Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#67 THE MELODIES IN ME by Honeytree (1978)



THE MELODIES IN ME - Honeytree
Myrrh Records - MSB-6591
transition
[tran-zish-uhn]  

noun

1. movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, or concept to another; change.


Nancy Honeytree has said that, looking back, her music ministry has been carried out in three broad phases: the Jesus Music era in the early to mid-1970s; her unique ministry to single adults in the 1980s; and her more recent focus on missions. We didn't realize it at the time, but The Melodies in Me was a transitional album for Honeytree. It was autobiographical...it was much more personal...and it marked the beginning-of-the-end of her Jesus Music period and a shift toward more adult-focused contemporary Christian Music.

"If I look back at 43 years of ministry, it seems to me that it's in three phases," Nancy shared in a 2013 interview. "The first was the Jesus Music time, but if I were to analyze it now, I would say that was 'youth ministry.' I was singing in coffeehouses and the big festivals and going to college campuses and all that. But I did experience a time in the early eighties where I felt like I wasn't really connecting with the new youth that were coming forward. I felt awkward, like, 'What am I supposed to do now?' And the Lord took His time telling me. I did not know for several years. I felt like I needed to be faithful, to be fruitful with what I had, so I just kept on sort of awkwardly ministering to youth but not really connecting. But during that time God was refreshing me as a single adult. I didn't get married until I was thirty-eight, and my husband was forty-two when we got married, so we had eighty years of singleness between the two of us. But God was challenging me to recommit my life unconditionally as a single adult. And that was bringing such a refreshing. I was starting to get excited about writing songs like Single Heart and Every Single Day and stuff like that. So out of that came a phase of 'singles ministry' in my life, where I got to not only sing, but share in teaching workshops the things the Lord was doing in my life as a single adult. Then my husband came along, J.R. Miller. We fell in love and got married, and kept doing singles ministry for a while. But then God brought a new challenge to me through some missionary friends who challenged me to sing in Spanish. So I started to sing in Spanish and I also started to study Spanish. And now, I can do a service in Spanish without an interpreter or anything. I've been working on Spanish for twenty years. And that opened the door to other languages, too. So youth, singles and missions have been the three phases." 

That "Jesus Music" phase that Nancy mentioned began when she surrendered her heart and life to the Lordship of Christ (which we have discussed in great detail in earlier posts, here and here) and continued up through 1977. During those years Honeytree recorded four albums (her self-titled debut in 1973; The Way I Feel in 1974, the classic Evergreen in 1975, and a live album titled Me and My Old Guitar in 1977). 

But our feature album, The Melodies in Me, signaled a departure for the “First Lady of Jesus Music.” This is the first sense we get that Honeytree is beginning to trade her hippie image for a slightly more mellow, more mature version of herself. One reviewer writes that the album seems to come "from an older spirit." Nancy was still a young woman in 1978, but she comes across as an old soul on this record. Musically, The Melodies in Me finds her trading in the simple acoustic folk for more sophisticated orchestration and production that could even be described as "slick" or "polished."  Her growth as a songwriter is evident here. But, perhaps most importantly, she's got a story to tell. And it's a story that she is intimately familiar with. Because it's her story.

Like I said earlier, this one was personal. 

Honeytree had gone about two years without a new studio album, giving her time to focus and hone in on what God wanted to say through her. The result is a bit of a concept album, as Nancy explains in the liner notes on the album's back cover:

"The Melodies in Me" took shape slowly. Over the past two years these songs, their arrangements, and the order in which they are presented all came together to form a unit in my mind. To hear the finished product is a tremendous experience after hearing it  so long in my heart. This album tells the story of music in my life -- how it began, how it affected me, and how it has become an expression of my inner life. It will tell you a lot about Honeytree if you listen to it as a whole."

Love, Honeytree


Listen to it as a whole. That's pretty much a foreign concept to people born after 1985. One of the most regrettable, negative side effects of the digital age is that recorded music is primarily downloaded and consumed in the form of singles. Albums are not listened to as a whole, thereby rendering the term “concept album” completely meaningless to many younger music consumers. But The Melodies in Me was, as Nancy stated, designed with a flow in mind. Thought and care were given to the song order. Taken together, the songs tell a story.

Our first clue that this album would be a very different collection of songs comes with the very first track. The Broadmoor Song is a well-executed, cleverly written big band swing piece that gives us a charming glimpse into the courtship and marriage of Nancy’s parents, Bill and Mary Henigbaum. The song also credits Nancy’s father for giving her a real love and appreciation of music during her early childhood:

Mary was a waitress at the Broadmoor
Bill was stationed in the Rockies just before the World War
The two of them were married there in Colorado Springs
I can’t think of a better place to start a sweeter thing

William had to go and fight the World War
But then he came back home again to play the symphony
In the years that followed sweet Mary bore him
Cathy, Jane and Nancy
And the last was me

Well I could sit for hours on my Daddy’s knee
While he taught me how to read the score
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky
And I would always holler for more
I want to hear more, more

Sometimes in the evening they would come to our home
Friends of chamber music in the living room
Daddy’s send me up to bed but lately it seems I
Hear that music climbing up the staircase of my dreams

Nancy's parents, Mary and William Henigbaum


Nancy had already recorded this song (on January 7, 1977 at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas, Texas) for a live album. But it was a stripped-down, solo acoustic version. Here, it’s given the proper jazzy, big band treatment and we get to enjoy a swinging horn section as well as some tasteful piano work. By the way, once you hear The Broadmoor Song, you understand the album cover. The front cover shows Nancy (with her Crystal Gayle-esque locks) sitting on an elegant staircase inside the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the back cover is an attractive photo of the hotel’s exterior by photographer Paul Rey. Art Direction and Design was by Dennis Hill.
 
 
 
The next stop on this journey is a medley of songs that is beautifully arranged and performed. Theme From Largo, Symphony #5 is a classically-based instrumental piece that transitions into Melody, another song that delves into Nancy’s appreciation for music:

Melody, melody
Carry me far away
Melody, melody
Back to my childhood days
Sitting for hours at the baby grand
Playing sweet tunes with a childish hand
Melody, melody
Melody

Now, granted, as a sixteen-year old in 1978, tracks like The Broadmoor Song and Theme From Largo, Symphony #5 were probably not that exciting to me. But as I have aged and matured, my appreciation for this album has grown.

Up to the Mountains tells us about what Honeytree’s mom was up to in the late 70s. It’s another intimately autobiographical tune that leaves you feeling as if you know these people. You walk away from this album with the thought that you’d be perfectly comfortable sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Henigbaums:

My mother lives in North Carolina
With a heart for the hills and the folks who call them home
She helps out when she can
In spring she plants a vegetable garden
And when I come to visit she feeds me green beans
And she shares all my woes

And she knows I’m playing grown up and no one can see in me
I am a child who has learned how to hide inside
Longing to live but not daring to try

My mother takes me off to the mountains
And they always remind me how small are my fears and how big is my God

My Father made the moon and the mountains
And He tells me that I am His own

Up to the Mountains features exactly the type of instrumentation you’d expect: mandolins, dobros, and the like.

Making Melody In My Heart seems to have been inspired by the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:19:

…speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord…

It’s got an easy flow, features piano and acoustic percussion, and sound like something Carol King could’ve recorded (if she’d been sold out to Jesus). It also boasts a killer ‘70s, Carpenters-esque ending if I’ve ever heard one.

Bittersweet closes Side One and gives us some insight into how Honeytree views her own songwriting skills.

Bittersweet
That’s my melody
Not quite sad but not quite happy
That’s the way they come from me
Bittersweet
That’s my specialty
Listen and I’ll make you smile
But you’ll be misty in a while

Nice piano work and soprano sax on this one. Some have said that it had a Joni Mitchell feel to it.

There were some familiar names involved with the making of this album. Al Perkins produced and engineered, while Buck Herring engineered the strings and horns.

Thief opens Side Two. The song finds Nancy wondering aloud about her place in the world and whether she’s making a difference in the Kingdom of God. She also complains in the song’s lyric about a tendency to give in to procrastination and complacency. Musically, it’s a typical Honeytree feel (gentle, acoustic ballad) but with an up-tempo instrumental thrown in that allows the string section to shine a bit.

Thief segues (no space in between) into His Majesty Reigns, another nod to Nancy’s love of classical music. This is what “worship music” would’ve sounded like in the Renaissance period, complete with clavinet, pan flute and tambourine.

His Majesty reigns from shore to shore, and in the stars above
His righteousness is only exceeded by His love

He is the King of Kings!

Father in Heaven, You’re the One
I’m in love with Your only Son

Mirage is one of the more interesting songs on the album. Nancy has said in a recent interview that the song was based on a romantic relationship that didn’t necessarily end well. It certainly made for a lovely tune, with a captivating melody and a lyrical theme that is universal. She sings it with a certain passion and intensity.

One Sweet Word departs somewhat from the album’s theme, and it’s the closest this album comes to rocking. It’s a full-throated defense of the Word of God, complete with a very active horn section. And this is the first time on The Melodies in Me that you actually notice hearing an electric lead guitar!

Rounding out this treasured collection of songs is one of the album’s true highlights, Diamond in the Rough. With acoustic guitar and strings circling and swirling over a fretless bass and bossa nova beat, Honeytree delivers a message that has encouraged thousands. A quick Google search will reveal lots of testimonials and blog posts about the positive impact that this song has had on so many people.

It’s been said that The Melodies in Me caught Honeytree at “the peak of her career.”

Nancy "Honeytree" Miller today
 
 
Nancy Honeytree, like many other Jesus Music artists, has never stopped singing and ministering. You can find a growing number of YouTube videos featuring Nancy ministering in local churches with the same simplicity and depth of sincerity that we remember so well from the 1970s.

Incidentally, Nancy’s note on the back cover of The Melodies in Me was very fitting. It said…  

This album is dedicated with love to my parents, William and Mary Henigbaum, who started all the melodies in me.

I’d say we all owe a debt of thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Henigbaum.
 
 
The Henigbaum Family in 1957. Nancy is lower left.
 

 
Fun Fact:
Nancy Honeytree is the first artist with three albums on our list.


Friday, December 5, 2014

#68 WILDWALL by Malcolm & Alwyn (1974)



WILDWALL by Malcolm & Alwyn (1974)
Myrrh - MSA-6534
A striking figure with pale skin and long, blonde hair steps up to the microphone. Dressed in black leather, he’s illuminated by a bright spotlight in an otherwise darkened hall. He begins to play a nondescript acoustic guitar and sings these words…

Dear Malcolm, dear Alwyn 
You're my favorite singers in England
And I love you so much, You've got the Holy Spirit's touch
You're much more than just a two-man band

I got a memo from Turner, He's a poet I'm a learner
And he says you're comin' back to L.A.
So I'll see you when you land, I hope your schedule's not too planned
I know you can't, but I wish you could stay

I miss you my friends
I think about you all the time

You're so far away
Well I hope you're feelin' fine.


The leather-clad troubadour was Larry Norman, of course, and he was singing a song he'd written about two very special men – Malcolm Wild and Alwyn Wall. 
 
Malcolm and Alwyn have been described as a “popular British gospel beat music group,” plying their wares in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s. Their music was primarily soft rock that is said to have been influenced musically by such secular outfits as Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. But their poetic lyrics described their devotion to the Christian faith with purity and simplicity, and yet with great depth and layers of meaning. The British accents and Wild’s autoharp set the group apart from their peers.

Malcolm Wild and Alwyn Wall actually began performing together as teenagers in a band called The Zodiacs well before they met Jesus. The story is told that the two became Christians within two days of each other in 1968. Then in 1973, an album titled Fool’s Wisdom put Malcolm & Alwyn on the American musical map and guaranteed them a place in the hearts of Jesus people everywhere. The record featured an all-star cast of session players and the title track became one of the Jesus Movement’s most-loved songs.

But a funny thing happened on the way to their sophomore release. The boys decided to plug in and turn the amps up to 11 for album #2. Well, certainly not all the way up to 11…but it was definitely a more aggressive sound. Their audience noticed. And not all of them were impressed. In fact, it’s been said that a large segment of Malcolm & Alwyn’s audience were actually “alienated” by this record. If true, shame on them.

The album begins with a song that sounds like it could easily have been recorded by their good friend and American fan, Larry Norman. I Feel Fine served notice that the boys were definitely in a more rockin’ mood this time around. In addition to the distortion on the electric guitar, they also injected some humor into this opening track:

Smoked a pipe when I was just thirteen
Must’ve turned a hundred shades of green
I was coughing and sputterin’
Curses I was mutterin’
But you know what’s the matter?
It’s too much tobacco

I been thinkin’ and drinkin’ ‘til I’m stinkin’
Smokin,’ chokin,’ and I’m not jokin’
I been sighin’ and cryin’ like I’m dyin’
Boozin,’ losin,’ and I’m not lyin’
But I never got through ‘til I got my eyes on You


I feel fine now

I Feel Fine took a light-hearted look at the fact that the Lord satisfies where drugs and other vices fail. And it featured a fuzzy lead guitar solo that was anything but buried in the mix.

"We had a lot of fun doing that song," Malcolm Wild told radio host Jerry Bryant in a recent interview. "Alwyn was wanting to get a little more rock and roll with our music, and that's the way that we went with Wildwall."

Fans of a kindler, gentler Malcolm & Alwyn were probably more comfortable with the album’s second track, I Love You More Than Yesterday. Probably my least favorite Malc & Aly tune of all time due to the vague and repetitive lyric content. It did contain a nice saxophone solo, however.

The quirky Spaceman played off the 70s fascination with aliens, UFOs and space travel to make points in favor of unity and against racism. This one had a somewhat psychedelic rock vibe and again relied on humor to get its point across:


No use being friendly with Martians
If you can’t be friendly with your brother
Making the acquaintance of little green men
When black and white are fighting each other

So climb back into your moon machine
It’s time to come back to earth
If you get in touch with the Earthmaker
You’ll fly higher


The song’s weird 70s ending sounds, again, like something Larry Norman would’ve come up with. It does not hold up particularly well to repeated listenings.

Wild’s autoharp is prominent in the mix during the gentle ballad, Someone to Sing To. This song examines motives and how “singing for Jesus” is not just another career choice, it’s a calling. And sometimes one that doesn’t pay really well.

They say leave out the cross
Leave out the blood
That kind of talk won’t
do your career any good


I’m not after a Hit Parade song
I just want someone to sing to
I’m not after a pocketful of money
'Cause it’s Heaven that I’m into


And about that whole debate over Christian vs. secular music? Here’s how Malcolm & Alwyn settled that one:

There’s been a lot of people writing songs
About love and peace and their rights and wrongs
Their songs are OK, the music’s fine
But without the Truth, they’re just wasting their time


Closing Side One was the soft rock I’ll Carry You Through. Reviewers have noted that the guitar intro and solo are very George Harrison-esque. The song is written from the point view of the Lord Himself:

When you’re weary and feeling down
Don’t you worry I won’t let you drown
My load is easy
So very easy
And I will carry you through


And when you’re alone
I’m gonna love you like no other can


Wildwall (obviously a play on the surnames of Malcolm & Alwyn) was produced by Jon Miller and Roger Hand. Alwyn Wall played acoustic guitar, while Malcolm Wild played autoharp. Both men provided vocals and co-wrote all of the album’s songs. Studio musicians on this record included James Litherland and Davey Johnstone (Elton John’s guitarist) on guitars, Johnny Gustafson (from the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar) on bass, Rod Edwards on keys, and Mike Giles on drums. The album’s horn section was comprised of Malcolm Duncan, Roger Ball, Chris Payne, and Henry Lowther. Rod Edwards and Roger Hand contributed backing vocals. Denny Bridges and Bill Price served as engineers.

Side Two opens with a rollicking rocker on the subject of…water baptism? Sure! It’s a topic that has rarely been explored in any depth at all over the years. The Oak Ridge Boys, then a southern gospel quartet, recorded The Baptism of Jesse Taylor in 1974 (the same year that Wildwall was released). The classic Water Grave was recorded by an unlikely, eclectic trio of artists: Dogwood, The Imperials, and Servant. And Chuck Girard’s breezy Full Immersion Ocean Water Baptism By The Sea came along in 1979.  But Malcolm & Alwyn’s Buried Alive was perhaps the first song from the burgeoning Jesus Music scene to describe this important, symbolic act of obedience:

Down by the water
handful of people stood
The sun was up and

the clouds were gone
And all around

you could hear that song
I could tell by their faces

they were into something good
Tho’ their hair may be long

and their jeans may be torn
The sound of their worship

came across gentle and warm

Stand back, I wanna see
What’s taking place here in front of me
They took a dip in the bubbly sea
And now they seem happy to be buried alive

Coke cans and Bibles were scattered along the shore
And a guy with a guitar played some gentle rock
He said the doorway to Heaven has never been locked
The music was good but the message was getting better
I’m a child of the sky and I’m ready to fly
And the way things are movin’ it looks like I’m not gonna die


With the clanging of the piano and the fuzzy distortion on the guitars, this song rocks harder than anything on Fool’s Wisdom. In a recent interview with veteran radio host Jerry Bryant, Alwayn Wall revealed that the inspiration for the song came from one of those famous Calvary Chapel oceanside baptism services under the direction of the late, great Pastor Chuck Smith

"I think it was a place called Pirate's Cove at Corona del Mar," Wall recalls. "It was a beautiful place. Everybody said, 'Let's go to the baptism.' I said, 'OK, let's go.' So we went down early in the day, got a frisbee and a beach ball, and we were playing football. We went out into the ocean for awhile. I'd already been baptized, but I just wanted to go see it. And then there was literally - literally - three or four thousand people who came forward to be baptized. There must have been ten or fifteen thousand, whatever it was, standing around watching on the cliffsides and on the other side of the whole thing, and probably twenty or thirty pastors out there baptizing people for about four hours. I had never seen anything like that." 

And that was the inspiration behind Buried Alive. It’s a great snapshot of the innocence, passion, and exuberance of the Jesus Movement.

Stay With Me is an acoustic ballad that is musically reminiscent of Fool’s Wisdom, but with lyrics that acknowledge a certain maturity and vulnerability. It’s a love song to the Lord but also a plea that He would stay with us even through hard times. The singer expresses a deep and abiding gratitude for God (You’ve stayed with me / even when I’ve done You wrong for so long / You know this love song is true).

I Love is one of the album’s highlights. It’s a happy little list of the routine things that bring satisfaction in life, culminating with a chorus that says, So it’s easy to see just how good You’ve been to me. It’s a bouncy pop tune that features an excellent horn section. You’ve got to love lyrics like these:

I love stone brown bread
And I like it when my wife brings me breakfast in bed
I love little old ladies
Who make funny faces at brand new babies


Incidentally, this song was my initial introduction to Wildwall, having heard it first on a double-album compilation release titled Jubilation, Too! Another British musician by the name of Cliff Richard later covered I Love on his Small Corners album.

The title track gets a full-on folk-rock treatment, complete with harmonica.

Closing the album is a 5-minute track titled England Goodbye. Opening with acoustic piano, the song also features brass, mandolin and harmonica. It’s a sad and sobering indictment of their native Great Britain as a once-great nation that had lost its way and no longer functioned as a spiritual beacon for Christ. And this was 1974! Despite the worship revival in England in the 1990s (Delirious, Matt Redman), I think even the most optimistic observers of Church history and current events would have to say that Malcolm & Alwyn were speaking prophetically to their nation in this song:

I’ve been watching you steadily decrease
Being seduced by the demon decadence
How it’s mocked you and it’s rocked you
‘Til your foundation’s crumbled
And somehow you mislaid the master key


Bow your head and cry
You believed in a lie
And the dream has long gone by


Memories you’ve left with me
Lay strongly in my mind
And when I think of you

You’re beautiful and green
But somehow you’ve turned to grey

And I see you’ve lost your way
Like a love who’s unfaithful to his bride

How could you deny the Lord of earth and sky
I hate to see you die
England, goodbye

Wow. Serious stuff. I remember my father leading a team of people on a missions trip to Leeds, England in the early 2000s. England? I thought. A missions trip? Absolutley. The explanation was that England today is full of cold, empty cathedrals, devoid of the life-changing power of the Gospel. Think about it. The Puritans or “pilgrims” who were largely responsible for bringing the Christian faith to our shores originally lived in England. Now, some 3 to 400 years later, we are sending missionaries back to England in an effort to call her to repentance and encourage her to return to her First Love. It’s fascinating stuff.



Alwyn Wall today
Malcolm & Alwyn’s musical career in some ways mirrored that of Love Song. Both groups were only together, officially, for a very short period. Both outfits released only two albums in their heyday. Both groups later reunited to release live albums long after they had officially disbanded. And both groups gave birth to other bands and/or solo ministries. In Love Song’s case, Chuck Girard, John Mehler and Tommy Coomes released solo albums while Jay Truax and Mehler joined the Richie Furay Band. In the case of Malcolm & Alwyn, they both recorded solo albums, and both men later headed up new bands of their own (The Alwyn Wall Band and Malcolm & the Mirrors). Just an interesting comparison. By the way, The Prize by The Alwyn Wall Band was an absolute classic that will be explored in depth later in this last, as will the boys’ debut, Fool’s Wisdom.
Malcolm Wild today

Both of these men have spent many years serving the Body of Christ as Pastors of Calvary Chapel churches. Their musical output in the early 70s was extremely influential and fondly remembered, but they have literally spent their lives ministering. They were – and remain – the “real deal.”

Larry Norman’s tribute to Malcolm & Alwyn still rings true today:

Dear Malcolm, Dear Alwyn
You’re my favorite singers in England
Your songs are so simple, but they take me to the temple
I guess I’m just your number one fan




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

#69 JUST BECAUSE by The Imperials (1976)


JUST BECAUSE by The Imperials (1976)
Impact - R3390
 
There were only a handful of CCM groups with distinct eras that appealed to diverse audiences.

For example, Petra fans fall into two camps: those who love lead singer Greg X. Volz and those who prefer the vocals of John Schlitt.

Some people prefer the early Archers with Nancye Short and Billy Masters, while others enjoy the family appeal of the group with little sister Janice.

Fans of White Heart actually fall into three separate categories: those who like the early group under frontman Steve Green, those who prefer the band’s middle years with vocalist Scott Douglas, and those who love the group’s zenith with lead singer extraordinaire Ric Florian.

But the group with perhaps the largest number of distinct eras (due to lineup changes) was The Imperials.

Among them…

• the formative Jake Hess years

• the group of the late 60s that began to slowly and carefully expand boundaries and test limits

• the racially integrated group of the early 70s that successfully transitioned from Jesus Music imitators and Vegas lounge singers to spiritually reborn masters of Contemporary Gospel

• the tremendously popular CCM supergroup led by Russ Taff

• the radio-friendly Paul Smith years

• the Danny Ward era (that few knew about and even fewer remember)

• the ecstasy or controversy (depending on your point of view) of the Jimmy Lee-Ron Hemby years

• the short-lived Pam Morales experiment

• the controversial twilight years of the group, marred by litigation and infighting

• and the P.T. Barnum-like, post-Imperials era, marked by some former members performing as the Classic Imperials, while other former members sing under the moniker Elvis’ Imperials.

But to many devoted Imperials listeners, the band’s most exciting era took place in the early to mid-1970s…a lineup of Armond Morales, Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood and Sherman Andrus…a period in the storied history of this group that was marked by musical maturity and spiritual integrity.

L-R: Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, Sherman Andrus and Armond Morales


In an earlier post we examined the origins of The Imperials. The short explanation is that famed Gospel singer Jake Hess wanted to start a new “supergroup” in the southern gospel field, handpicking the singers that he considered to be the very best at each position. Armond Morales was the bass singer in that original group (and remained a fixture with The Imperials for 40+ years). The group recorded with HeartWarming Records, an imprint of the Benson Company. Tenor Jim Murray, lead singer Terry Blackwood and pianist Joe Moscheo were welcomed into the group in the late 60s, as the group’s founder, Hess, was forced to retire due to health concerns.


L-R: Joe Moscheo, Murray, Andrus, Blackwood & Morales

At that point, the group began to slowly morph into a unit that looked and sounded more like the popular culture by which it was surrounded. They moved to the more “contemporary” Impact record label. Gone were the matching suits and short haircuts of Southern Gospel; instead the boys began to wear modern fashions, brought on a young black singer named Sherman Andrus, hired a backing band called “Solid Rock,” and wore long hair (and, in the case of Jim Murray, even a beard)! More importantly, they were paying rapt attention to the cultural and musical changes in the world around them. They started covering Jesus Music classics – songs by Larry Norman, Love Song, and Dallas Holm. They ripped off Mylon LeFevre’s arrangement of the old hymn Gospel Ship and turned it into an Imperials staple for decades to come. And they even covered "spiritually-aware" secular songs. All of which opened a whole new world for their audience.

After a quick detour during the late 60s/early 70s to serve as a back-up vocal band for Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, the group reportedly experienced a spiritual revival and recommitted themselves to a career that was more than just music for music’s sake…it was decided that The Imperials would renew their focus on  ministry.

The Murray-Blackwood-Andrus-Morales nucleus of the group created a very special synergy and had great chemistry together from 1972 through 1976. That’s all it was, just four short years...

• There was the self-titled album in 1972, full of mainstream cover tunes and a purposeful move away from the Southern Gospel subculture and toward contemporary acceptance

• A landmark double live album came along in 1973 that seemed to complete the transition to “Gospel rock”

• 1974’s Follow the Man with the Music further cemented the band’s new identity as barrier busters

• The highly regarded No Shortage in 1975 was tuned into current events and won the group its first Grammy Award

• And Just Because, our featured album, came along in 1976 and would be not only the group’s last release on the Impact record label, but sadly, it would turn out to be the last album for this particular incarnation of The Imperials

The cover art for Just Because was, um, interesting. The front cover featured an artistic rendering of a baby chick that had just hatched from an egg. The back cover was two photographs of the group members leaning against trees in the woods, superimposed over each other. Artsy and somewhat memorable, but not particularly attractive.

Side One begins with a song that has held up quite well over the years. Just Because He Loves You was basically the title track and served notice that this collection would be a somewhat serious group of songs, displaying a certain maturity from a group of men who had weathered many storms and traveled many miles together, both literally and figuratively. The tune opened with a gentle acoustic piano intro before settling into smooth vocal harmonies over a bed of strings. Sherman Andrus and Terry Blackwood trade leads on this song that outlines the life and ministry of Jesus:

He walks along the lonely streets and byways
Compelling the lost and dying to come in
Searching for the brokenhearted
Bringing rest to the weary souls of men

He heals the fleeting wounds of pain and sadness
He makes the lame to walk, the blind to see
Reaching out in mercy and compassion
Breaking the bonds to set the captive free

The song's chorus featured an Imperials trademark, with the various group members breaking out into different parts, showcasing the diversity of talents and the strengths of the four individual singers. Andrus and Blackwood occupied the middle ground, while Murray took the high notes and Morales provided the anchor. Terry Blackwood was most often responsible for the vocal arrangements, by the way.

Just because He loves you
Just because He cares
Just because He loves You
His life He did not spare
Just because He loves you
He wants to give eternal life
Just because He loves you
He wants to end your sin and strife

The song’s second verse took a decidedly evangelistic turn…

Some may try to say they’re just not ready
Others seem to never have the time
Still others have never heard the story
How for the world our Savior bled and died
How can you show His love and mercy
Will you turn your heart to walk away
You need not die in sin and sadness
Accept His gift of love and live today

Just Because He Loves You was later included in three separate greatest hits compilations.

Jesus Came Into My Life is up next with its jangly acoustic guitar, melodic bass lines, tasteful horn parts and interesting chord progression. This is basically a testimony song, as the title implies. It contains a really interesting lyrical passage:

Jesus came into my heart
He gave me all with which to start
I don't why He did
But He did 
But I'm glad He did
'Cause He really did

Which, on its face, sound ridiculously lazy and repetitive. But in the song...it just works.

The impact that Sherman Andrus had on this group cannot be overstated. He was a great singer with a presence and an anointing, especially in a live setting, that was vital to The Imperials. But the question of ethnic identity cannot and should not be ignored. It seems like no big deal today, but racially integrated groups in Christian music in the 1970s were virtually nonexistent. When Andrus was invited to break the color barrier, as it were, The Imperials were not far removed from the Southern Gospel world -- a musical subculture with its deepest roots in the largely segregated South (as the name implies). The Imps made an important and courageous decision when they invited Sherman into the fold.

It could be said that Sherman Andrus is the Jackie Robinson of contemporary Christian music.

So the next song on Just Because was very fitting indeed. Written by the inimitable Gary S. Paxton, Love, It Comes In All Colors was an important statement. Set to a funky, Paxton-esque backbeat, the song featured Sherman on the lead vocal:

Love, it comes in all colors

You can accept it or you can be blind
Good can come in all colors
When you accept it, more love you will find

Colors are a figment of a blind imagination
If you think about skin a man must wear
Just because to you he has a foreign pigmentation
All creation knows that our Lord don't care

This was several years before Resurrection Band addressed racial prejudice and a few decades before dc Talk recorded Colored People.

Sweet Jesus showcased Terry Blackwood's considerable talents and features some of the tastiest blues piano I've ever heard on a record. It's another "testimony song," all about the deliverance, joy and fulfillment that comes from a personal relationship with Jesus. After several key changes, the song takes on sort of a News Orleans jazz/blues approach before drawing to a close.

Closing Side One was another Gary S. Paxton song. This one was an epic titled He Made My Life Come Together. Dark, brooding, moody...it's one of the record's highlights. Yet again, personal Christian testimony is the theme of the song (and pretty much the thematic thread running through this album). Sherman handles the solos, but various vocal parts are distributed to the other members, with Armond's bass parts being particularly memorable. There are "shu-wops" and "sha-na-nas" sprinkled here and there and rather than being cheesy, they serve the song well and sound entirely appropriate. This one eventually fades out, but not before clocking in at over five minutes.

Just Because was produced by Phil Johnson and was nominated for a Grammy Award, although Sherman Andrus told me that it was not one of their better selling albums.

Side Two opens with a staple of CCM albums in the 1970s -- a song about the second coming of Jesus. I've noticed that it's no longer popular among the cool kids to talk about Jesus coming back. They say that the "eschatology" of 70s CCM was hopelessly naïve and theologically incorrect. Well, I'm still a student of what the Bible says -- particularly the statements that Jesus Himself and the Apostle Paul made concerning the end times. And I don't lose any sleep at all over whether that makes me popular with the armchair theologians of our day. But my overarching philosophy concerning the Second Coming goes something like this: Stay ready to go, and let the Lord handle the details. He's Coming Back starts Side Two on a high note; it's one of my favorite songs about the return of Christ:

Sometimes we get discouraged / Blunders and failures in life put us down
Sometimes we get worried / After all we've sinned how could He love us now
But my friend, don't doubt His mercy / His grace and power make the sinner free
Right now He reigns in glory / Interceding for you and me /
Don't you He died to set us free

He's coming back / He's coming back
Don't you worry, my friend / He's coming back
It may be the morning / May be the nighttime
Don't you worry my friend / He's coming back

Sometimes we get worried / Sometimes it seems we just won't make it through
But my friend, He is faithful / He will finish what He started out to do
So keep your eyes on the horizon / For soon we're gonna fly away
Someday we'll be together / We will meet him in the air
All of his glory we will share

We're gonna fly away (I know He's comin')
We're gonna fly away (I know He's comin')
We're gonna fly away (I know He's comin')
We're gonna fly away

The song builds and gains in intensity to the point that even an Episcopalian would be tempted to stand up and shout by the end of the song.

After that comes a smooth, gentle tune that brings back a lot of memories for me. I was a young, teenaged Pastor's kid with a "Wurly," a Wurlitzer electric piano in 1976, and I spent many hours playing this song on that electronic keyboard. In fact, my brother and I sang it now and then in our Dad's little Assembly of God church in Phenix City, Alabama. It is (surprise!) another testimony song and extols the great love of the Lord:

I am glad my dear Redeemer
Walked the shore of Galilee
His life was pure and holy
And His grace was full and free
Now He bids for me to follow
I will walk with Him below
I will lean upon His promise
Just because He loves me so

I will sing His boundless mercy
All the beauty of His ways
In the times I do not see Him
I will trust and give Him praise
And no matter where He leads me
It is best for me I know
He will never, never leave me
Just because He loves me so

He Loves Me So was another song that contained the words "just because" in the lyrics. At one point the music drops out completely and all you hear is the rich and beautiful harmony that these men were so adept at creating together:

He loves me so
Yes, He loves me so
He left His home in Glory
To bring redemption story
And now I'm gonna sing in Glory
Just because He loves me so

Strings lead into David's Psalm, a song that features the tenor of Jim Murray and is the closest thing to traditional inspirational music on this album. It is a moving musical adaptation of Psalm 27.

Sunny Day might be my least favorite song on the album. It's a bouncy, quirky tune that comes across as something akin to a show tune. The song does feature some nice horn work and allows the listeners to hear several interesting solo lines from bass singer Armond Morales.

To close the album, The Imperials continue their tradition of covering songs by Chuck Girard/Love Song. Sometimes Alleluia is now considered a worship classic, but was not as well known in 1976. Here, it benefits from lush production and the considerable vocal talents of The Imperials.

Oh let us lift our voices
Look toward the sky and start to sing
Oh let us now return His love
Just let our voices ring
Oh let us feel His presence,
Let the sound of praises fill the air
Oh let us sing the song of Jesus' love
To people everywhere

As the song draws to a end, the music fades away, leaving only the signature harmony of this legendary group to close the album.

This lineup of The Imperials, one that had been such a blessing and inspiration to so many people, would soon disband. Shortly after the release of Just Because, Terry Blackwood left the group due to the death of his father, and his need to be at home with his family. Sherman Andrus subsequently left as well. According to Andrus, he and Blackwood did not set out to start a new group as most assume. "Terry and I were good friends, but we never planned to sing together in a group," Andrus said recently. "We left at different times and different reasons. But the Benson company was losing The Imperials to Word Records. And in an effort to keep some of the audience that they lost when The Imperials left, they called Terry and me and asked us to form a group." And that's how Andrus, Blackwood & Co. was born. The Imperials would hire a new lead singer named David Will and a young, inexperienced baritone singer by the name of Russ Taff...and the rest is history.

Their greatest, most successful chapter as a group was yet to be written. But the four men who recorded Just Because left an indelible mark on my heart and life and were a tremendous positive influence on me, both musically and spiritually. I've gotta believe I'm not alone.

The Foursome gets together at a reunion event: (L-R: Murray, Blackwood, Andrus, & Morales)





Tuesday, November 25, 2014

#70 SLOW TRAIN COMING by Bob Dylan (1979)

SLOW TRAIN COMING by Bob Dylan (1979)
Columbia - FC 36120
It was November of 1978. Bob Dylan was on tour and had a temperature of 105.  

"Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd knew I wasn't feeling too well," recalled Dylan in a 1979 interview. "I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. I looked down at that cross. I said, 'I gotta pick that up.' So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket. And I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona. I was feeling even worse than I'd felt when I was in San Diego. I said, 'Well, I need something tonight.' I didn't know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, 'I need something tonight that I didn't have before.' And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross." Dylan believed he had experienced a vision of Christ in his Tucson hotel room that night. "Jesus did appear to me as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords," he'd later say. "There was a Presence in the room that couldn't have been anybody but Jesus. He put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." 

David Mansfield, one of Dylan's band members and a born-again Christian, would later say, "The simplest explanation is that he had a very profound experience which answered certain lifelong issues for him." 

Dylan began writing songs that would reflect his new spirituality.  

Meanwhile, Dylan wasn't alone in his religious awakening. Band members Steven Soles and David Mansfield had already joined the Vineyard Fellowship, a Christian organization introduced to them by T-Bone Burnett. Dylan reportedly attended Vineyard home group meetings with Keith Green, Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman. As Mansfield would say, "A big part of the fellowship of that church was music." 

Under the guidance of the Vineyard Fellowship, Dylan was asked to attend a course held at the Vineyard School of Discipleship. Pastor Kenn Gulliksen described it as “an intensive course studying about the life of Jesus and principles of discipleship.” Bob Dylan was an artist for whom the Bible had previously been little more than a literary source. Now he was digesting it in black in white. In a 1985 interview, Dylan would say, "What I learned in Bible school was just an extension of the same thing I believed in all along, but just couldn't verbalize or articulate. People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now as if He was here. That's my idea of it, anyway. It's all there in black and white. I don't have to defend this. The Scriptures back me up." Bob Dylan was baptized at the home of Vineyard pastor Bill Dwyer. 

Through his Bible classes, Dylan became acquainted with the works of Hal Lindsey, who was also closely associated with the Vineyard Church. Lindsey’s best-selling book, The Late Great Planet Earth, became Dylan's second bible and added an apocalyptic edge to his worldview. 

In later shows, Dylan would reflect these beliefs on stage. At one show in the fall of 1979, Dylan said, "You know we're living in the end times. The Scriptures say, 'In the last days, perilous times shall be at hand. Men shall become lovers of their own selves. Blasphemous, heavy and highminded.' Take a look at the Middle East. We're heading for a war. I told you 'The Times They Are A-Changin' ' and they did. I said the answer was 'Blowin' in the Wind' and it was. I'm telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! And there is no other way of salvation ... Jesus is coming back to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem for a thousand years." 

Dylan would later say in an interview taken in 1984, "The songs that I wrote for the Slow Train album [frightened me] ... I didn't plan to write them ... I didn't like writing them. I didn't want to write them." 

In the early months of 1979, Dylan was writing his most message-driven album in sixteen years. 

Before we unpack the album, I’ve got a confession to make. I almost left this record off the list entirely. I was going to put it in the honorable mention category.  

Mainly because, in my humble opinion…Bob Dylan can’t sing. 

There. I said it. The man cannot sing 

He can whine and growl and screech. But he cannot sing. Another problem with this record is that the instrumentation, to my ears, is nothing special. Very competent, but somewhat sterile and robotic. Now, I am fully aware that many people will accuse me of blasphemy. After all, the blog 500 Greatest Albums in CCM History listed Slow Train Coming at #19, with the author calling it a masterpiece” (although conceding that Dylan’s vocals were “an acquired taste”). It was listed even higher -- #16 --in the 2001 book CCM Presents: The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music. John J. Thompson wrote in that book that the album featured “amazing production” and that it was “one of the most important releases in pop and Christian music history” (although he also allows that Dylan gave “extra effort at singing on key”). Look, the thing peaked at #2 on the charts in the UK, quickly went platinum in the U.S. where it climbed to #3, and won Dylan his first Grammy! STILL, I’m not sold. I just can’t get past what my own ears tell me when I listen to this record. 

When it came out, I was on the road with my family. We were ministering at a church in Pennsylvania. There were two single females in that church – probably in their late 20s – who were roommates. They were SO excited because Bob Dylan had become a Christian. In fact, they gave my brothers and me a copy of the album. Now, we were raised on southern gospel music, and later crossed over into Jesus Music. We had never listened to a lot of secular music, so we knew basically nothing of Bob Dylan. We put that album on the turntable…and started laughing hysterically. We just could not reconcile in our minds the reverential and exalted reputation of this artist with the comically bad vocals we were hearing. Again, I’m fully aware that most folks don’t agree. In fact, in their review of Slow Train Coming, Rolling Stone magazine gushed,  

Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God's greatest gift to him. 

Really? Really? When I think of great singers, I think Matthew Ward…Greg X. Volz…Bob Carlisle. The first time my then-preteen son heard Slow Train Coming he asked, “How did that guy ever get a record deal?” 

So Slow Train Coming almost didn’t make my list. But I reconsidered based on the stats given above (sales figures, airplay and awards) and the historical significance of an artist of Dylan’s stature releasing a definitive statement of faith.  

Slow Train Coming was the nineteenth studio album by Bob Dylan, released on August 20, 1979 by Columbia Records. All of the songs either express his strong personal faith, or stress the importance of Christian teachings and philosophy. The evangelical nature of the record alienated many of Dylan's existing fans; at the same time, many Christians were drawn into his fan base.  

Leading up to the making of the album, Dylan had approached famed producer Jerry Wexler to oversee the sessions. Dylan wanted an experienced producer he could trust.  When Wexler agreed to produce, he was unaware of the nature of the material that awaited him. 

Dylan (2nd from left) talking with producer Jerry Wexler
"Naturally, I wanted to do the album in Muscle Shoals—as Bob did—but we decided to prep it in L.A., where Bob lived," recalls Wexler. "That's when I learned what the songs were about: born-again Christians in the old corral. I liked the irony of Bob coming to me, the Wandering Jew, to get the Jesus feel. But I had no idea he was on this born-again Christian trip until he started to evangelize me. I said, 'Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year-old confirmed Jewish atheist. I'm hopeless. Let's just make an album.'" 

The basic tracks for the songs were recorded in just six three-hour sessions over a period of three days.  

Critic Charles Shaar Murray wrote, "Bob Dylan has never seemed more perfect and more impressive than on this album. He has also never seemed more unpleasant and hate-filled." Greil Marcus wrote, "Dylan's received truths never threaten the unbeliever, they only chill the soul.” Another reviewer put it this way: “This was the first (and best) of Dylan's Christian trilogy, beginning one of the strangest chapters in rock-n-roll's most fascinating book.” 
 

 
 
Reviewing the album in Rolling StoneJann Wenner proclaimed it "one of the finest records Dylan has ever made.” 

 
 
 
 
Here’s more from that Rolling Stone review: 

Bob  Dylan has, at long last, come back into our lives and times, and it is with the most commercial LP he's ever released. Slow Train Coming has been made with a care and attention to detail that Dylan never gave any of his earlier records. The musicians on this album are the best Dylan has worked with since Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966) and The Basement Tapes (1967). Dylan's new songs are statements of strength and simplicity, and the lyrics again equal his early classics. The words are rich with the ambiguity of great art.  Slow Train Coming's lyrics are timeless, simple, yet rich in potential levels of meaning. There is no letup in the power of the rhythm and arrangements from the opening track through the last, because there's no letup in the message. Over and over again, Dylan tells us that we have a choice of doing good or doing bad. Slow Train Coming is pure, true Dylan, probably the purest and truest Dylan ever. 

On October 18, 1979, Dylan promoted the album with his first—and, to date, only—appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing Gotta Serve Somebody, I Believe in You, and When You Gonna Wake Up. 

Despite the mixed reactions to Dylan's new direction, Gotta Serve Somebody was a hit, and the album outsold both Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde in its first year of release. 

Meanwhile, Dylan refused to play any of his older compositions, as well as any secular material. Dylan would say he would not "sing any song which hasn't been given to me by the Lord to sing." Fans wishing to hear his older songs openly expressed their disappointment. Hecklers continued to appear at his concerts, only to be answered by lectures from the stage. Dylan was firmly entrenched in his evangelical ways, and it would continue through his next album, whether his audience would follow or not. 

Let’s look at a few of the songs. 
 

 
 
Gotta Serve Somebody open the album and very much sets the tone; lyrically strong, a tight rhythm section and a female gospel trio backing up on vocals. The song makes the point very simply; 

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls. 

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Precious Angel is considered by many to be the album’s standout track. It also contains some of the most cringe-worthy, off-key vocals. 

Precious angel, under the sun
How was I to know you’d be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone
How weak was the foundation I was standing upon? 

Now there’s spiritual warfare
And flesh and blood breaking down
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief

And there ain’t neutral ground
The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived
When the truth’s in our hearts and we still don’t believe?
 

Shine Your light, shine Your light on me
Shine Your light, shine Your light on me
Shine You light, shine Your light on me
Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see

I Believe in You is both a statement of faith and an answer to the disgruntled fans who didn’t want their prophet speaking actual Truth in his songs. It’s been covered by Dallas Holm and many others.

They, they look at me and frown
They’d like to drive me from this town
They don’t want me around
‘Cause I believe in You

They show me to the door
They say don’t come back no more
‘Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to
And I, I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don’t feel alone
‘Cause I believe in You

I believe in You when winter turn to summer
I believe in You when white turn to black
I believe in You even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back

Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue

The title song was less about faith and more about politics. Gonna Change My Way of Thinking was a funky rock number. Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) was one of the least favorite songs on the record for most people.  

When You Gonna Wake Up finds Dylan in an agry prophetic mood: 

Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up strengthen the things that remain?

Do you ever wonder just what God requires?
You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires

Man Gave Names to All the Animals is one that is complained about – a lot. With its childish charm and reggae beat, it comes off as a nursery rhyme set to music. The song’s ending takes you by surprise the first time you hear it and is a bit eerie. This song doesn’t really hold up well to repeated listenings. 

When He Returns is considered a Gospel classic. The album ends with Dylan looking forward to the second coming of Jesus: 
 

Don’t you cry and don’t you die
And don’t you burn

Like a thief in the night,
He’ll replace wrong with right
When he returns
Of every earthly plan
That be known to man,
He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own
To set up His throne
When He return 

Robert Zimmerman (born in 1941) is acknowledged by many to be the voice of his generation…music’s greatest poet…and one of the greatest American composers of all time. Volumes have been written about Dylan’s career before the so-called “Christian period” (Slow Train Coming/Saved/Shot of Love) and volumes have been written about his career since. I won’t bother to bore you with all of those details, except to say that Dylan’s faith is really known only to him and God these days. It’s been said that when you examine his musical output since Shot of Love and read his comments from various interviews (despite the frequent profanity), he appears to at least have some sort of a continuing relationship with God, and perhaps with Christ, while remaining aloof from organized Christianity. It’s complicated. 
 
Bob Dylan today
 

Let’s wrap this up with another ridiculous quote from Rolling Stone magazine:  

Because he has been so brilliant in the other areas of his craft, Dylan has never been fully recognized as a singer. When he has a song and idea in which he believes, the power, richness and the beauty of his voice are far greater than the words he uses. 

Yeah. Right.