Tony Cummings reports on the choir set to become the biggest act in British gospel history, THE KINGDOM CHOIR
When in 2004 the album 'Smile, It's A Brand New Day' by The Kingdom Choir was released, the Cross Rhythms reviewer neatly summarised the London-based aggregation's history up to that moment. "Under the leadership of Karen Gibson, the Kingdom Choir have been part of the British gospel scene for over 10 years, during which time they've sung for Nelson Mandela and with Elton John and Luther Vandross."
Now, 14 years after that Christian Aid-sponsored album, the time has finally arrived for album number two. The release by music giant Sony of the Kingdom Choir's 'Stand By Me' album has, of course, come about through a most unlikely event for any artist to find a huge audience - a performance at a wedding. The choir's rendition of the old Ben E King song "Stand By Me" at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on 19th May at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle was utterly game-changing for the veteran music makers. Their version was watched by a TV audience of 1.9 billion people. The response to the choir's performance was instant, and "Stand By Me" found itself at number one on Billboard's Hot Gospel Songs chart.
Watching the Kingdom Choir on TV was talent manager Jonathan Shalit, OBE, chairman of the InterTalent Rights Group. As he told music industry magazine Music Week, "I turned to my wife and said, 'I want to work with them.'" For him, the clincher was "the effortless way they sang the song, with no ambition for it to be the moment that changed their lives." Usually, "An artist would use an event like this to promote themselves," he said. "They'd see the world watching and make the most of it. Which is, of course, fine, but in this case you could see the choir had extraordinary integrity, an extraordinary love for what they did and for each other. There was a real innocence in how they performed, with no ambition at all except singing in a heart-wrenching way. This was not a career day, it was a day of love."
But it just so happened that everyone was watching. "On the one hand you had this historic global event and on the other an intimate family gathering," said Shalit. "It was perfect." Two weeks later, Shalit read an article in The Guardian about Karen Gibson, describing her as the 'godmother of gospel'. "The one thing she didn't mention was a record deal." So he emailed Karen and they spoke for an hour on the Bank Holiday Monday. "When I told her they could sell millions of records, she didn't believe me," he smiled.
"We were recording our first EP at the time," laughed Gibson. "You don't do that if you think you're about to get a major record deal."
Shalit, alongside co-manager Naomi Everson of InterTalent Rights Group, eventually signed the choir to Sony, he said, "because they offered a vision and understanding. Karen comes from a gospel choir and her starting point was not, 'How much money can I make?' She wants to take the joy of what she does to the world."
Phil Savill, MD of Sony Music Commercial Group, confirms the major sees the choir as "long-term artists". "There will be an album number two and three," he asserted.
"My ambition for all my clients is to conquer the world," said Shalit. "But these people come together to rehearse every week because they love spreading the Gospel. They don't come together to be treated like pop stars. Some of them have no ambition to conquer the world."
But they just might, whether they like it or not. Shalit says the choir has been asked to record the official Coca-Cola song for the brand's Christmas advert, to be shown in 14 countries worldwide. They have just sung on TV's The One Show and made a memorable appearance at the Invictus Games Closing Ceremony in Australia. In London, they will be playing a headline concert at Union Chapel on 28th November, followed by gigs in America, Holland and Germany in December. Then there's an 18-date UK tour starting in April 2019 and an American tour planned for September 2019.
It's all part of Savill's plan for "getting them in front of people and visible on every platform." He continued, "It's a phenomenal TV plot. And the moment people see them perform, that's when it happens."
"The demand is ceaseless. Every day we're getting requests from all over the world. Everyone who's having a personal family event," said Shalit, who also said invitations have included a forthcoming "family celebration for a global rock star."
The choice of producer for the 'Stand By Me' album was somewhat surprising. Jon Cohen, who has previously been nominated for the Classical Brit Awards and has scored three films, was given the task. Also, the choice of songs is unusual for a gospel choir. Alongside hymn favourites like "Amazing Grace" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", there are renditions of Beyoncé's "Halo" and Coldplay's "Fix You". It's certainly a long way from the original EP the choir were planning. Gibson told Music Week, "We were going to do originals [one of which, 'Chases', is on the new album]. But even the covers we've done are infused with the same spirit and joy in our faith."
Another semi-spiritual pop song on the album is John Farnham's 1986 hit. "You're The Voice" was suggested to tie in with the choir's appearance at the Invictus Games. "Our manager suggested a big Australian anthem, so I had to do an arrangement of that," Gibson explained. "I sent it through and it proved popular so it went on the album. There's a lot of love and hope on the album and we're really happy with how that comes across."
Shalit told Music Week, "The choir has a relevance which is so right for now. It's the antidote to the unpleasantness we're experiencing. At difficult times people look for security."
Gibson is very aware that tours and overseas concerts are going to be a big challenge for the choir. "We're all at different stages," she said. "Some of us are fresh out of university, some of us have small children, some of us have solo careers so it's about juggling this and working out how to do it best for all of us." It can be hard work herding 20 people with jobs, families and other priorities around the world. But, "People are making themselves very available," said Gibson. "We're all very agreeable! Of course, not everyone can do everything and we're managing all this. We have a leadership team but things are worked out very amicably. All of us have such a strong connection that it wouldn't work otherwise."
Music industry veteran Shalit had the last word in the Music Week article. "Working with Karen and the choir has been one of the most enjoyable, mind-changing experiences of my life," he said. "When you listen to the album you will experience something quite remarkable."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.