Charlin Neal, “The Little Girl with the Big Voice,” Goes Solo

charlin nealBy Bob Marovich

Nearly a decade ago, singer Charlin Neal stood on a stage in Trinidad as a member of Israel & New Breed.

It was her first official program with the multi-award-winning group.

“I was excited and intimidated,” Neal told the Journal of Gospel Music. “Of the 30 [Israel songs I learned], we maybe did eight of them—and two other songs I had no idea even existed!”

Israel Houghton liked Neal’s sound and invited her to travel to Nigeria with the group. “I’ve been going since then,” she said.

Trinidad and Nigeria are a long way from Bakersfield, California, where Neal was born and raised. Her mother, father, and nine siblings attended St. John Baptist Church, known locally for attracting gospel artists to the Kern County Fair. “Gospel music was a heavy influence on my life and the community,” Neal recalled.

Music was also omnipresent in Neal’s childhood home. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, her mother, Linda Milburn Moore, played Jeannie in a traveling production of the Broadway musical Hair. Her father played congos for a gospel group called Reality. Charlin knew at age nine she wanted to sing professionally: “I just didn’t know how I would go about doing it.”

In addition to her mother, Neal was inspired by contemporary gospel artists such as Yolanda Adams, the Clark Sisters, the Winans, the Hawkins Family, and Daryl Coley. She followed the era’s R&B and soul stars, also, luminaries such as Whitney Houston, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Chaka Khan. Since she could only listen to gospel music in the house, she had to “sneak” a listen to the secular stars elsewhere.

At age twelve, Neal landed her first solo with the St. John Baptist Church choir. The following year, she sang Kurt Carr’s “For Every Mountain” during the church’s annual concert at the Bakersfield civic auditorium. “I’ve always been known as the little girl with the big voice,” she said.

Neal’s first professional assignment came at age fourteen when she sang background for Christian artist Carmen at the Kern County Fair. She recalled: “With all the energy flowing from the crowd onto the stage, my eyes were wide open. It was so exciting for a fourteen-year-old. It opened my eyes even more that this is what I wanted to do.”

From that moment, Neal began singing background for just about every gospel artist to appear in Bakersfield, including Beverly Crawford and Karen Clark Sheard. By the time she was nineteen, Neal was the go-to opening act for artists such as Mary Mary, Martha Munizzi, Marvin Sapp, and Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs when they appeared in town.

As fortune would have it, in August 2007 Neal ran into Daniel Johnson, former music director for Israel & New Breed, while at a youth workshop. Johnson lived in Los Angeles but had family in Bakersfield.  He knew of Neal’s singing. He asked her to join Israel & New Breed.

“There was no audition process or anything,” Neal recalled. “Israel didn’t know me and I didn’t know him.” But by October of that year, she was a member of Israel & New Breed.

It was intimidating at first. “I had never done anything at that level,” she said. “Plus, I’m used to rehearsing everything and having a set list ahead of time, but Israel & New Breed are just the opposite. Israel just flows off of what he feels the Holy Spirit is telling him, and I had to adjust and learn. It took about a month to understand that.”

After her debut performances in Trinidad and Nigeria, Neal entered the recording studio with the group for the New Breed Live: Generation Love CD. Although she had done some recording in the past, it was not at this level.

“I grew up being a live singer,” she explained. “Studio singing is a little different. You have to be more skilled. It takes more practice. It takes more time. You have to control your voice. I did a good job, but looking back, I know I could have done much better.”

Soon, Neal began to lead some songs for the group.  She led “Church Medley” for the Jesus at the Center album.  On the latest release, Covered – Alive in Asia, Neal sang “First Loved Me” and worked out all of the album’s vocal arrangements.

But Neal’s pre-teen dream to be a solo artist hadn’t diminished.

“I got comfortable with where I was,” she said, “because I love doing background singing. I thought maybe I’ll just do that. But God reminded me: ‘I gave you something, too. I put Israel & New Breed into play, and you opening and doing background for other people, but that’s not all I have for you. I have other songs that people need to hear directly from you.’ That made me hurry up and get my EP done.”

Released April 1, 2016, the More of You EP represents Neal’s first official step as an independent artist. She wrote all the songs. “I’m a fast chorus and melody writer,” she said, “but verses can take me from a week to a year. All my songs come from my own testimony or hearing what other people are going through, and what people in the Bible experienced. I try to put myself in their shoes to see how I would feel, and I write from that angle.”

Neal reported that the response to More of You has thus far been overwhelming. “I wasn’t sure how it would do, especially because I’m an independent artist. I got Israel’s blessing, but no one is helping me but me.”

At the same time, Neal tapped her talented family for the album’s music and production. “I really wanted my brothers and sisters to be part of [the EP] so they can get their names out there. They can produce and sing. They just don’t have a platform. But now some of them are part of Israel & New Breed as a result.”

One song on the EP, “Trust Me,” speaks most to Neal because it is autobiographical. “I didn’t know how I would do [the EP], how to finance it, and if people would listen to it. But God told me to trust Him completely.”

Neal plans to finish her first full-length solo album by the end of the year.

“I know God has planted gospel music in me,” she said. “I know I am a minister. I know He wants me to get His word to His people. I know this is what I’m supposed to do.”

For more information, please visit: www.charlinneal.com.

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

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