Beverley Knight: The soul survivor

Pop diva Beverley Knight met a guy in a bar and within weeks they were living together like husband and wife. But Tyrone Jamison wouldn't be staying for long. Here, in her own words, the singer tells the remarkable story of the young gay man who inspired her new album - and changed her life

Sunday 20 June 2004 00:00 BST

It was the summer of 2001 and I was in a nightclub with Zaz and Luce - my two best girlfriends - when this tall, very slim, good-looking, camp guy came over with a grin like Eddie Murphy's in Trading Places. Ear to ear. He said, "Oh, I love your music and you're fantastic and my name is Tyrone and I want you to sing at Gay Pride and I'm working with the organisers so I need your number. Can I have it please?"

It was the summer of 2001 and I was in a nightclub with Zaz and Luce - my two best girlfriends - when this tall, very slim, good-looking, camp guy came over with a grin like Eddie Murphy's in Trading Places. Ear to ear. He said, "Oh, I love your music and you're fantastic and my name is Tyrone and I want you to sing at Gay Pride and I'm working with the organisers so I need your number. Can I have it please?"

Part of me was like, "Who does he think he is?", but another part liked that he was so bold. He was called Tyrone Jamison and I took to him straight away. As I don't drink, I said to him, "The first thing you can do is get me an orange juice and then we will talk."

"Orange juice?" he said, taking the mick, which made me like him even more. At the end of the evening, completely out of character, I gave him my number.

At the time I was just finishing off my third album, Who I Am, which was going to be released the following March. I had this feeling that it was a piece of work that was going to change my career, so I was in the calm period before the storm of the album coming out. I was single, had my own flat in London, and was content. But meeting Tyrone changed my life in ways that I could never have foreseen.

The day after we met, Tyrone called and suggested lunch. Before Tyrone, a lot of black guys I knew who were gay were very straight-acting. Later, Tyrone would say that being black, male and gay was the worst combination you could have because of the prejudices in the black community. Those prejudices are often worst among Jamaicans - which is where my parents both come from. But Tyrone flounced about like nobody's business. I think that is what intrigued me.

We met at a restaurant in Soho and chatted about Gay Pride and what he wanted me to do. We talked about our backgrounds: his mother was also from Jamaica. I was born and brought up in Wolverhampton and he was originally from Birmingham. We talked about all sorts of trivia - EastEnders or Dynasty. And Whitney Houston. He used to dress up in drag and do Whitney. He had her down to a tee.

Four hours later, we looked at our watches. From that point on, we were on the phone virtually every day. That was the beginning of Tyrone and me. It was akin to a whirlwind romance - we became so close so quickly.

A few weeks later, I hadn't heard from him for a couple of days and got a garbled message that he was in hospital. So I went to visit. All around the ward were HIV leaflets and that's when the penny dropped. Tyrone was HIV positive. I didn't know anyone who was HIV positive. Or not anyone who had told me. Not that he told me then. He had respiratory problems. But he was more worried about being hungry. They wouldn't let him eat because they wanted to do tests. He was whingeing about being hungry so I went over the road, got him some sushi and sneaked it in and fed him under the mask he was wearing. We were like two naughty kids.

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Eventually, he got out of hospital but the lease on his flat was up and he had to move out. I could tell he wasn't happy. So I said, "Come and live with me. It'll be a laugh. I've got two bedrooms." No thought, just pure impulse. So he moved in and that was that.

I'd been raised in a pretty strict Pentecostal Christian house. The attitude to homosexuality was the literal view in the Bible, in the Book of Leviticus, where it states that "Thou shall not lay with a man as thou would with a woman. It is an abomination." As I grew up, that had never sat well with me. Neither had a lot of issues on how the Pentecostalists dealt with sexuality. You can't take the Bible literally. Otherwise, I'd never wear red or have braids. I'd broken away from the church aged 16 or 17. My mum was gutted, bless her. But even though I was raised in a fundamentalist home, I was raised with intelligent parents who encouraged me, my brother and sister to ask questions. It was just that all their answers were biblical.

Even though they still hold to their beliefs, I remain very close to my family. They struggled at first with my music. They still frown at some of the things I do, but they recognise it is my choice. Introducing them to Tyrone was therefore the natural thing to do - but also, potentially, an issue. I was stunned at their reaction. They didn't care that he was gay. My dad, who has views on everything, adored Tyrone. They all loved this man my dad came to call "My son." In his own way, Tyrone taught them what it was like to be young, black and gay.

He pretty much had that effect on everyone. He was feisty, cheeky, honest and funny - just magnetic. Everyone around me - even the most unexpected people - took to him instantly.

Between Tyrone and me, there was what I can only describe as agape love, as opposed to erotic love, or brotherly love. It could be like a brother and sister, but it was also so much more. It was more like a husband and wife without the sex. It was the highest and most perfect love I could experience. We were so close and so in tune with each other.

I always accepted that he was gay. On that first lunch, we were both looking at this cute waiter. That's how we were together. I loved Tyrone and he loved me. I don't think our relationship would have got in the way if I'd met anyone special. But while Tyrone was with me there was no one I was particularly bothered about.

In March 2002, the album came out and the first two singles from it - "Get Up" and "Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda" - were both hits. Tyrone had his own work as an events manager and his own money, but everywhere I went, he'd come. He became a fixture in my life. When I went on tour in Europe, he came out and met me.

Before Who I Am, folk knew my name, but that album introduced me to a whole new audience. The change was dramatic. Suddenly I was walking down the road and people knew who I was. Most times it was fine. I don't walk round with minders and I tend not to do things that will draw attention to myself.

But Tyrone and I did give an interview to a magazine called Fable, which isn't around any more. Me and my gay best friend. We called ourselves the black Will and Grace. Someone at the BBC read it and approached Tyrone to present a programme called That Gay Show. He got the job. He had the personality and the gift of the gab and it was his absolute dream. He was flying here, there and everywhere. So was I. Life was brilliant.

Then he came back from Spain, where he had been filming, and didn't look well. It was the end of the summer of 2002. The doctors put it down to dodgy water. He started to lose weight and he couldn't put it back on. That worried him a lot. That was the shift in everything. He started to get tired. I was getting geared up to go off and do more promotion for the next single, "Gold", but Tyrone wasn't well enough to join me.

In October, I went with Christian Aid to see projects on HIV and Aids in Brazil. Of course, knowing Tyrone made the invitation resonate all the more. And Brazil sounded so much like the West Indies with its religious beliefs and prejudice against homosexuals.

All the time I was there, what was happening with Tyrone was on my mind. I have never experienced * such a schism between haves and have-nots as I saw in Salvador. HIV and poverty are so linked. It was a life-changing experience and I came back all fired up - with every breath I had I was going to preach the gospel of Aids awareness and safe sex.

When I got home, I found Tyrone desperately ill: he was grey and his breathing was irregular. A friend was looking after him at my place and, even though he'd sounded fine on the phone from Brazil, when I saw him I knew something was wrong. That night his condition worsened. I climbed into his bed and held on to him because I could see he was frightened. He didn't want me to call an ambulance, but eventually he let me.

At first they wanted to quarantine him because they thought it was TB. I was up all night. I had a photo-shoot the next day but I stayed until he fell asleep at seven in the morning and then ran home, grabbed my stuff and went to the shoot, trying to be my normal self.

Tyrone had pneumonia and was transferred to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I was terrified of losing him. He was there for ages and when he came out he was very weak. I became his primary carer.

It was about this time that he wrote to my family to explain what was going on. He was terrified that my family would be repulsed by him. My mum and sister had guessed about the HIV. My dad was the one I was worried about. "Oh, I knew," he said. And he just got on with it. It was a massive thing for him. I was stunned. Tyrone had finally found a family environment that was accepting of him in every way. It was amazing to him.

At the start of November, I was invited by Earl Spencer to sing for Nelson Mandela at Althorp House. Tyrone was in a wheelchair but he came with me. I wanted him to meet Mandela. He was his hero. I think that was my purpose in his life. I enabled him to have certain dreams come true.

By late November, I was rehearsing for another tour. It was Tyrone's birthday on 1 December - World Aids Day, ironically. That was also the date of my first concert and it was in Bristol, where Tyrone had lived for 10 years and was diagnosed with HIV. So he'd come full circle. Against my better judgement, he came to that first show. He had a walking-stick. I got the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to him. He loved it even though he couldn't stand up and clap.

I carried on with my tour - out on stage each night, smiling with all the success. I was determined no one was going to see anything in my face that was not right. Tyrone and I spoke every day.

We had Christmas at my parents'. It was brilliant. Everyone made a fuss of him, but he was so ill. He had a lesion on his hand that wouldn't heal. All kinds of everything were going wrong with him.

He'd gone to stay with his auntie and uncle in Walsall. She's a nurse and was taking good care of him. But on 12 January, I got this pitiful voice on my mobile. "Bev, I need to go to hospital in London." "I'm coming now," I said, grabbing everything and bombing to Walsall.

I got him to the hospital. They had a wheelchair waiting but they still didn't know what was wrong. Tyrone began to talk about how he was determined to die on his own and not put me through it. But I said, "I'm not leaving you ever, so put that to the back of your head." We didn't realise it was imminent. Perhaps it was naïveté on our part. It was staring me in the face. Perhaps it was too immense to take on board.

I mentioned to the doctors that his neurological responses weren't right and they did more tests. His speech had by now disappeared altogether. For a man with a gob the size of Texas, it was devastating. The doctors sat us both down and said he had a condition called PML - a brain disease - and his nervous responses were shutting down one by one. The prognosis was extremely poor. I wasn't comprehending. It's amazing how you switch to automatic mode.

With all the drips, we were looking at a month. And without them, a week. By this time, Tyrone's only way of communicating was to slightly nod or shake his head, but he could still hear perfectly well.

I moved into the hospital. Tyrone decided no more pills, needles or drips. He had a peg feeding him through his stomach. I was still trying to work and, one Sunday morning, I was live on Channel 4. I got ready in the hospital loos, put on my make-up, angled the television so he could watch it, and went off to the studio. I said hello to him while I was on air and then rushed back. It was surreal.

On 12 February, I sat with him for ages, just talking, remembering when we did this and that. His breathing was highly irregular. I knew. His eyes were closed most of the time. We had talked about his funeral a while before. "You've got to sing 'His Eye is On the Sparrow'," he'd told me, "because that's a wicked tune." So that day I said: "The end is coming soon, you know it. So I'm going to sing this to you now so you know how it will sound at the funeral." And then I said goodbye.

I went to bed in my little room facing his. It was about 10 to five when the nurse came and said, "I need you." He was just lying there. He'd gone. Finally, he looked like he was getting some proper sleep. I sat with him and his mum and his brother. It was very hard to say goodbye.

He did this last comical thing. He'd set it up with nurses long beforehand. My friend Luce had given him a fluffy gorilla and he loved it. His body had been taken away, but I went back into his room to tidy and there, sitting in the bed, was the gorilla propped up with Tyrone's comfort blanket over him and a packet of Starbursts, which I'm addicted to. It gave me the shock of my life but made me feel a lot better.

Knowing Tyrone has made me a different human being in many ways. Generally, I don't speak about my private life as I don't think it is relevant - most of what you want to know about me is in the songs I write. But after Tyrone died, I felt I needed to fill the void that he had left. Drink and drugs were not an option, but I needed to feel someone with me so I turned to sex, which didn't help me cope with my grief. Eventually, I returned to my place of safety, which has always been writing.

He is the inspiration behind most of what is on my new album, Affirmation. It was written about us, after his death - what we did together and what happened to me after he had gone. But there are so many other things - like the way he had taught me to celebrate my own womanhood and sexuality and to flaunt it and feel uninhibited - which, coming from a fundamentalist background, was quite an achievement. It took a gay man to teach me to celebrate being a woman.

I really hope that by talking about him like this it will get people to abandon their prejudices - especially in the black community. As a black man, Tyrone struggled with being gay. And I would tell him not to be so down on himself. He was a beautiful human being. I think it was only when he got to do that TV show that he found a new sense of purpose, that he thought, "Actually, I am young, black, gay and I'm out and maybe that will help other young, black, gay men out there. Maybe they will look at me and no longer feel so ashamed and inadequate." He was really proud of that. It shifted his opinion of himself.

Now I am going to take up that torch on Tyrone's behalf. He wanted to work on HIV awareness, but he had to leave before he had a chance. So I'm going do it for him. I've worked with organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, Christian Aid and the Elton John Aids Foundation and will continue to do so. I don't care if it comes across as being evangelical, because this is the most important thing going on right now. There has been a 20 per cent rise in new infections in Europe. That means we are complacent and blasé. We are under this false notion that if you become HIV positive, you can take the anti-retroviral drugs and you'll make a complete recovery. Wrong. Tyrone was taking them and he died.

Even though I was raised in the Christian faith, I wouldn't describe myself as a Christian. I still have issues that I wrestle with all the time. One minute I'm running to the church, the next I'm running from it. But one thing I am convinced of is that me and Tyrone's paths crossed by divine order. Him coming into my life has heightened my spirituality because even though he's not here, I can still feel him sometimes. I will say something and it is like he's speaking through me. Beverley Knight was talking to Peter Stanford

The single 'Come As You Are' is out tomorrow on Parlophone. 'Affirmation' follows on 28 June. Beverley Knight plays Somerset House on 7 August, tel: 020 7734 8932

Who I am The making of a soul sensation

Beverley Knight, 30, was born in Wolverhampton and studied theology and philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire. In 1994, she was spotted singing at a pirate radio station party and offered a record contract. Her second album, 1999's Prodigal Sista, went gold and her third, 2002's Who I Am, went platinum. The single "Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda" was a hit all over Europe. Knight's admirers include Nelson Mandela (for whom she has performed twice), the Beckhams and David Bowie. She has won three Mobo Awards, been nominated three times for a Brit and once for the Mercury Music prize.

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