Native Roanoker leads international choir to stardom

Jean Bulls and choir bring down the house at Britain’s Got Talent contest.

The 100 Voices of Gospel Choir, an international choir– brought down the house at Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals in London, England.

by S. Rotan Hale

For many the art of music is a force that, under certain circumstances, has the power to uplift and heal the most hardened heart.

For the most part it is a limitless medium that transcends cultures, boundaries and as the 18th Century English playwright coined it, “… hath charms to sooth the savage beast.”

Equally transforming is the human voice in all its many styles through which powerful performances may deliver listeners from the doldrums of despair to harmonious bliss.

Such was the case as the 100 Voices of Gospel–an international choir– brought down the house at Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals in London, England.

At the time the choir, based in France, was led by Jean Bulls–a remarkably talented Roanoker with a voice, style and spirit that set the London Palladium ablaze. However the group lost the last round.

Bulls returned home to enjoy a hiatus from the high profile musical scene of rigorous schedules, deadlines and global travel and plans to return to France later this month.

Although it was all in pursuit of her life-long dream, she now enjoys some well-deserved family time here in her hometown.

Jean is the only girl in a family of 6 siblings born to James and Betty Frances Bulls.

Winners: Roanoke native vocalist Jean Bulls leads the 100 Voices of Gospel Choir on a thunderous rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” at the London Paladium in England.

In 1972, the family moved from New York to Roanoke where she graduated from William Fleming High School. She went on to study nursing at University of Virginia and later earned her BA in psychology at Mary Baldwin College.

After college she went from job to job while teaching herself to sing.

“Throughout my life I have stood in the mirror day after day with a hair brush in hand as my microphone and sang songs by great gospel artists as Sandi Patty, Tramaine Hawkins, The Clark Sisters, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson and others. They trained my voice.”

Her parents momentarily entered the room for the photo shoot and their jovial demeanor greatly changed the dynamics of the setting. There’s little mystery as to where Jean’s exuberant personality came from.

She and her brothers played instruments together as youngsters. Oddly enough her first love was the trumpet which she played for 12 years. The urge hit her to play again and she went out and purchased one in France about 2 years ago.

“I said I’m going to work on it again because the knowledge is still there and I can hear the sounds. The fingering is still there but the embouchure (lip technique) has to be built up again.”

Jean had returned to France in 2006 and was in need of work. She met a young lady named Linda Lee Hopkins who connected her with the renowned 100 Voices Choir.

She made the grade and traveled on tour with the outfit for 3 years as one of its guest singers.

Then in 2009 surprisingly, she was offered the position of assistant director.

As fate would have it she was tapped to serve as director due to upper management conflicts.

“It was divine destiny,” she said. “I was sick at home in my little apartment in France when I received the call from the artistic director who informed me that I would lead the choir.”

By the grace of God she quickly found herself deep in preparation to lead this magnificent group of vocalists and dancers.

“We were already in the middle of the tour so I picked up the gauntlet and took the group into the next year,” she added.

In her new position as director, Jean found the task to be quite challenging. Many members were emotionally involved with the former director, and naturally, layers of moods and attitudes surrounded the transition. Such conditions are especially prevalent in the world of entertainment.

The choir was made up of individuals from various countries–mostly French speaking, which posed certain pressures regarding language barriers etc.

Additionally, her being a strong American Black woman revealed various deep-seated complexities that plagued the group’s members.

“You have this American taking over such a high position in a world-renowned choir and telling them what to do,” she quipped.

“They didn’t know me but I had been directing choirs since I was 13 years-old,” she stated, proudly exhibiting that fundamental confidence that so shielded her throughout her reign as director. This was just one of many facts listed in her impressive bio.

After her second tour as director, she threw in the towel.

“I quit not because I couldn’t do it but because they took so much out of me and gave nothing in return,” she said.
Jean said the members, and the producer, fought her all the way as she attempted to “help them change their sound.”

“I showed them correct breathing techniques for better projection–other things like choir etiquette for gospel music and instructions on the importance of fully understanding each song.”

As a woman of tremendous spirit and rooted in the ministry, she also stressed the need for them to pray before and after rehearsals and performances as well.

And then there were those members who actually came to Jean secretly seeking guidance spiritually and musically as they were amazed by her strength of spirit, her professionalism and her astounding technique.

“My father is not a singer technically but he has a beautiful voice and can hold his own,” said Jean who credits her father for her singing ability.

“Sometimes I would cry just listening to him sing and I sound the way I do because of my relationship with God.”

Jean (center) with her parents James and Betty Bulls.

However, Black membership began to diminish in the choir and the ratio had risen to 50% White. This was troubling to the producer who realized the choir’s image didn’t properly represent the true origins of gospel music.

The choir needed more Blacks but the Blacks were not making the grade during auditions.

Jean pointed out a peculiar twist regarding Black singers in France who for the most part, “can’t sing like Whites of French origin.”

Seems Blacks feed on the fallacy that because they grew up in church, they can sing naturally and therefore they don’t strive to perfect their talents as European Whites do.
Who would have thought?

“The beauty of this choir is the 20 plus origins represented,” Jean said. “We have singers from: Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guadeloupe Islands and Martinique just to name a few.”

Bulls raises Rev. Jeanette Phelps, former pastor, Ebenezer AME church, Roanoke, as one of her major influences on many levels.

“As a senior pastor, it is very seldom that you meet a person who starts out with you as a student minister and ends up becoming one of your best friends,” stated Rev. Phelps, who is presently senior pastor Virginia Conference AME Church.

“I am not surprised that Jean has gain notoriety as a singer and a lead chorister. She has charisma and a beautiful voice that is a heavenly gift from God. I truly believe that it is only a matter of time that she will attain great prominence in Europe and in the US if she continues her current trajectory.”

This account only scratches the surface of the story of Jean Bulls a spirited African American woman who made her mark on the global scene, as one of Roanoke’s most courageous and talented personalities.

The video, the first of three, is of the choir backing Jean on “This Little Light of Mine.”

It’s calm beginning quickly shifts into high gear with dancers flailing about perfectly choreographed to an up tempo cadence and high-powered vocals.

The performance ends and the ecstatic crowd erupts in wild applause that accelerate when show judge Aleshia Dixon hits the coveted golden button that signifies a true winner.

The choir’s amazing performance can be seen by logging on to:

Week 2 Auditions Britain’s Got Talent Youtube.

So get a box of tissues, log on and brace yourself!