Wilson, Natalie 1972(?)–
Natalie Wilson 1972(?)–
Gospel choir director, composer, vocalist
A multitalented creative figure whose activities extend into choral directorship, songwriting, singing, and production, Natalie Wilson emerged as one of contemporary gospel music’s most promising new stars in the early 2000s. Wilson had few creative ambitions when family tragedy placed the leadership of the Newark, New Jersey, Sounds of Praise Chorale (also known as the SOP Chorale) in her hands in 1992. At times Wilson seemed almost overwhelmed by the creative and personal pressures of national stardom. Yet her talent was strong enough to propel her and the SOP Chorale to consistently higher levels. She is one of the first women to lead a gospel choir that is signed to a major recording label.
Born Natalie Simmons in Newark, New Jersey, around 1972, Wilson grew up in a family environment suffused with music. “Gospel music has been a tradition for us as long as I can remember,” Wilson’s brother Andre Simmons, a minister, told the Newark Star-Ledger. She was the youngest of four children, and her father, the pastor at St. Paul’s Sounds of Praise Church on Newark’s 18th Avenue, played the piano and had sung with several gospel groups. Her mother, Johnnie Mae Simmons, was also a gospel vocalist. Wilson herself joined the Sounds of Praise choir at age six.
As headquarters of the Sounds of Praise Chorale, Newark had spawned the careers of an unusually large number of African-American female vocalists, from jazz legend Sarah Vaughan to hip-hop maverick Lauryn Hill. However, Wilson initially had no plans for a life in music beyond contributing to church worship. Her brother, Glenn Simmons, held the position of Sounds of Praise choir director, and became known all over Newark for his energetic directing style. Wilson was working toward certification as a cosmetologist. But Glenn Simmons died suddenly in 1992, and Wilson’s father asked her to take over as the choir’s director. Though she was far from confident, Wilson agreed.
“I only did it to keep the choir going until a real director could be found,” Wilson was quoted as saying on the Sherrod Ministries website. Yet a series of upheavals that touched her personal life changed Wilson’s perspective on the choir and holding the head position. Both of Wilson’s parents died shortly after her brother’s death, and it was Natalie who pulled the church and her family through the crisis. “Natalie was a behind-the-scenes person—a quiet person,” Andre Simmons told the Star-Ledger. “Her transformation has brought about a spirit of leadership.” A new personal and musical partnership helped Wilson to flourish: in the early 1990s she married Sounds of Praise minister of music Joseph Wilson.
Joseph Wilson’s musical career would advance in tandem with his wife’s; he would serve with her as co-producer of their recordings, and as he began doing recording-session work with artists such as Mary J. Blige and northern New Jersey native Lauryn Hill, he became known as Joe “Flip” Wilson. The challenges of combining personal and professional lives were sometimes
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1972, in Newark, Nj; daughter of Henry (a minister and gospel musician) and Johnnie Mae (a gospel singer) Simmons; married Joseph Wilson (a music minister and producer), ca. 1993.
Career: At father’s request became director of Sounds of Praise (SOP) Chorale after death of brother Glenn Simmons, 1992; appeared with Chorale on Bobby Jones Gospel Program Gospel Show, BET cable television, 1996; released album, Not the Same, on small Proclaim label, 1996; appeared at major gospel music conventions and workshops; signed to GospoCentric label, 1998; released album Girl Director under name Natalie Wilson & the SOP Chorale, 2000; appeared in film Kingdom Come, 2001.
Address: Office —Sounds of Praise Chorale, 662 South 18th St., Newark, NJ 07103.
difficult. Natalie Wilson explained to Mike Rimmer on the Premier web site, “There’s been plenty of sleepless nights, plenty of tears, but the reward is just outstanding. If Christ would have shown me what I was to go through, I would have probably been hesitant.”
Directed Faith Evans as Chorister
The SOP Chorale had a roster of 26 to 40 members, which included Lauryn Hill and R & B superstar-to-be Faith Evans at various times. The group continued to improve, and Newark observers began to note that Natalie Wilson’s work was similar to her late brother’s much-praised charismatic leadership. The choir’s first breakthrough appearance beyond Newark was an appearance on the Bobby Jones Gospel Show on the BET cable television network. After that, the SOP Chorale began showing up on programs at big national gospel music conventions such as the Azusa Northeast Conference, the Gospel Music Workshop of America, and others.
To accentuate their higher profile, the Chorale recorded an album, Not the Same, on the small Proclaim label in 1996. That album, especially a track called “Your House,” gained radio airplay on gospel programs in Newark and beyond. That airplay, plus the ensemble’s growing fan base, attracted the attention of the California-based GospoCentric record label, whose energetic president Vicki Mack Lataillade had shepherded several cutting-edge gospel acts to stardom whose styles incorporated elements of urban contemporary secular music.
Wilson and the SOP Chorale were signed to GospoCentric, but two years of hard work would pass before their debut album, Girl Director, was released in October of 2000. The album was designated as a release by Natalie Wilson & the SOP Chorale, and both the title and the album’s packaging highlighted Wilson’s new starring role. Wilson deserved her new prominence, for she had composed several selections on the recording. As a top-level female choir director, she was also a pioneer. The title Girl Director pointed to the uniqueness of Wilson’s leadership, but Wilson told the Star-Ledger that her gender “has no effect in terms of our music.”
Industry observers have pointed to the variety of styles mastered by the chorale as the reason for the album’s success—it rose to number eight on Billboard magazine’s gospel chart and cracked the R & B top 50. Some have compared Wilson to the extraordinary contemporary choir leader Kirk Franklin. Jay Lustig of the Newhouse News Service declared that the album Girl Director “grabs a listener’s attention much like Franklin’s work does, with buoyant hip-hop beats and screaming rock guitar solos, sharp songwriting and thrillingly passionate vocalist.”
The album’s leadoff track, “Act Like You Know,” effectively integrates hip-hop elements into the gospel-choir medium and features a rap by the hot New Jersey producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. But the balladlike “Crown,” with guest vocals by Faith Evans, is one of several slower pieces included, some of which feature up-and-coming soloists from the Chorale itself. Billboard noted that “it’s not hard to hear how the group was and remains a fitting and fertile training ground for such A-team talent” as Hill and Evans. Another important contributor to Girl Director’s success was the lush orchestral string writing of arranger Jeremy Lubbock.
Wilson herself composed much of the music on Girl Director, and she has also written music for the contemporary gospel group Trin-i-tee 5:7 as well as other ensembles. In 2001 Wilson appeared as a gospel singer in the film Kingdom Come. Girl Director made top-album-of-the-year lists at Billboard, and at the Gospel City web site, writer Christopher Heron told the Newhouse News Service that “Natalie’s all over the place, and it works. With a strong marketing strategy behind them, they have all the ingredients to be the next big sensation.”
Not the Same, Proclaim, 1996.
Girl Director, GospoCentric, 2000.
Billboard, December 2, 2000; April 28, 2001.
Newhouse News Service, January 25, 2001.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), February 24, 2000, p. 1.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Premier Online, http://www.premieronline.co.uk
Sherrod Ministries, http://www.sherrodministries.com/Christian_Banner2001.htm
Word Entertainment, http://www.wordonline.com/gospocentric/nataliewilson.html
—James M. Manheim
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