About 50 years ago, a young man who lived in a tight-knit village in St James, quit his “safe” job as a conductor with the Transport Board and took up singing as a career. Little did he know he would have become the concrete for the foundation on which gospel music in Barbados would be built.
Lest we forget –– especially our new generation of local Christian artistes –– Joseph Niles and others of his era undoubtedly paved the way for the modern crop of singers to hone their musical skills. It is quite appropriate to reflect, therefore, on the life of Niles at this time, as the annual Joseph Niles Legacy Lecture draws near as part of Barbados Gospelfest 2015.
For the indelible mark he made on the musical landscape in Barbados –– and the Caribbean –– is exactly why the organizers of Barbados Gospelfest had decided to introduce the annual lecture four years ago.
This year’s lecture comes off on May 28 at Queen’s Park Steel Shed, beginning at 8 p.m., and will be delivered this year by Reverend Selwyn Brathwaite.
But let me quickly interject here and clear the air, in case this article gives the impression Joseph Niles is dead. He is very much alive, although his mental faculties are not what they ought to be, and he is under the constant care of his loving wife.
Last year, he and his wife took a well-deserved trip to the United States to relax in a different environment –– and are now back home. It’s three months now they have returned to Barbaados.
For those of his fans, friends and well-wishers, Niles is still “hanging on”, as his wife put it.
Even though his dementia forced him to stop singing and recording music about four years ago, the plethora of albums and singles Niles has produced remains very much with us today, and will certainly do so as long as there is music.
His unique brand of music –– and sound; his commitment to the Afro-Caribbean art form and his ever flowing river of songs, have left an unmistable footprint on the musical sands of time which his modern counterparts could only admire –– and or emulate.
It is noteworthy that music is so deeply imbedded in Niles’ psyche, that while his illness prevents him from recognizing people or remembering their names, he is forever singing at home, some of the songs he loves –– and we have come to embrace.
When I visited him at his St James home before he left for the United States last year, he was constantly singing. And if you are wondering about that strong voice which we know so well –– he has not lost it at all.
His voice is still sweet.
And if you would permit me to take you down memory lane, some of his most popular songs which we –– young, old and in-between –– have sung and danced to, and I can readily think of include This Train, Walking Up The King’s Highway, I Know Where I Am Going, Royal Telephone, Try A Little Kindness, Live Your Religion, Just A Rose, Beautiful Robes, How Beautiful Heaven Must Be and Hard Road To Travel.
And just in case you thought I forgot. No! Joseph Niles became famous singing with his Consolers in the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, the woman we now refer to as the Queen Of Gospel –– Sister Margrita Marshall –– also made her name in the early days singing with the Consolers, along with Ann Riley.
In those days, to sing with, or to be backed by the Consolers, was like being the opening act for the late Michael Jackson or superstars of that ilk.
I had the privilege of singing, albeit only once, on the same bandstand as Niles and the Consolers, and being backed by that famous group.
I daresay that any history that is ever written about Christian music and song in Barbados would be totally incomplete, if it does not include Joseph Niles, known to us as the Godfather Of Gospel Music in this country.
Let me end with one of Niles’ famous sayings: “It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice.”
Blessings. I’m outta here.