Thu. Oct 22nd, 2020

Music: New York Community Choir Expresses Itself |1977-10-4

The New York Community Choir (NYCC).


The Beat Goes On

Gospel music has often been treated like a step-child by record buyers, some record companies, and the mass listening audience alike. The shame and the pity of this is that gospel music is the tree, with the Negro spiritual as the root, from which the fruit of jazz, rock, pop, and folk have grown. It is a tree which continues to reach skyward, whose roots crack  the cement boundaries that try to inhibit its growth , and whose inner rings continue to expand outward with varying degrees of speed. It gives shade during the heat of the day, shelter from the storms of life, and nourishment to the soul. And all the while that it is giving, it continues to sustain and revitalize itself.

We were re-awakened to gospel music this summer by the New York Community Choir who captured our attention with a song entitled,  Express Yourself (RCA Records). What has happened to this song and the album of which it is a part is reminiscent the Edwin Hawkins release Oh Happy Day (Century Records) over 10 years ago? It has taken a place on record charts outside its field of classification. Although many will try to extend this comparison, that is where the similarity ends.

Since the Hawkins release, there has been ten years or more of growth and change in gospel music; creating a very wide and interesting ring within the tree. Even the most uninitiated can bear witness to this change. We’ve heard and seen groups like the Staple Singers I’ll Take You There (Stax Records). The Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds with Paul Simon, or individuals like Tessie Hill’s Doing Great Things for Me (ABC Records) who have changed their style, material or ventured into the rock world. Conversely, singers categorized as rock artists are performing material that is finding its way into gospel and the church Harold Melvin’s Wake Up Everybody.  Whether this interchange or interplay will continue to add to the trunk of our symbolic tree, whether it will bear fruit in the form of another kind of music, or whether it will result in a metamorphosis for the entire organism is hard to say. An active participant in this change in gospel has been the New York Community Choir.

Since they began in 1970, they have lived up to their nickname “the pacesetters” given to them by Nikki Giovanni. They provided background for her recordings Truth is on Its Way and Like a Ripple on a Pond. Their music is beautiful, different and imaginative. Their performances have a magnet-like force with the power to turn dancers into listeners when they have appeared in discos. Their music has the power to help sell out Madison Square Garden for seven straight nights and did when they appeared with Elton John. They have appeared with many top stars like Melba Moore and Vicki Sue Robinson , but always as a backup group. But they have never been promoted as a group—until now.

This step from the background to the limelight by the NYCC spurred our curiosity about them and the world of gospel music in general. We talked to Manager, Wiley Hicks and Musical Director, Benny Diggs. After just a few minutes in their company, you know it’s no accident that the NYCC is where it is today. They are both capable, articulate, and experienced men. They are very animated on the subject of gospel. For them it does not begin or end on stage. It was a talk that was not just informative, it was enlightening.


ROUTES: Just when and how did you get started?

The Manager of the New York Community Choir, Benny Diggs - Photo by Randy Carnegie
The Manager of the New York Community Choir, Benny Diggs – Photo by Randy Carnegie

Diggs: We got started in October of 1970. At that time I was working as a counselor at the Opportunities Industralization Center in Brooklyn, and we also had a branch that I was just beginning to open in Harlem at 132 St., in my neighborhood. And from that area there were quite a few young people who were on the streets doing absolutely nothing, and they were also in some of my classes that I taught at O. I. C. I though perhaps to get them interested in something to do after school, I thought we’d sing together. I’d majored in music in school and it was still a hobby. So that’s how it all began. I had no idea it would turn into a commercial venture. We started the choir from that. Just to get kids off the street, and to keep them from leaving the church.

ROUTES: When you started, what did you sing? Was it from hymnals? Where did your material come from?

Diggs: We sang hymns, gospel music, music that was recorded by other people. Our first song was a hymn come to think of it called, On Christ the Solid Rock. That was the very first song. But that wasn’t the real gender of what we were singing about. The real gender was just singing. And I just wanted them to maintain some of that strong root value that was a part of what I believed was so necessary.

ROUTES: Are you affiliated with any church?

Diggs: We’re from all churches. We have a wide variety. (But the choir is not from a church.)

ROUTES: What year did you record with Nikki Giovanni?

Diggs: The first album, Truth on Its Way, we did in 1970. We did a lot of college tours with people like Dick Gregory, Nikki Giovanni, and Julian Bond. And before we knew it, we were into a whole different facet of something we expected would be something just to keep the children off the street.

ROUTES: How many members do you have in the choir?

The New York Community Choir's Musical Director, Wiley Hicks
The New York Community Choir’s Musical Director, Wiley Hicks

Hicks: There are now 16 members. We will work with anywhere from 9 to 13 members. Our intention with the choir in the future is to cut the choir down to about 9 or 10 members, because the day of the big choir is over. And because of the fact that we do not deal with the choir as a gospel choir. We have to deal with it as a performing act.

ROUTES: When most people think of choirs, they think of their own experiences in church choirs; and along with that, the problems of cohesiveness, rehearsals, etc. Do you ever have those problems?

Hicks: One thing I will say about our choir members is that they started with Benny at a very young age, they are very committed and very dedicated. If we rehearsed five days a week, I do believe they’d give us five days a week. It is a work they know they have to do, and they are committed to it.

Diggs: It’s not a job for them. They look at it as part of their reasonable service. I guess it stems from how we began the choir, as something they wanted to do.

ROUTES: Is the choir now a profit making organization?

Hicks: The choir has always supported itself. And since I’ve been with Benny, we’ve organized a production company, a publishing company, and a management company.

ROUTES: How happy are you with your new record?

Diggs: Musically I’m very happy with the album. Again, I think the album is in the vanguard of what I think music should be about. I’m very happy to be with RCA, because it has allowed us to reach an audience that we would have not normally reached. I don’t think I could have worked with more vibrant, more talented people than I worked with on this album. As musical director, I don’t think I could be any happier. This is the first time I’ve recorded and been extremely happy with all tracks. And that’s very hard to do.


ROUTES: In which of the categories would you say the NYCC belongs, R & B, gospel, etc.

Diggs: I don’t think it can be categorized.

Hicks: It can’t, that’s one strength of the NYCC. For instance if you’ll check the record charts, the choir’s record is on all the charts. R & B, pop-crossover, and it even has the potential for country. We’re calling it new music, which is NYCC. I think the people in the music industry are putting the choir in a contemporary gospel-pop-soul bag. They don’t know where to put us. Already it’s (Express Yourself) a very heavy disco hit. And it also became an R & B hit. They’re calling it Contemporary Gospel, but we’re saying we’re a group about new music. And until you get into the NYCC and get into their music , you won’t be able to understand what we mean when we say “new music.”

Diggs: We’ve been in the vanguard since the very beginning of the choir. We’ve sort of been the forerunner in trying to make changes. The music itself has come about through the choir members experiences. That’s what gospel music really is, I don’t care what they want to say. They can call it Jesus music or whatever. But it’s a total of your experiences summed up into a deliverance.

ROUTES: Do you think you would ever record something by Stevie Wonder?

Diggs: Oh sure, sure.

Hicks: As a matter of fact our show consists of many tunes that are top pop tunes.

ROUTES: But would it still stick to the philosophy of love, brotherhood, etc?

Hicks: Oh yes, that’s the message. There has to be a message. If it has no message, then we don’t do it.

Diggs: We’re very concerned about that, very concerned. It’s very important that what we do is understood. If there’s no message in our music, we just won’t sing it. That’s why we don’t sing about people dying and going to heaven, or expecting pie in the sky when we die, it’s not about that. It’s about the living, the here and now.


ROUTES: Why is there still doubt as to the validity of gospel music?

Hicks: If you talk to black people, they will tell you “it’s not valid.” If you talk to the other market, they won’t tell you that. That’s why gospel music is happening, because the white market has become aware. They were never aware of it before on this level. The NYCC, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and Andre Crouch are reaching that market. It seems he has to convince us that what we’ve done for so many years is right. And we’ve been doing it all the time.

Diggs: Now everybody seems to be jumping on the bandwagon of gospel music. I don’t know why they waited so long because it’s always been here. Just to add a little bit more. It’s very important and very key that we not get into the habit of trying to term gospel. Because that’s been the downfall of what gospel is. I can listen to Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder, or Harold Melvin sing and get the gospel, if you understand what I mean. All of it is talking about love, peace, and joy. And you can’t get around it. But to term it gospel only stigmatizes it. I think we should stop doing that. We just don’t want to sing it, we want to be a part of the business.

ROUTES: Is your music getting into the church or is it meeting resistance?

Hicks: Oh yes, sure.

Diggs: I just came from a convention  and it was unbelievable. These people are very dignified worshippers. I took our music to this convention this year and taught it and the response from the young people was tremendous. So tremendous that the ministers wanted to know what was going on. They wondered how can this be so effective when we’ve been here for 50 years, and we haven’t gotten this kind of reaction. I simply told them what I’m trying to tell the whole world, and that is that everything has changed, including the music of the church. What it took for me 20 years ago is not doing it for these kids now. They need to be turned on a little more, because everything has speeded up. They don’t want to still hear On Christ the Solid Rock.

Hicks: That’s the generation we’re going to have to deal with over the next ten years. If you don’t reach them, then it’s all over. The people that we have problems reaching are your real heavy preachers and church-goers. They’re only fighting our music because of their fear of loosing out. We’ve taken the position that if we remain in the vein that the establishment church want us to remain in, we loose anyway.

ROUTES: Is traditional gospel taking second place to contemporary gospel?

Hicks: Traditional gospel music is not the music that’s going to reach the masses of people. That’s where it has to happen. We have a saying among ourselves, “We don’t need to go into the churches to get the people, we have to get the people on the street”— the winos, the drug addicts, the pushers, and all those people— to hear the message we want to deliver. They don’t go to church. Contemporary Gospel has to open the door. Just as contemporary or commercial jazz is now making people listen to jazz.


ROUTES: Where do you think gospel music is headed and where would you like it to go?

Diggs: One of the reasons that I got involved with Wiley is because the whole scope of this music must be completely different. That’s why we have our own company; that’s why we’re projecting our own label. We’re doing that whole bit so that we can have our own enterprise. That way we’ll have something to say about its (gospel’s) future. We’re really plugging this, that we should own it. We just don’t want to sing it. We want to be a part of the business. To give you a secret, the reason why gospel music is in the forefront now and why everyone is looking at it, and they are, is because of the longevity of gospel music, as compared to other music like R & B, Pop, etc. Gospel music outsells by many many years your biggest hit of the year. A gospel song will outsell it by ten years.

Hicks: Oh Happy Day is still selling. That is my whole theory. Everyone’s going to be doing it (redoing gospel tunes). They’re not going to be calling it gospel. Already the white market is giving it another name.

ROUTES: What name?

Hicks: “Inspirational Music.” You see, we’ve called it gospel for so long until they realized they had to find another name for it.

Diggs: Now they’ve given it another name and added five more categories to the Grammy’s. But that’s because they’re priming it to be able to take control. It’s the same thing that was done with jazz. Jazz had its roots down in New Orleans and they primed it up and before you realized it, jazz artists were white.

Within the limits of our space ROUTES has presented  just part of this conversation. But it’s evident that gospel music is on the move. Apparent too is that Wiley Hicks, Benny Diggs, and the NYCC will be a group to watch as well as listen.

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