Stand By Me
Meet Karen Gibson from the Kingdom Choir
Few people had heard of Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir until May of this year. The group from South London found themselves with an estimated audience of two billion when they sang ‘Stand By Me’ at the wedding of Meghan Merkle and Prince Harry. Catapulted from relative obscurity, they now have a record deal from Sony, one of the major players in the music industry. Their album ‘Stand By Me!’ is out in time for Christmas.
Karen is described as the godmother of British Gospel. Her musical career actually began with her playing oboe and piano; she didn’t start singing in a choir until the age of 18.
‘Going to a black Pentecostal church, music was all around,’ she says. ‘I learned to sing harmony in church and listening to the latest Gospel hits.’
Her Christian faith grew alongside her singing. Her mother was part of the Windrush generation from Guyana. At first Karen went to Sunday School before going to what she called ‘Big Church’.
‘Gospel is an oral tradition. I learned to sing alto from a big woman with the biggest, booming voice. You could hear her from the other side of church.’
Karen’s dreams of a choir began to take shape when she ‘fell in love’ with a Winans Brothers’ Gospel song ‘The Question Is?’. Her first choir, called New Dawn, began with her sister and four friends, all aged between 12 and 18 singing acapella in four or five part harmony in local churches.
Faith wasn’t simply absorbed, but was a personal decision. Karen says, ‘I used to analyse what was being said to me, not really recognising the love that God has for me personally. Then in my twenties I got into the Word [the Bible], and in my thirties I got into worship.’
The next choir began when Karen was working with worship leader Noel Robinson going to black Pentecostal churches and recording the services for the BBC. Sometimes the church choirs needed help, so Karen took along some singers. ‘When we were singing in places like Westminster Central Hall or Greenbelt, which didn’t have a choir, I gathered people I knew.’
‘There were 25 in that choir – we were just people who liked to sing – people from church.’ But the choir had no name. The solution came when the BBC rang to book them and said they needed a name by the next day.
‘That night I dreamed of the name “The Kingdom Choir”. I didn’t have any understanding of what the “kingdom” meant. Now I know it is God’s kingdom … God’s realm – the way God works in the world.’
In her forties Karen took time out from the choir and went to Bethel Church in California where she was part of the Bethel School of Ministry for a year. The school describes its mission as ‘to equip and deploy revivalists who passionately pursue world-wide transformation in their God-given spheres of influence. Students are trained to continue in the ministry style of Jesus: to enjoy the presence of God, say what he is saying, and do what he is doing.’
Several of the young people she knew went with her to the USA in the following years and the choir began again with the people who had been with her to the ministry school.
‘People coming back from Bethel needed a community so we started “Encounter Night” at my house every other Monday to worship and praise God. Up to 40 of us gathered in my front room – people who were hungry for God.’
That’s when Karen sensed God say ‘Here’s your choir’. ‘I tried to brush it off, but I started it with young people who were hungry for God – real worshippers and some older mature voices.’
Their Christian faith – intimacy with God and connection with each other – is reflected in the strong sense of community in the choir. ‘We laugh a lot and we eat a lot together,’ Karen says. ‘It’s a lovely meeting of hearts, minds and spirits.’
The invitation to sing at the Royal Wedding came out of the blue. ‘We didn’t understand what would happen. I thought it would be a lovely day in the presence of royalty and celebrities. I didn’t envisage the response,’ she says.
‘”Stand By Me” was the royal couple’s choice. We had never sung it like that before. They were very hands on. They wanted a simple sound and were very specific. And they were right. If we had sung it our way it wouldn’t have crossed the boundaries of age and culture in the way it has. It touched people.’
The arrangement was the twelfth version: ‘We went backwards and forward to Kensington Palace. But we are thankful to the royal couple, as it touched the nation … and nations.
‘I thought it was a Ben E. King soul song, but we researched the roots of the song and found out it was originally a spiritual.’ The words of the second verse are drawn from the Bible – Psalm 46:1-3
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
‘That was so exciting for us as we sang the song’ Karen says.
It is thought that ‘Stand By Me’ was originally inspired by the spiritual hymn ‘Lord Stand By Me’ with its intimate prayer to God to ‘stand by me’ through life’s troubles. More than 400 versions of the song have been recorded, most famously by Ben E. King, but also by John Lennon and, rather surprisingly by Muhammad Ali when he was known as Cassius Clay.
The song is a popular choice for couples on their wedding day. The Kingdom Choir gave their stirring rendition just before Meghan and Harry exchanged their vows watched by a worldwide audience of billions.
The choir had prayed for the song and prayed for the listeners, ‘that the song would touch people’. They’d asked friends to pray too.
‘Prayer, praise and worship are part of every choir practice. Everything comes from that. Getting into God’s presence keeps us connected to God and to each other,’ Karen says.
‘So many people said they were in tears as they heard it. People were moved by it.’
Their prayer that the song would touch hearts has been answered much more than they imagined. It has introduced an international audience to their prayerful, joyful brand of Gospel music.