I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. I’ve sung for my supper in wine bars and night clubs in London whilst at the same time working in a sports shoe shop on the Kings Road. I’ve wrapped presents in a Danish gift shop, cleaned toilets and waited tables on Swansea High Street and I’ve even been a bouncer.
The whole bouncer thing isn’t as dangerous as it might sound. I used to work the door at the South Wales Evening Post Theatre when we used to perform the ‘Cappuccino Girls’ musical back in the day. To be honest the most difficult jobs I had were calling a cab for ladies who had had a little too much prosecco and I once had to explain to some football fans over in Swansea for a European football match that our Cappuccino Girls wasn’t that type of girly show!!!
I was working as a bouncer for Cappuccino girls!!!
No tomorrow, for the first time in my life I’m going to lead a church service. Of course, I’ve been to church lots of times. I’ve sung in Cathedrals and on ‘Songs of Praise’ but this is the first time I’ll have led a service and the only saving grace for me was that it is on home territory, it’s a church service on the radio.
The invitation came through a friend of mine, Les Moir. I’ve known Les since our days playing in bands that supported American gospel artistes when they came over to Europe.
Back then I had just left university and the chance to get out and play in a band, and get paid for it, meant I could leave the sports shoe shop behind me. It was a great experience and we played some of the biggest venues in the UK and beyond. It was on those tours I first played at the Royal Albert Hall and during the summer we would travel to outdoor festivals in Holland and Germany; we even played a gig at the legendary Casino in Montreux.
Les and I have been chatting for the past few months about songs and recordings and when he found out I had been presenting some radio shows from home he asked would I mind if he introduced me to Alex Strangeways-Booth. When the pandemic hit Alex found a way to pull together a weekly church service and since then those services are now shared every Sunday on 38 BBC local radio stations.
Alex rang for a chat and we spent a good half an hour talking about my church background. I had been brought up going to a little Gospel Hall in Manselton and although I wasn’t a preacher I really was the son of a preacher man. My dad Stan could talk for Wales and everyone said when they heard my dad’s name announced as the speaker for the following Sunday every congregation knew they were in for a good performance!!!
Quite often as a young lad I would join my dad on his Sunday evening speaking engagements. Some of those Gospel Halls names still make me smile. I love saying Maes-Y-Bont, Bynea, Trimsaran or Pantyfynnon Gospel Hall as they remind me of time spent in the car with my dad and sitting right at the front of the church looking on proudly at the man in the pulpit.
Stan And Meudwen Pope outside Phillip Street Gospel Hall on their wedding Day
Obviously, Alex didn’t get to know the real me because at the end of the conversation she asked if I would lead one of the services in the future. Like most things in life, before I had the chance to really think about the consequences, I said yes. Alex said she would send a couple of sample scripts for me to look over and then could I get one back to her in a week or so?
It was only then I realised I would have to give this radio programme a little more thought and consideration than my normal radio shows. There would be music, that was good, but there would also be prayers and Bible readings…that’s when I thought about my dad.
As a preacher my dad always had 3 points, he always told stories about when he was a child in Pontrhydyfen and he always tried to make his congregation smile. That was my template.
Then I thought, rather than just writing a script based on my dad’s preaching technique why not actually base my service around my dad, and my childhood in the Gospel Halls.
Once I had the idea it didn’t take too long although I did try to get a lot of the family involved. My dad was a great writer of notes and sermons and since he passed away last year my brothers and I have been sifting through his archive. ‘Right then boys’, I said , ‘can we find a prayer that dad would use in a church service and then can one of you read it for the radio please’. Fair play after much digging my brother Gareth found something suitable and he recorded it for inclusion in the programme.
In amongst the trawling through the archive we came across a newspaper cutting dated 20/10/57. It was an advertisement for the 7.45 Evening Service for the BBC. The service was from George Street Gospel Hall in Swansea and the Organist was my grandmother Myfanwy Griffiths. It even had the Hymns and Hymn numbers. The trouble was that finding recordings of these old hymns isn’t as easy or straightforward as you might expect. My brother David suggested I get in touch with an old friend David Liscombe.
David loves recording. He has recorded church services and choirs for…well it would be rude to say how many years but let’s just say when I called out of the blue David was preparing for his Golden wedding anniversary. He still found time to dig out some choice recordings from his collection and get them in the post first class.
As Joni Mitchell once wrote ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone’. For year after year growing up I was surrounded by the most amazing music. On Sunday mornings our little church congregation would sing accapella in perfect harmony. Now that gospel hall lies silent having been turned into a store room for a cleaning company. Why didn’t I record that sound???
It takes enthusiasts to save such treasures because most people don’t see their true value. In America it was a man called Alan Lomax who went around the deep south recording the blues and planation songs. That collection is now in the US Library of Congress. In my opinion David’s collection is of equal value. Thanks to David we had a couple of hymns recorded in the 1960’s that really give a flavour of the sound of my childhood.
When it came to Bible stories I chose my favourite, the Parable of the lost sheep… and then I got my daughter Daisy to read that. My other daughter Amy very kindly wrote a final prayer and before I knew it we had a church service.
When I said yes to Alex, I didn’t realise what an emotional and powerful personal journey I would be embarking on, but I don’t want you to think that just like a lot of old pop singers I’m going to start my own church. No, I know myself too well for that, but I hope that if the news of the service reaches heaven that it might put a bit of a smile on my Father’s face.