In acknowledgment of the second anniversary of the ascension of Arthur Freeman, a founding member of Revelation and the New York Community Choir, we flash back to SoulMusic.com’s founder David Nathan’s first interview with the group as they were preparing their 1975 self-titled debut on RSO Records.
Revelation: Get Ready For This!
by David Nathan
In person interview conducted in New York City, April 1975
“Positive thinking and a high energy level” are, according to Benny Diggs, what make Revelation what they are. If you ever feel that you want some kind of uplift, something to take you out of the humdrum feelings of day-to-day living, then take a listen to this four-man group of outstanding singers. They’ll take you to church without you moving from your living room and they’ll communicate with that rare kind of feeling reserved strictly for a few. Revelation are on the verge of happening and if you’re gonna award marks for soulfulness, you’d better notch up ten plus for this team!
Benny Diggs, Arthur Freeman, Arnold McCuller and Philip Ballou are the guys who make up Revelation and it goes without saying that their roots are firmly in gospel music and in the church. Benny and Arthur originally sang together some 13 years ago and all four guys were members of the much-renowned New York City Community Choir, originally consisting of some 80 members under the direction of Benny. The actual growth of Revelation (previously known as Revelation Movement) began some eight years ago when they were part of The Isaac Douglas Singers. An album, “Lord Have Mercy” was nominated for a Grammy award back in 1966. A major turning point in the choir’s career came when renowned black poetess Nikki Giovanni chose to have the choir work with her on her debut album, “The Truth Is On Its Way”. Under the direction of Benny (who also acted as co-producer on the set, which featured three solo performances by Arthur Freeman), the choir were additionally featured on Nikki’s second album — for her own Niktom Records, distributed by Atlantic — “Like A Ripple On A Pond”.
With such auspicious beginnings, Benny decided that a more mobile group was warranted “since travelling with forty odd people could be crazy!” and the hard core for Revelation came into being. The group were very successfully featured on several dates, include a performance at the “Soul ’73” concert in New York’s Alice Tulley Hall, where they got the opportunity to work beside many well known actors and actresses. It was about this time that the group decided to turn their repertoire more towards the secular field, having previously concentrated almost totally on gospel. “Everyone gave us the inspiration to work in a more commercial vein,” says Benny. “Plus we realized that we could get far more of a universal message over that way.” 1973 was something of a turning point for the group, since Richard Perry, the producer behind many pop luminaries (as well as the man behind Martha Reeves’ debut solo album for MCA) discovered the group during their stint at The Village Gate club in New York and invited them to work as back-up voices with Carly Simon on her album, “Hotcakes”. Since the gentleman only required a small number of people to assist, Benny used just four voices. Hence, the birth of Revelation as it is today. “We discovered that we could get the same effect from these four voices as we could from the fifteen we’d had before. And then, dealing with fifteen personalities is not half as easy as dealing with four!” says Arthur.
So to today. Revelation have been literally flooring everyone with their appearances and they spent some seven weeks last April in Spain with top Spanish vocalist, Raphael. “Working in Spanish didn’t present any problems because we still got the feeling across,” Arthur revealed. They have a recording contract with RSO Records and have had one single released thus far, “Sweet Talking Melody”, written specially for the group by J.R. Bailey and Ken Williams (man behind “Everybody Plays The Fool”). It by no means exemplifies what the group are capable of, but the flip will tell you just where the group is at. It’s a slow, building gospel-based number which featues some stone singin’! “We haven’t really been captured on record yet. It’s hard for us to get that feeling across in a cold, empty studio but we’re working on it.” But one thing all four members are quick to stress is that they don’t want to be stereo-typed as a gospel group gone secular. “Sure, you can tell right away that our roots are still very firmly with the church. But we take a lot of care to make sure that the material we perform really allows us to get our message across in our own particular way. No one is doing what we are doing today and we rely to a large extent on a feeling of freedom on stage for instance. Our current repertoire includes things like “Where Peaceful Waters Flow”, material by Ashford & Simpson, Nona Hendryx, “Oh Me, Oh My (I’m A Fool For You)” and even Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough”!” Having seen the group live (I had to go back a second time they were that good!) I can testify that what they do to that particular song would even leave Mr. White breathless because they literally transform it into “something else” with gospel fervour and feeling.
The secret, Revelation feel, is that they maintain a high energy level in whatever they’re doing, plus they make sure that their work is “up — since people need a lift these days with all the problems. People will always relate to what is real and that’s what we always want to get across. The most important thing for us is to keep our spiritual heads together and we all make sure we get involved in some form of prayer or meditation before we go out on stage. We all try to keep on the same level so that the harmonies you hear are spontaneous. If one of us does something, then the rest know how to follow. It’s not always easy but we basically keep it together.” Music, they say, is the essence of what the group are all about and they will not be limited and songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Ten Zillion Light Years Away” when taken over by Revelation, take on a brand new dimension. “Well, we could sing a hymn in a moment if we wanted!” quips Benny, “but by doing the material we do, we can get the same message over.”
Just recently, the group completed dates with The Average White Band and Herbie Mann and there are plans for a debut album but the group are in no rush, they say since they want it to really portray what they are capable of. A hit single would, of course, give them the exposure to break totally but, of course, that isn’t so easy to find. Until then, Revelation will keep on keeping on until their intense and powerful sound gets over full scale. Without hesitation, Revelation are not just a fine group of soulful singers, they are a superfine group of soulful people who succeeded in totally winning over this writer with their honesty and sincerity. Revelation are just that: a superb revelation of talent and soul.