Tony Cummings talked to one of the key figures in the development of Britain's gospel music scene, Manchester-based TYNDALE THOMAS.
Of all the seminal figures in the development of British black gospel music the one most neglected by journalists and music historians is Tyndale Thomas. The Manchester-based singer, composer and choir director has been a hugely important behind-the-scenes figure in British gospel's development. In 2006 the release of 100 Voices 'The Best Gospel Album In The World.Ever' - an album for which Tyndale contributed the majority of the arrangements - brought him a taste of national attention while he was recently one of the composers and choir leaders showcased on a new album being recorded in Germany by the German Gospel Choir.
Tyndale was born in Birmingham to Jamaican parents. Tyndale was literally the son of a preacher man. "My father loved music. We'd go to places like Liverpool, back to Birmingham, to Sheffield, to Leeds, setting up churches. My father loved music, he used to play and write songs himself. We all played various instruments and we used to go with my mother and father to set these churches up. Sometimes there would be two or three people in a new church. But then because there were eight of us in the family, we'd be the choir, we'd lead services, we'd be the deacons, all at the same time!"
From the earliest age Tyndale's musical skills began to develop. "My older brothers had piano lessons and then what would happen is that I would sit there at an early age and watch them playing and then go on to the piano and play. We had every single instrument in our household, we had a set of drums, we had a bass guitar, we had an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric keyboards, acoustic piano. So for us music was a way of life. We called ourselves The Thomas Brothers. It's kind of funny 'cos we never really went out to minister as a family band. Then, as we got older we became part of The Challengers, which was one of the first really contemporary gospel outfits in the country."
The Challengers were indeed pioneers. Bringing fresh R&B rhythms to the traditional gospel sound, The Challengers pre-dated Kainos and Paradise and the other early British gospel groups of the '70s. Remembered Tyndale, "It was a really strange time as a lot of our gigs were in clubs and pubs and in different venues to the norm. So we got some stick from our own church as playing gospel in such places was a radical thing to do at the time. But when we came together and did concerts with people like Paradise we could swap notes and stuff like that."
In the mid '70s The Challengers made three independent recordings, an album 'Get It On', a single "God Always Answers" and a cassette EP 'The Challengers'. But things were also developing for Tyndale in the field of choir music. His denomination Church Of God Seventh Day were, along with London's Latter Rain Outpouring Choir (the aggregation from which LCGC's Bazil Meade was to emerge) establishing one of the first, fully functioning gospel choirs in Britain. Tyndale recounted the growth of the Merrybell Choir. "There were two main choirs in our church, one in Birmingham and one in Manchester, and we pulled together to sing at conventions and things like that. My sister was saying wouldn't it be a fantastic idea to have a choir that would pull these voices together and perform something. Our first major performance was on Walter's Weekly, funnily enough, so we didn't start in something like a small community centre, we actually had to go and perform on Radio 2 I think it was! Sister Hendrix was leading the Merrybells. We believed that it was a powerful thing to actually go and record our own material, because at the time most choirs were actually performing material from America. But we were always writing our own material from The Challengers and therefore through it to the Merrybell Choir. And although we were influenced a lot by the American style of gospel music, we actually wrote our own material and were able to record two of our own albums ('The Merrybell Gospel Choir Vol 1' and 'Vol 2')."
In 1984 the Merrybell Choir became the first British gospel act, after Paradise, to have an album released by one of the major Christian labels. Word (UK) recorded two albums worth of material at a London concert and, after overdubs at Chapel Lane, released the resulting albums as 'Tell It To The People' by the Merrybell Choir and, later in 1985, 'How Good Is The Lord' by the Birmingham-based Highgate Gospel Choir. Tyndale remembered the Word recording with fondness. "I think that it was so exciting at the time because we were so young. Every single thing that we did it was like the first. Also there was a song on the album called 'This Train' which has really lasted, in fact it is the most sought after song in Germany. I do workshops in Germany and there are more choirs per mile than anywhere else and 'This Train' is one of the songs that comes up time and time again."
Tyndale was kept busy with the Merrybells and the Challengers through the rest of the '80s. But by the '90s things began to change for Tyndale. "The choir gradually disintegrated around 1992 but The Challengers were still going after the Merrybells but not that much longer actually - maybe a year or so and then The Challengers finished as well. After leaving The Challengers and The Merrybell Choir, it was as if God was calling me into working in the community with people. What happened was that we started doing workshops in the community and we were able to touch people from all walks of life, bringing the Gospel into another dimension. The workshops were open to the whole community, not just Christians or church-goers, which was an amazing thing. It actually stemmed from the fact that we used to perform in clubs and night clubs and stuff like that so we were used to looking beyond the boundaries of the churches. It's a shame sometimes because the Church is actually holding back the word of God when they say why are you taking it out to all these people? Doing the workshops has enabled us to reach other people who would not normally be touched by the Gospel. You see that the thing is we don't have to save people. He just said go and when you go, and you plant the seed, some people might be singing 'Oh Lord How Excellent Is Thy Name', they might not believe it. But after a while, that seed starts growing. You don't have to go to church, you don't have to be baptised, you don't have to be sanctified to sing gospel. Everyone has to start somewhere."
Tyndale's gospel workshops became very successful not only in the UK but also in places like Germany, where gospel choir music is hugely popular. "I've been going to Germany now for the past 10 years," said Tyndale. "The least amount of times I've been to Germany is five or six times in a year. I can hold a workshop and actually speak to them in German, using the musical words. So for instance I can tell them how to sing lower or to sing together and stuff like that. I can actually string some bits of words together so that they can understand what I need in a workshop situation. So the language barrier is not too bad. I've just come back from Germany, the day before yesterday, and I was saying to myself, 'Boy, by now I should know a lot more German than I do.'"
Reflecting Tyndale's ongoing popularity in Germany, this year work began on a special mass choir consisting of over 70 choir directors from across Germany recording songs from six of the most popular gospel artists or choir leaders in the nation. One of those is Tyndale Thomas. Said Tyndale, "I have been working in Germany for over 12 years with my brother David Thomas and it still surprises me to know that "This Train", a song I wrote 20 years ago, and "Light A Candle", a song I wrote whilst I was travelling in Germany feeling a little homesick, are amongst the most used and sung songs in Germany. It is a humbling and emotional experience that I give thanks for everyday."
After the Merrybell Choir folded, Tyndale with Kadria (his wife) and Yvonne Shelton (who formerly sang with the Challengers and the Merrybells) formed a gospel collective called Urban Voice to do workshops and concerts. In 2001 Tyndale and members of Urban Voice flew to Germany to work on a various artists album with producer Helmut Jolst. Explained Tyndale, "Helmut is one of the forerunners of gospel music within the Germany industry. We've got so many things in common, his brothers play guitar and stuff like that. So half of us on the album were from England and half from Germany. We called the album 'Gospel Fire'. It's turned out to be the biggest selling gospel choir album in Germany, and people sing a lot of those songs all over Germany."
Urban Voice have been very much pioneers in both the performance of gospel music and expanding the international reach of the music. Singers from Urban Voice have worked with and supported internationally acclaimed artists including Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone as well as working alongside such gospel giants as Andrae Crouch, Edwin Hawkins and the Clark Sisters.
In 2003 Tyndale recorded an independent album 'Genesis', featuring his fiery soulful lead vocals accompanied by Urban Voice, the Liverpool Philharmonic Gospel Choir and the One Voice Community Choir. Meanwhile the workshops and concerts went from strength to strength. Tyndale and Urban Voice are masters at connecting with the whole community. Tyndale continued his account, "Three years ago we did a massive project called The Rhythm Of Life and we worked with over 5,000 children from Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Yorkshire. We do multi-media presentation and so we mix gospel music with different genres of music. For instance, we had an Asian percussionist working with us and an Asian singer. And we actually had the Indian dancers doing the dance of light - they were actually dancing as he was singing so we had someone playing the percussion at the same time so it was an eclectic mix. It was a wonderful thing to know that God is so diverse that through Urban Voice we've been able to work with people from Barbados also. We did a project called Joy in Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford. We performed at Victoria Hall and it was absolutely jammed packed with loads of children and adults and we did a workshop concert there with Urban Voice. We've been able to take the gospel into different directions and work with diverse peoples."
Another string to Tyndale's bow was his unexpected involvement with a secular children's project. He explained, "There is a group of people called Youth Music within this country and they work with children from ages six to 18. They work with all the schools all over the country. They commissioned 12 songwriters to write a booklet called a Sing Book - it's songs that speak to children. They commissioned me to write one last year. Children all over the UK England are going to be singing my song. It's called 'Okay'."
At the beginning of 2005 Tyndale found himself involved with what was to turn out to be the highest profile album in the history of British gospel music, the TV-advertised 'The Best Gospel Album In The World.Ever'. "One day I was saying to myself, 'Well, my recording career doesn't seem to be moving as much as I would like it to move, but as with everything, it is all about God's timing.' Two weeks after I said that I had a phone call to say the record producer Gordon Lorenz (a music biz veteran who has worked with everyone from the Spice Girls to Harry Secombe) would like to speak to myself and a colleague about putting some choirs together for a special album. I said, 'Okay we'll come down and see you.' We were talking about putting this choir together because I worked with various choirs. Then Gordon asked about some of my music and said that maybe we could use some of my songs as well. We gave him some of the music and then he rang back and said, 'Why don't you arrange the songs that have been selected?' Then I get a call from Gordon saying we're going to be recording at Abbey Road Studios in June! And we were in May, and we're going to have 20 songs on the album!"
The arranging marathon undertaken by Tyndale in the few weeks leading up to the first Abbey Road sessions was nothing short of staggering. Working day and night Tyndale came up with brand new choir arrangements for a wide array of material, from traditional spirituals ("Swing Low Sweet Chariot", "Steal Away") to hymnody ("Amazing Grace", "Blessed Assurance"), to modern worship songs (Zschech's "Shout To The Lord" and Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name") to contemporary songs (Mary Mary's "Shackles" and Tyndale's own "One Day"). Together with fellow choir director and arranger David Daniel, Tyndale also undertook the Herculean task of pulling together members from Manchester's Urban Voice, Leeds' Roy Johnson Singers, Liverpool's The Liverpool Philharmonic Gospel Choir, London's The People's Christian Fellowship Choir and Preston's The One Voice Community Choir to create a sound every bit as goose-bump inducing as those famed mass choirs of America. I asked Tyndale what it was like to venture into that most famous of all recording studios. "That first day at Abbey Road it began to dawn on me the magnificence of the album. No record company has ever pumped so much into a gospel album such as EMI/Virgin did. To stand there and see all those people in that choir, some I'd met before and some not, coming from different parts of the country, different cultures, different races, coming together, it was such a magnificent thing. 100 Voices were truly a multi-racial choir - and that is what I love about it. It shows that we don't have to wait until we get to Heaven for it to happen because we are going to be a rainbow and we need to know now what that rainbow is like now. Being able to come out of just doing work in the church has broadened my horizons to know that God is not in any box - he's bigger than that. Gospel music is not just what many church people seem to think it is. Gospel music is about the good news and can connect with people of all races. I think that that is a fantastic thing."
Today Tyndale is as busy as ever. With Urban Voice he is undertaking the Joy & Rhythm Of Life tour, a huge undertaking where 7,000 children in Yorkshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Southport & Formby, Stoke-on-Trent and Stafford are joined by 27 musicians, 12 dancers, three rappers, video artists, sculptures, stilt walkers and painters. Building links with the whole community is clearly at the heart of what Tyndale and Urban Voice are doing yet there is also a deep spiritual undercurrent to their interface with non-church goers. To underline this I quote from an email that Tyndale received after he conducted a gospel workshop in Troisdorf, Germany from a lady called Petra. Here's what she wrote to Tyndale, "We are three women from Köln, who attended the workshop. One of us has cancer and was in a bad state. In 2004 I was at the LA workshop in Köln, and that was when I realised that singing gospel helped me to get a close relationship with Jesus, that it is a special way of praying. After the workshop I visited my friend in the hospital, where she was having chemo therapy to kill the cancer. I was feeling very close to Jesus when I visited her and I told her about the workshop. We both really didn't know if the chemo therapy would help her to survive, but we made a kind of deal with God: If my friend would be alive the following year, we would both come to the next workshop and praise the Lord together. And she was alive! We had a very special time, remembering that God gave us the chance to praise Him. Now we are in 2007 and she is still alive and we had another opportunity to praise Him in Troisdorf. It was amazing to experience how God was strengthening her. On Saturday she had a lot of pain at home, but decided to come. After the first time of practise she felt better and made it through the whole day. God used you to help me to learn how to sing gospel, not only with my voice but with my heart and soul. I feel that by now I have become more the person Jesus wants me to be."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.