Tony Cummings reports on the life and times of house music hitmaker turned gospel singer YAZZ
Anyone who has ever bounced around a disco dancefloor will know the big hit from 1988 "The Only Way Is Up" by Yazz. But now the tall, red haired dance diva is suddenly being thrust into the mass media spotlight a long, long way from Where Are They Now? programmes and TOTP 2 clips. This month Yazz is appearing on BBC's Songs Of Praise with Graham Kendrick and in April will be at each of the Spring Harvest venues singing songs from her ICC distributed album 'Running Back To You. . .'. The singer fielded my questions from her home in Spain where she now lives with her husband, 17 year old daughter and mother. Yazz began filling in her background and entrance into music. "I was born and educated in West London, Shepherds Bush. My dear father was West Indian Jamaican and my mother English. They met and married in the UK during the middle '50s against much racial tension and family difficulties. They had three children, myself, my sister and brother. I was the last! We were poor but lived simply and happily. Music was an integral part of our home, my father introducing me to some of music's greatest singers and writers - Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dionne Warwick, Brook Benton, Glen Campbell - he played country to jazz, soul, blues, reggae and gospel. We were the proud owners of a sideboard that contained a long player system - they were very expensive at the time. We treasured it! I remember a day when he sat me down and stated, 'Child, listen to this.' It was "Walk On By" sung by Dionne Warwick. He said, 'This was written by two of the world's greatest songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. . .never forget this'. I never did. Some 20 years later I was on stage performing alongside Warwick at the Royal Albert Hall, commemorating the lives of Bacharach and David."
Yazz continued, "In our home cricket was our religion - we didn't do church, we did cricket, every weekend! My mother often talks now about two nuns that were a caring influence to her, they would visit us occasionally, she said, and drop her a 10 pound note. I think we attended a local Baptist church twice. I hated it. It was dark, dank and very cold."
At school Yazz was "hopeless academically" but good at drama and music. There were other talented musicians at her school including Aswad, the British reggae artist Yazz was later to record with. After leaving school Yazz started work. She remembered, "I would work in the day and got a job in a nightclub in Soho at night. That changed my whole life - I grew into the very real and dark world of drugs, guns and pimps. I thank God for his protection as I got into some really dire situations. I became a DJ for five minutes. I was hopeless as I would play all my faves and the dance floor would be empty! Then I got into my first band. I got into my first recording deal with a band called The Biz (ouch!). We traipsed up and down the country doing gigs in bars and eventually split up and I went solo. In between I had met the managers of Wham who were just becoming known and I became managed by them. I began modelling abroad to make money to pay for singing lessons and demo songs and finally was introduced to Coldcut. My manager said they were doing something inspiring, stealing cuts form other records. So I went and met them and loved what they were doing. They were cutting edge and we wrote 'Doctor In The House'. It flew in the clubs and so we made a video and the deejays loved it. None of the national radio stations would play the track as they said it was illegal. . . lawyers were ringing our small indie label. It was really quite hilarious. But it kept selling in the stores and hit the chart at 10 the first week. The video was played and we had a hit record. Life then changed. People saw the potential for me to become a recording artist of measure and then that's it, you're a commodity, the person has gone (look at poor Britney, Whitney, Mariah, Kylie, these were all my contemporaries). In the blink of an eye a product is born and MONEY is smelt. I remember sensing it and knowing my life was never going to be the same again. I remember fear entering my life and thinking this is it, ignore the worry and go for it."
It was the song "The Only Way Is Up" co-written and originally recorded by soulman Otis Clay (intriguingly one of the numerous R&B singers who was to eventually return to the church and gospel music) which really propelled Yazz into the big time. Yazz's pumping house version of "The Only Way Is Up" was a huge hit, first in the clubs, then in the pop charts. Looking back on her time of stardom Yazz is philosophic. "Success is measured in the world in such a sad way - what you've done, what you own, what you look like, how you speak, what you wear, all outward conditions and all temporary. I was completely and inextricably caught. I felt like a chased rabbit! Loving the music, the song and desiring to become a better artist I sang my heart out. But inside I was running. I was struggling desperately with all the attention on and off stage, finding myself around lawyers and men in suits quite unable to understand their speak with contracts formed and stylists employed. I remember being in one meeting being sold the idea that wearing what looked like a nightie would sell loads more records than jeans! It was like a circus.
"I clung to my manager/husband and as we had no faith, no deep code of conduct to live by we made decisions purely motivated by self. I learnt to wear a smile as I realised people wanted me to be happy because I was famous and it helped me move around places without having to confess that I was dying inside, lonely and lost. My marriage was failing and I felt so very ashamed. I believed in marriage but had no concept of what it really meant to be married. I was gutted. And so began the search for deeper meaning. The music business leans towards the Eastern philosophies plus the esoteric. I went to every seminar going. I went with questions like 'Why is this happening? Why am I here? Does anyone care?' I saw that everyone was searching for answers and I learnt personally that behind fame's game and success's trophies, behind all the decadence, rich or poor there is the same cry going on inside everyone - 'Is there anyone who really loves me, who will love me when I'm not in control, hold me and give me a sense of belonging and complete me?' I read everything from Buddhism to gurus to the Koran and the New Age umbrella of Eastern ideologies. But I judged Christianity by those two visits as a child to that Baptist church. I chose to place my preconceived ideas upon it and said God isn't there. How poor and weak I was."
The Scripture says, "If you seek me with all your heart you will find me" (Deut 4.29) became a reality for Yazz in 1996. She recounted, "After a breakdown and agoraphobia I found myself in bed at home and asked my mother for a Bible. She said we had one and that night I opened it and read. I don't know what I read and certainly I didn't understand it. But I remember peace falling over me like a river, a warmth flowed through me, a sense of belonging. I remember laying down and placing the book aside. I wanted nothing but the warmth of the sensation to stay forever! I knew I had experienced what I had been looking for, a divine experience had occurred and it was something to do with the author of that book.
"I made the decision to visit a local church, which I did. After the service, I remember putting my head down and thinking, 'Mmm, no one spoke to me. It was cold and pretty sad there, perhaps God's not there.' Then I turned a corner and met Bonnie, an old friend who used to bleach my hair, a woman of the booze, drugs and men scene. I looked at her and saw another person, not physically so much as internally - her eyes held a glow that was compelling. Again I had that sense of safety and peace just standing in front of her. I had no idea who the Holy Spirit was at that time. During coffee together I asked Bonnie what had changed her life, for she was changed. She explained to me that she had placed her life by faith into the life of Jesus Christ and that she was a believer. I couldn't believe it! Bonnie took me to her church that weekend and there I found my Lord and Saviour."
Over the next few years everything changed for Yazz. Today she lives in Spain and is working, through her church, with drug addicts and alcoholics and alongside the Christian Charity REMAR. Last year Yazz unexpectedly found herself with a fresh opportunity to make music, but this time for God. She explained, "Two very Godly believers came to me and said they had been led through their prayer times to offer me the opportunity to record a CD for his Kingdom." The resulting 'Running Back To You' album is described by ICC as "a compelling and mature mix of soul, pop and R&B' and is Yazz's first recording for five years. It was produced by Yazz herself and co-produced and engineered by Gareth Henderson at HL Studios. Commented Yazz, "When I found the studio and met its owner Gareth I just knew it was right, its atmosphere, intimate and small, but vibey. Gareth breathes music and optimism, a winner for artists in the recording process. We both knew that 'Running Back' was a special song and waited until we were well into the album's recording before we loaded up the demo and began working on it. I was inspired for its drum pattern (6/8) by a song from the Narnia movie. The end song is by Imogen Heap (a great artist). It's driven by a repetitive string riff and I wanted to get a real running feel for my song and with the 6/8 drum part and the overlapping strings on top it really drove the track. I wanted to capture the listener's mind to see themselves and the Father running into each other's arms. It worked really well. I wept when I heard it all done and mixed. I love that track and it's really moving people's hearts in churches and conferences. The lyric is inspired by the Prodigal Son story. I kinda see that as my story. It broke open my heart to the Father's heart for the lost."
Yazz has never been to Spring Harvest but is definitely looking forward to playing there. "In Spain I am always at church making ready our choir for outreach so am really excited about going to Spring Harvest as I have heard great reports. My church (the Calahonda Baptist Church) is a small but very powerful bunch of believers and praise God deeply here in Spain. But I never have experienced more that 70 people singing praise to God before, so you can imagine how my heart is looking forward to Spring Harvest."
Yazz is justifiably proud of her fellowship. "We are all devoted to our wonderful church and have seen amazing moves of our Lord here. Currently we are building a new building. Unless you are of the Catholic denomination you are not entitled to a church building so you must rent or build one. After fasting and prayer three years ago we were offered a site of land to build. A visitor came to our church just two weeks after we agreed to go for it and worshipped with us. After hearing our appeal that Sunday he called our pastor and offered him the full amount for the purchase of the land - 100, 000 euros! The next year we had a donation of 300,000 euros to help with the building from an unknown donor who came and was never seen again! What a mighty God we serve. We are a few thousand short but and the roof is on and up! So we pray on."
Yazz spoke of being in a spiritual learning curve with the Lord. "I am currently studying 1 Peter and as a woman of God it has moved me immensely. On the album is a song 'Daily Bread' which speaks of how the breath of God is our everything, breathing on us to heal our souls and bring forth the 'quiet spirit' that the Godly women of old had. I sense the Lord teaching me that I need to return to this 'quiet spirit' of the lady saints of old. They knew their divine place and were submissive in the divine order of things. There was and is an awesome power in the light of the gentle spirit of God, breathed by his grace on the women who would desire to receive it and walk in it. This is the power of the resurrection. Sarah had it, Rachel had it, Deborah had it, Ruth found it, Esther, Mary, Elizabeth, Lydia, Tamar found it, Rahab found it. I believe that this divine quiet spirit that God manifested through the women of old is the greatest gift a woman can have."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.