WRAP IT UP IN BLACK SKIN
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This interview took plac when Madeline Bell was in Liverpool for the Ultimate Divas concert at the Philharmonic Hall in October 2004. Madeline invited me for a breakfast meeting at her hotel so this interview took place over toast and coffee. Transcribing the interview has been great fun as there were discussions on permanent markers, Flora and fry-ups along the way as well as several breaks for telephone calls, particularly as some orchestral parts were lost in the post. Madeline may live in the music world, but her friends are around at 9am. The interview was broadcast in On The Beat on BBC Radio Merseyside on 29 January 2005.
SL: Let’s talk about the Ultimate Divas concerts first.
MADELINE BELL: The first time I did this it was Three Divas at Kenwood House in London, and it was myself, Sheila Ferguson and Ruby Turner with the BBC Big Band. It was wonderful, but it was just a one-off as far as I was concerned and I had no idea what it was going to turn into. The idea was to pick songs from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, but over the past two years it has been changed to Ultimate Divas because there are more of our own hits in it. This time there is Pat (P P) Arnold and Sheila and myself, and I am the only one of the three who hasn’t had a hit. They are singing their hits but I’m okay. I figure I can sing anything.
SL: You did have hits with Blue Mink.
MADELINE BELL: Yes, but we don’t do them. Everything we do everything we do has been made popular by a female.
SL: You started in a group, I think with J, who was the J in R&J Stone.
MADELINE BELL: Yes we were both 16 and we were in the Glovertones: my cousin was Joanne Stone, then Joanne Williams. We were at school during the week and then at the weekends we might go 500 miles to sing at a church. We were singing and getting paid, but it was very little. So many of us from the church were from New Jersey like Dionne Warwick and Gloria Gaynor. I was born in 1942 and I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. We didn’t call it a ghetto but that is what it was.
SL: I first came across your name with Black Nativity in 1962, so how did you come to be in that show?
MADELINE BELL: I was singing with Alex Bradford’s group, who was a very popular gospel singer in the late 50s and early 60s. I had been with them for a year and a half and he got an agent as he wanted to spread his wings. They put us with Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith, who had been part of the Clara Ward Singers, Black Nativity opened off-Broadway in November 1961 for a month and it was sold out every night and on the very last night, this Italian gentleman spoke to the producers. He put on a festival every year in Spoleto and he wanted to take the show there. We would be in Spoleto for four weeks and some of us had never been on a plane before. It wasn’t a direct flight as we had to change three times. After Spoleto, we were going to London to record Black Nativity for Associated-Rediffusion and while we were there, Michael Dorfman – you see, my long term memory is really good! – saw us and he wanted to put the show on at the Criterion Theatre in London for two weeks with two shows a day. I was 19 or 20 then and the show just snowballed. It got bigger and bigger. We were supposed to be in Europe for six weeks, but we came in June 1962 and eventually went home at the end of August 1963. We played all over Europe and we played London four times and when everyone went back, I stayed.
SL: I’ve brought the album for you to sign.
MADELINE BELL: Oh my goodness! (sings) ‘Wasn’t that a mighty day, a mighty day.’ I think I’m singing Joy To The World as Marion Williams had left the studio. There was one song that we hadn’t done and so I did it. We recorded this album before the show opened and so a lot of changes were made.
SL: You’ve been involved with some similarly uplifting projects over the years like The Young Messiah.
MADELINE BELL: I did The Young Messiah with a Liverpudlian, my best friend Vicki Brown. We recorded that in 1979 and it was just a session. Six or seven years later we got a call from Tom Parker, who had put it all together, to say that The Young Messiah had been picked up in Holland and they wanted us to go over for a television show and some promotion, and it got bigger and bigger to the extent that we were playing halls that held 4,000 or 5,000 people. The Dutch are probably more musical than any other country, they like live music, jazz, pop, classical, gospel, all kinds, and they are a religious nation too. The way that The Messiah had been done interested them but it never picked up anywhere else. After The Young Messiah, we did Young Amadeus, Bach and then Verdi, and they were all popular in Holland, and nowhere else. Not even in Belgium which is just down the road.
SL: Did you meet Vicki through being a session singer?
MADELINE BELL: No. I met Vicki on my first recording with Norman Newell and Geoff Love. This was late 1963 and the backing singers were the Breakaways from Liverpool. Then we started doing sessions and they were so friendly to me as I didn’t know anyone at the time. Vicki was my best mate.
SL: She did No Charge and didn’t get a credit.
MADELINE BELL: I know, and that is why she was only shown in profile on Top Of The Pops. Good for her! (Sings) “For the nine months I carried you”. Good song though. All she got was the session fee but she was really popular in Holland. She eventually left the New London Chorale, the Tom Parker project, and she was doing concerts on her own. It was Vicki and a 1,000 voice male choir. It’s so amazing to look at the pictures and see her standing there in a white dress.
SL: There were a lot of great female session singers in the 60s – you, Vicki, Doris Troy, Kiki Dee…
MADELINE BELL: And Kaye Garner whom I still see. There were also the Ladybirds and the Breakaways, and I had a different sound. Mine was thicker and more Gospel and that is what Dusty wanted. The first thing I did with her was In The Middle Of Nowhere. That was me and Doris Troy and Lesley Duncan who now lives in Scotland but we keep in touch.
SL: Do you regard Dusty Springfield as a British Aretha Franklin?
MADELINE BELL: Yeah, and also Dusty was the main cause of Motown breaking in Europe. She brought them over and she talked Vicki Wickham and the producers of Ready, Steady, Go! into doing a television show when they were doing a European tour. Dusty presented the programme and nobody had heard of them but Dusty said, ‘You have to bring this show over.’ She adored Motown.