Music: She's walking on sunshine

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A singer belting out gospel, blues and pop? It seems to work with Queen Esther Marrow, writes John Crace.

At one point in her long intro to "Stand" Queen Esther Marrow compares Princess Diana to political icons such as George Washington, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Over dinner in her Berlin hotel after the show, I suggest that for all her undoubted saintliness the Princess isn't quite up there with the others.

"What do you mean?" says Queen Esther sharply.

It seems that the Americans have a different attitude to royalty to us Brits. Which probably explains how Queen Esther came to be called Queen Esther. Now, I'd naively assumed that the Queen bit was some extravagant diva self-styling. Not so. Queen Esther is how she was christened. "Call me Queen, call me Esther, call me Queen Esther," she smiles. "I don't mind which."

At a time when much of what passes for contemporary gospel music is little more than cheesy soul, everything about her - from her husky mezzo to her congregational roots - is the genuine article.

Queen Esther was born in Newport News, Virginia, and was brought up by her grandmother. "As soon as I could walk she was taking me off to the local Apostolic church," she says. "And I loved it. I loved the bible stories and I loved the singing. I can remember playing on the swing in the back yard singing the Lord's Prayer to myself. When I was eight, I joined the choir."

The church shout (band) consisted of five trombones, a tuba, a trumpet, a saxophone, a bass drum and a cymbal which the percussionist hit with a coat hanger. The music had a smoky, New Orleans feel - her grandmother was carried down the street to the sound of the band at her funeral - and it is no big surprise to find that Queen Esther originally made it as a jazz singer.

She got her first professional break when Duke Ellington invited her to appear with him in San Francisco, and she went on to tour the world with him. Later on she teamed up with Ray Charles and Harry Belafonte, as well as making appearances with Chick Corea, Lena Horne, BB King, Thelonius Monk and Bob Dylan. In 1966 she was asked to accompany Martin Luther King on his benefit tour of the US and after he was gunned down she sang at the Kennedy Centre in a concert to honour his widow. She has also appeared in three Broadway shows.

And yet... despite having a CV that most singers would give their right arm form Queen Esther remains almost unknown over here. She has made a few low-key appearances at Ronnie Scotts, has done a gala at the Albert Hall and ... that's about it. But now she's about to make up for lost time, playing five nights in Manchester, six in Birmingham and 19 in London all in theatres holding between 1,300 and 1,900 people.

Queen Esther tries to appear relaxed and matter-of-fact about the tour, yet it is clear she is anything but. Within minutes she is grilling me on how I think she will go down over here. Whatever happens, though, no- one can accuse her of being under-prepared. The tour has been seven years in the making. Auditions for her backing choir, the Harlem Gospel Singers, began in 1991. Don't be fooled by the name, though. Queen Esther didn't just nip uptown New York in search of local talent, she trawled the whole of the US for the perfect vocal band.

Gospel isn't the easiest commodity to sell and Queen Esther has worked hard on broadening its appeal. "We're presenting a show not just a choir," she says firmly. "Unless you know gospel music intimately, one song can sound very similar to another. So we've tried to incorporate something for everyone." So the six piece band knock out anything from pure gospel to honky-tonk, and the songs range from spirituals to "Walkin' on Sunshine". Which might seem an odd mix but, if Berlin is anything to go by, it seems to work. The audience was made up of everyone from smacked-out students to well-heeled 50-somethings, and by the end of the show every single one of them is on their feet, dancing.

Some have argued that Queen Esther is commercialising the gospel sound, and she is quick to point out that her music goes down well in the churches back home. "The black community isn't hung up on traditions," she says. "They respond to the feeling of joy." Even so I sense that she is keen to distance herself a little from the religious side of the music - not because she isn't religious herself, she is - intensely - but because she worries that the message might put some people off.

Fortunately her efforts at sales spiel end at the interview; in live performance there is no holding her back. "Sometimes when I'm tired I think I might try to coast through a show on technique," she says. "But gospel music doesn't let you get away with that. Emotionally there's no hiding place. Once you get caught up in it, you just have to go for it." If this explains why she looks so shattered after two and a half hours on stage, it probably also accounts for why everyone else leaves the theatre with a smile on their face. And for that, Hallelujah.

Queen Esther Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers begin their UK tour on 10 February.