Some weeks ago, the legendary US gospel/rhythm & blues singer, Mavis Staples, who turned seventy-four in July this year, reached the No 1 spot in the Official Christian and Gospel Album Chart with her latest album, True Vine. Mavis’ success made me think of our own legendary UK gospel singers who – although not as famous – are unsung heroes, also in their seventies, still singing – in churches, prisons and other institutions – and changing lives. Therefore, as my contribution to this KTF’s Black History Month edition, I’ve highlighted four of our great musical elders.
REV REUBEN LLOYD EDWARDS
Kingstonian Rev Edwards came to England from Jamaica during the 1950s. It didn’t take long for his powerful five-octave vibrato voice to impact his hearers and propel him in popularity at church conventions and evangelistic meetings. He became lead vocalist with the Church Of God Of Prophecy group, Strings Of Prophecy, who are also listed among British Gospel’s pioneers.
I was graced to have Rev Edwards sing at my 40th Year in UK Gospel Testimonial Concert in June. Most of the 1,000+ audience had never heard him before, and the response told me – and him – that they will never forget him.
Fondly called ‘RL’, he has established a musical and vocal legacy through his seven children and grandchildren.
EVANGELIST ICILDA CAMERON
“All my life I’ve been singing, and I will never stop” was the opening statement from Evangelist Icilda Cameron when I interviewed her. In the 60s, when the late Pastor Anton La Touche was setting up a gospel group, he found himself ‘the best female vocalist around’ as Evangelist Cameron was called ‘the Mahalia Jackson of Britain’.
She also gave him the name of his band. “After he asked me to sing in his group, we began to talk about the name and I said ‘The Touring Evangelical Harmonizers’ – and he went with it!”
When I asked Evangelist to tell me her favourite song, she pulled out an old tattered songbook she treasures, dated 1905, and replied, “I Bow On My Knees And Cry Holy”.
EVANGELIST VERONICA WILLIS
Evangelist Veronica Willis didn’t start off singing in church. “In the 70s, singing for me was a hobby.” That was until Phil Pratt, a Jamaican record producer who worked at Studio One for Coxsone, heard her. “Under the pseudonym ‘Phyllis Wilson’ I recorded a version of the Ann Peebles hit, I Can’t Stand The Rain. My daughter tells me it’s on YouTube. It did reasonably well in the reggae charts.
“One day it came in my spirit to do a gospel record. I just told everyone I’m leaving. The Lord worked on me, and I started to sing in my home church, the New Testament Assembly in Leyton, under the great leadership of (the late) Rev Dr Pastor Io Smith, and I’ve not looked back.”
BISHOP E GEORGE BEASON
When I first heard Bishop Beason in the 80s, he was still a Pastor, and the concert announcer was making this big build-up to bring him on stage. In a booming voice, the MC said, “Ladies and gentlemen, get ready, get ready, get ready for THE FLAME!” I’d never heard a gospel artist announced with a name like that before. Neither had I seen a Pastor sing and dance – to REGGAE! Bwoy was he HOT! HOT! HOT!
The Flame is not afraid to dazzle you with his impeccable snazzy suits, but under and over all the showiness is the very clear message and firm passion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the love of God. Bishop Beason shared, “I love singing, and seeing a life turn around as the Spirit of God convicts. God is the power behind my music – no matter what the style.”
Before he came to Christ, he used to sing in a band called Enterprise. He recalls, “The lead guitarist was asked to play for New Testament Church Of God Bristol, and I went along for fun.” But God was serious. Though not saved, he was asked to sing, and the only song he could recall was How Great Thou Art. It became the song that transformed his life.
Connecting to our living legends
Learning from our history is what makes looking back worthwhile. Talking to these greats of British Gospel, I’m freshly reminded that: we serve a God whose power is the same throughout generations; pure motives keep you focused on the real purpose of what we do in gospel; we shouldn’t take for granted the opportunities we have now, that these pioneers did not have.
My advice to artists and musicians: take time now and again and talk to your musical elders. They carry a wealth of knowledge – and some great anecdotes! Make the connection AND book them for your next event. #standingontheirshoulders #respectingourpast #buildingourlegacyandheritage #treasureyourstoriesandmemorabilia!
JULIET FLETCHER is a former BBC Producer and founding Executive of the GMIA