Keep your head to the sky: It's gospel and then some. Giles Smith catches a bus with the 26-strong Sounds of Blackness

IN the afternoon before their show at the Hammersmith Apollo, the Sounds of Blackness gather in the hotel lobby. All of them. At home in Minneapolis, the band goes out at around 40-strong, but this is the touring unit, slimmed down to a snug 26 - 15 singers, a 10-piece band and Gary Hines. Everyone wears black T- shirts and track pants with big white logos: 'The Blackness - Keep . . . Keep On'. The lobby heaves.

Gary Hines is head of the Sounds of Blackness, their conductor, their arranger, their writer. Well-built (a former Mr Minnesota, in fact) and with a baseball cap on backwards, he exudes a powerful sense of calm - which is as well, given the potential chaos over which he presides.

The group is 23 years old. It was known as the Macalaster College Choir before Hines became director and opened their musical range out wide. Now they do a Motown show, a Christmas show and a show called The Evolution of Gospel, which the top producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis turned into an album in 1991. On it is a Hines / Jam / Lewis composition, 'Optimistic'. Over a pulsing bass, a gorgeous wash of voices sings 'as long as you keep your head to the sky, you can win'. It's the Sounds of Blackness theme tune.

The bassist is an ordained Baptist minister. But one of the singers is an attorney, and though all of their music is in praise of the Lord, to call them a 'gospel choir' doesn't account for the soul and the jazz and the R&B and the pop in there. In fact, the word choir rarely passes Hines's lips: he prefers 'black music ensemble'.

If you want to audition for The Sounds of Blackness, you have to go in front of Hines, display your range, demonstrate your ear, sing some scales, hold down a harmony, and turn out an a cappella version of a song of your choosing, while he sits before you, with his briefcase at his feet, making extensive notes. 'Discipline is important,' he says. For a while, a story circulated that he allotted each of his singers a number to facilitate communication. 'Not true,' says Hines. 'This is a first-name- terms organisation, most definitely.'

Anything gospel-related is hard to sell on record. Moving mountains? No problem. Shifting units? More difficult. On the coach and heading for the venue, the tour manager takes up the bus microphone and welcomes someone from the marketing division of A&M Records, Los Angeles: 'On the bus with us today and a big supporter of the Sounds of Blackness'. Nice touch. Everybody whoops and shouts and then goes back to singing to the radio. At the front, the driver whistles along, agonisingly out of key.

In the venue, the Sounds make themselves uncomfortable in accommodation built for acts an eighth of their size. While the band is setting up, the singers are in the foyer, playing a game which involves running through their most complicated dance routine at about twice the normal speed: put a foot wrong and you're out. Later they change into a black uniform with red plumage on the shoulders, and hit the stage.

The first couple of numbers seem to have a slightly subduing effect on the audience (a sell-out). But then the group pounds into its version of Sly Stone's 'Stand', which the audience accepts as a straightforward imperative. Most of the lead vocals come from Ann Nesby, but ahead of 'Optimistic', at the show's most church- like point, she calls the vocalists out one by one, singing, 'Can you do it?' And each of them answers, in devastatingly fluid runs, 'I can do it.' Finally, the microphone is passed back to the players. They too can do it. It's a neat effect - the vocal talent seems to recede to infinity. But then comes a bit of pantomime about letting 'brother Gary have a turn'. Gary Hines can't sing.

'Actually,' says Terry Lewis, the day afterwards, 'he doesn't sing too bad. Thing is, he can sing, but he can't sang. The difference is in the 'i' and the 'a' .' According to Jimmy Jam, it was Janet Jackson, herself a Jam & Lewis production, who got the Sounds their record deal. 'She spent a whole show nudging me and saying, 'C'mon, you have to make this record'. For us, the Sounds had always been around. We'd see them all the time in Minneapolis. It took someone from outside to point out to us how special they were.'

Now the group rehearses and records in Jam & Lewis's Flyte Time recording complex. Hines has an office there. 'When the Sounds started coming in,' says Lewis, 'we'd never had so many people at one time. They stripped out the kitchen - Coke, chips, you name it. That was when we installed the soda machine.'

The show closes with the new single, 'I'm Going All The Way', a catchy pop anthem for massed voices. The chorus ('I may be down sometimes / But I won't be down always') makes it, unusually, a song about euphoria which admits the possibility of its opposite. Just before this, Hines announces 'a special guest - sister Janet Jackson.' But she is not in the house. Hines apologises. There wasn't enough room for her up there anyway.

(Photograph omitted)