Natalie Cole’s death last week, at the age of 65, reminded me of her part in one of the most surreal and exhilarating evenings of my life, when she joined a company of distinguished American gospel singers and musicians for a performance in a 17th century church in the English Midlands.
The date was November 27, 1980, and the place was All Saints’ Church in Northampton, rebuilt with 1,000 tons of timber donated by King Charles II after a fire had laid waste to the town centre in 1675. It made an interesting environment not just for the performers but the congregation, consisting of personnel from the various US Air Force bases dotted around that part of England in the Cold War era.
Invited by the producers of a TV programme called In the Spirit, these men and women played an important role in an event that also featured the Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir and the soloists Dorothy Norwood and Marion Williams, plus a first-class rhythm section: organ, piano, guitar, bass and drums. I took my father — a Church of England parson, and a music lover, who I correctly thought would be intrigued by the experience — and my friend and colleague Simon Frith. Apart from the TV crew, we were probably the only white faces in the place.
As you can hear from the nine-minute clip, Cole’s rendering of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was well received. She was, after all, still basking in the glow of her 1975 dancefloor hit, “This Will Be”. On the night, however, I remember thinking that she didn’t seem entirely natural in this context: by comparison with the great female gospel singers, she sounded a little shrill and insubstantial. But she certainly gave it what she had, and you can watch the beautiful sway of the robed choir to the band’s 12/8 rhythm.
To see and hear James Cleveland — one of the founding fathers of modern gospel music — was to witness a masterclass in the manipulation of a willing congregation. When he delivered his purring rewrite of Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs”, featured three years earlier on his Grammy-winning Live at Carnegie Hall album, he wrecked the house almost as comprehensively as the Great Fire of Northampton 305 years earlier.