Beverley Knight is one of Britain’s best known R&B and soul singers but her roots can be traced back to another form of Black music – gospel.
“This was the music that my mum and dad liked. All our records were gospel music and people like Mahalia Jackson and Andrae Crouch.”
It was another singer, though, who first captivated her. “Sam Cooke was the first person I ever heard on record – the sound of his voice just captured my imagination.” The record was The Two Sides of Sam Cooke which featured gospel music on one side and pop songs on the other. “We weren’t allowed to play the pop side of it, so I never knew what that was like until I was older.”
Knight grew up in Wolverhampton where the local Pentecostal church was the centre of family life. “It was an evangelical church where any music talent was seized on quickly and you were pushed up there to the front of the pulpit,” she says.
“I was fortunate enough to go to a school that saw value in the arts as well as sport and academia. So during the week I’d sing my little socks off in school productions and at weekends I sang in the church. Those two institutions in my life set the template for everything I’ve done since.”
Music quickly became a focal point. “If there was a melody that got into my head, that was it, I would drive everyone mad singing the lyrics over and over again.”
“Wolverhampton has a strong youth community so I was always being asked to perform at youth centres and parties. From very early on I decided that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had no idea how I would ‘make it’, but I knew that I was going to.”
Despite her passion for music, Knight says she was a “bookish” youngster and studied religious theology and philosophy at the University of Gloucester.
By this time she’d already been talent-spotted and signed her first record deal in her final year at university.
This was 25 years ago, since when her career has been a story of steady ascent punctuated with a few huge leaps. The first of these came in 2002 with Shoulda Woulda Coulda from her album Who I Am, which became a top 10 hit in the UK. “That was the song that pushed me into the public’s consciousness,” she says.
She opened for Take That on their reunion tour in 2006 by which time she’d become a bona fide mainstream performer. The following year she was working with another pop superstar – Prince – who left a lasting impression. “It still feels very strange to talk about him in the past tense because he’s been a part of my life since I was a small child. I came across him through my uncle, who introduced me to a lot of other great musicians including Bowie, Dylan and Hendrix.
“People often say you shouldn’t meet your idols, but for me, Prince was brilliant. He breathed music, he was consumed by it. I sat listening to him and I learned a lot from him, he was very savvy in terms of maintaining creative control.
“People often say he wasn’t a man of many words, but he could properly talk and he was passionate about what he was doing – the highlight of my career was being on stage with him.”
Knight now has three MOBO awards to her name and received an MBE for her services to charities such as Christian Aid and the Terrence Higgins Trust. She has also moved into musical theatre, acquitting herself with aplomb in London’s West End, with leading roles in The Bodyguard, Memphis The Musical and Sir Trevor Nunn’s revival of Cats.
The latter came about at Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s behest. He wanted her to play Grizabella, a role made famous by Elaine Page. “I was shocked that he would ask me and I said to him, ‘Are you sure? Because I’m not looking to do a copy of Elaine Page, I would want to do it my way.’ And he said, ‘that’s why I want you to do it.’”
Today, many of her fans recognise her more from her musical theatre performances. Which is fine by her, she says. Chatty and generous with her time, the 46 year-old comes across as humble and articulate. She’s also proud of her heritage and conscious she is seen as a role model.
“Anybody of colour [who is in the public eye] is aware of this. When you come from an ethnic minority you end up being a mouthpiece for that group, whether you like it or not – even if there are many disparate voices within that hegemony. So I’m very aware of everything I do, or say, because I feel like I’m a representative of a much broader group of people. But I don’t mind that. I like to think that I encourage other black women and other black people… hopefully I’m an inspiration to all kinds of people.”
A quarter of a century after signing her first record deal, Knight’s love of music and performing hasn’t dimmed. “For me, there is no greater feeling than standing on a stage performing a song to an audience. To share that with people and to see them love it as much as you do is joy unparalleled.”
The Songs of Stevie Wonder starring Beverley Knight, Sheffield City Hall, Oct 5. For details call on 0114 2 789 789 or visit www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk