"A performance must be larger than life, but to be worthwhile you must have an element of humanity."
Rattle And Hum at 25: An Interview with Dennis Bell
October 22, 2013
It's one of the most memorable scenes in Rattle And Hum: U2, arguably the biggest band in the world at the time, walks into a small Harlem church with just a guitar and amp, Bono's arm in a sling, and meets a choir made up of high school students and professional singers that was organized by the man directing them, Dennis Bell. Together, they transform U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" from chart-topping pop hit to goose bumps-inducing gospel song.
Today, Dennis Bell is still living and working in the New York City area. He's a gold/platinum award-winning producer who's currently working with jazz singer Lynette Washington, writing scores for other musical productions and also teaching music and music technology at a small, private college in the city. We recently spent an hour on the phone talking about the events a quarter-century ago that led to him forming New Voices Of Freedom and covering not only "I Still Haven't Found," but also "The Sweetest Thing," which appeared on the Scrooged film soundtrack.
Bell already had a hit on his hands when he produced Oh, My God!, the 1986 debut album from Doug E. Fresh. In 1987, he was also working with a different group that he wanted to introduce to Island Records. And that began the string of events that eventually led to the collaboration with U2 that we see and hear in Rattle And Hum.
Matt McGee: The first contact you had was not with the band, correct? It was with Island Records.
Dennis Bell: In 1987, I was working with a group that I wanted to get Island interested in, so I made an appointment and was in their office going over the demo. An A&R guy, Joel Webber, just happened by the office and we were introduced. He was looking at the stuff I did and realized that I was a choral conductor in addition to producing and everything else.
He said, "You conduct choirs?" And I said, "Yeah, I've been doing it for years."
He went silent for a moment and then said, "I've had this idea rolling around in my mind and I wonder if you could do anything with it." He said, "Do you remember Foreigner and 'I Want To Know What Love Is' -- do you know how that choir sounds on the secondary version of it?" I said, "Yeah, I've heard it quite a few times."
The Joshua Tree was out already and "With Or Without You" was the first single. The second single was gonna be "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," which hadn't been released yet.
MM: How familiar were you with U2 at that point?
DB: I was aware of U2 at the time, because you couldn't really avoid it. But I was more into jazz and R&B, so I didn't know their repertoire too well. They were in every magazine in the world, though.
So Joel said, "We're releasing 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' as their second single." I didn't know what the song was because I hadn't heard it before. He said, "Do you think you could take this song and do a gospel version of it?"
In the music business, you never say "no." Fortunately, my wife is a gospel pianist. And Lynette Washington, who I produce as a jazz artist now, is a gospel singer, and I had actually conducted gospel choirs before. So I said, "Absolutely, let's do it."
Joel said, "Here's some money. Go and put a demo together and I'll come listen to it." I can't remember how much he gave me ... it was probably between $500 and $1,000 to pay for studio costs and such.
I finished the meeting up and went home and got together with my wife, Claudette, my sister-in-law, Lynette, and my son, Chris, who had just gotten out of college and was working as a co-producer with me. We sat down and used a drum machine to get the rhythm track together. We did a vocal arrangement and came up with some concepts -- they [Island Records] gave us a copy of the single, and we put together an arrangement as a team.
MM: Did the choir even exist at this point?
DB: No, we needed a choir. I have plenty of singers that I knew professionally and from schools, so the actual choir consisted of high school students from my gospel choir in high school, plus professional singers I knew. I got them all together and we went right into the studio and rehearsed it there. I did the bass part and piano part, and taught the choir their parts in the studio -- Secret Sound studio.
I had Lynette, who is my wife's sister, do a rough lead on it. We finished it by 10 o'clock that night, so it was maybe four hours, and it sounded really good. We had a rough mix of it when Joel came in and said, "Oh my God, this is exactly what I had in mind." It really sounded good.
MM: And that was only after a few hours of work?
DB: Well, it wasn't that complicated of a song and I was used to working fast, anyway.
What you hear on Rattle And Hum is kind of a bastardized version of it. It's partially the arrangement that I had, and partially U2's because Bono and I really knocked heads in rehearsals -- not in a negative way, we were just trying to figure out a way to fit the two pieces together. If you want to hear the original version, it's on iTunes on an album called Rockspel -- it was combining gospel and rock. Later on, I took all the demos we did after that and put it together into an album that's on iTunes. [Ed. note: The album also includes a cover of U2's "Mysterious Ways" that was done years later.]
After we finished the recording, Joel went back to Island Records with it and the whole staff went nuts over it. So the next day, my lawyer had a record deal on his table for New Voices Of Freedom -- we basically made that name up. My wife already had a school choir called Voices Of Freedom, so we said this'll be New Voices Of Freedom.
MM: So if you had a contract to do an album with that single, how come it never came out?
DB: Everything was moving along for a day or two, and then I get another call from Joel telling me, "Dennis, you're not gonna believe this, but Chris Blackwell" -- who is the head of Island Records -- "said he doesn't want to do this." He said he didn't want to look like he was exploiting U2, and I kinda understood that. He felt like it would look like Island was capitalizing on U2's name to make some more money, and he didn't want to do that.
I knew that the song was too good to just let sit, so I decided to invest my own money and redo the demo in a friend's studio -- a real recording that would be releasable. So I started my own record label for this one record.
I flew the soloist up from Nashville -- George Pendergrass, a former student of mine. He's a great singer. We went into the studio and really took our time -- did the rhythm track, recorded the choir again, and George sung the hell out of it. It really was amazing. Dorothy Terrell was the female lead. She was one of my students, also.
What we needed was somebody to invest in the distribution. A friend of mine found a distributor, so I made up a name -- Doc Records -- and we got this company to release the single as sort of our parent record company.
MM: How'd you go from almost having a single with Island Records to having U2 ask you to perform at Madison Square Garden?
DB: I finished the record and made the deal with the independent distributor, when I got a call from Dennis Sheehan, U2's tour manager. U2 was in Boston and he called me to say that somebody got the cassette to them when the band was in Dublin, and they went nuts over it. So he said, "We're coming to New York to Madison Square Garden. Would you like to sing with them?"
Of course the answer is always "yes!" [laughs] There were no financial arrangements made or anything, it was just ... we'll work out the details later, because I had a lot of people I had to protect, especially since some of them were underage.
He said, "Here's the situation -- the guys feel that if they rehearse down at midtown, there's gonna be too many crowds and people finding out that they're there, and it's gonna be chaos." So he said, "Do you have any place that we could rehearse where we wouldn't have this problem?" I said, "Well, I don't think anybody up in Harlem knows anything about U2!" [laughs]
I called up Dorothy Terrell and asked her, "Could you ask your pastor if we can use the church?" It's on 124th Street right near Marcus Garvey Park. "Ask him if we can use the church for an afternoon to do a rehearsal with U2." She got back to me pretty quick and said, "He said fine, no problem."
So I called Dennis back and told him we're gonna do it in a church in Harlem -- Greater Calvary Baptist Church.
We got up there a little early and rehearsed the track just the way we'd done it in the studio. All of a sudden, they came into the church and we were introduced. George was flown up from Nashville again, and Dorothy was there, of course. We had everyone there and we just tried to figure out how to do it -- we basically bounced back and forth with musical ideas.
And then these cameras came in and I said, "Whoa. What are all these cameras doing here?"
MM: They didn't say anything -- there was no word about cameras? You just thought it was going to be a rehearsal.
DB: A rehearsal for Madison Square Garden. I said, "What are you doing with all these cameras?" I was a professional producer and contracts were how we used to run the business back in those days. They said, "We're making a movie. We're filming U2 as they go around the country and it's gonna become a major motion picture." I said, "Well, nobody told me about this."
I can't remember how we came to an agreement, because I had to watch out for the legal ramifications of not only putting me in a movie, but putting the whole choir in a movie -- soloists and everybody else. So there's got to be legal releases and it gets to be a very complex situation.
We worked out something; I can't remember exactly what it was, but we worked it out with a handshake and did the legal stuff later. And we proceeded. It wouldn't have made sense to pull everyone out of there, because this was going to be good for everyone involved -- the kids, the adults, the soloists and myself.
So we played our version again for Bono and The Edge. They were more concerned with how we were going to do it than Adam and Larry were. Larry just picked up a conga drum on the side --
MM: They didn't bring their own instruments, did they? Did Edge have a guitar?
DB: Yes, Edge brought his guitar and an amp, and that was it. We used the church microphone. Larry saw a conga drum in the corner. Adam just sat down and watched everything.
We did the arrangement a couple times. We finished the rehearsal and everyone said goodbye, and we all thought that Madison Square Garden was going to go in the movie. We didn't think this rehearsal was going to be in it.
We went to soundcheck in the afternoon before the concert. Usually I hate soundchecks, but this was really good. They set up the risers on the stage and went through our soundcheck and decided that the drums were really gonna drown out the choir -- so that's one of the reasons that you hear a lot of stuff drop out during the song on the album, so that you can hear the choir.
We came back later for the concert and sat backstage. We had a whole routine worked out for how we were gonna run on the stage -- we worked on that during the soundcheck.
MM: What was it like being on stage for the live performance that night?
DB: We started doing the song and I've never heard -- I mean, I've performed in Madison Square Garden before that -- but I'd never heard a whole 22,000-seat place sing at the same time you were. The sound was absolutely immense. Everybody was singing along with us. It takes a lot for me to get chills, but I had chills running up and down my spine because of the interaction that was going on there. You had to be there to really feel it ... it was an unbelievable musical experience.
Back in the dressing room afterward, the band came in and hung out with us a little bit. At one point, Bono asked me if I could take this unknown song that they had -- "The Sweetest Thing" -- which was a b-side, and he said, "I want you to listen to this and see what you can do with it."
The next day I get a call from Joel and he says that Chris Blackwell was in the audience at the concert and went nuts when he heard it, and now he wants to do it [the "I Still Haven't Found..." single]. I told him, "You've gotta be kidding me! I've already made this deal with the distributor to release my own version of it. And I'm not the kind of person to go back on my word."
So we ended up not signing with Island Records because they came too late to the party, which was probably one of the worst career mistakes I've made. I should've said forget the other deal and taken the Island Records deal. We wound up releasing the single on Doc Records. It got some nice reviews and notoriety, but we didn't have the marketing power that Island would've had. It just faded real quickly.
MM: What did you think when you saw the movie?
DB: We went to the premiere in New York -- very interesting. I think it was just me, my son, my wife and my sister-in-law. Just the four of us. We enjoyed it. I remember when we left the theater, there were people in the streets yelling at us like we were some kind of stars or something! [laughs] That was kind of funny. We went to the after-party. Keith Richards was there ... a lot of celebrities. That didn't really interest me, but it was fun.
MM: You said earlier that you thought the concert footage would be in the movie, not the Harlem rehearsal?
DB: I was surprised because the Madison Square Garden performance was so dynamic, but I guess the intimacy of the rehearsal is probably what they were looking for. Because when you watch Rattle And Hum, a lot of it is very intimate -- you know, Bono talking to B.B. King. I think Phil [Joanou] was looking for that kind of flavor of personal contact, and I think the church rehearsal gave that to him as opposed to the big concert footage.
MM: So Bono asked you and the choir to do "The Sweetest Thing." How did that end up on the Scrooged soundtrack?
DB: I was out in California doing a show with my hip-hop artists at Universal Studios and I contacted Jimmy Iovine, who was working with U2 in the studio out there. I brought them our demo and they were all like, "This is great" and all that. But they didn't know what we were gonna do with it as far as a release. Jimmy said he was music director of a new Bill Murray movie, Scrooged, and that he'd put it on the soundtrack.
A&M Records offered us a record deal after hearing "The Sweetest Thing." They wanted to sign New Voices Of Freedom and the lead singer to two separate record deals. But the whole thing just dragged on, and the negotiations fell apart after six months.
We never got a record deal out of any of this. We were close, but I think we were ahead of our time. This was before the gospel surge came in the '90s and 2000s. Stuff happens too soon, and I think that's what happened with us. We started in 1987, and I think I finally shut the door around 1991 on New Voices, except for an occasional commercial and an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002 with Jimmy Fallon and James Brown.
We did a lot of stuff, though -- we did some music videos with Lenny Kravitz and Sean Lennon and others. We did commercials with Aretha Franklin and others. We did a lot of shows around New York. We did guest appearances on other artists' albums, and on a few TV shows. We were fairly well known for what we were doing, but without a record deal, we were never gonna go anyplace.
Here are some links for more information about Dennis Bell and New Voices Of Freedom:
Dennis was kind enough to share several of his photos from the choir's collaboration with U2, some of which are included above. The full set is available on Flickr.
© @U2, 2013.