Sunday, July 27, 2014

#79 SEEDS by Barry McGuire (1973)

SEEDS - Barry McGuire (1973)
Myrrh (MST-6519-LP)

Barry McGuire was smokin’ dope and searching for Truth in all the wrong places. He knew one thing: he did not want to be a Christian.

“I was just about to give up, and one day I went over to a friend's house,” Barry recalled in an interview with “Eric Hord used to be the lead guitar player for The Mamas and Papas, and he always had a big bowl of marijuana under his coffee table. And man, I had this bowl out that morning; I had three papers glued together. I figured he's only gonna lay one joint on me, so I'll make the biggest one I can roll. And I look down on this particular day, there's a little paper back book layin' on the table next to the grass, and it's called Good News for Modern Man. And I thought, 'Hey, I'm a modern man. I could use some good news.' I mean, everybody was dyin' all around me. So I took the book home with me, didn't know what it was. I got by myself, opened it up, and right on the first flyleaf page in the book it says, 'The New Testament in Modern English.' I got so angry. 'Ah, look at this! Them Jesus Freaks, man! They're diguisin' the Bible!' Threw it on the floor, I didn't wanna read the Bible! Give me a break! And it laid there for days. It laid there for weeks and months, actually.”

Barry McGuire (Left), recording with the Mamas and the Papas

McGuire continued: “One day, just out of bored, sarcastic curiosity, I picked up The Life and Times of Jesus Christ. And for the first time in my life, I stopped looking at Christians; I stopped looking at denominations, organizations, Catholics, Protestants, ya know, all this stuff that goes on in His name. And I took a look at Him, examined what He had to say. And everything that Jesus had to say, as I put it to the test against what I knew to be true through my own life experience, I couldn't find anything wrong with His words. There's no double meaning, no hidden agenda. It was all out front. And I wanted to be like Jesus. I thought, 'Man, this is my guy!' But I didn't wanna be a Christian, see. I wanted to be like Him, but I didn't wanna be like all them. I thought if I said yes to Jesus I'd have to get a powder blue leisure suit -- remember those? -- white shoes, ya know, walk around smilin' a lot. I couldn't do that.”

"But then I wrestled with it for nearly a year,” remembered Barry. “And it happened in 1971. I fell on my face on the floor of that house. I said, 'God, I don't know why, how; if I wake up alive tomorrow I'll follow You wherever You lead me.' And within a week I was on a Greyhound bus out of Hollywood, and I've never looked back, except in awe and wonder at how He revealed Himself to me in my state of mind at that time."

The journey from gruff ‘60s protest singer to lovable, hairy ‘70s Jesus freak had lots of twists and turns. 

Barry McGuire was born on October 15, 1935, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. After his parents’ marriage ended, Barry and his mom relocated to California. His mother married a construction worker and the family moved frequently, forcing Barry to change schools often. As a 14-year old boy, he was working on fishing boats in San Pedro; at 16, he lied about his age and joined the Navy. The lie was eventually discovered and he was given a discharge. For the rest of the 1950s he worked as a journeyman pipefitter. In the early ‘60s, McGuire got a job singing in a bar. He met Peggy Lee and she helped him get his start. Now this was more to his liking. Duos were common in those days, and he soon became one half of Barry & Barry, a folk duo he formed with Barry Kane. Barry & Barry played clubs from Pasadena to Hollywood, and both eventually got an offer they couldn’t refuse: they were invited to join a group called the New Christy Minstrels.  

Folk music fans loved the Christys. Barry McGuire wrote the group's first and biggest hit, Green Green. But the Folk Revival couldn’t compete with the British Invasion. The Beatles made the Christys seem old-fashioned and outdated. McGuire left the group in 1965 with no clear plan of what to do next. He began to look for deeper answers about life and social problems. "I left the Christys really in search of some answers," McGuire told Richie Unterberger in Turn! Turn! Turn! "If something is real for me, then I can do it. But I can't really pretend I can do it if it's not." 

For the next several months, he found himself out of work and broke, when a chance encounter with Lou Adler (who later managed the Mamas and the Papas) in April of 1965 led to another opportunity. Adler was looking for a singer to record new songs written by his in-house composer, P.F. Sloan.

In July of that year Barry McGuire recorded a song called Eve of Destruction. It sold over a million copies and became “the most successful, and notorious, folk-rock-protest single of all time." Barry McGuire was now a household name. But he never had another hit.

Barry talked about his sudden fame with characteristic frankness: “‘Eve’ was just one spoke in the wheel. It came around and I did the song and it became number one. I was always amazed when people asked me ‘What's it feel like to be a star?’ I'd say, ‘A star?’ I felt just like I felt last month, only now I can pay the rent. I couldn't pay the rent last month. That's your term. You put a label on me, calling me a star. Where were you last month? I'm the same person today that I was then except now I have this entity that is commercially valuable that is making people money, so now in your eyes I have value because I'm making money for people. So now you think I'm something that you didn't think I was last month. So, it all kind of revealed itself to me. It was just a bunch of noise. Like my wife says, a storm in a tea cup. And pretty soon the storm blows over. The superstars gradually sink over the horizon and die.”

After Eve of Destruction, McGuire dabbled in acting, landing parts in a couple of movies that were never in danger of being nominated for Academy Awards.

HAIR (L-R): Steve Curry, Diane Keaton and Barry McGuire
So…after being dropped from the Dunhill label as a music artist, and a less-than-impressive film career, what to do next? Why, Broadway, of course! Barry landed the male lead in the original Broadway cast of Hair. Reflecting on that experience, McGuire says, “To me, Hair was like a spiritual statement. I read the script, heard the songs and thought, ‘Oh man, I like what this is saying.’ It said something that I felt was true in my heart, that we are all spiritual beings in biological envelopes and the spirit is neither rich, poor, black, white, old, young, left, right. To me, that's what I saw in the Hair show. So I did the show until I blew my knee out one night. There was a lot of leaping and dancing. I came down on a microphone cable and it exploded my right knee. It looked like a watermelon. So, I left the show and came back to California.”

But by this time, he was pretty entrenched in a partying lifestyle that threatened to take over. Barry began to re-evaluate his life and seek answers to spiritual questions that had long dogged him.

“The very lifestyle that we were promoting was killing us all,” remembers Barry. “I looked around me I saw my friends, one, two, three at a time goin' down: drug overdose, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases. I was the right age at the right time in the wrong place, you might say. I got me a ton of books and a truck load of marijuana and just read and smoked and meditated and watched the sun go by. I was in a spiritual search.”

But after reading about the life of Christ, he realized "that was the answer to the whole thing. I discovered the Truth I’d been looking for. It was Jesus!" Barry McGuire was baptized on Father’s Day, 1971, and quickly became one of the Jesus Movement’s most visible and recognizable exponents.

He signed with Myrrh Records and released Seeds in 1973.

Seeds has been described as “fun,” “enthusiastic,” and “all about the joy of the Lord in a new believer.” Barry’s gruff vocals came across as downright jubilant in spots.

Seeds also introduced the family trio known as the 2nd Chapter of Acts to the world, as they applied their trademark harmonies as backing vocals (Seeds was released a year earlier than the 2nd Chapter’s debut album With Footnotes). And so began a productive collaboration between Barry McGuire and the harmonizing siblings that would also result in a must-have live album in 1975. [More about that album a little later in our countdown.] Producer Buck Herring, keyboardist Michael Omartian, and guitarist Mike Deasy all helped shape the sound of Seeds. Other notable players on the album include keyboardists Howard McCrary and Larry Knechtel, guitarist Dean Parks, and David Kemper on drums. The album was recorded and mixed at Sunwest Studios. A smiling McGuire sports a beard on the album’s cover that would make Phil Robertson proud.

Barry McGuire had a hand in writing 5 of the album’s 10 tracks. One of the record’s most notable songs was penned by Andy Davis and Dan Hart – a “testimony song” called Peace. McGuire sings it with conviction and a joyful abandon:

The 2nd Chapter of Acts with Barry McGuire (Right)
Sometimes when I am thinkin’
Just kind of halfway sleepin’
One thought is always the same
It’s all about how rich I am
To have a hold of my Savior’s hand
That’s why I’m praising’ His name

He gives me peace
Wonderful peace
Holdin’ on to my Savior’s hand
I found peace
Wonderful peace
Holdin’ onto my Savior’s hand

Another memorable song – Enter In – introduces us to Jack Campaign, John L. Jones, and C.T. Studd, and tells the story of how each of these gentlemen fared on Judgment Day:

Well, Jack Campaign he was a wicked man
Stole from friends as well as foes
And Jack Campaign he never cared for anyone
Well Jack Campaign was all alone

Then came his day to stand before the Lord
Give an account of his life
Said, "I'm sorry, I don't want to die"
Well Jack Campaign began to cry

The Lord said, "Sorry, I never knew you
Sorry, but it's too late, too late
Sorry, I never knew you
Depart from me, you've sealed your fate"

John L. Jones was considered a good man
By all the people throughout the land
John L. Jones he had the good book 

on his shelf
But John L. Jones lived for himself

Then came his day to stand before the Lord
Give an account of his life
"I went to church you know I paid my tithes"
All the Lord said was, "Why?"

The Lord said, "Sorry, I never knew you
Sorry, but it's too late, too late
Sorry, I never knew you
Depart from me, you've sealed your fate"

Well C. T. Studd he was a humble man
Served the Lord both night and day
Well all his life he lived to honor Him
And at His feet he learned to pray

Then came his day to stand before the Lord
Give an account of his life
With tears of joy streaming down his face
Said, "My King died in my place"

 The Lord said, "Enter into the kingdom!"
"Enter in my friend," he said it again
"Enter into the kingdom!"
"For now your life will never end"

"Enter into the kingdom!"
"Enter in my friend," he said it again
"Enter into the kingdom!"
"For now your life will never end!"

The standout track on Seeds is Love Is, a classic musical treatment of the “love chapter” in I Corinthians. Barry and co-writer Tim Buttram bounce back and forth between a paraphrase of Paul’s description of love in I Corinthians 13, and Jesus’ instructions in Matthew chapter 22 regarding the two greatest commandments:

Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God
With all thy heart
With all thy soul
With all thy mind
And all thy strength
And love thy neighbor as thyself

Well, love is gentle, love is kind
And love is giving, but it’s not blind
And love is choosin’ for the right
Rejecting the wrong

Well, love is keepin’ His command
Greater love hath no man
Than he lay down his life for a friend
Love never ends

Well, love is quiet, love is strong
And love is patient, suffering long
Where love lives, there is no fear
Now, can you hear?

The song isn’t hurt at all by the use of King James language – the ‘thous’ and thys’ in the chorus. In fact, that language really adds to the timeless quality of the track. The ending is perfect, by the way. Very memorable and very ‘70s. My personal introduction to this song came via a Myrrh sampler album called Love Peace Joy.

Railroad Man is a nod to Barry’s folk past. Mike Deasy’s hard-rockin’ David and Goliath and Annie Herring’s Use the Crosswalk were favorites as well. The album closes with another personal testimony set to music in Shauna’s Song.

All of the popular themes from the Jesus Movement’s early days are here: the second coming of Jesus, new life in Christ, evangelism, Scripture songs, and the retelling of famous Bible stories. Even better things lay ahead for Mr. McGuire, as we will discover later in our countdown. But Seeds was an important statement of faith for Barry McGuire. It’s been called “a true gem.”

Barry McGuire today

McGuire later followed his friend Billy Ray Hearn to the Sparrow record label where he continued to record albums, and churned out huge hits like Cosmic Cowboy and Bullfrogs and Butterflies. He relocated to New Zealand for a number of years, played a series of folk concerts with Terry Talbot, and ended up in a folk music revue called "Trippin' the Sixties." Due to a health scare in July of 2014, Barry has announced that he is officially retired from playing live music.

“Today, I'm living one day at a time,” Barry said in a recent interview. “I'm just as hungry for life as I ever was. I've discovered who I am in life and I've discovered the secret of life for me. Everybody has to find out for themselves because it's an inside job. Nobody can tell you the answer. You have to keep asking questions until you find the answers.”

Fun Fact: The front cover photo was taken in the home of Buck and Annie Herring (of the 2nd Chapter of Acts). It was a hillside mansion in the heart of Hollywood, built by a silent film actress in the 1930s. Three 12-foot stained glass pillars adorned the entryway, beautifully depicting grapevines. That stained glass is visible in the cover photo. The house has long since been torn down.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

#80 GROWING PAINS by Jamie Owens (1975)

GROWING PAINS by Jamie Owens (1975)
Light Records - LSX 7027
Yeah, it must’ve been pretty cool growing up in the Owens household.

With Mom and Dad penning popular musicals for Jesus freaks such as Come Together, If My People and The Witness, folks like Barry McGuire, the Talbot Brothers, and the 2nd Chapter of Acts were always over at the house, either working on new music or just hangin’ out. God was doing something very special through the talents of Jimmy and Carol Owens. And daughter Jamie had a front row seat.

"My house was full of people like Andrae Crouch – my dad produced the first album by the Disciples – and we had Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill around,” Jamie said in a 1999 interview with “The first album that I ever sang on was one of my parents’ albums. I sang a duet with Randy Stonehill. For quite a long time we had the 2nd Chapter of Acts living in our home! And Barry McGuire and his wife lived in our home. So I grew up smack dab in the middle of that stuff. I was very much influenced by that.”

So, while Jamie Owens grew up with some pretty famous friends, she was somewhat lacking in the “testimony” department. She didn’t have sordid tales of drinking, drugs, and orgies to share. “I received Jesus when I was four years old,” Jamie stated in a 1977 interview with Keystone magazine. “Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to make new decisions whether I’m going to live for the Lord or for myself. I finally realized how silly it was going any other way, or testing anything else out because all I had to do was look around. Everybody else tested out other things for me! What happened was that the Lord started to show me the inside of me – my attitude and that kind of thing. Just because I didn’t go out and do the obvious sins didn’t make me any less a sinner than anybody else.”

While it’s true that Jamie had a built-in Jesus Music pedigree, it was also true that she had a talent for writing and a beautiful voice. She was signed to a recording deal at the tender age of seventeen. Her debut album, Laughter in Your Soul is said to have been the best-selling CCM album of 1975 in Great Britain. Produced by Jimmy Owens and Buck Herring, this 1973 offering featured guest performances by the 2nd Chapter of Acts and Michael Been. It also featured a fun, memorable album cover (if you look close, you can spot Been, the Wards, and Jamie’s parents on the front cover). Most importantly, it featured some amazing songs and Jamie’s sweet and unpretentious singing. Laughter in Your Soul is considered a Jesus Music classic.

Which brings us to our featured album – Jamie’s sophomore release, 1975’s Growing Pains. With producer Al Perkins and engineer Jonathan David Brown at the helm, Growing Pains once again boasted a ‘who’s who’ supporting cast. Michael Omartian, John Michael Talbot, Leland Sklar, David Hungate, Terry Talbot, David Diggs, and a newly converted Keith Green all lent their considerable talents to this record. The music displayed richer orchestration; her voice was sweet, yet strong; and the songwriting demonstrated a depth of perspective not often found in a teenaged artist. There was a sense that Jamie Owens was a maturing artist in her own right who had some important things to say. The record’s very first track, Hard Times, was a case in point:

Is the rain, falling from the sky, keeping you from singing?
Is that tear falling from your eye ‘cause the wind is stingin’?

Don’t you know a seed could never grow if there were never showers
And though the rain might bring a little pain, just look at all the flowers

Now don’t you fret now, child, don’t you worry
The rain’s to help you grow, so don’t try to hurry the storm along
The hard times make you strong

Hard Times, written by Jamie, became a favorite of many and remains an encouragement to this day, with its message of perseverance in the face of hardship. Perkins’ peddle steel gives the song a country feel that works well with Jamie’s voice.

Keith Green’s piano and Michael Omartian’s synthesizer stand out on I’ve Never Had to Go This Far Before, another original composition by Jamie Owens. Keith Green never recorded this song…but he should have.

The Father’s Song is a gentle ballad, written from the perspective of the Lord Himself. It also works as a song from an earthly father to his child:

If you could see deep inside of Me
You would cry and reply with an open heart
If you could reach to the depths of Me
You’d find your pain and the stain of each tear you’ve cried

If only once you would look at Me
Through the eyes of a child who has lost his way
You would know you could come to Me
To be fed and remain safely home to stay

How many times I have longed just to hold you
And protect you from the pain the world can give
But you run every time I get near you
Can’t you see, I wanna teach you how to live?

Clocking in at just two minutes, it’s the shortest song on the album.

Singin’ Hallelujah was a precursor to the praise and worship music that would eventually engulf Christendom. Set to a country-rock vibe, Jamie leads a “choir” of background vocalists in singing praises to the Lord. It’s another short one, seeming to end a little too soon. Jamie co-wrote Singin’ Hallelujah with Matthew Ward.

New Jerusalem closes Side One, and is a very interesting track, transitioning through three distinct musical ‘movements’ while dropping some serious biblical knowledge on the listener. It’s like a 4-minute Bible study on the place that we occupy in Father God’s heart. Jamie co-wrote New Jerusalem with Terry Talbot, which was further proof that this girl just was not your average American teenager in 1975! New Jerusalem paints a beautiful picture of the bride of Christ, waiting and watching; ready to meet her Bridegroom, knowing that He will come for her in spite of the strife and chaos that surrounds her on a daily basis.

You’ll notice when listening to Growing Pains that Annie Herring was most likely an influence on Jamie’s singing. There are also a few tunes on this album that would’ve felt right at home on a Keith Green record. In fact, one song did subsequently find its way onto an album by Mr. Green…

Opening Side Two is a song that has been described as “majestic,” an “iconic Easter composition,” and a “true classic.” Keith Green’s 1979 recording of The Victor is the version that brought this wonderful song to the attention of the church-at-large. But we heard it first right here on Growing Pains:

Swallowed into earth’s dark womb
Death has triumphed, that’s what they say
But try to hold Him in the tomb
The Son of Life rose on the third day

Look, the gates of hell they’re falling
Crumbling from the inside out
He’s bursting through the walls with laughter
Listen to the angels shout

His plan of battle fooled them all
They led Him off to prison to die
But as He entered hades hall
He broke those hellish chains with a cry

Listen to the demons screaming
See Him bruise the serpent’s head
The prisoners of hell the Savior’s redeeming
All the power of death is dead

It is finished, He has done it
Life conquered death
Jesus Christ has won it

Fly Away With Me is another song that comes from the heart of God Himself, imploring the listener to reject the bonds of sin and sadness, and experience the kind of freedom that only comes through total dependence on the Lord. It’s really all about second chances:

Lift your weary head, My child, and fly away with me
To a place of which you’ve dreamed before but never thought you’d see
Where the past is all forgiven and innocence is free
Lift your head, My child, and fly away with me

I know that you don’t understand how life begins again
But trust Me now, don’t be afraid; I’ve paid for all your sin
The life that I poured out for you has restored your purity
Lift your head, My child, and fly away with me

All the time you’ve wasted on yourself has tied you down
But My love has cut those ropes to set you free
The bitter tears you’ve tasted will be diamonds in your crown
So rejoice, My child, and fly away with me

Musically, Fly Away With Me was another pleasant MOR ballad, fitting in quite nicely with the rest of the album. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for some rock and roll, Growing Pains is not going to satisfy that urge. Jamie seems to have known where she was comfortable, and she stayed within that arena, musically.

In the age of social media and digital misinformation, people who don’t even know each other are comfortable (due to distance and anonymity) saying rude, coarse, and even obscene things to one another. The lovely sentiment expressed in My Prayer for You stands in stark contrast:

Well, I hope that all the good things that you’ve been praying for
Will be yours as you walk with the Lord
And I pray that He will help you just to trust Him more and more
As you learn to know the power of His Word

God bless you
Jesus loves you
May His peace and joy go with you all the way
God bless you
Jesus loves you
May His fellowship grow sweeter every day

Imagine what a pleasant place our world would be if we all took that approach and practiced that attitude toward each other.

With the song Many Times, the comparisons to Annie, Nelly and Matthew are unavoidable. That’s a 2nd Chapter chorus if I’ve ever heard one!

I’ve said before that I’m a sucker for classic-hymns-done-right, and Growing Pains ends with just such a song -- Jamie’s stripped-down treatment of My Jesus, I Love Thee. Reverential, beautiful, timeless. 

Growing Pains was an album that spanned the generational divide, a record that was enjoyed and appreciated by everybody in the house. She appealed to her peer group because she was one of them. Boys wanted to date her and girls wanted to be her. It didn’t hurt that some of her best friends were folks like Randy Stonehill and the 2nd Chapter of Acts. But she also appealed to moms and dads. She was unthreatening. She was the girl-next-door who never rebelled. And you could actually understand the words to her songs!

Jamie Owens became Jamie Owens-Collins when she married producer/music executive/filmmaker Dan Collins, disappointing Christian young men all over America. In 1976 she followed in her parents’ sizeable footsteps by co-writing a musical with the Talbot Brothers titled Firewind (based on the book of Acts). Other solo albums followed – Love Eyes, Straight Ahead, A Time For Courage, and Seasons.

She spent years ministering with the Maranatha Praise Band and providing music for city-wide crusades with Evangelists Franklin Graham and Greg Laurie.

Jamie Owens-Collins today


Jamie Owens-Collins has spent a lifetime sharing the Gospel through music and leading audiences in worship with original compositions of great depth such as You Have Broken the Chains and The Battle Belongs to the Lord. The power and effect of her music has endured.

My guess is that she’s made Mom and Dad quite proud. It would appear that the lack of a good “testimony” didn’t hurt her after all.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

#81 IMPERIALS by The Imperials (1972)

IMPERIALS by The Imperials (1972)
Impact - R3165

cross·roads (ˈkrôsˌrōdz) noun

1. An intersection of two or more roads.
2. A point at which a crucial decision must be made that will have far-reaching consequences.

The Imperials were at a crossroads in 1972.

They stood at the intersection of music, faith, and culture. With their roots firmly planted in the world of Southern Gospel music, the Imperials had been pushing the boundaries for years. Their look…their sound…the songs they chose to sing and record…even the racial makeup of the group set them apart from the musical subculture from whence they came.

The Imperials with Elvis Presley in 1971
For the Imperials, it was also a point at which a crucial decision had to be made. A decision with far reaching consequences, indeed. Having experienced the bright lights and allure of life with secular music stars like Elvis Presley and Jimmy Dean, the Imperials had a decision to make regarding the future direction of the group. They were at a crossroads that their founder, Jake Hess, probably never imagined.

Jake Hess was born on Christmas Eve in 1927 in Mt. Pisgah, Alabama. He was the last of twelve children born to his struggling sharecropper parents. Raised in a poor, rural community, young Jake found joy in singing Gospel Music and had big plans to start a group of his own one day. “Gospel Music” in the 1940s and ‘50s was limited to two primary expressions – the Negro Spirituals and “original rhythm and blues” heard in Black churches, and the southern quartets and “singing conventions” preferred by white audiences. The white quartets were usually comprised of four singers and a pianist. The tenor, lead and baritone singers would huddle around one microphone, while the powerful bass singer had a mic all to himself. As for the piano player, the flashier the better. These groups weren’t all that concerned with spiritual depth; there was usually a premium placed on showmanship and entertainment.
Jake Hess
Jake Hess grew up singing in a variety of such groups around the state of Alabama before landing a prestigious gig as lead singer of the Statesmen Quartet. But he still had that unfulfilled dream in the back of his mind to have a group of his very own. And in 1964, he handpicked the best singers he could find from within Southern Gospel music and formed Jake Hess and the Imperials. By the way, the “smooth” bass singer was a young Filipino named Armond Morales. Morales would spend virtually his entire adult life as an Imperial.

Hess wanted this group to be different, a cut above if you will. Not only from a musical standpoint, but spiritually as well. This was a time when most Southern Gospel groups were entertainment-oriented. Not only that, but alcoholism and adultery were also rampant within the genre. Hess’s Imperials would be a unique group in this regard. Jake Hess actually came up with a “morals clause” that group members had to sign, attempting to ensure that the men would have to live what they sang. The group eventually signed with Benson Records and the record company bought their first tour bus as a signing bonus.  In 1966, original tenor singer Sherrill Nielson left the group and was replaced by a young Jim Murray who, along with Morales, would anchor the group’s trademark sound. Murray would sing tenor for the Imperials for the next twenty years.  

Jake Hess and the Imperials were becoming a household name in Christian homes around the country. They began to be known for thinking outside that traditional, Southern Gospel box…adding songs to their repertoire that other groups wouldn’t touch, and singing in venues that the other groups eschewed.

Another personnel change came when pianist Henry Slaughter was replaced by a young Italian named Joe Moscheo. This was another significant change that marked a generational shift and another move away from traditional Southern Gospel and toward a more modern approach.

At this point Jake Hess began to experience health issues, with doctors eventually advising him that “life on the road” was just too dangerous. Jake Hess said goodbye to his dream and resigned from the group he had founded. Jake Hess and the Imperials became, simply, The Imperials. In 1967, Morales, Murray and Moscheo regrouped and hired new singers, including a young man with an impeccable musical pedigree, Terry Blackwood (the son of Gospel music legend Doyle Blackwood). Terry’s Dad and uncles – the Blackwood Brothers -- had been perhaps the best known and most loved Gospel singers throughout the Forties and Fifties , and now he would have the opportunity to make his own mark.

Now things would begin to get really interesting. The group demonstrated on their first post-Hess album (1967’s New Dimensions) that they would not be bound by the traditional constraints of southern gospel. It’s been called an “almost modern sounding album.” 1968’s Now and 1969’s Love is the Thing continued a slide toward that which was “hip” and “contemporary.” The album titles alone are an indication that the times, they were a-changin.’

The Imperials with Jimmy Dean and Mike Douglas

At this point, the boys began to grow their hair out longer and started wearing loud, fashionable stage clothes that were in keeping with what was happening in the broader culture-at-large. At the same time, the group was making career connections that would result in an incredible amount of exposure, but would also eventually cause a crisis of sorts for the group. They were given the opportunity to sing back-up for Jimmy Dean on his road shows and his weekly television program. That was big. But it was nothing compared to the
opportunity to back Elvis Presley in Las Vegas, on the road, on albums, and even in a motion picture release. The Imperials’ experiences with Elvis were well documented in a video release -- He Touched Me, the Gospel Side of Elvis -- and a book by the same name by Joe Moscheo. As a result of their heavy schedule with Dean and Presley, the Imps didn’t record an album at all in 1970. They were playing regular gigs in venues like Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Reno. For the first time, serious thought was given to the idea of “crossing over” (or “going secular” as it was more commonly known at the time).

As part of this “flirting with the mainstream,” the Imperials recorded an album in 1971 that was full of spiritually-aware pop hits. Time to Get It Together had a title that included the vernacular of the day and featured such popular non-gospel tunes as Bridge Over Troubled Water, Teach Your Children, Let It Be, and Everything Is Beautiful. They also made overtures to the Jesus Movement by recording Larry Norman’s Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation on the album. Several songs on the record were arranged by a young Michael Omartian.

In 1972, the Imps had another personnel slot to fill. The group’s producer, Bob MacKenzie reportedly made a suggestion that they consider a young singer that MacKenzie had heard out on the West Coast. This young man had been singing with Andrae Crouch & the Disciples, another barrier-breaking group that was building bridges between traditional Black Gospel and what was being referred to as “Jesus Music.” MacKenzie suggested that this young man would add to the Imperials’ potential; that his overall impact would be very appealing. And, oh yeah…he was a Black man. Sherman Andrus joined the Imperials in 1972, completing what many consider to be the group’s greatest lineup. This move made the Imperials the first interracial Christian group America had ever seen (and one of the few interracial groups in music, period). Sherman Andrus joked that he would “boldly go where no Black man had gone before.” Armond, Jim, Terry, Sherman and Joe were trendsetters, and they would have quite a run together.

Which brings us to our featured album: the eponymous 1972 release on Impact Records. This record went even further down the mainstream road than Time to Get It Together. It featured mainstream songs by Ray Stevens, Carole King, Richard Carpenter and Kris well as a song first recorded by Stevie Wonder. Given that the record was released on a Christian label known primarily for southern gospel, it’s almost hard to see how this album, with this song lineup, even got made. Of course, the rich harmonies and pleasing musical arrangements are found in abundance here, as was the case with any 70s Imps release. But the overall tone of the record…the risk-taking that was necessary to conceive of an album like this in 1972…that was the story here as much as anything else.

The record kicks off with a feel-good Ray Stevens song titled A Brighter Day. This song sets an optimistic tone for the record, with a sentiment that was typical for the early seventies:

It’s just a matter of mind over matter
I close my eyes and say a little prayer

And I can see a brighter day
Yesterday I may be just a loner
(A brighter day)
But love is waiting just around the corner
(A brighter day)
I hear those gentle voices saying happiness is gonna come my way
And it’s gonna bring a brighter day

Next up was a Kris Kristofferson song titled Slow Down. This one used fictional characters by the names of “Albert Abernathy” and “little Sally Tremble” to bring attention to the emptiness of workaholism, fame and broken relationships. It’s a cautionary tale that encourages the listener to “slow down and live,” and “take time to understand the things you hope to win before your journey’s end.”

Song #3 on Side One would go on to be one of the most popular in the group’s vast catalog. It’s a song that they would subsequently record on two separate live albums. It’s actually a remake of an old gospel classic that had been sung in church services for years and years. It’s called Gospel Ship. Now, the Imps were not the first to record a rocked-up version of Gospel Ship (that honor went the Mylon LeFevre), but they did it best. By any measure, the song became iconic for the Imps for years to come.

Rounding out Side One is another Ray Stevens song (Can We Get to That) and a more specifically Christian track titled Didn’t He Shine. Also recorded by Dallas Holm, this is a song that offers an insightful view of Jesus, the Son of Man:

To a world of fear and darkness
Came a light as bright as day
With a song of love and words of kindness
He came to show the way

Though His face was not recorded
Nor the color of his skin
But his words rolled down upon the darkness
And touched the hearts of men

And the people called Him Jesus
He was a man for all time
Just a simple man called Jesus
But didn’t He love, didn’t He shine

Didn’t He Shine notes that Jesus’ skin color was not recorded. And Side Two opens with a song that also brings skin color into the conversation (remember, this is the Imperials’ first album with Sherman Andrus). Heaven Help Us All was popularized by Stevie Wonder and included these lyrics:

Heaven help the Black man as he struggles one more day
Heaven help the White man if he turns his back away
Heaven help the man who kicks the man who has to crawl
Heaven help us all

Next, a Carole King tune called Beautiful gets the Imps treatment, followed by the somewhat dramatic testimony song Look What You Have Done To Me.

You Should Have Come Sooner was next on the list, and is another song that was a favorite Imps tune in the early 70s. It turns up on any serious “greatest hits” compilation from the era. Like Love Song’s Welcome Back, the song encourages the prodigal to return to the “Love that never ends.” The song just works. The tone, the performance, the lyrics, the arrangement…it just works.

Where do you fly
When your dreams have kissed you goodbye
When your friends have gone and here you are alone

When there’s no place for you to hide
No one to take your side
And you feel like the only one out on your own

You go to the place where life begins
To the love that never ends
To the one whose arms are open wide
Run on inside
You should have come sooner

The album concludes with the hauntingly beautiful Invocation – a song also recorded by the Carpenters.

This self-titled album by the Imperials found them teetering on the border between Gospel and pop…with, one presumes, a decision to make. It was their most serious attempt at crossing over into secular music completely.

Of course, if you’re familiar with their history, you know that the Imperials experienced a spiritual revival within the group, stopped playing Vegas and Tahoe, and ultimately decided to recommit themselves to the Lord and to the Church. The result? They dismantled racial and musical barriers, won 4 Grammy Awards and 13 Dove Awards, and bridged the gap between the Southern Gospel world they left behind, and what later came to be known as Contemporary Christian Music.

By the way, founder Jake Hess was plagued by health issues all his life. He had suffered three heart attacks before he passed away in January of 2004. But we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Hess. No one could’ve predicted the impact that his group would eventually have on the Christian Music industry and, more importantly, on the Body of Christ.

Fun Facts…

The Imperials were:
• the first Gospel quartet to use four individual microphones on stage
• the first Gospel quartet to use cordless mics
• the first Gospel quartet to use a live band on stage
• the only Christian group to have a #1 song in 4 consecutive decades