Monday, April 22, 2024

TONY BEST: Remember the ‘Godfather of Gospel’


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WHEREVER JOSEPH NILES went, he left lasting memories and images. Most of the memories were of sweet and inspiring gospel music while the images were of a man who lived out the messages contained in the lyrics of his recordings and stage performances. That was true whether he was singing Royal Telephone, Just A Rose Would Do, Power In The Blood or any of the hundreds of gospel tunes he made popular.

Those were some of the poignant pictures painted of the 75-year-old gospel missionary by several speakers, artistes and church pastors when more than 400 Bajan-New Yorkers gathered a week ago at St Leonard’s Church, an independent Bajan religious institution in Bedford Stuyvesant to celebrate Niles’ life and times.

He died at home in Barbados in September.

The renowned performer, the only Caribbean artiste inducted into the International Gospel Hall of Fame in Detroit, was hailed in prayers, song and other tributes as an award-winning singer who used the soca, reggae and calypso beats to entertain and inspire people across the Caribbean, in the US and elsewhere.

“Joseph Niles was a humble and unassuming man who sang sweetly and in the process filled a void in people’s lives,” said Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix, a senior judge of the New York State Appeals Court in Brooklyn.

Time and again the word “icon” was used in the church’s sanctuary to describe him.

Dr Donna Hunte-Cox, Barbados’ Consul-General in New York, used it when she traced the contours of a neighbourly relationship to Accommodation Road in St Michael in the 1960s.

“Joseph, who made an indelible mark on the musical landscape in Barbados and the Caribbean, became famous singing with the Consolers in the 1960s and 1970s and along with Sister Margarita Marshall and Ann Riley,” said Hunte-Cox.

“Frequently, I would hear his music while he and his backing band, the Consolers, were in rehearsals. Little did I know that this quiet neighbour would one day change the landscape of gospel music in Barbados”. In the process he also “became known as the Barbados gospel music icon”.

If the late James Brown was described as the Godfather Of Soul, then Niles was the “Godfather Of Gospel” in Barbados.

In between the intoxicating bouquets, memories were stirred of Niles on stage in Barbados, Brooklyn, Bermuda, California, Jamaica and other venues belting out such familiar songs as The World Is Not My Home, A Little More Oil In My Lamp or This Train.

During the service, the congregation listened intently as Michael Reece, a well known Bajan crooner sang Frank Sinatra’s immortal hit, My Way and as the Reverend David Barrow delivered a homily; Ann Riley reflected on the role Niles played in her career as the Reverend Jerry Bowen, Darnley Brown, Orinthia Farrell and Anthony Holmes as well as Jean Claxite on trumpet sang or played gospel and other favourites with passion.

Malcolm Best, who had a long professional and personal relationship with Niles, playing bass in the Consolers as the singer introduced drums, guitars and trumpets into worship in established and evangelical churches in Barbados and Brooklyn had this to say:

“He carried the music to the people, children and adults alike. He played and sang for Queen Elizabeth and for Mahalia Jackson when they visited Barbados on separate occasions. We decided to hold the service to celebrate his life instead of mourning the loss.”

Canon Dr Llewellyn Armstrong, St Leonard’s interim Rector of the Anglican-oriented St Leonard’s Church and a former Rector of Calvary St Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, described Niles as an “ambassador” for gospel music who made a “significant contribution” to Barbados.

Reverend Oral Walcott, a pastor of Beulah Church of the Nazarene, who served as the “minister of ceremony”, said the gospel artiste was a trendsetter, who “did it his way” and blazed a trail.

Tony Best is the Nation’s North American correspondent.


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