There have been lots of special days in my life. Some I was prepared for but still shocked me by their impact. Events like a birth or losing a loved one. Others came completely out of the blue and changed the course of my life forever in completely unexpected ways.
I’m not sure how many people would say a visit to the old Afan Lido was life changing but I can. It was a cold January night in 1976 and to be honest I didn’t even want to go. It was a Church Youth Group visit to a Gospel concert hosted by the legendary American singer Pat Boone. The concert featured a choir from Sweden and a band called Andrae Crouch and the Disciples…I mean really!!!
The first half of the show was pretty much what you would expect. Wholesome with some nice tunes. If I had been old enough to drive I expect I would have left at half time but having come in a mini bus with the rest of the youth group I had to stay for Andrae Crouch.
To say the next hour or so changed my life forever would not be an exaggeration. Maybe it was the surprise, the unexpected. These days if you go to a concert you can google everything about it, the venue, the artistes the refreshments. Back then Andrae Crouch came out of nowhere, like a musical nuclear explosion and he completely blew me away.
By 1976 I had already been to a number of Elton John concerts, so I was used a little fella playing the piano. Andrae was the same but very different. Not long after the concert I found myself staying at Elton’s house talking about music. I asked him if he had ever heard of Andrae Crouch and quick as a flash Elton rushed to his massive record collection and brought out a live album. It soon became clear that Elton’s own style had been heavily influenced by players like Andrae and Leon Russell who took music they played in church onto the stage and onto record.
Elton, Little Richard and Andrae Crouch.
Andrae didn’t just play the piano he was the conductor and band leader for the Disciples. The Disciples was a band that filled the stage with all of the usual rock band elements as well as a full brass section and a bunch of backing vocalists. It was like nothing I had ever experienced and after the show I sat there unable to speak. Thankfully my mum had given me money for a burger on the way home so I used that to buy as many of Andrae’s albums as I could afford from the merch stand. I still have them.
Years later I found myself interviewing Pat Boone. I told the story of how that concert had changed me in so many ways, although I left out the part about not really wanting to go to see him!!! As I told my story his eyes lit up…’When I get to heaven’ he said, ‘I hope I’m living next door to Andrae’.
I don’t think it was very long after going to that Andrea Crouch concert I had a go at writing my own Gospel song ‘My God is Mighty’. In 1978 one of the leading UK Gospel Choirs from Birmingham, ‘Maxine and the Majestics’ recorded the song and played it at concert venues across Europe and the USA receiving a standing ovation after singing the song at the Talent Show in Kansas.
Over the years that love of Black Gospel music has taken me back and fore to Memphis and the Deep South on a pilgrimage to the source of that sound. As the years have passed new songs have come and gone and ‘My God is Mighty’ has been a song I have rarely sung.
Every year a church from Atlanta USA comes across to Wales to do mission. The Pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church is Rhys Stennor whose roots go deep into Welsh culture in sport and politics. Rhys has been leading these mission trips for 25 years and some amazing relationships have been forged through ‘community action’ and music.
Last summer I was asked to join the New Hope team of musicians to sing at a few songs at various churches in Abertillery, Resolven, Newport, Aberdare and Abersychan. Rhys was keen I met the new Musical Director…the Dove winning, Grammy nominated Zeke Listenbee.
Zeke Listenbee… from New Albany, Mississippi to Mumbles.
Music is a strange, magical thing. People who you have never met before, with very different backgrounds, can suddenly become close friends in a short space of time by playing music together.
I remember being on tour with Max Boyce in Wellington New Zealand. The only restaurant open after the show was Chilean. In between serving meals the waiters would take to the stage and sing sad Chilean songs. We got talking and told them we were a band. It didn’t take too much persuasion for us to take to the stage. We decided we should say thank you by singing a Linda Ronstadt song in Spanish. As we played and sang we could see actual tears from the waiters. The song ended they opened more wine and they refused to take any money for the meal.
Last summer I had a record out called ‘Breathe’ that was getting radio play around the place so we thought it might be a good song for me to play with Zeke. It was like magic. Every night the song would go in a slightly different direction and we would both just go with it. As we said our goodbyes on the last night I asked Zeke if he would consider working on a track with me.
In times past the miles and difficulty in communication would leave that as a grand ambition but nowadays with the internet and WhatsApp it was relatively easy.
I had always wanted to record a proper version of ‘My God is Mighty’. On one of my trips to the Deep South I had managed to get a Memphis choir to record it for me but this time I wanted to take on the mantle of Andrae Crouch and sing it myself.
I know people worry about technology and music, but I still find myself open mouthed in awe when I see what’s possible. Zeke recorded his keyboard in Atlanta and sent the computer file to us in Wales. My friend Andrew has a lovely Yamaha Grand Piano which is fitted with a system called midi. It’s like a magic keyboard. The computer sends the impulses to make the hammers hit the strings. By taking the midi file Zeke had sent we were able to get Andrew’s grand piano to play it note for note.
He then got his choir together and sent over their harmony parts. As I sat and listened to them for the first time I found myself transported back to the Afan Lido all those years ago.
Throughout the year, as I build up to the climax of my Golden Jubilee with a concert at the Swansea Arena on 3rd October I will be releasing a new track every month.
This month’s release is a special collaboration with Grammy nominated Zeke Listenbee. Next month’s release features the piano played by Paul McCartney on ‘Live and let Die’. It’s going to be quite a year.