Wednesday, May 16, 2018

#33 FIRST THINGS FIRST by Bob Bennett (1979)

FIRST THINGS FIRST by Bob Bennett (1979)
Maranatha! Music  MM0061A
"I'm glad it was 1979 and I'm glad I was 24 years old. Because I'm telling you, if it was 2007, I would never have been signed to a label. I would never have gotten off the ground. I would've had no opportunity to do this at all. Now, eventually, everyone enters the do-it-yourself world and you can record an album on your Mac and all of that. But in terms of affiliations with a record company, if I hadn't gotten in on the deal in the 70s I don't think anybody would've touched me. Because I don't have the look or the persona. There's a lot of things that I don't have that are valued by big media conglomerates. So the fact that Maranatha took a chance on me and let me do it, I consider that to be very good fortune."

-Bob Bennett

Bob Bennett is a husband and a father. He's also an affable guy who seems to find common ground with most everyone he meets. He can be self-deprecating in a very endearing way. His razor-sharp sense of humor has served him well over the years. He also just happens to be one of the most gifted artists you're ever likely to hear in the Singer-Songwriter genre. He has crisscrossed the nation more times than even he knows, sharing his songs and stories with audiences large and small - everything from the opening slot for Amy Grant's Unguarded tour in expansive arenas to intimate house concerts for a few close friends. He has recorded albums that received abundant praise from critics and songs that were played ad nauseam by Christian radio stations. But other equally impressive albums and songs of his seemed to be noticed and appreciated only by hardcore fans. He's a poet who long ago found a way to wed musical notes with words on a page to tell appealing stories that we have remembered for decades. His songs have breathed new life into historical accounts from the pages of Scripture, and he has also created fictional characters from modern life that seem so real, we could swear that we've met them sometime, someplace. He was a good singer in the 70s and 80s, and he has apparently taken great care of his vocal chords over the years because he's still a good singer today (maybe that's partly because his songs don't typically call for a lot of screaming or high notes of the dog whistle variety). He's always been an underrated guitarist. Mostly, he's just a really effective communicator. In short, Bob Bennett is a treasure...a gift from God to the body of Christ.   

"I get the privilege of giving people language to describe things that they probably already know to be true," Bennett told me during a phone interview in April 2018. "I get to provide language. When you hear a song and you resonate with it, generally speaking, there's an aspect of that song or that story that you already know and kind of recognize when you hear it. So the listener is always the final arbiter of what a song means or how useful it is. That's the sacred bargain. That's why it's so much fun to get up in front of people, forty years later, singing the same songs, because the audience always brings who they are to the listening. And it's a great privilege to be a part of that night after night." 

Born in Downey, California, in 1955, Bob first began to play guitar as a pre-teen. Then he pursued music in stereotypical fashion by forming a rock and roll band during high school years. Raised Catholic, Bennett's path to a personal relationship with Jesus was influenced by a secular record store and a Jesus Music album. 

Bob Bennett (L) and Dan Rupple

"When I started reading my little Good News for Modern Man," Bennett remembers, "and trying to think about this Christianity thing and was this for me, not only was the Hound of Heaven after me in terms of the Holy Spirit, but it seemed like almost every circumstance was pointing me toward the Lord. It's like when you buy a particular model of car and then all of a sudden you see them all over the freeway (because you're driving one now). 

So, at the time I was working at a Licorice Pizza record store. It was a chain out here in Southern California, and the 'licorice pizza' was a vinyl LP. You know, in the cannabis haze of the 70s it was like, 'Hey, cool, man! It's a licorice pizza!' "

Bob continued: "But Dan Rupple, my best friend in this world (who co-founded Isaac Air Freight), he and I both worked in this record store. So what that meant was that we ended up having a great Christian music section in this secular record store. We had a better Christian music section than the Bible bookstore down the street. So what happened was that we started ordering in all of these Jesus Music albums and then we would listen to them in the store. And that's when I first heard the album Love Broke Thru by Phil Keaggy." 

"Well, the song that was very much a part of my conversion experience," Bob said, "in terms of sowing seeds that later came to fruition, was a song called As The Ruin Falls which is based on a C.S. Lewis poem. You weren't going to convince me that I was a bad enough guy to need salvation because I had murdered somebody or robbed a bank or something - I was grading on a curve so I didn't get it. But in As The Ruin Falls, Lewis talks about his own self-centeredness - I want everybody to serve my turn, I even want God to serve me, the world revolves around me. That's basically what that lyric is copping to. Well, that was a shoe that fit. That's what really convinced me that I had real time." 

Bennett and Rupple

So that was 1977. How did Bob Bennett go from Licorice Pizza to Maranatha! Music?  

"Dan Rupple and I were roommates at the time and we basically both started going to a local Calvary Chapel out here," Bennett told me. "I sort of half-seriously/half-jokingly call that era the 'Don't Miss the Rapture 70s.' Truthfully, that was the hook that got me through the door and then what kept me was the basic Gospel that was taught. So I went to a Calvary Chapel-associated church in my hometown of Downey but I eventually sort of wound up at the Mother Ship because I had heard a lot about it and I was also very much drawn to the Saturday Night Concerts. For many, many years, under two or three different hosts, they held weekly Saturday night concerts. We didn't even know what to call it back then; maybe Jesus Music was as close as anybody ever got to putting a label on it." 

Once he arrived at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, Bob Bennett was influenced in a positive way by another Jesus Music pioneer. 

Malcolm Wild in the 70s (L) and today

He continues: "What happened at the time was that Malcolm Wild of Malcolm & Alwyn, who were sort of inventing the wheel over in the U.K. for what was happening here in the U.S., he moved over here and went on staff at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and as part of his work there started leading a Sunday afternoon musician's fellowship. And so, there were a bunch of different folks who were sort of aspiring to write and sing songs and perhaps be the next generation of the Jesus Music musicians or whatever, and Malcolm led that fellowship and it was really a great opportunity because it was really good, sort of, early discipling for us - to have somebody who'd already been there and done that kind of tell us, you know, what the work was about. And as a result of that, I became associated with Maranatha! Music and actually took a job and was an intern there before my first album came out."

Hey, a job at Maranatha? Sounds impressive, right? Well...

"I basically answered all of the unsolicited cassettes and music that was sent in - instead of Tommy Coomes doing it, I did it," Bennett revealed. So, dear reader, if you ever sent a demo to Maranatha back in the day and got a "thanks, but no thanks" response...who knows, you just might've been corresponding with a young Bob Bennett.

"And that was my first association with the label," Bob said. 

"I realized that so many of the 'Saturday night' artists were recording on Maranatha," Bennett says, "and eventually I came to their attention. Initially, I had a song on a compilation album that they did; the song was called Spiritual Equation and it actually predated anything that happened on my first album. Then, as a result of that association, they offered me the chance to do First Things First." 

I asked Bob about the meaning behind the album title. 

"I saw the words First Things First on a coffee cup," he said. "And I was young enough and inexperienced enough not to know that 'first things first' is kind of a twelve-step concept or slogan. So I didn't know that, but when I ran across first things first, I first first songs...perfect! It was as simple as that." 

So here's a 24-year old who is only two years old in the faith, with a fistful of great songs but very little experience in the studio. What to do? Why, put him in the very capable hands of Jonathan David Brown, of course.

Jonathan David Brown

"For those who would characterize the late Jonathan Brown as sort of a mad professor, that would be an apt description," Bennett says with a smile. "And I mean that in a good way. Jonathan had a way of making records where he could take a very modest budget and make it sound like about two or three times as much as that amount of money would normally yield. He was such a canny producer and engineer. He was in some ways very precise and wanted what he wanted - and sometimes in order to make works of art, you butt heads a little bit. And that sometimes happened. But mostly, Jonathan Brown taught me how to make records." 

In the studio (1991): Jonathan David Brown, David Wilcox, Bob Bennett (L-R)

Bennett continued: "Working with Jonathan basically got me oriented toward the process that I would in one way or another draw upon for everything that came after that. So it was very cool to have that focus. There's nothing quite like being on the hunt for a creative endeavor when you're making a record, there's nothing like it. When you walk into the studio and it's like, 'OK, we're working on an album now, we're going to do the basic tracks, the overdubs, the vocals' fact, probably not with the first one so much, but with almost every album that came afterwards, the notion of going into a studio and making a record was such a fertile and creative environment that I virtually would write songs while we were recording that would then also wind up on the album. Because it was so inspiring and so wonderful to be doing that. And so almost every album that I recorded after First Things First contains songs that showed up at the last minute during the process itself."

Did Bob come into the studio armed with songs that didn't make the cut, I wondered? 

"I did have a few leftovers," he admits, "a couple of which have never made it to a recording - a couple for good reason, frankly. But it's really funny - with me, subsequent to the first album, almost nothing goes to waste. I've written and recorded almost everything that's kind of come down the pike. They say that your first album is the result of ten or fifteen years, and your second album is the result of one or two years after that. What's funny is that I didn't have that much time. With me, it would've been about a two year period, because I came to serious faith in March of 1977 and by the time September of 1979 rolled around we were almost done with this record."  

When we drop the needle on First Things First, the first song we hear is Carpenter Gone Bad. It's almost impossible to believe that this song was written by someone we would call "a baby Christian."

A unique take on the life and ministry of Jesus, Carpenter Gone Bad is a song Bob Bennett still sings today in concerts. "As I'm speaking to you right now, I am 63 years old," he said. "And when I sing the song that that 22-year old wrote and I can still mean it and not hang my head and not be embarrassed or whatever, that's kind of a neat thing. I love it when songs have a shelf life."

There's a man down in the street
Says He's the Messiah
Telling people He is the Chosen One
Says that He is in the Father
And the Father's in the Son

Empty nets made full of fish

And blind eyes that see
Didn't He used to work with wood in Galilee?
Now He's in the synagogue
Telling people they are wrong
To live as whitewashed tombs
Full of dead men's bones

People talking about Him wherever I go

They say He teaches with authority
Is there something I don't know?
They say it is His fervent prayer
That we stay in the Father's care
And believe that He is the Word made man

Some say He is the Son of God

Others laugh and call Him mad
Well do you think He's who He says He is
Or just a carpenter gone bad?

"The best payday for a songwriter," Bennett said, "is when a song not only evokes nostalgia (because after a certain amount of time it will do that) but that it also is still meaningful in the present tense." Musically, Carpenter Gone Bad was presented in a gentle, acoustic folk style for which Bob would eventually become known.

I told Bob I felt that the album's next track, The Night Shift, was a preview of things to come. In the song, he took characters that had no names and he brilliantly described their lives and situations to the point that we, the listeners, could just close our eyes and see them in our mind's eye. They were from different walks of life but had in common the fact that they were searching for meaning in their lives. And yet Bennett resisted the urge to have them all meet up at a church during the last verse, walk the aisle and "get saved." 

"You're speaking back to me exactly what I had hoped for, even at that young age," he responded. "The Night Shift does indeed prefigure a lot of the songs of mine that came later because it was the most atypical kind of Jesus Music song on the record and it gave me my first glimpse that songs did not need to be the Four Spiritual Laws set to music. They didn't need to be complete, compact, let's give an altar call at the end - that it was OK to sketch things out. I think the best songs give people room to maneuver. When you talk about closing your eyes to interact with the story - I think that's one of the best things a song can do. Because a song will give me language to understand things and think about things, but I think the best songs engage you in such a way that they not only tell their story but then you can connect up your own story with it. It's the wonderful, almost incongruent thought that the more specific I can be sometimes in my own details, the more specificity it will allow you to have. It's almost like bouncing a ball against the wall. A song gives you something to bounce your own stories up against as well as listening to the story itself. I'm a huge believer in songs that are tightly written in terms of craft, but not so tightly written in terms of content that it sends the subtle message, 'Hey pal, I'm the songwriter and it's my way or the highway.' I love the fact that the listener brings who they are and where they've been and what they know to the listening of the song and that's the sacred bargain that makes my job so great. That's why I don't get bored out of my mind singing Bob Bennett songs year after year. It's because of the people listening to them."  

Somewhere a child is crying himself to sleep
As I pray the Lord my soul to keep
As my last amen slowly fades away
The night shift takes over for the dying day

A short order; facial reflection

Glares back from a spot on the grill
And the only sound that makes sense anymore
Is the jingle of change in the till

Coffee and conversation, still the tune doesn't feel quite right

Like an ongoing curse, things have been getting worse
Ever since he started working the night

A lady paints her eyelids up golden because they reflect the neon light

And she waits for the man of her dreams to dance across the floor tonight
She swears there's no commitment, but you know that she's looking for one
But she settles for less because she figures it's best to do it in the name of fun

A soon-to-be-famous musician

Cranks out top-40 tunes in the bar
While his mind is somewhere on vacation
Far away from his voice and guitar
Seeking a cheap imitation, Valentino tries vainly to score
But it's forty-five on and fifteen off
There's just got to be something more

He says to himself: "is there really something more?"

"Can anybody tell me, can anybody tell me what I am living for?" 

I noted that the song seemed to have 2 or 3 distinct musical movements, and how unusual it was for a 6 and a half minute song to occupy the #2 hole on a record.

"Some of that was due to the fact that the great Harlan Rogers was in the studio" Bob answered, "and we came up with the idea to do that vamp part before it kicks in, and a little bit of a breakdown in the know, when you've got Harlan in the studio, it's like, 'We've got to let this guy do some stuff.' The song in concert is a little more straight ahead when I do it by myself. But on the produced version we were able to work in some different textures."  

Bob also related a story about getting some unexpected airplay, thanks to The Night Shift: "Back before AAA was really a radio format, there was a station out here in Los Angeles called KNX-FM, and they played great songs. That's where I first heard David Wilcox and several others - it was kind of adult-oriented rock and pop music. Well, somebody at that station got ahold of my album and played The Night Shift a few times - in regular rotation on this secular radio station, a station that I listened to, a station that was on my dial in the car all the time. So the first time I heard that song come across the speakers on KNX-FM, I was like, 'Oh, wow.' It was really cool."

Bob had told me that there's one song on the record that he's just not fond of. I correctly guessed that it would be Whistling in the Dark. 

"Yep," he replied. "I had a situation where I wanted to 'lay it on the line' for somebody and so I tried to do that by way of that song. So, of course, the offending lines to me are...

Jesus said He was the way and you must be born again / If you disagree, don't complain to me, You can argue with Him.

Maybe, seemingly, fairly innocuous. Until you really think about it. It's kind of like when you walk into a supermarket and there's a sign up on the door that says 'seeing eye dogs only.' David Brenner used to ask, 'Who is that sign for? How's that gonna help anybody?' Well, Whistling in the Dark is a little bit like that sign. It sort of rallies the troops in pep rally fashion and makes everybody go, 'Yeah!' But to anybody that's a real seeker and inquirer, that's just going to be a smart-alecky and unhelpful thing to say to them. As a young man, I thought it was kind of cool, but not long after I recorded it I wished I hadn't done it. If I could pull one song out of circulation and make it disappear into the black hole of Gosh, I Didn't Do That...that would be the one.

Of course, even Whistling in the Dark had its positives. Kelly Willard and Bruce Hibbard turned in some great performances on backing harmonies and the great Al Perkins played guitar. "And, of course, I knew exactly who Al Perkins was," says Bob Bennett. "To have him in the studio was great."

Next up was a song that Bob Bennett didn't write...but wishes he did. "The Best was written by a guy named John Fowler," Bob said. "And when I cover other people's songs, it's because I say to myself, 'Oh man, I really wish I had written that.' I always point out to people: yes, Dion Dimucci had a hit with it and did a fabulous version of it, but he heard it and learned it off of my album! And I know that because I talked to him about it."

The Best features a peddle steel guitar and works really well on a Bob Bennett record for a couple of reasons.

I sit around and make up clever lines / And toss them out as they dance through my mind sounds just like something Bob Bennett would write, am I right?

Secondly...Now I can talk all night till I'm blue in the face / Present my argument and state my case / But I'd rather tell you of His wondrous grace...does that not sound like something Bob would say? People that "know" Bob via social media will attest to the fact that he's a lover, not a fighter.   

The next song is one of my all-time favorites. No, not just one of my all-time favorite Christian songs...or just one of my all-time favorite Bob Bennett songs...or even just one of my all-time favorite songs from First Things First. No, You're Welcome Here is one of my all-time favorite songs - period. 

Bob explains: "You're Welcome Here was basically me keying off the verse in Revelation where Jesus gives the huge indictment to the church in Laodicea but at the end of it, of course, extends the hand of restoration and reconciliation and says, 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if you hear My voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you and you with Me.' Now, at the time, that was always used as a word picture for salvation - Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart, open the door and let Him in. Of course, in context, it's a somewhat different take. It's actually the hand of reconciliation being extended after a pretty scathing indictment. But I still think it's a valid word picture. And so that was the idea - Lord, You're welcome here in that way. I'm opening the door of my heart and my life and I want You to come in. Now, here's the interesting thing. A lot of people are probably well aware of a famous tract called My Heart, Christ's Home by Robert Boyd Munger. This was a famous tract that talks about Jesus coming into your house, wanting access to the different rooms and you've got closets that are locked up tight, and you need to let Him into all these places...and I had no idea that tract existed when I wrote the song. But people who are conversant with that tract thought, 'Well, he just wrote that song based on that famous tract.' But I think it was just the same spirit or something. Because I had never seen that piece until after I wrote the song. And when I read it, I went, 'Wow. That's pretty doggone cool.'  

Lord, I hear You knocking
You've been knocking at the door
How long have You been waiting
Seems I never really heard You before
I've kind of let the place go
I'm ashamed at what You'll find
But You can make Yourself at home
If You're sure that You don't mind

There are dark rooms deep inside me

Where Your light has never shown
And I tried to hide inside them
But I guess You've always known
That one day You would call me
And I'd awaken from my sleep
And You'd take me just the way I am
And You promised me You'd keep me

Cause when I cry, the roof leaks

And when the wind blows, the walls are weak
But a house is known by the company it keeps
And I feel better now that You're near
And I want to make it clear
Jesus, from now on
You're always welcome here

You're Welcome Here is a song that I have played and sung and have listened to over and over throughout my lifetime - especially at important milestones or critical intersections. It's a message that never gets old.

You might recall from my blog post on Kelly Willard's Blame It On The One I Love that she covered You're Welcome Here on that album. Bob was scheduled to play acoustic guitar on that session but was nixed in favor of Randy Stonehill when Bob just couldn't seem to get the song's timing down well enough to please producer Jonathan David Brown. Well, apparently, by the time this version was recorded, Bob's guitar skills had improved enough to suit Mr. Brown. Jim Fielder's stand-up acoustic bass adds a lot to this track, giving it the feel of a stripped down, acoustic jazz trio. Fielder was an original member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.

"It was so great for Kelly Willard to record it first and get it out there," said Bob. "Despite the fact that I wrote a song about my Dad on Matters of the Heart (A Song About Baseball), You're Welcome Here was always my Dad's favorite song. So that was pretty great." 

First Things First benefited from some unique arrangements and excellent individual performances. Ron Tutt played drums on the project. "Ron Tutt played with Elvis for many years and I think he's still out there playing," Bob offered. "He's just a fabulous concert and studio player." 

Alex MacDougall handled some of the other percussion instruments. I had a chance to speak with MacDougall in preparation for this blog post. "The rehearsals for First Things First were also recorded with me playing a light drums/percussion setup," Alex recalled. "The actual record was recorded with me on percussion and various drummers. One of the great learnings for me in my 'Bob process' is the amazing marriage that can take place between the folk and jazz musical genres. I approached Bob's music from a jazz feel, as did some others. The result was magic."  

Alex MacDougall

When asked to talk about Bob on a more personal level, MacDougall needed very little prompting. "Bob is one of my dearest friends," he said. "Bob is a fine human being, filled with wonder at the things of God. He's also got quite a sense of humor!" MacDougall also offered that he, Bennett and John Patitucci toured in the early 80s as a trio, performing many of the songs from First Things First in live settings. "That's a little-known fact," said Alex. 

Side Two of First Things First is about as rock and roll as this record gets. "Forgive and Forget was me channeling Richie Furay as best I could," said Bob. "My friend Dan Rupple and I were huge Poco fans. There's no way to overestimate how much we dug that band. And then when I've Got A Reason came out, that was a huge influence on Dan and me." 

Forgive and Forget is a testimony song - Bennett's conversion story set to some toe-tapping music.

I want to forgive and forget
Won't you let Me?
But I said, Nothing doing, Lord
You'll have to come and get me
And I fought it for a while
But then I just had to smile
Cause I let the Lord
Forgive and forget

In the song's first verse, Bennett reveals his new attitude toward his fellow believers...

I used to laugh at the best of them
Now I'm right here in a nest of them
Full of joy that can only be divine

I've said before that I'm a sucker for hymns done right. Well, Bob Bennett's version of My Redeemer Lives was an instant classic. I asked Bob where the inspiration came from.

"In 1977, a month after I was born again I was at an Easter sunrise service at a Calvary Chapel in Downey," Bob recalled. "And the guy who was leading the songs (Steve Todd), and leading all of the worship choruses you would've expected back in the day here in Southern California, he was raised in the Lutheran church. Well, he pulled out this song and played it and I just fell in love with the song. It's to the hymn tune of Duke Street. I went to a hymnal and found that it had a gazillion verses and I did something kind of presumptuous - I simply cut and pasted together the halves of the ones that I liked best, and came up with four cut-and-pasted verses. Then I came up with the guitar arrangement, and that was that. I still love it. I get to sing it all the time."

The orchestration (horns and woodwinds arranged by James Gabriel) makes My Redeemer Lives all the more special. Bob Sanders played baritone horn, Nils Oliver was on cello, and Terry Winch and Darrel Gardner played flugelhorns. Bill Alsup and Ron Loofbourrow were on French horn, while Val Johnson played trombone and Phil Ayling and John Phillips played woodwinds. Along with Still Rolls the Stone, My Redeemer Lives has become a staple in the annual Easter playlists of many Christians. 

The Garden Song is at once beautiful, intimate, haunting, and hope-filled. I asked Bob how he wrote that song. "I put myself in Adam's place," he explained. "If I'm Adam, how do I imagine this conversation playing out?" 

I hear footsteps in the Garden
And I know the Lord is near
And He calls me by my name
Saying, "Where are you hiding?
Where are you hiding?
Why do you hide?
I miss you, my son"

And I answered more loudly than I might have done
"I feel naked and ashamed
I've sinned against you, Father
And I've no one but myself to blame"

And He said, "You are not naked
You are clothed in the grace of my Son
Come and let Me lead you
To where your journey will be done"

Why are you hiding?
Why do you hide from Me, my son?

Why are you hiding?
Why do you hide from me
When I love you so?

Bob did express some minor misgivings about the song. "I was such a young guy, for me to put words in God's mouth - even if I think they might be pretty accurate paraphrases and be plausible - I'd be a lot more careful about that now," he said. "When I say careful, I don't mean fearful, I just mean full of care. The Garden Song was an atypical song for me as it recounts an imagined exchange between God and me. So it's a little different in that respect."

Michele Pillar with Bob Bennett

I Belong to You was the other song on this record not written by Bob Bennett. This one was penned by the producer, Jonathan David Brown. I told Bob that, while it's a very fine track, to my ears it sounds a little more slick and polished - a little more CCM - than the typical Bob Bennett song. "Jonathan was really good at making commercial records," Bennett said. "His instincts sort of went that way. And that sometimes was the rub in the studio because I would be wanting to go super simple, less polished, a little more dirt under the fingernails sometimes...and so sometimes we would go 'round and 'round about that. But I was really taken with the song when I first heard it and I still think it's a fine song."

Bob was in especially fine voice on this song. His singing is always very warm. He's been described as having "golden vocal chords" (whatever that means). And here again, the background vocals by Kelly Willard and Bruce Hibbard really enhance the song.

First Things First wraps up with a very personal song called Healings

Jesus, will you heal me? I've got a terminal disease
It's hard for me to talk to You 
Unless I'm driven to my knees
And I don't mean to make demands on You
But I know that You are kind
You see, my eyes are working perfectly
But I feel like I am blind

Jesus, will you heal me? I've got blisters on my feet
I've run everywhere but straight to You
Now the circle stands complete
And I've no one else to turn to
And I'm out of breath and scared
Though my legs seem very able 
They couldn't take me anywhere

My eyes were blinded, I could not see what I had long ignored
My legs were useless 'cause I was running away from the Lord
And patiently He waited as I played my foolish game
And then He made me whole when I called His name

Oh look, behold it is true
To the glory of God, my life is made new
The more that I seek him, the more He's revealed
In the name of Jesus, I proclaim that I am healed

Praises be to the Healer of my life

"Healings used conditions of the body as the language," Bennett explained, "but it was really about a life that needs healing."

I asked Bob what he thought about the album once it had been released and he was able to hold one in his hands. "I think I was pleased with it," he said. "I was very excited. You know, you spend your whole childhood hoping that you get to make an album. So when you're looking at the thing and popping open the shrinkwrap and pulling out the LP and stuff, you know, it's just an exciting thing."

So how did it do? You know - reviews, sales figures, that kind of stuff?

"It was critically accepted and commercially mediocre," Bennett said with a smile. "I don't know that it sold tons of copies, but people who got it seemed to like it." 

"All these years later, I'm mostly not embarrassed by it," he laughed. "What I love about making records is that they exist apart from me at a certain point. So they're out there doing work like a message in a bottle and if I'm having a bad day, if I'm in my bathrobe, if I'm not firing on all cylinders on a particular day...guess what? First Things First doesn't need me anymore. It hasn't needed me for decades. It's in fixed form. It's something that's a lot more reliable than I am personally. And I'm very grateful to have that kind of a representation with my name on it that has some consistency and still has some value in people's hearing."  

First Things First was re-released on compact disc by Maranatha! Music in the early 1990s (with a bonus track). Then in 2007, a limited 25th Anniversary Edition was made available, complete with a new bonus song and audio commentary tracks for each song.

Our conversation turned to the topic of touring. Figuring out ways to monetize your talent is increasingly difficult these days. To put it bluntly, people generally don't turn out to hear you play and sing if they don't remember who you are. 

"Yeah, with me, people have either been listening for an awfully long time or they just have no earthly idea who I am," Bob says. "There doesn't seem to be a lot of in-between territory these days. And this is going to sound like a horrible, sour grapes thing to say, and I don't mean it to be precisely that, but I think Christian music is the one genre of music that has the shortest institutional memory of any genre there is. Because if you look at any other type of music - jazz, country, folk music, rock and roll - the younger musicians may not be bowing down and saying, 'Hey, thanks,' but they at least have an awareness of who their predecessors were and they're conversant with the music. And ironically, in the Church, where you would think our notion of heritage and who came before and who did what and how can we partner together across demographic lines and age lines and all kinds of stuff - I think we just kind of have amnesia about some of that stuff. Of course, I have a dog in the hunt, so it makes it sound like 'poor Bob Bennett, I hope he gets some affirmation one of these days.' But, for better or worse, we've sort of built up this culture where we are very selective about what we look to in the past. I'm 63 years old and I can't get enough of being around guys who are 80 or 85 or 90. Guys who are old enough to be my Dad. Even at this stage of my life, I want to hang out with those guys, I want to finish well, I want to do what they're doing. Whatever they have to tell me, I want to hear it. It's not going to cost me a doggone thing to hear it."

After First Things First, Bennett experienced tremendous success with a much-heralded record called Matters of the Heart in 1982. CCM Magazine called it the best album of the year. It was full of songs that grabbed our hearts, inspired our imaginations, and fed our souls. That album and the two that followed contained a string of radio hits. 

Then Bob experienced a painful divorce - not exactly a career enhancement for a CCM musician. Instead of papering over this unfortunate event, Bob laid his soul bare and shared his pain with the world on an album called Songs From Bright Avenue. I was going through my own painful divorce around the same time period. Like Bob, I wondered if I would "ever be able to sit at that table again." Well, eventually Bob did and I did, too. But not before that record darn near saved my life. 

After that, a shift began to take place in churches and on Christian radio airwaves. Bob Bennett continued to write and record masterful, story-driven songs on records like Small Graces and The View From Here, but he found the "Christian" audience for those songs to be shrinking. 

His explanation: "The style of songwriting and storytelling that was done in previous times is totally missing in action (as far as I can tell). You've got a few guys like Andrew Peterson and Andy Gullahorn and guys like that doing great work and still out there writing those kinds of songs. But the kinds of songs that Scott Wesley Brown and Bruce Carroll and I write are not the coin of the realm anymore. So my little spiel on all of this is that the culture is binging Netflix for 5 and 6 hours at a time because story is still king while inside the confines of the church, musical stories are missing in action. They're not being told anymore. Nobody is sitting at a piano or standing up with a guitar in their hand and telling their story, their testimony, in the music. It's just not a part of the language anymore. So even if I remain anonymous from here on in, I would love to see the Church re-embrace what's happening in the world around her in a good way. This is still important. If you get up to sing a story, people will still listen. But the pastors don't have the vision for it, and these songs are not being sung in the church. If it's all-worship-all-the-time, to the exclusion of everything else, then we've ceded an entire method of communicating, we've cut off an entire means of artistic expression that we could totally run with." He then laughed, "And that's the end of my speech!"  

Bob maintains a strong internet presence and makes his music available through his website (including 5 albums recorded since 2007!). He's not going away anytime soon; he still manages to play and sing wherever doors open for him to do so. 

"From the time I picked up a guitar at age ten, I wanted to do this job," he said. "I wanted to play concerts. I wanted to make records. I had camped out next to the family stereo listening to The Kingston Trio and I said, 'I want to do that.' Then the Beatles came and all of the singer-songwriters came along - Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Bishop, people like that. I wanted to be Jackson Browne. That was not going to be my path...but I did get a chance to do something really wonderful that has also been a career. I don't count the number of people in the audience and decide how hard I'm going to try. If I've got 5 people or 500 people in front of me, to me, every night is like Carnegie Hall."  

Turning our attention back to First Things First, I ask Bob which songs he still sings in his concerts today.

"Oh, I'm really happy to still be able to sing some of those songs and really mean them," he said. "I can still sing You're Welcome Here, I can still sing Carpenter, I can still sing Redeemer and feel fully invested in those songs."  

He smiled and said, "I still have a certain amount of empathy and affection for the young fellow who recorded that record." 

So do we, Bob. So do we.

Bob Bennett and me, circa 2014

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

#34 FEEL THE LOVE by Love Song (1977)

FEEL THE LOVE by Love Song (1977)
Good News Records GNX-8104
"Something was captured in these performances which I feel models the essence of what ministry in music is about. This, to me, is as much a document of history as it is an entertaining and spiritual album."

-Chuck Girard, Love Song

They've been called "the most important Christian rock band of all time." One historian called them "the Christian Beatles." They were used by God to help create a whole new genre of music, and they blazed a new path for others to travel. They were not seeking fame or recognition. But what they had done was so important. And yet, it was over all too soon. The debut album came out in 1972, a follow-up was released in 1974, and then they were gone. Or so we thought.

The guys in Love Song were literally "baby Christians" when they had been thrust into the limelight. They were a big part of the goings-on at Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, which was ground zero for an exciting move of God dubbed the Jesus Movement. So Love Song was thrust into ministry almost before they understood the meaning of the word. 

As a result of the popularity of their eponymous 1972 album release (which has been called "the Jesus people's Sgt. Pepper" and "the best Christian album ever recorded"), the group's fame spread far and wide. Christian young people had been starving for a band like this for a very long time. So, naturally, an unrelenting tour schedule (playing sometimes twice or even three times a day) and unrealistic expectations from an excited fan base began to take a toll.

Guitarist Bob Wall was the first to go. After a tour of the southeastern U.S. in the summer of 1973, Wall stepped aside in order to reclaim his private life and "spend more time with his family." It was an amicable parting and was received by the other band members as being God's will, both for Wall and for Love Song. So when you're the most high-profile band in Jesus Music and you suddenly find yourself in need of a lead guitarist, what do you do? That's easy. You bring on a guy named Phil Keaggy.

Chuck Girard (L) and Phil Keaggy

Keaggy was a fairly new believer himself...and was regarded as a guitarist with jaw-dropping talent. The story is told that a couple of the guys were reading a national magazine interview that Keaggy had given in which he stated that his favorite group was Love Song. Keaggy was no longer in Glass Harp, so the guys in Love Song contacted him and a meeting was arranged. Keaggy flew to the West coast for a jam session and even played some concerts with the group. An invitation was extended for Phil Keaggy to become an official member of Love Song, just in time for the 2nd Annual Love Song Festival at Knott's Berry Farm and a tour of the Pacific Northwest.

The "festival" was an unqualified success; attendance records were broken as 45,000+ people attended the two-day event. Love Song played five times each evening in front of standing-room-only crowds in the John Wayne Theatre before heading up the coast for several more dates. 

L-R: Jay Truax, Chuck Girard, John Mehler, Tommy Coomes, Phil Keaggy

Unfortunately, we never really got a chance to see what might come from a spiritual and musical marriage between Keaggy and the group. That Northwest tour would be Love Song's last. 

They had traveled too far, too fast. Having grown weary of the confines of the group dynamic, the individual members decided to explore other opportunities. They would disband but remain open to whatever God would have for them in the future.

From the band's website: "You might say they quit while they were ahead, and unlike many other artists, they decided not to coast on the momentum of the fame they had amassed, but to go their separate ways and see what God may have for them as individuals. The attitude in regard to disbanding was that if it was God’s will, all would feel a peace. If not, unrest would ensue. Peace prevailed, and it seemed like the boys had made the right decision." 

Thankfully, Chuck Girard (who easily transitioned to a successful ministry as a solo artist) developed a gnawing feeling that Love Song had left some unfinished business on the table.

Freddie Piro

Girard had always regretted the fact that Love Song's ministry had never been captured live. He felt that the band modeled a certain type of evangelism and ministry that needed to be documented. So, two years after the dissolution of Love Song, Chuck Girard met with his old friend Freddie Piro to discuss the possibility of some type of reunion tour. Piro, the owner of Good News Records and the famous Mama Jo's recording studio, signaled that he was open to the idea. Eventually, the other band members were approached and they were all on board, even excited about the prospect. A production company was enlisted to promote and produce the tour. 

Girard would get his wish. There would be a live album by Love Song.

Bill Schnee is a producer and engineer who has two Grammys, an Emmy and a Dove Award over a 45+ year career of working with many of the biggest names in the music business. Schnee has received over 135 gold and platinum records and has recorded or mixed over 50 top twenty singles. Chuck Girard knew Schnee from his surf/hot rod days (Hondells, Castells). So Love Song approached Schnee about engineering the live album, and he was eager to get on board. The Wally Heider mobile recording truck was leased to travel with the group; it was a state-of-the-art mobile recording facility that would enable Schnee to effectively capture Love Song's sound. It was a six-week tour in 1976 that went all over the United States. "The tour truly covered the nation," said Chuck Girard, "as we visited 33 cities." The last leg of the tour took place on the West Coast; Feel the Love would be culled from three concerts - the Paramount Northwest Theater in Seattle, the San Jose Civic Auditorium in San Jose, California and Warnor's Theater in Fresno.

Bill Schnee working his magic inside the Wally Heider truck 

"The tour itself was a logistical mess," Girard remembers, "but shows went on despite behind the scenes problems." One of those problems was talked about in great detail on the "Love Song Home Page" by the late Bob Wall. "Our first concert on that tour was March 4, 1976, in Houston Texas," said Wall. "I remember that date because Chuck Girard always said, 'We marched forth on March 4th.' Anyway, about an hour before the concert I began to smell smoke. Nobody would listen. The union stagehands were eating KFC and couldn't be bothered. The smell was worst in my dressing room but nobody else noticed until the crowd was in the auditorium and it was about 10 minutes 'til game time. They finally had to admit there was a problem when you could actually see the smoke, emanating from between the floorboards of the stage, from the main electrical service room directly beneath the stage, where there was indeed a catastrophe in the making."

"Well, the catastrophe was averted," Wall continued, "by my astute olfactory warning system, the ultimately 'quick' action of the stagehands in killing all the power, and the orderly evacuation of the audience to an alternate concert site, next door in the Roy Hofheinz Arena, where we set up in a boxing ring and bounced our way through a rousing and successful performance."

Wall said the audience members even helped carry amps, PA systems, guitars, drums and miles of cables to the alternate arena, and, amazingly, the entire stage was torn down and reconstructed in less than an hour, with no missing gear. 

The late Bob Wall

"One funny sidebar," he continued. "I was wearing a white suit for that concert, and when they killed the lights, I had to grab my stuff and walk down several flights of smoke filled stairs in the dark. There was little left on the stage except for a couple of large equipment crates, so I paused to get out of my suit and into some Levis. Hey, it was pitch dark, right? That is until the guy in charge of the 3 gazillion candlepower arc spot in the back of the hall discovered his juice was still on and hit my bare backside with all 3 gazillion footcandles to help light up the stage. Well, he lit it up alright! Gave me such a sunburn I couldn't sit down for a week." What a great story. 

Joe Bellamy, a staff engineer at Mama Jo's was enlisted to mix the album. The records were sequenced very close to the actual setlists used in the concerts, although it is said that the setlist varied slightly from night to night.


"Now it's my privilege to announce to you, and introduce to you, a group that has caused all kinds of radical changes in Christian music. It's a group that I have really loved and appreciated for several years, and I know you have. Ladies and gentlemen...Love Song!"

Before the enthusiastic applause has a chance to dissipate, Chuck Girard asks the crowd, "You ready to make some noise? All right!" 

Side one of Feel the Love then begins with a crowd-pleasing toe-tapper. "Front Seat, Back Seat was our story of conversion and a funny way to say that it's better letting God have control of your life," said Tommy Coomes. Chuck Girard added, "It's pretty self-explanatory: when I drive the car I make wrong turns, but when I become the passenger and let God drive, my life is on course. Pretty basic stuff." 

"It's my Dad's favorite song," said Coomes. "He and his friends have a saying I like a lot, 'If it ain't country, it ain't music!' And they aren't kidding!" Interestingly, Chuck Girard has gone out of his way over the years to make it clear that he wasn't necessarily a fan, personally, of the handful of more country-oriented tunes by Love Song (Front Seat, Back Seat being one of them). He was a co-writer of the lyrics of that song, however.

This live version of Front Seat, Back Seat is virtually indistinguishable from the studio version on the Love Song album. The same thing is true for several other songs in this collection, including the next track, Little Country Church. 

Chuck Smith teaching at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in the 1970s

Written by Chuck Girard and Fred Field, Little Country Church is basically a shout-out to Calvary Chapel, the Orange County church pastored by Chuck Smith that had been so welcoming to the young people who were surrendering their lives to Jesus in the early 70s. It was a place where they could find fellowship, be baptized and become grounded in the Word of God. The church also became a hotbed of Jesus-minded musicians and a place where everyone was welcome.

Preacher isn't talkin' 'bout religion no more
He just wants to praise the Lord
People aren't as stuffy as they were before
They just want to praise the Lord

They're talkin' 'bout revival and the need for love
That little church has come alive
Workin' with each other for the common good
Puttin' all the past aside

Long hair, short hair, some coats and ties
People finally comin' around
Lookin' past the hair and straight into the eyes
People finally comin' around

And it¹s very plain to see
It's not the way it used to be

Little Country Church got a little "audience recognition applause" during the song intro. This happens on several other songs on this album as well. You have to remember that Love Song's tenure had been very short and audiences were starving to hear these songs again, so they applauded enthusiastically as soon as some of the song intros were recognized. 

Catching up with friends along the way.
Clockwise from Top left: Richie Furay; Paul Clark chats with Truax and Coomes;
Randy Matthews reading on the plane; Mehler at a hotel with Mike Johnson

Just before the next track, Chuck Girard welcomed the audience and talked about the band having seen "a lot of old faces" and having played "a lot of new places" on the tour. "We're really happy to be here tonight to share with you," Girard said. "We really hope that you'll enjoy and have a good time tonight, but most important, that we leave here tonight with something of value in our lives, something of lasting value."

Next up was The Cossack Song, a song about Russia and the End Times that Tommy Coomes described as good ol' American rock and roll. "Who would have thought about putting a message from Ezekiel to a rock and roll beat?" Coomes asked. "Works for me! But then, what do I know, I'm just a guitar player." This song rocks harder than anything else on either record and really gives Bob Wall a chance to stretch out and strut his stuff. 

The band was named Love Song, their first album was titled Love Song, and they had a song that was titled A Love Song...which was all a bit confusing. And today, in the internet age, it makes it a little difficult to search for anything having to do with the band or the title song to their debut album, especially since the term "love song" is already a common phrase that may or may not have anything to do with the group. Of course, no one was worried about "ease of googling" back in the early 70s. A Love Song is up next on Feel the Love. 

Chuck Girard wrote this one with Jesse Johnston. "I had never thought of the song as more than a little ditty," Girard admitted, "but it became very popular, and we eventually extended it with a guitar solo and fleshed it out a bit for concerts. Later we recorded that version for the live album, and also for the Welcome Back album in 1994." 

On Feel the Love, Chuck Girard goes into a somewhat detailed story about this next song becoming a big the Philippines.

The band actually traveled to Manila, Philippines in February of 1973 and they remember that trip as a highlight of their time on the road together. After the group's debut album was released on Good News Records and distributed by Word, A Love Song became quite popular and ended up in the #1 position on the pop charts in Manila. Love Song, for a time, was just as big as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones over there. Local missionaries figured out that this song came from a Christian band...and their wheels started turning. A large evangelistic outreach was planned and Love Song accepted an invitation to go there and play. With immense advance publicity, Love Song's arrival was, in itself, a major event. Newspapers, magazines, and billboards trumpeted the news that this new band from "the [American] hippie movement" had arrived on the islands. Over 50,000 people attended the week-long "Love Song Festival" at Manila's Rizal Stadium; the group also ministered to another 30,000 students at various campuses in the area. 

"I guess the Philippines was the closest we came to that dream every musician has, that is, playing before vast throngs of people and knowing you're being accepted," recalled Bob Wall. "And yet, with all of the exposure and acceptance, not once did any member of the group ever develop a 'star complex.' Our only real purpose at all of our concerts was to minister to those who came to hear us."

The music was characterized by the media as "groovy," contemporary and abundant, while the boys in the band were described as having long hair, bushy beards and "rugged dungarees." The event itself was called "one of the most dramatic episodes in Philippine Christianity." Between seventy and eighty thousand young people heard Love Song present the Gospel that week. Over 1,600 made decisions for Christ and asked for home Bible study lessons and personal visits. 

It's been said that "rarely has one musical group aroused the sheer volume of physical and spiritual response that Love Song did in the Philippines in February of 1973."

As I mentioned, Chuck Girard recounts some of the details of the Philippines trip just before the group launches into a flawless, extended rendition of A Love Song.

Two Hands, written in 1970 by Chuck Butler and Tommy Coomes, brings side one of Feel the Love to a close. It's a classic.

We're all gathered here
Because we all believe
If there's a doubter in the crowd
We ask you not to leave
Give a listen to His story
Hear the message that we bring
Feel the faith swell up inside you
Lift your voice with us and sing

Accept Him with your whole heart
And use your own two hands
With one reach out to Jesus
And with the other, bring a friend


Side Two of Feel the Love opens with another's the title track of this album and the very first song Chuck Girard ever wrote with a spiritual theme. "This song had more versions and lyric changes than any other before it finally made it to a recording," Girard said. "This song is still very special to me, and is one of my favorites, right behind And the Wind Was Low." 

These boys were quite the vocal band back in the day and they were in fine form on this track. The vocal harmonies soar.

Save the sadness for another time
Save the words for a song that rhymes
Save the crying for the ones who've lied
Who've missed all the meaning
And their souls have died

Save the doubting for the morning sun
Bringing daylight where there once was none
Feel the warmth that each new day can bring
By believing, by receiving Him

Feel the love...

Feel the Love transitions seamlessly into a song called So Thankful, a Resurrection-themed tune that Girard originally recorded on his sophomore solo release, Glow in the Dark. In fact, on Glow in the Dark, the song title was listed as So Thankful (Song for Easter Morning). It was written on an Easter Sunday morning in Naples, Florida.

"I had been booked down there by a church which brought me in to minister to their youth group from time to time," Girard recounts, "and this year they had me in to do their Easter sunrise service. There was a piano backstage in the bowl type venue we were using, and I went back there and started to noodle. I began to reflect on the elements of what we celebrate at Easter time and I was overtaken by a great sense of gratitude for what Jesus did on the cross and in His resurrection. The lyric came quickly and easily, and I performed the song for the first time that morning!"

The parenthetical reference to Easter in the song title was dropped on Feel the Love. This was a reverent ballad performed by Chuck, solo, with just the acoustic piano. 

As the last note of the song fades away, it feels like an eternity before the audience starts applauding. This happens on several other tracks on the record as well (there was a similar dynamic that took place at a lot of 2nd Chapter of Acts concerts and on their live albums). There was a just different dynamic at work in concerts by some of the Jesus Music artists of the 1970s. Of course, light shows, video screens, sequencers and the like - all of the trappings of concerts to which we eventually became accustomed - for the most part, did not exist in CCM concerts in the 70s. But it was more than that. These events were treated less like performances and more like worship services. The Spirit of God often showed up in a tangible way and audiences were sometimes slow to applaud because they were busy worshiping and just basking in the Lord's presence.  

"The Bible says to make a joyful noise unto the Lord and so we claim Scriptural basis for this next song and invite you guys to make some joyful noise with us..."
-Chuck Girard

A hand-clappin' country rocker called Since I Opened Up the Door was up next. "This one simply speaks of the joy of first meeting Jesus," said Girard. The guys really get crankin' on this song, imploring the audience to sing along.

In setting up the next song, Girard mentions that the members of Love Song had only been Christians for about six years at the time Feel the Love was recorded (which is pretty amazing when you think about it), and that they had been drawn into fellowship together beginning about eleven years prior to this live album. At that point, jokes are made by various band claims to have been in junior high school at the time...and Tommy Coomes gets a laugh by saying, in an old man's voice, "Here we are at the 1998 Love Song Reunion Tour!" As if 1998 was just so far off in the future. Please.

Promo shot for the Reunion Tour

Live albums don't always rank high on lists like this, but there are a few reasons Feel the Love ranks in our Top 40. One is that this is the best and largest collection of Love Song songs that you can find in one place. Needless to say, the band's debut album is going to rank very high on this blog for musical, spiritual and historic reasons. But this collection includes great songs from that record as well as the group's sophomore release and a taste of Chuck Girard's solo material. It's kind of a one-stop shop for all things Love Song.

Another reason this collection makes our list is that it's just cool. The photos on the gatefold album cover look like a rock and roll band on a real, nationwide tour (because they were). We'll talk more about the photography later, but this all-black cover had some gravitas...and it made Love Song look like a rock band for the first time, and not just a country-rock-hippie-folk band. 

Another reason for this album's inclusion - and a primary reason - is the "raps" between the songs. 

From the official Love Song website: "Chuck Girard and Joe Bellamy edited the album with a meticulous ear for maintaining the integrity of intent for each speech in between songs.  Though some of the speeches were rather long, careful attention was paid to not lose the intended meaning of each speech. And the altar call at the end, which easily could have been excluded, was not."

The spoken-word tracks on this 2-record set are priceless and serve as a verbal history for people who are interested in such things.

Situated between Since I Opened Up the Door and Freedom, Chuck Girard gives a lengthy rap on his personal testimony and the formation of Love Song. He talks about their confusion...trying to tie Jesus in with drugs and eastern religions. He speaks, humorously, of attempting a diet plan that was supposed to get him closer to God (but didn't). And then he talks - at length - about his fascination and ultimate disappointment with The Beatles, a group to which Love Song was often compared, and told the story of how Love Song developed from a bunch of drug-addled spiritual seekers to a group of young men who had been truly touched and changed by Jesus Christ.

"...I thought The Beatles were second messiahs or something, you know, and that their albums [were] coming down with this spiritual wisdom...I really thought The Beatles had discovered something and they were trying to convey it to us in little doses, you know? And then my friends and I, we got into the next album that came out, which was the white double album, right? And we went to the store to get the new Beatles album and we discovered it was just totally white with no printing on it, just embossed letters that said, 'The Beatles.' And it just blew our minds; we went, 'Wow, man! This is the spiritual one! Look, it's all white, man! Only The Beatles would put no printing on their album! Oh, it's so cool,' you know? So we took it home...and we put it on and we're waiting to hear the spiritual message come forth, and we're all kind of looking at each other and going, 'What's happening here?' you know. And we were trying to act like we were getting something out of it, because no one wanted to admit that they weren't heavy, you know? Anyhow, how much can you get out of Rocky Raccoon after all?...I felt ripped off by The Beatles. I felt that The Beatles had copped out; that if they did know anything spiritual, they were afraid to tell it, and perhaps they didn't. And so we got obsessed with this idea of having a band that could communicate God to people, and so we started -- in the middle of our psychedelic period -- a 'God band' actually, that was called Love Song. And we would go into nightclubs and we'd play 'Proud Mary' and all that stuff you had to play to knock on wood for the dancers, and we would throw in our God songs in the middle of all this, you know? And a lot of them had Jesus' name in it. And this was long before Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky or when James Taylor came out and said 'Jesus' in a song...And people were just not used to hearing Jesus' name from a rock and roll band in a bar, you know? And we would go out and evangelize people on our breaks. We would go out and say, 'Hey, why don't you come out with us on Sunday? We're gonna drop acid and get into God, you know?' It was a classic example of the blind leading the blind, you know? Of people who were sincerely deceived, sincerely wrong, you know? And two and a half years later, after we started that first band, the Lord was faithful to draw us up to a place called Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, and for the first time in my life the Gospel was communicated to me. And for the first time in my life, the lights came on and I went, 'That's what it's all about!' And I really discovered that what I'd been looking for my whole life was Jesus Christ, the victorious Son of God who died on the cross and three days later rose again from the dead." 

-Chuck Girard

Side Two closes with a passionate version of Freedom. It begins and ends in a mellow mood, but the middle of the song rocks pretty hard, and Girard's voice is up to the challenge. "I loved songs that had 'movements,' like a short rock opera," said Chuck. "Bohemian Rhapsody is probably the ultimate example of this kind of a song. As I saw how the 2 ideas could complement each other, I began to sing the different movements, and the lyric started to come together." Lyrically, Freedom is all about Jesus and the changes He can bring to one's heart and life.

I've already mentioned the photos that graced the cover of Feel the Love; there's a story as to how those photos came about. "During the mixing and mastering of the album," Bob Wall said, "Bill Schnee and his wife Chris invited all hands to their place in the Hollywood Hills for a spaghetti bust and slide show. Chuck Girard, Karen Girard, Chris Schnee and others - even me - had tons of 35mm happy snaps from the tour, and we all went home with sore stomach muscles from laughing for 2 solid hours after reliving the tour through the pictures. And maybe just a little too much spaghetti."

Wall continued: "Anyway, later while we were spitballing over the cover design, somebody had the idea that we should make up a collection of those tour photos for the inside of the double cover. One thing got left out, though. Jay Truax wanted the Art Department to airbrush "Goodyear" on my side on a picture of me diving off a diving board into a pool, but I outflanked him and put the squash on the idea."

David Larkham and Hogie McMurtrie were responsible for the album's art direction and design. And all of those cool tour pics were snapped the old fashioned way (before the era of digital photography and selfies) by Karen Girard, Chuck Girard, Chris Schnee, Alethea Bateman, Jay Truax, and Bob Wall.

Feel the Love was produced by Chuck Girard, Freddie Piro, and Love Song. Chuck Girard played keyboards, John Mehler was behind the drums, Bob Wall and Tom Coomes played guitars, and Jay Truax played bass. The mix-down engineer was Joe Bellamy; he was assisted by Billy Taylor


Side Three of this album is very unique, containing only two tracks. It opens with an extended version of an anthem on unity from the group's debut album.This time, the guys give Let Us Be One a disco-ish feel and definitely turn up the funk. During the intro, Chuck Girard (with his soulful falsetto) trades licks with Bob Wall's guitar in a call-and-response type of thing. Jay Truax makes his presence known on this track as well. The song is really a prayer and was born out of a doctrinal argument between Truax and Tom Coomes.

Lord, don't let me strive against my brother
I'm so tired of it, don't want to do it no more
Lord, don't let us fight against each other
Let us be one in You

Lord, give us love for one another
In what we say, yes, in what we do
Lord, teach us to build up one another
Let us be one in You

Coomes takes the first part of the song's instrumental break, soloing with his acoustic guitar. But after that, Bob Wall shows off with a lengthy electric solo. Wall ditches the wah-wah pedal from the original studio version of this song and turns up the 'fuzz' on his guitar a little bit, giving this live version of Let Us Be One a more gritty feel. 

What happens next was very special. And downright cool. 

There have been in-song drum solos in Christian Rock - Bill Glover's solo on Woman, Don't You Know by Petra, Rick Thompson's solo on Get Ready by Sweet Comfort Band, and Keith Thibodeaux's solo on Highway to Heaven by David & the Giants immediately come to mind. But, as far as I know, this is the only "stand-alone" drum solo in the recorded history of Jesus Music. 

Chuck Girard has a little fun introducing the solo by drummer John Mehler. Girard told the audience that they were about to receive a "special treat"...that they were going to receive "a blessing" in a way that they would "not forget for quite some time." He wasn't kidding.

Girard characterized the solo as Mehler praising the Lord with his talent. He then reads Psalm 150 (which, of course, speaks of praising the Lord with loud cymbals and high-sounding cymbals, among other things). Girard gets a laugh from the crowd when he inserts, "Praise Him with the stringed instruments and organs and Fender guitars." He then makes a wisecrack about somebody slipping him the "Revised Musicians' Edition."

What follows is John Mehler putting on an absolute clinic on the drums for about 7 and a half minutes. When the solo is over, Mehler comes out to a microphone and says, "Praise the Lord!" in a high pitched voice that sounds kind of like Phil Keaggy. Mehler then asks the crowd to "give the Lord Jesus a great big round of applause because we love Him so much."

Due to time constraints, this track was left off the CD reissue of Feel the Love. That's a shame. 


The final side of Feel the Love is quite mellow...with a heavy dose of Spirit-anointed ministry going forth from the concert stage. It begins with a medley of two of the most popular songs from the group's 1974 album, Final Touch.

The classic Jesus Puts the Song In Our Hearts sets the stage for what is to follow. It's a song about the simple joy of life in Jesus, beautifully sung by Girard and company. It's a song that was written when several of the guys were living in a donated room over a garage - a room with no furniture, just four sleeping bags. Not even a bathroom. And it was in that environment that Jesus Puts the Song in our Hearts was written, almost spontaneously. Girard remembers that "the guys gathered around and the harmonies were born on the spot as we worshipped the Lord...I remember it was a Saturday night because we sang the song at Calvary Chapel Sunday morning service the next day." 

Hey, you can hear the music
He is singing out to all
Hey, open up your ears now
Jesus means for you to hear the call

Jesus puts the song in our hearts
Jesus sets us free
Jesus puts the song in our hearts
Jesus brings a joyful melody

Another seamless transition takes us into Little Pilgrim, a song that resonated with so many people...because it was all about the search for truth. Chuck Girard says it was a very special song to him. "The original concept of it - I was writing it for a friend," he says. "And after the first verse, I realized that I was also writing it for myself before I met the Lord, and it took on a much more universal meaning."

I was lookin' in that same direction
But all I ever found were others
Who were searching just like me
And we didn't find the way or the answers
To the questions that were buried deep down in our souls
We just found that the ways of men have no answers 

To not be blood relatives, the members of Love Song have a very tight, listenable vocal blend. Their harmony rarely sounded better than it did on the bridge of Little Pilgrim:

Oh, don't you wonder now
What you're tryin' to do
Oh, don't you wonder now
Where that path is takin' you

The song builds in intensity and there is a strong anointing present as Chuck Girard sings with great passion and feeling... 

Little Pilgrim, walking down the road of life
I know that deep down in your heart that you are just like me
What you're seekin' is a better way
And you're reachin' out for temporary resting places
And you're glad to find a little peace of mind here and there
But it won't last no, no, cause you'll have to move along someday
'Til you're resting in the arms of the only One who can help you 
'Til you give your heart and your soul and your body
And your mind and your life to the Lord
And it's a glad thing to realize
That you're not alone no more
That you found your way back home 

After Little Pilgrim, Girard shares the Good News of Jesus in a very forthright, yet non-threatening manner. Billy Graham himself couldn't have presented the Gospel any clearer. There were many artists back in the day who considered it part of their ministry to share Jesus with their audiences and invite people to surrender their lives to Him. DeGarmo & Key, Petra, Mylon LeFevre & Broken Heart, Resurrection Band and Dallas Holm come to mind. There were many more. But there were also many Christian bands and solo artists who, for whatever reason, did not feel comfortable with that model. "We're not preachers," they said. Well, I don't know that Chuck Girard has ever considered himself a "preacher" either. At least, not in the traditional sense. But I wonder how many people will find him in Heaven and thank him for leading them to Jesus, for encouraging them to make the most important decision they could ever make. For musicians who may wonder how to effectively combine a concert performance with altar ministry, Feel the Love is a textbook example. Girard just speaks from his heart.

For fifteen years I hosted and produced a Christian rock radio show on a secular classic rock station. Early on, the Program Director told me, "Our station is owned by wealthy Jewish businessmen, so you should probably refrain from praying on the air." Well, praying on the air wasn't part of my plan anyway. Other than that, they pretty much gave me free reign. The station management was always supportive and encouraging. I agreed that since I was on a 100,000-watt, mainstream radio station I should probably be careful and just let the music talk. But one day I had an idea (or maybe the Holy Spirit had an idea and suggested it to me). The idea was to take the so-called "sinner's prayer" off live albums and just drop it in between songs every now and then. You know, dress it up a little bit, maybe add a music bed underneath or some production elements at the beginning and end. 

So I did. 

That way, people who were attracted by the music and possibly drawn by the Holy Spirit, would be given examples from artists on how to make Jesus their Lord and Savior. And I wouldn't have to say a word. Chuck Girard's prayer from Feel the Love was one of the prayers I used.

Next, a song from Chuck's solo catalog gets the Love Song treatment. The heavy anointing and worshipful atmosphere also permeate Sometimes Alleluia, a song that earns the distinction of being the first worship song Chuck Girard ever wrote. 

Oh let our joy be unconfined, 
Let us sing with freedom unrestrained
Let's take this feeling that we're feeling now, 
Outside these walls and let it rain.
Oh let the Spirit overflow,
As we are filled from head to toe.
We love You, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, 
And we want this world to know.

Sometimes alleluia
Sometimes praise the Lord
Sometimes gently singing
Our hearts in one accord

Toward the apex of the song, Chuck Girard asks for the house lights to be turned up, asks the audience to stand, and he becomes a worship leader (before that was really a thing). Interestingly, Girard has since revealed that the live audience vocals on this song proved to be unusable due to the "leakage" of other instruments, etc. "We had to get a group of singers together to go into the studio to re-record the audience vocals to get separation for this recording," Girard said. 

As the final notes of Sometimes Alleluia drift away, the group performs one last song. It's a prayerful, reverent version of Psalm 5, a worship chorus originally recorded by The Way Home on the Maranatha 5 compilation. After a couple of times through, the guys sing these lines acapella...

Give ear to my words O Lord
Consider my meditation
Harken unto the voice of my cry
My King and my God
For unto Thee will I pray
My voice shalt Thou hear
In the morning
O Lord in the morning
Will I direct my prayer
Unto Thee and will look up

And that's how Feel the Love concludes. No music, no applause, no encore, just a "holy hush." It's been said that this was always the goal of every Love Song concert: to leave the listener feeling the presence of God, whether by applause directed to God alone or by the holy stillness that only reverent worship can bring.

After Feel the Love, all of the members of Love Song stayed connected in various ways to the Church and to music ministry. 

Wing and a Prayer
L-R: Coomes, Tom Stipe, Truax, Mehler and Al Perkins

Coomes, Truax and Mehler became part of Wing and a Prayer for a while. 

"Paul Clark and Friends"
L-R: Phil Keaggy, Paul Clark, Mehler, Truax, Bill Speer

Jay Truax and John Mehler also played with Paul Clark and Friends and the Richie Furay Band

Richie Furay Band
L-R: Truax, Mehler, Tom Stipe, Richie Furay

Chuck Girard continued with a successful solo ministry and Tom Coomes released an excellent solo project of his own in 1981 and became a record label executive with Maranatha.

Bob Wall got away from music for a while and went into pest control...which, when you think about it, is a lot like touring with a band (insert rim shot here.) Wall eventually bought the company, but he made himself available to play on worship teams at his church. 

John Mehler ended up releasing a solo project in 1982 and teamed up with Kenneth Nash on a series of "jazz praise" albums. He ended up playing gigs backing numerous Christian and secular artists (everyone from Frank Sinatra to Mark Heard) at places like the White House, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, and the Berlin Wall. Mehler also served as an assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa for a time. He and his family eventually moved to Sweden.

In the ‘80s, Jay Truax got involved with surf music by playing with Paul Johnson and the Packards. He later joined The Surfaris and toured with bands like Jan and Dean, the Kingsmen and the Beach Boys. Truax also got involved with architecture, helping design churches and schools.

As time passed, Chuck Girard experienced first a brokenness in his own personal walk with the Lord and then a major revival in his ministry, his home, and his own heart. He began to be used by the Lord to steer the Church toward authentic, intimate worship. Chuck has toured the U.S., Europe, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, Mexico, Canada, and the Middle East. 

Coomes would eventually head up The Tommy Coomes Band, a team of 12 artists, songwriters, arrangers and producers that facilitates new forms of worship and evangelism. They have ministered in over 28 countries with Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Promise Keepers, Greg Laurie’s Harvest Crusades, and more.

Love Song in the mid-1990s

The guys found time to "get the band back together" several times over the years. They recorded a project titled Welcome Back in 1994. It was "Love Song for soccer moms." They were also featured on the First Love video documentary in 1997, a 2-DVD set that features a dozen or so pioneering artists and celebrates their contributions to the Jesus Movement.

Love Song
also reunited a few times for various Calvary Chapel events over the years, and they were included on something called 
CCM United in 2014; it was a live-streamed event in Nashville commemorating 40 years of CCM history. 

L-R: Fred Field, Truax, Girard, Wall, Coomes, Phil Keaggy

Love Song was inducted into the GMA Hall of Fame in 2012. 

Sadly, Bob Wall unexpectedly passed away while on a flight to visit his children and grandchildren just prior to Christmas in 2015. He is remembered here and here

Love Song with the late Pastor Chuck Smith

I'm thankful for the day that some hippies who called themselves Love Song walked into Calvary Chapel and asked Pastor Chuck Smith if they could play their music at the church's Monday night Bible study. I'm glad Pastor Chuck said, "Yes." And I'm glad they were used of God to help fuel a mighty revival that began in Southern California and spread across the United States and around the world. 

Girard      |      Truax      |      Mehler      |      Coomes      |    Wall

Their mission was not to be stars. Their goal was not to start a new genre of music. They simply wanted to help people all over the world to "feel the love the Son of God can bring."

Mission accomplished.