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Members include Nikki Hassman (1995-98), vocalist; Jody McBrayer (born in Tampa, FL),vocalist; CheriePaliotta(born in Johnston, RI), (joined, 1998), vocalist; MichaelPassons (born in Yazoo City, MS), vocalist; Janna Potter(born in Baltimore, MD), vocalist. Addresses: Record company Sparrow Records, P.O. Box 5085, 101 Winners Circle, Brentwood, TN 37024-5085.

In March of 1999, the members of the Christian vocal group Avalon had every reason to be frazzled. Their third album, In a Different Light, was released the day before the Dove Awards Christian music's equivalent to the Grammys for which they'd been nominated in six categories; the night before the awards, they taped their first TV special; and one member of the four-person group got married that month. In Christian legend, after long searching for the Holy Grail, King Arthur, at the end of his life, sailed off to a mythical island paradise of Avalon, or Heaven. It may not have been Heaven, but after over 200 performances in 1998 and recording In a Different Light, the band needed the break the honeymoon afforded them.

Avalon came together in Nashville in 1995 at the hand of Christian record label Sparrow Records' producer Norman Sinclair. Looking for people who were interested in Christian ministry, as well as people who wanted to work in a group, he found vocalists Nikki Hassman, Jody McBrayer, Michael Passons and Janna Potter to form Avalon. Shortly after coming together, and still a year before their first release, the group was a last-minute addition to the successful Young Messiah Farewell tour in 1995. The addition was so last-minute that it was too late for their names to be added to the programs, which had already been printed. Although unknown, the group still garnered good responses from audience and other artists. Their debut album, Avalon, was released on Sparrow in 1996. The album produced four number one Christian radio singles, including "Give it Up," "This Love," and "Picture Perfect World."

The group's second release, A Maze of Grace, in 1997, was a strong follow up to its debut. The single "Testify to Love" was the longest-running number one Christian single of the 1990s. Its success only grew when country star Wynonna selected it to sing on the "Touched by an Angel" soundtrack. One episode of the popular television show was written around the song. In 1998, the song was chosen the number one Song of the Year by Christian Research Report.

After being offered a solo deal with Sony in the spring of 1998, Nikki Hassman amicably left the group. "It wasn't an easy time for Avalon or for Nikki," Janna Potter told Billboard, "but she felt going into another area of music was where God was calling her . how do you fault somebody for doing what they feel God has called them to do?" Finding Hassman's replacement was no easy feat. After listening to 100 audition tapes, Avalon still had found no one. It was on the recommendation of friends and members of their band that Avalon found Cherie Paliotta who had no audition tape to fill the gap in the group. After an informal session around the piano with Paliotta and an agreement between them to pray about the issue Avalon knew they'd found their girl. "When it fits, it fits," Janna Potter told The Tennessean. Said Paliotta about the change, in the Avalon biography: "It was a big change for me when I came into Avalon, there were days when I didn't think I could get up there and remember one more lyric. But God came through for me in those moments and gave me the courage to anchor on to Him and move forward. And I think that was just the same for the others during the transition."

After pairing Avalon with producer Charlie Peacock for their first two, Sparrow hired Christian super-producer Brown Bannister for its third release. Bannister put the group through its paces, pushing the vocalists to keep recording the same song again and again, even when they thought it was as good as it could get. "Guys, that's great," Cherie Paliotta jokingly imitated Bannister for The Tennessean. "Let's try on more take, take 1,175." The band knew the hard work was worth it, and their proof was that they thought was a more R&B-style Avalon pop. "[Bannister] loves texture and harmony," Michael Passons told New Christian Music Spotlight in 1999, "and putting those together working in ways to make it truly pop." They also were aware of their producer's history. "I kept thinking, I'm singing for the guy who made Amy Grant famous," Cherie Paliotta told Billboard in 1999.

A major break for the group who'd been on CNN Headline News twice, in addition to appearing on more than a dozen morning and syndicated Christian TV programs was their first TV special, "Avalon Live at the Factory," taped at an old mattress factory the day before the Dove Awards. The next day, they walked away with three 1999 Dove Awards, including one for Pop/Contemporary Song of the Year for "Testify to Love." Amid all the chaos, Jody McBrayer got married.

Ultimately, Avalon wouldn't have minded a cross over intomainstream pop. There is a record of Christian artists making themove and, though their message is Christian, their sound is purepop. In the 1990s, acts like Kirk Franklin, dc Talk, Bob Carlisleand Jars of Clay each made their marks in the Christian market,but then moved on to the next, more mainstream, level. Their"bubble-gum tendencies" have caused at least one critic to likenthem to nineties pop heartthrobs Backstreet Boys, wrote TheTennessean in 1999, and their 50/50 coed split have garnered themcomparisons to '70s Swedish pop stars Abba. Michael Passons toldNew Christian Music Spotlight in 1999 that the band wasn't out toget a mainstream hit, "But if for some reason pop wanted to playone of our songs I'd be all for it. Because it would be justmore people that would hear the song.... I think it's atremendous ministry opportunity. I'd be lying if I said it wasn'ta career opportunity as well." Cherie Paliotta had a biggervision: "I really believe in my heart that we're not only goingto minister to the Christian market," she told The Tennessean. "Itruly believe that in my heart, or else I wouldn't be here."

by Brenna Sanchez

Avalon's Career

Group formed in Nashville by Sparrow Records producer Norman Miller, 1995; released debut, Avalon, 1996; released A Maze of Grace, 1997; "Testify to Love" was number one on the Contemporary Christian Music Update AC Chart for six weeks; Nikki Hassman left band, 1998; released In A Different Light, 1999.

Avalon's Awards

Three Dove Awards, including Pop/Contemporary Song of the Year for "Testify to Love," 1999; two Dove Awards, including New Artist of the Year, 1998; two Christian Research Report awards, including Group of the Year, 1998; two American Songwriter Professional Songwriter Awards, including Artist of the Year and Song of the Year for "Testify to Love," 1998.

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