James Attlee met up with a bevy of British grassroots gospel acts. Alex Ramsay took the pictures.

In America it's a truism that many of the best singers in black music have come up through the gospel scene. Britain's black churches too have provided the charts with some stunning voices - Paul Johnson cut his teeth in Paradise and LCGC and Mica Paris sang lead in London gospel group Spirit Of Watts.

In America gospel commands a status that allows artists like the Winans to remain within the genre but still pick up crossover hits in the soul charts. Luther Vandross and Freddie Jackson are full of praise for gospel artists like Vanessa Bell Armstrong (Vandross went on record as saying she was his favourite female singer, bar none).

Yet here in Britain gospel remains isolated from the mainstream - the majority of the British public are lucky if they catch a glimpse of a token black choir, wheeled out to liven up Songs Of Praise on Sunday night.

Everybody's ready to attribute blame. Christian record labels don't have the market penetration - secular labels don't understand the motivation of the artists - and nobody understands British gospel performers' almost legendary inability to turn up on time, keep appointments or play the professional musician-game.

Having said all this, why do gospel lovers still believe that the music deserves a much wider audience than it currently receives? Simply because there is no music more passionate, uplifting or moving than black gospel at its best.

Where much chart-fodder concentrates lyrically on the trivialities of dance floor romance, gospel songs speak of life and death, sin and forgiveness, joy and the tribulations of making it through this vale of tears.

So powerful a medium is gospel music that concertgoers have been known to weep, pass out or even have their lives turned around as a result of attending. And of course it's all a great social occasion - a night out for the black church and a celebration of a community that has survived more than its share of hard knocks since arriving in this country.

Anybody and everybody has borrowed from gospel to give their own work soul, passion and a hint of the transcendent - but still the real thing remains in the wings.

In these eclectic days, with the record-buying public responding enthusiastically to African, Asian and South American sounds surely the time has come for black gospel artists in Britain to crossover and gain the respect and record sales of their American cousins.

The following articles are based on interviews with some of the leading lights of the British scene, all of whom have been featured on a series of pioneering shows hosted by Gloria Gaynor on Radio Two.


Jubilant Voices (by J. Richards)
Jubilant Voices (by J. Richards)

The ten-strong group Jubilant Voices draw their personnel from COGIC churches in London, Luton and Watford. Recently they raised their profile with support slots on the New Jersey Mass Choir dates in Birmingham and Manchester, and they are tipped by many as a name to watch on the gospel circuit. The origins of the group lie back in the mid-80s, when founder member Jonathan Beckford found himself with an unusual problem.

"Five years ago as a young Christian I was the only guy in my church - there were loads of girls, but no guys. I prayed and asked God to bring someone in to keep me company and to cut a long story short guys eventually began to come into the church. I showed them the ropes and tried to keep them interested with football matches, but that didn't last because no one wanted to be goalkeeper! We tried basketball and loads of other things but they didn't work - so we decided to form a group with eight vocalists and no musicians. We had the name and the singers so we were on our way. As time went by we started to pick up musicians from other churches and it all started to fall into place."

The group have survived trials that would have broken up less determined and united outfits.

"In 1988 Lesley, Dexter and Tony had a really bad accident. A drunk driver went into the back of them and rammed them into a van. They should have died, the car was a write-off, but God protected them. Lincoln was also very ill for nearly two years with glandular fever, and couldn't work. We really felt the attack of Satan on our lives at that time but we stuck it out and grew together, and our performances began to get better."