David Lewis interview: Star of the show
Harriet (Clifford) Richards
Friday, July 1, 2022
Winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Music & Drama Education Awards, Young Voices founder David Lewis is celebrating the choir's 25th anniversary this year. Harriet Richards meets him to learn more about the man behind the biggest school choir in the world.
'What's this kid's name?’ asked David Lewis’ father, in the way fathers do, as he listened to his son's new record. ‘Elvis Presley,’ replied Lewis, who had just purchased his first vinyl. ‘In six months’ time, you'll never hear his name again,’ was the father's retort. Returning home from boarding school later that year, Lewis found his father playing Heartbreak Hotel on the organ. ‘I think my father saw the light. It was pretty impressive,’ says Lewis now, as he approaches his 83rd birthday. ‘He was always a great supporter, and he loved his music – some of his love obviously came to me.’
In March, Lewis won the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the Music & Drama Education Awards (MDEA). His achievement, as recognised by those who nominated him and the judging panel, is Young Voices – the largest school choir in the world, founded by Lewis in 1997. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Young Voices sees thousands of primary school children singing in internationally-renowned venues like London's O2 and Birmingham's NEC – this year, the O2 officially named one end of the arena the ‘Young Voices End’ to mark the anniversary, as well as to celebrate the milestone of over half a million children performing at the venue. Since their launch, the YV concerts have been conducted by David Lawrence, directed by Craig McLeish, and presented by Gigi Morley.
Young Voices at the O2 in May 2022 © CHRISTOPHER JELF
Passing on the baton
Collecting the award at the MDEA ceremony in London was Lewis’ son, Ben, who has continued the Lewis family relay race and is now the CEO of Young Voices. Making it a true family affair, his other son Paul is director of logistics. ‘I'm very lucky that I've passed the ball over to my two sons,’ says Lewis. ‘Ben, particularly, knows far more about music than I do, and Paul is a master logician, so he's very good at the logistics of Young Voices, which are pretty complicated. In the biggest concerts, which are in Manchester and at the O2, you've got 8,000 children from around 150 schools, and they've all got to be placed in a position that works for them. I'm thrilled I'm no longer involved in any of it really – I just hover on the outside and make the odd suggestion.’
This year's YV tour, which ran from April until May, saw children performing repertoire from Alphabeat's Fascination and a Beatles medley to Carl Orff's O Fortuna, and Reach by S Club 7. Guest performers at the O2 included Wynne Evans (known to most children as ‘the Go Compare man’), The Beatbox Collective, violinist, composer and producer Anna Phoebe, Urban Strides dance troop, Rebecca Ferguson, Ruti, and many others. The mixture of opera, classical music, beatboxing, hip hop, street dance, spoken word, and other musical genres is the reason why Lewis believes this year's YV is the ‘best one yet’. ‘They've managed to integrate elements such as beatboxing and great dancing, and it just lifts all the songs so that there's hardly a moment when you're not fixated and being amazed. I do firmly believe that it's getting better every year.’
Having been at one of the O2 concerts myself this year, I remark upon the sheer intensity of the sound created by 8,000 children singing their hearts out. ‘Frankly,’ says Lewis, ‘people say they've watched a YV concert on YouTube, but no; you haven't seen it until you're there. The emotion and the hype are intense when you're actually in the arena.’
‘Ten times bigger than X Factor’
The initial concept of a several thousand-strong choir was sparked in 1992 by Lewis’ love of Welsh male voice choirs. A Welsh entrepreneur trained as a solicitor, Lewis came up with the ‘daft idea’ of putting on a big choir concert at Cardiff Arms Park, the international rugby stadium. Having put feelers out to seven choirs, he was surprised to learn that each of those choirs was also in contact with choirs around the world. ‘While I knew I was talking to seven choirs, and we weren't thinking of funding anything big, suddenly we had hundreds. Then I had this call from Tom Jones. I didn't believe it was him, and he said, “Mr Lewis, I am Tom Jones. Do you want me to sing Green Green Grass of Home to you down the phone?”’
The second year, 1993, Lewis’ secretary told him there was a call for him from Monte Carlo. ‘I thought, I think I know who that might be,’ says Lewis. ‘There's only one Welsh person in Monte Carlo that I know, and that's Dame Shirley Bassey. She came on the phone and said, “I've just seen the film of Tom Jones in the World Choir – are you going to do it again?” I said, “Well, I am now!”’ Lewis continues, ‘She was absolutely sensational. She came onto the stage and gave me a hug and told me I'd turned a rugby stadium into a massive theatre. We had the biggest lighting rig you've ever seen, right across the stage – it was pretty special.’
How did the World Choir concept evolve into Young Voices? The idea came, Lewis says, because children kept telling him that ‘it wasn't fair’ that they couldn't sing in the big choir. ‘The more I looked into it,’ he says, ‘the more I realised that music in the schools was pretty pathetic. It was Jingle Bells and Away in a Manger – that's not going to stimulate the children or the teachers.’ As the idea of a children's version of the choir evolved, it was decided that it would need to be for primary aged children because the choir would rely on parents for at-home support as well as ticket sales. ‘We made it for children aged five to 10, and of course, it snuck up a bit to 11,’ says Lewis, ‘because some children said they were coming back next year, and the fact that they were a bit over the age didn't matter a hoot.’ The first children's iteration of the big choir took place in 1996 in Dublin, but Young Voices wasn't officially born until 1997, when YV concerts took place in Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham and Belfast.
Then, ‘out of the blue’, Katherine Jenkins was on the other end of the phone, asking if she could perform with the Young Voices choir, which she did. Later, shortly after she was dropped from The X Factor by Louis Walsh, Lewis called Alexandra Burke and said, ‘You were by far the best singer – what's going on? Why don't you come and join something much bigger than The X Factor?’ Burke replied: ‘Nothing is bigger than The X Factor,’ to which Lewis responded, ‘Believe me, Young Voices is ten times bigger, and you'll be performing in the O2.’ A year after Burke toured with YV, she returned to The X Factor, ‘strolled though it’, and won. ‘Although,’ adds Lewis, ‘we don't particularly like the principle of The X Factor because all the participants are losers except one. In our case, all the children are winners and there are no losers.’
Young Voices at the O2 in May 2022 © CHRISTOPHER JELF
‘Quite a thrill’
Considering what Lewis has achieved and the musicians he has brushed shoulders with, one might assume that a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to music education wouldn't come as too much of a surprise. In fact, Lewis tells me that he is ‘still surprised’. ‘I was shocked, and my sons were equally as shocked,’ he continues. ‘It was an amazing surprise – I've never had an award of any sort before, so it was quite a thrill.’ Ben Lewis attended the ceremony on his father's behalf, delivering a heartfelt acceptance speech written by David, in which he said, ‘The idea was a simple reaction to schools asking for a more exciting and engaging performance opportunity. By putting the child first and giving them an experience on a scale they could never imagine, the impact is immediate and immense. My most treasured moments are bumping into people, years after they've performed with us, and hearing the impact it had on their lives and the fond memories they have to this day. I'd like to thank the entire Young Voices family that has contributed over the years, and a special mention has to go to the music teachers, without whom, we simply wouldn't exist.’
Speaking to me now, Lewis echoes this when I ask him what he thinks his greatest achievement is: ‘My legacy is undoubtedly Young Voices, and the fact that over 2.5m children now love music for the rest of their lives, and it's going on every year, getting bigger and better because Ben and Paul are running it. I've had other good moments in my life and things I am very proud of, but nothing quite compares to Young Voices.’ He adds: ‘We believe that if you plant the seed of music into a child at age four, five, or six and they perform with us as the stars of the show, it really means something to them. We think it's justified to hope that they will love music for the rest of their lives because of that experience.’
Lewis reflects on how ‘incredibly lucky’ he's been throughout his life, both in terms of his career and his health, telling me that, for example, he had throat cancer when he was in his sixties. As well as music, cricket was and is a huge part of Lewis’ life – he played professionally both in Wales and in South Africa – and he's off to Millfield School the month after we speak to share his paper on leg spin bowling with the coaches there. I must have sounded surprised, because Lewis said: ‘I'm knocking on, but I hope to carry on for a few years yet.’ Just like Young Voices, it seems, David Lewis is showing no signs of being bowled out just yet.
Entries for the Music & Drama Education Awards 2023 are now open: www.musicdramaedawards.com