Former British pop sensation Alex Boyé finds his voice in Mormon Tabernacle Choir
In the 1990s, performing in the British boy band Awesome, Alex Boyé's backup singers wore silver spandex and moved like more soulful versions of the Backstreet Boys. On YouTube, you can witness Boyé dancing in front of a row of trombones and trumpets, channeling Motown.
Fast forward 14 years to June, when he offered soaring solo performances of American spirituals in cities across the Midwest, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing gospel chords behind him -- the biggest backup group ever, and probably the least expected.
Boyé's showmanship garnered praise in every case, along with incredulous reactions from other blacks he meets. "What're you doing, man?" about sums that up, Boyé says.
The answer isn't nearly that simple. Boyé, now 38, was born in London's Tottenham Court neighborhood to a Nigerian mother in 1970. He never met his father, who remained in Nigeria, and spent much of his youth in foster homes with Caucasian parents.
As a teenager, Boyé immersed himself in the music of Motown, starting with Stevie Wonder and Kool and the Gang, then moving toward James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding.
When he was 16, Boyé went with friends to hear a presentation by Mormon sister missionaries because he wanted the chance to talk to some American girls. He found a message that moved him and a community ready to take him in. "I felt like I was back in a functional family in some way," he recalled.
The first time Boyé sang in public was while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bristol, England. His knack for connecting with audiences became obvious as he performed LDS hymns and other music for church groups. At the conclusion of his service, his mission president's final advice to Boye was to do something with his musical talent.
"So I got into a boy band," Boyé said, laughing uproariously. "Somehow, I don't think that's what he meant."
The band he formed in 1995 became a success, selling half a million CDs in Europe, but Boyé became disenchanted with the raunchiness of life as a touring musician. "I had this dream of being a musician, but it was taking me down a road that led somewhere I didn't want to go," he said.
In 1999, Boyé moved to Salt Lake City and started trying to piece together a musical career in a place where no one knew him, and where he learned to joke he's the state's "token black guy." The singer brought something different to the LDS music scene, and his talent was soon recognized. He began recording with other LDS pop artists, doing studio work and giving free firesides and other concerts focused on encouraging teens to enjoy popular music, while being selective about the content of lyrics.
Boyé saved the Rodgers Memorial Theatre's first production of "The Civil War" in 2002, says Glenn McKay, the Centerville theater's board president. McKay had recruited black performers for the show from the Calvary Baptist choir and other area churches, but was having trouble melding them with his Davis County regulars.
The situation became desperate when the actor portraying abolitionist Frederick Douglass withdrew three weeks before the show's opening date. An acquaintance suggested McKay audition Boyé, who had never acted before and knew little about the American war, which isn't routinely taught in British schools.
Boyé nailed the role's difficult solo on the first try, taking to stage acting as if he'd done it all his life. He went on to play the part in two Rodgers revivals. But it was Boyé's ability to defuse tension among cast members that impressed McKay more than anything else.
"He just brought together this camaraderie between those performers of different backgrounds," McKay said. "He never takes himself too seriously -- he just has fun. He says things that catch you off guard. He's so open and honest, and a hoot to be around."
Beyond his personal charisma, McKay underscored Boyé's commitment to inspiring people through his music. "He won't sing something if it doesn't hit his soul just right," McKay says. "When it does, you can feel his soul emanating from the words of that song."
Performing in "The Civil War" at Rodgers and later at West Valley City's Hale Centre Theatre piqued Boyé's interest in the American civil-rights movement, and he began studying the tragic history of race relations in the United States.
"In England, a lot of it was unspoken," he said. "Here, what happened was cut and dried. I kind of found my place in it. I felt like I was actually fighting for knowing who I am, and being happy with that."
He also has found his peace with the LDS Church's historical refusal to ordain blacks to its priesthood, a ban that was lifted in 1978. Other churches held blacks down, too, Boyé said, in more subtle ways. "Don't just highlight Mormons. We're the ones who tried to repair it," Boyé said. "I'd have left the church a long time ago if I let outside influences affect what I believe."
Boyé joined the 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2006 after auditioning at the urging of its then-director, Craig Jessop. His first impulse was to run in the opposite direction. "It was totally foreign to me, singing choral music, Brahms, Rossini," he said. "But I had a strong feeling that I should audition."
He missed the first rehearsal because he was honeymooning with his wife, Julie, whom he met in an LDS singles ward. She works as his business manager and is expecting the couple's first child.
"Being in the choir was difficult and intimidating at first," said Boyé, one of three black singers in the group. "I felt out of place. So many times, I wasn't going to come back, but I kept going. After a while, I felt a connection to the choir members. Even though we're from different backgrounds, we're all shooting for the same goal -- using music to bring souls to Christ."
Boyé has high visibility in the choir, often soloing during weekly broadcasts and concerts. He adds something that was missing before he came along. His lively stage persona galvanizes performances, and his voice wails, sobs and floats through gospel-style cadenzas never before associated with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
"I just think Alex is a total natural," said Mack Wilberg, the choir's music director. "He can do almost anything and be authentic in what he does. He has charisma, there is no doubt about it, and I think that spills over into most facets of his life."
Boyé's humility makes him easy to work with, Wilberg said: "It's not about him, it's about communicating to the listener."
Boyé believes the ability to connect with audiences depends on the sincerity of the musician. "It's more important to tell the song than it is to just sing it," he said. "There are many singers in this world, but not enough performers. When I'm up there, I'm singing like it's the last song I'm ever going to sing."
For Boyé, the next career step is to build on his LDS fan base, but take his music to a wider audience. His next CD, "Happy Daze," melds hip-hop influences with his early Motown fascination. As you might expect, he keeps the lyrics clean.