In this special feature, Juliet Fletcher looks at the role family dynasties have played in developing the UK gospel scene, focusing on families whose impact has passed through the generations
The Christmas season is one where there is a focus on family and, in this special piece, I’m reflecting on British Gospel Music through the eyes of families that have made a difference to the sound and profiling of this world-class genre.
We know that, in reality, our churches have been built on families and, like the branches of a genealogy map, I’ve found that gospel music can be traced to show distinctive family clusters. It would seem that the best of our music is built on the close-knit commitment that these families have to each other and to the Church.
To get a personal perspective, I spoke to members of three key families and asked two members – an elder and a younger – to provide a quote on what it’s like being part of a musical family. They all had a lot to say – more than could ever fit into this column.
Crossing Decades – The FRANCIS FAMILY
My main example is The Francis Family: The late Bishop Tesley Francis and Mother Elfreda Francis (who is still doing well at 90 years of age) founded the First Born Church Of The Living God in the 1960s and without a doubt this family’s overall musical contribution has reverberated across the generations.
As the youngest member of the immediate family, Bishop John Francis is known to most of us as Senior Pastor of Ruach City Church Ministries, and for his pioneering contribution to British Gospel as director of the Inspirational Choir and co-host of the groundbreaking television series, People Get Ready, broadcast in the late 80s and early 1990s.
Lesser known is the fact that his eldest brother, Roy Francis, managed The Inspirational Choir, produced People Get Ready, and became an award-winning BBC Producer for Songs Of Praise. It is an even lesser known fact that Roy was one of the first young musicians within the then Pentecostal Churches in the 1960s and was a keyboardist in the group The Soul Seekers – the most successful early British Gospel band of its time (1958-1967).
Other musical and creative family members within the Francis clan include: cousin and choir director extraordinaire Peter Francis (Peter Francis & The Jabez Family), who has shaped the sound of many choirs; cousin Howard Francis (songwriter, musician and music director), who wrote the original hit single for LCGC’s Fill My Cup and co-wrote numerous praise and worship songs with Mark Beswick, including Sing Unto The Lord.
The younger generation of this dynamic family includes: Natasha Francis (aka inspirational performing artiste, Rene Byrd), daughter of Roy’s brother, Tesley (music producer/manager), and cousin Volney Morgan who has been creating a sensation on the scene with the high-octane performances of his contemporary choir, New Ye.
Roy says: “Dad played piano, his brother guitar. None of us are musically trained, but it’s surprising that, as we get older, to see it in all the children. For example, my son Hassani is a drummer, and showed this interest from the age of three, and Demani has picked up the guitar. We are all blessed that way; it’s the spiritual DNA and natural DNA.”
Natasha says: “I’ve grown up seeing so much with my Dad in the recording studio and my uncles in music activities. If there is a disadvantage, it’s the challenge of being surrounded by so much experience and knowledge with high standards. Where one person may say ‘Great’, another will say ‘You can do better’. Who do I listen to? (laughs) Yet I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Family Nurturing a Future for British Gospel
The Cameron Family: Pioneer Evangelist Icilda Cameron was known as the ‘British Mahalia Jackson’ during the 60s, when she sang with the Gospel group, Touring Harmonizers.
Now three generations of children and grandchildren sing and play instruments together at family gatherings and special events under the name ‘Kindred Spirit’. Her sentiments are similar to Roy’s: “My husband plays guitar, and both our parents were musically inclined. My children Leon, Marlene, Pauline, Sharon and the youngest Christine took to music well, mainly playing by ear. Christine is married to musician and songwriter Duke Kerr, famed for the song ‘It Is To You I Give The Glory’, and Duke’s family is also full of music makers.”
“In my view, there is no disadvantage being part of a family like this,” Evangelist Cameron shared. Her granddaughter, Vanessa Wilkes, spoke up for the younger generation: “My mum pushed me into formal piano lessons. I did a few, but didn’t like it and gave up. However, when I started to play in church, everything related to music changed for me; God was playing through me and I found chords I didn’t know!”
When Vanessa shared her plans and future ambitions I was truly moved by her clear thinking on how she sees the musical impact of her family, past and present, on her life: “As a family group (Kindred Spirits), most times we don’t practise, but I’m amazed when we get up and sing, something special happens – and people tell us so.” Vanessa has just begun a full-time three-year Music Technology and Business Management course at Keele University. “I’m so convinced that gospel music in Britain has great potential. I felt compelled to invest into it as my career. I want to be able to be proficient in the business as well as on the creative side.”
Close Knit Families for Tough Times
The Wades: Denis, Derek, David and Lloyd made-up the renowned 80s hit group The Wades, hailed as the UK’s answer to The Winans – and they were! Denis Wade recalls: “We got saved one after the other reasonably quickly and, because we all sang in the church choir, it wasn’t long before folk started to encourage us to sing as a quartet. We did receive parental support, and obviously it transformed how close we all became. We thank God for the positive influence we’ve had on other family members.”
Sadly, last year Derek Wade went home to glory, but his life was truly celebrated through his sons and nephews during the Homegoing Service. They sang and stated that they represented a continuance of the musical, entertainment and entrepreneurial spirit that is evident in the family.
Among the brothers’ various offspring, Derek’s son, Jovian, is a singer/actor; David’s son, Varren, is a hit songwriter, and Dean “DeanyBoy” Livermore, son of The Wades’ sister Sonia, is considered one of the top emerging young UK music producers.
Dean truly believes that the Church has provided an excellent grounding for talent, but the gospel scene lacks the support it deserves. “For me, to look around my family and to see what we do in church, it’s an incredible inspiration for my life. Our musical family has opened doors for us that others can only dream of, and we have the additional spiritual covering from pastors in the family. I’m determined to give a lot to the gospel scene, as I succeed elsewhere; I’m absolutely passionate about that!” He concluded, “The only disadvantage I’ve experienced is when one of us dies; because we are so close, so connected, the break seems to hurt so, so deep… but then there is JESUS!”
The Simpsons: In addition to the loss of Derek Wade around this time last year, another key British Gospel family – the Simpsons – said ‘Goodbye’ to their brother, Ronnie Simpson aka Ronnie Jordan. Ronnie was world renown for establishing a new strand of music called Acid Jazz. The whole Simpson family of seven siblings (Ronnie plus Clive, Ricky, Denise, Darren, Fay and Gaynor) learnt to play instruments and sing together in church and at home. Their contribution to the sound of some of the most celebrated British music performers – both in gospel and mainstream popular music – is now a part of our Gospel Music story.
Talking to both the elders and the young brought out to me the richness of our families in the Church – the wealth and the continuity, in particular. My prayer, as we go forward into this year, is that we will recognise and celebrate more than ever before the legacy and stability that talented families bring to our churches – especially in music!