It's enough to make you sing "Oh Happy Day": gospel music is staging a Great British Comeback after its heyday in the 1980s. The music made popular worldwide by artists from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin is again hitting the high notes. As choirs in schools, universities and local communities are belting out classics such as "Amazing Grace", gospel musicians report that they're in more demand than ever, with everyone from corporations to major music festivals eager for a little harmony and faith.
"It springs out of a desire to express something that's heart-felt; it's a hallmark of authenticity," said the celebrity vocal coach David Grant. A new generation of listeners are attracted to gospel – not necessarily for its religious sentiments, but for its "soul", "heart" and "passion", he added. Even the usually conventional two million-plus viewers of the BBC's Songs of Praise are to be wooed by the charm of gospel when the programme hosts the first national televised gospel competition in the autumn, hosted by Mr Grant.
The recent upswell in popularity harks back to the 1980s, seen as a golden age of British gospel music, with up to 1,750 choirs and choral groups singing every week. However, by the turn of the millennium fewer than 40 per cent of black-majority congregations boasted choirs, according to Juliet Fletcher, gospel singer and chief executive of the recently formed Gospel Music Industry Alliance. The Windrush generation were all grown up, and "choir music began to be seen as a bit old hat", she said. The latest surge is put down to growing church membership, as well as rising demand from schools and youth groups. Due to the wider singing revival, experts estimate that as many as 1,000 choirs are now thriving, together with around 5,000 choral worship teams across the country.
But the music, said to have originated with songs of faith sung by slaves in America, has broken free of the stereotypes shown in films such as the Hollywood comedy Sister Act, in which Whoopi Goldberg's lounge singer saves a convent with gospel classics. A Christian & Gospel Albums Chart was launched last month by the Official Charts Company, which said that 600 new "Christian" albums were released last year, and iTunes Europe has begun to list gospel music on its site.
One of Britain's most successful choirs – the London Community Gospel Choir – has performed with the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Elton John and Blur. Ayo Oyerinde, the manager, said: "It's just a message of hope and inspiration. You need to have that now, more than ever." The choir is attempting to break the world record for bringing the most gospel singers together in concert conditions (1,200 is the target) next Sunday at London's Southbank Centre. There are also plans to launch an annual gospel festival in the capital.
Reverend Bazil Meade, who founded the choir 30 years ago, said his vision is to "put gospel music on the map of Europe". Choirs have already signed up from Italy, Sweden and Ireland – where gospel choir numbers have increased 50-fold in just over a decade. "Gospel's become much more visible on the arts landscape," Ms Fletcher said. "Some people say we're 10 years behind America, but I think we're going to be catching up over the next few years. There's no stopping us."