Suffolk Soul Singers and Friends:
St Peter’s by the Waterfront. 6th December 2015
I love the sound of voices singing in harmony. It moves me in ways that hearing musical instruments doing the same thing does not. It’s probably some primeval hangover but I find that there is a sanctuary in the sound of voices bonding and blending, a tranquility in the resultant tone when humans accommodate each others’ vibrations. Much of the music that has inspired me has contained great harmonies; the sixties, particularly, was awash with it – the Beatles, the Who, the Hollies, the Beach Boys, CS&N. When I’m in the recording studio, adding vocal harmonies is the one area where I have to be reigned in and told that there are enough harmonies on the track. “Oh, just one more,” I’m often heard to cry.
So it was with much excitement that I answered in the affirmative to a request from my good friend, Andi Hopgood, when she asked if I would like to be a guest vocalist at the Christmas concert of the choir she is musical director of – Suffolk Soul Singers. I had never sung with a choir, so the chance to sing with 30 voices behind me was too good an opportunity to turn down.
I have known Andi for over 20 years. We met when she was playing tenor saxophone in a school band and the band that I was playing in was so impressed with her and her two friends (playing alto sax and trumpet) that we asked them to sit in for a few numbers when we were playing locally. Andi went on to study at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is much in demand these days as a well-respected jazz singer.
Andi sent me a list of the songs she wanted me to sing lead on. The first was a reggae song made famous by Jimmy Cliff called Hard Road to Travel. It is a joyous number where the verse in a minor key leads to an exuberant chorus in the major key. The next song choice alone would have persuaded me to take part; Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis. I was constantly humming this song to myself as I walked the streets of the Tennessee city as part of my US tour earlier this year. The song meant much more to me now that I had walked “on Beale” and I visited “the Jungle Room”. Sadly, Muriel no longer plays piano “every Friday at the Hollywood” but they do make a mean fried dill pickle that is worth a visit.
Andi then gave me free reign to perform a couple of songs of my own. I opted to sing one original composition – Crazy from my album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon (available on Oh Mercy Records) – and in the spirit of Christmas, a solo rendition of the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York.
My penultimate song would be the Beatles’ Hey Jude, in the hope that the audience would by this time feel like joining in with a rousing outro. The final song would be Band Aid’s Do They Know it’s Christmas with me playing the part of Paul Young and Bono.
I met with Andi and fellow guest vocalist Gemma Cunningham for a run-through and we checked that the keys suited our voices and that we had been listening to the same versions with the right song structure. Andi had scored Hard Road to Travel a tone and a half higher than the Jimmy Cliff version but by singing it in the lower octave it sounded fine. We kept Walking in Memphis in its original key of ‘C’ which is how I have always performed it when I’ve added it to my set list. Hey Jude, however, was a problem. The Beatles’ original is in the key of ‘F’. As a young man, I had no problem singing it in this key but as the years have gone by, I have dropped it – first by a semitone to ‘E’ and now another whole tone down to the key of ‘D’ (some unkind critics reviewing Paul McCartney’s performance at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics suggested it would have been wise for the ex-Beatle to have done the same!). This key gives me a fighting chance in the screaming outro section “Judy, Judy, Judy” etc.
Prior to the choir getting together, Andi will have been beavering away in preparation for the rehearsal. Once the tracks have been chosen, she transcribes the music and then arranges the parts for the three vocal sections – tenors, altos and sopranos. She then teaches each section their part and brings it all together and conducts them.
A few days before the concert, I attended a full choir rehearsal. The mainly female members (there are only two men in the line-up) come from all walks of life and varying musical experience. What they all have in spades is enthusiasm for singing. Andi castigates and cajoles them in equal measure until she is happy with their performance. With all the hard work done, I just simply add my voice to the proceedings. I also meet our instrumental accompanists Simon Brown the pianist and percussionist Pearl Gibson. It was such a thrill for me to sing with so many voices and it was a bonus that they were such lovely people. Andi seemed pleased with the results. I left the rehearsal buzzing and looking forward to the concert.
The venue was the historic St Peter’s Church down near Ipswich’s Waterfront. The church is mentioned in the Domesday Survey from 1086. The current building dates from the 15th Century and was used by Cardinal Wolsey as his College chapel. Like most old churches, the acoustics are wonderful for a largely acoustic show. The only nod to modernity were the microphones for the lead vocalists plugged into a small PA, which also accommodated my acoustic guitar’s hidden pre-amp.
The concert was sold out.
The choir kicked off with their renditions of the Isley Brothers Harvest for the World, Stevie Wonder’s Love’s in Need and Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody.
Next up were the 18 children who make up the youth choir. They had elected to sing Meghan Trainor’s Your Lips are Moving. They were terribly cute. I’m glad I didn’t have to follow them.
That was the job of the adult choir with a spine-tingling version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s You’re All I Need to Get by.
Then it was my turn. I have to confess that I was a little out of my comfort zone as I made my way to the front, plugged in my guitar, introduced myself and started to play the opening chords to Hard Road to Travel. Having established the tempo, Simon and Pearl joined in. Andi nodded to the choir to start singing. The difference between a rehearsal and a show never fails to amaze me. With massive amounts of adrenaline clearly kicking in, the power of the choir behind me took me by surprise. Such energy! I could sense that their nerves were abating and they were starting to have fun. That first song was over way too soon for me.
Gemma upped the ante and, accompanied by Simon, she proved herself a very classy singer by belting out a jazzy version of Winter Wonderland. The choir kept the Christmas theme going with a spirited Deck the Halls.
The mood changed a little for a moving rendition of Sam Smith’s Stay With Me (or should that be Tom Petty’s?).
Gemma came back to the stage to finish off the first set with the John Farnham eighties anthem You’re the Voice. This is not an easy song to master – but the choir and Gemma – absolutely nailed it!
The second set started with soulful intent with Gemma singing Whitney Houston’s I Go to the Rock. This set up my rendition of Walking in Memphis rather nicely. I told the audience of how I had spent time in Memphis and was thrilled to be asked to perform this song with SSS. Once again, the choir rose to occasion; their energy transported me back to the banks of the Mississippi and in the words of the song “I sang with all my might”.
The choir left me alone on stage and I sang my song Crazy (complete with a rambling tale of how I came to write the song after a disastrous tour of Ireland). It went down well and I even had the audience singing along in the chorus by the end.
I have to say that I relished singing Fairytale of New York (again, accompanied by a tale of epic proportions of how I came across the song before its actual release). It contains the most beautiful melody and heart-rending lyrics that I think are often overshadowed by its boozy bravura.
The choir returned with another Whitney classic Your Love is my Love, and followed this with a great version of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep.
It was time to bring the kids back and they had chosen Olly Murs’s Up. I didn’t know this song but I’d bet that the X-Factor puppet won’t have sung it any better. The young ones reminded us that this was a Christmas concert and gave us a swinging version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Now, it wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You – and Gemma has the pipes to dispatch that one beautifully. Then I was back on stage to sing Hey Jude as part of our finale. It was very hard for me not to grin inanely when the choir joined me on the bridges of the song. And the na na na’s at the end were just out of this world.
Do They Know it’s Christmas was a fitting way to end the show with a rousing a cappella middle section.
I’m pretty sure the audience went home happy; I know I did.
And the event got me thinking. Next Spring, I’ll be recording a new album of songs I wrote whilst on tour in the US. One of the planned songs is a tribute to the great musical heritage of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It’s called The Singing River, and there might just be room on it for a soulful choir….