Sounds of Blackness
Sounds of Blackness
The gospel chorus that became the Grammy Award-winning ensemble Sounds of Blackness first took shape in the late 1960s—and began with no commercial aspirations whatsoever. Popularizing a new kind of sound, the experimental gospel chorus has been winning critical, market, and industry attention since the early 1990s. Sounds of Blackness boasts a dedicated membership of 40 artists: 30 vocalists, including a team of strong soloists, backed by a ten-piece orchestra. Ann Bennett-Nesby, their premier soloist, was able launch a solo career based on Sounds’ success.
“For 20 long years,” Britt Robson wrote in the Minneapolis-based periodical City Pages in 1994, “Sounds of Blackness persevered as an important but somewhat obscure component of the local music scene.” That component began as the Macalester College Black Choir in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1969. This early incarnation held until 1971, when Gary Hines became the group’s director.
Hines took steps to shape a stronger character and purpose for the outfit, including changing the name to Sounds of Blackness. “In our repertoire we do the whole range of African American music,” Hines told Leslie Tucker in Rolling Stone. “We wanted our name to reflect the scope of what we’re doing.” The change also spurred the choir’s shift into a more experimental path, influenced by Hines’s arrangements and visions.
Hines was responsible for expanding the ensemble’s repertoire far beyond the usual gospel fare, experimenting with the influence of pop stars like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, as well as digging back into the roots of African and African American music. Sounds of Blackness began trying out more theatrical productions in the mid-1970s, beginning with a 1974 Christmas performance, The Night Before Christmas … A Musical Fantasy. Other pieces included The Soul of the ’60s, Music for Martin, and Africa to America. Their popularity on the local scene allowed for three albums
Group composed of 40 members, including 30 vocalists and a ten-piece orchestra; soloists include Jayn Bell, Ann Bennett-Nesby, Caré Cotton, Carrie Harrington, Geoffrey Jones, Renee McCall, Alecia Russell, Billy Steele, and Jimmy Wright. Gary Hines (born c. 1952 in New York City; son of a furniture upholsterer and a jazz singer) has served as director since 1971.
Choir founded as Macalester College Black Choir, 1969, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Name changed to Sounds of Blackness, 1971, when Hines assumed directorship. Became local phenomenon in 1970s and 1980s; provided back-up vocals for pop stars recording in Minneapolis studios; captured attention of producers Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, who produced first Sounds of Blackness album, The Evolution of Gospel, as debut release on their Perspective label, 1991.
Awards: Grammy Award for best gospel album by a choir or chorus, 1991, for The Evolution of Gospel.
Addresses: c/o Flyte Tyme Productions, 4100 West 76th St., Edina, MN 55435.
over the years, all produced on small labels for their St. Paul market.
Years later, the group’s producers would argue that this time of fermentation was necessary to create their Grammy-quality power. “Sounds of Blackness isn’t something where a person can suddenly come along and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great concept,’” record producer Terry Lewis told Robson, “because it doesn’t work that way. It almost had to come out of the inward search of that period.… Then it had to be nurtured and changed and rechanged and struggled with in terms of humility, strength, power, and faith.”
The choir was also moving more regularly in the circles of the city’s pop music scene. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sounds of Blackness provided backup vocals for a number of major recordings, including the soundtrack for Batman and various pop releases that were recorded in the Twin Cities. Furthermore, a powerful new asset came their way in the voice of Ann Bennett-Nesby, who first sang with the chorus on an invitation from her sister, Shirley Marie Graham. Jennifer Whitlock, another vocalist, noted in City Pages that those who happened to be in rehearsal that day “were in shock” at the magnitude of Bennett-Nesby’s voice. Bennett-Nesby not only became a new member of the choir, but overnight became their star soloist.
As the choir went about its musical business in the late 1980s, they came to the attention of Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, the two successful young producers who turned Janet Jackson into a charttopping megastar. Jam and Lewis decided to bring Sounds into the studio in the fall of 1988 to do some backup vocals for a Christmas album, My Gift to You, by Alexander O’Neal, a former vocalist with the choir.
Jam and Lewis were so enamored of the choir’s sound that they decided to make Sounds of Blackness—hardly a sure bet in the pop market—the debut release on their new label, Perspective Records. Karen Kennedy, general manager at Perspective, explained to Billboard’s David Nathan in 1991, “This album was picked as a first release [because] it reflects the tone for the label. It really gives honor to all aspects of black music and it’s so different from what’s on the radio today.”
Perspective had the album, The Evolution of Gospel, ready for release in 1991. The public response was so positive that one single, “Optimistic,” broke the Top Ten and became a Number One hit on the R&B airwaves; Billboard reported two more dance hits from the album. After more than 250,000 copies moved off the nation’s record store shelves, Evolution was also honored with the industry praise of a Grammy Award.
Evolution’s makers, however, measured its value not so much in terms of dollars, but in terms of mission. Lewis understood the release’s success as fulfilling a certain need in the black community; as he explained to Robson: “It is timeless music; not what people wanted, but what people needed.… Sounds of Blackness is what we desire to achieve. We need somebody to provoke our spirituality, to calm us down and bring us back to reality.”
In keeping with the group’s history, Evolution was recognized as “one of the most adventurous projects released in years,” according to Nathan. Hines expressed a sense of purpose for the album that eclipsed any commercial goals. “This album,” he told the Billboard writer, “is meant to portray the essence of the African American experience through our music. It’s an expression of where gospel music has been historically and where we’re taking it.” Where they were taking it apparently challenged traditional music genres. “With Jam and Lewis contemporizing some of the songs and arrangements alongside Hines’s ever-refining musical vision,” Robson wrote, “Evolution was a jolting, joyous musical sprawl that synergized gospel with everything from African chants to hip-hop dance beats to a Sly Stone cover.”
The choir maintained its usual pace of work in the year that followed, simply playing to a greatly expanded audience. The fall of 1992 took them on tour with singer Luther Vandross. That Christmas saw the release of The Night Before Christmas … A Musical Fantasy, bringing one of Hines’s mid-1970s theatrical productions to national attention. Writing for Interview, Joan Morgan announced that the album was “guaranteed to whisk your soul away from mere gift-buying and take you to a place where … commercialism is displaced by pure hallelujah.” Aside from their own albums, Sounds continued to lend their rich vocals to other productions, including albums by Vandross and John Mellencamp and soundtracks for the films Mo’ Money and Posse.
The growing circles of their reputation, and particularly their tour itinerary, did put a new kind of pressure on the members, all of whom still juggled full-time careers and pursued work in the choir with little or no monetary recompense. Because Sounds of Blackness is a nonprofit corporation, none of its musicians had ever been able to live off of it—even when it functioned as a vital regular on the local music scene. Hines, for example, had earned his living for years with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, where he was an investigator and mediator.
Other members were doctors and lawyers, engineers and designers; the 1994 lineup, as Robson documented, also included a horse trainer and a state trooper. “It was a labor of love for all the members,” Robson wrote. “They have a love of the music,” Hines explained to Jet, “and come in from all over and audition. They like the message of promoting Black pride through our music.”
The choir continued to swell its commercial success with a third release in 1994, Africa to America: The Journey of the Drum. Like The Night Before Christmas, the album grew out of a production that Hines had originally penned in 1975—a work that Robson characterized as “an adventurous production spanning the entire spectrum of African American music.” After Hines took the work on tour in 1992, Jam and Lewis decided they wanted to record it, although it required some downsizing. Comparing Africa to America with Evolution, Robson felt that “it [didn’t] hold together as well, primarily because its scope is simply too expansive for one CD to contain—the last third of the disc hopscotches from one style to the next. Hines,” he concluded, “acknowledges that Sounds was trying to put a gallon of music in a quart jar.”
The success of Sounds of Blackness brought certain success to some of its major players—not only soloist Bennett-Nesby, but also director Gary Hines. When Hines assumed the directorship of the Macalester College Black Choir in 1971, he was only 19 years old. The aspiring body-builder—he held the Mr. Minnesota title in 1981—had moved to Minneapolis with his family in 1964.
The Hines family started out in Yonkers, New York, where Gary and his five older siblings immersed themselves in music. “Sunday mornings,” Hines related to Robson, “we had spirituals and gospel in church; out on the street corners we’d hear brothers singing doowop; and in an alley an old man singing the blues. The radio would play Frankie Valli and Nat King Cole. You didn’t have any of the insane division the industry has today.”
Hines’s mother made her living as a professional jazz singer, and although his father was a furniture upholsterer, music was still an integral part of his work—he had a jukebox in his workshop. “It had everything on it,” Hines told Robson. “We’d sneak down and listen to B. B. King, Oscar Peterson, jazz, blues, gospel, you name it.” The Hines children also pursued musical experiences outside of their home, finding rich opportunity in the New York City streets. “When I was five,” Hines recalled in the interview with Robson, “me and my brothers joined a fife and drum corps. The discipline of that has rubbed off to this day in terms of rehearsal and punctuality and work ethic, because we would practice ourselves into a sweat every day and just love it. The whole spirit, mind, and body thing—what is now called the holistic approach—came together for me.”
The success of the choir changed Hines’s career considerably, allowing him to devote his life to making music. He began working regularly for Jam and Lewis’s Flyte Tyme studios as a writer, arranger, and producer, contributing to works beyond Sounds. Hines probably reached his most diverse, multinational audience with the theme song for the 1994 World Cup, on which he collaborated with Daryl Hall of the rock duo Hall and Oates.
Sounds of Blackness has come under fire in some circles, where it is perceived as “blackness lite, detailing the [centuries-long African American] struggle with a happy face,” to quote Robson. Hines responded to such criticism by stating: “We sing about traditional strength, spiritual strength, not about anything passive or conciliatory, but active and militant. When we say, ‘be optimistic,’ it is said in the face of what we go through, that we are still able to keep faith in one’s god and one’s self.”
In particular, Hines defined the ensemble’s purpose as an effort to combat a history of racism in the music business. “We’re aware that, historically, black music and musicians have been taken advantage of, excluded, underpromoted and pushed aside,” Hines told Tucker in Rolling Stone. “We’re here to reclaim ownership of African American music.”
The Evolution of Gospel (includes “Optimistic”), Perspective/A&M, 1991.
The Night Before Christmas … A Musical Fantasy, Perspective/A&M, 1992.
Africa to America: The Journey of the Drum, Perspective/A&M, 1994.
Billboard, June 1, 1991; February 26, 1994.
Cash Box, July 6, 1991; December 14, 1991.
City Pages (Minneapolis), April 20, 1994.
Interview, December 1992.
Jet, March 23, 1992.
Melody Maker, May 15, 1993.
Rolling Stone, August 22, 1991; July 14, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Perspective Records press materials.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
"Sounds of Blackness." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sounds-blackness
"Sounds of Blackness." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sounds-blackness
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