are convinced that there is a lot of talent in the UK that deserves exposure. They themselves believe that their music reflects the British black experience both culturally and spiritually, as distinct from the American experience that informs US R&B and gospel.
"People tend to stereotype gospel as an American thing, because all the greatest artists have been American," says Sharon. "What we 're trying to pioneer is a British perspective. Our experience is different from the Americans. West Indians came over from Jamaica or Barbados or whatever island and had children and their background has influenced our lives - our music reflects that."
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