Tuesday, January 12, 2016

#54 - NO SHORTAGE by The Imperials (1975)

NO SHORTAGE by The Imperials (1975)
Impact Records - R3288

The mid-seventies were a dark time here in the United States.

In 1973 a Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for Americans to legally kill their own children in abortion clinics. 

In 1974 a president resigned after a bungled political burglary became a national obsession. 

Women were burning their bras because…well, we’re still not really sure. 

There was the energy crisis…economic stagnation and malaise…and don’t forget the shortages.

Let’s see…there was a sugar shortage, a coffee shortage, a gas shortage, and a paper shortage. Oil, electricity and even onions were reported as being in limited supply. All of which created a “shortage psychology” among Americans. 

No Shortage by the Imperials was, in many respects, ripped from the headlines.

These lines from the song There Must be a Better Way pretty accurately described the mood of the nation:

Listen to the news
People are confused
Wondering what’s right or wrong
Feeling that it won’t be long
Till our world begins to crumble

People stop and stare
No one seems to care
Lives are filled with loneliness
But if we close our eyes
We will never find the answer

Several other songs on the album gave voice to the negative feelings and experiences that people were going through. And, of course, the title track very specifically acknowledged the shortages, both real and perceived, that were on the minds of so many Americans in 1975.

Needless to say, the Imperials’ goal with this album was not just to identify issues and problems, but rather to offer solutions through faith in God and new life in Jesus.

Jake Hess
By the time No Shortage rolled around, the Imperials had already been on a long, winding, and very successful journey as a group of first-rate singers and musicians. The group began in 1964 as the dream of founder Jake Hess. Hess, a legendary Southern Gospel performer, hand-picked an all-star team of singers. They pushed against traditional boundaries and accepted norms with unusual song selection, intricate harmonies and unpredictable arrangements. Even so, the music of Jake Hess and the Imperials sounds very tame and dated as we listen to it today. 

Hess had to leave his dream behind in 1967 when doctors ordered him off the road due to health concerns. The next several years saw the Imperials form a bridge from the traditional Southern Gospel world to the Jesus Movement. After a brief detour backing mainstream entertainers like Elvis Presley and Jimmy Dean, the transformation continued as the Imps became a full-on Contemporary Christian Music group. They had true crossover appeal in the late 60s/early 70s. They were equally at home in front of conservative Gospel music fans, nightclub audiences in Lake Tahoe, and long-haired Jesus freaks at outdoor music festivals.

The Jake Hess Era

Late 60s lineup (L-R):
Jim Murray, Armond Morales, Roger Wiles, Terry Blackwood, Joe Moscheo

Important changes took place within the group. The Imps began to look and sound less and less like a Gospel quartet. The hair, the clothing, the song selection…they were covering popular, spiritually-aware songs from the secular music world as well as songs that would now be considered Jesus Music classics. The opportunity to be Presley’s backing vocal group gave them experience and exposure that was invaluable. They even broke the color barrier.


Early 70s lineup (L-R):
Joe Moscheo, Jim Murray, Sherman Andrus, Terry Blackwood, Armond Morales

By 1975 the Imperials were:
-          Bass singer Armond Morales, an original member handpicked by Jake Hess
-          Tenor Jim Murray, added to the group in 1964
-          Lead singer Terry Blackwood, whose father had been a member of the Blackwood Brothers quartet, and who replaced Jake Hess in 1967
-          Sherman Andrus, original member of Andrae Crouch & the Disciples    

Joe Moscheo had been part of the group in the late 60s and early 70s. By the time No Shortage was released, he was no longer an active member of The Imperials, but was still involved with the group in various capacities and in the recording of this album. The Imperials say that Moscheo "was forever branded as a fan favorite in the group's history." Sadly, as I type this post, Joe Moscheo went Home to be with the Lord just 24 hours ago. He was 79 years old. 

It was decided that the Imps would be teamed with a new producer by the name of Gary S. Paxton (along with GMA Hall of Fame inductee Bob MacKenzie). The stage was set for a record that would win the Imperials their first Grammy award.

The title track leads off the album. It’s one of the Imperials’ more memorable songs…and with a song catalog as vast as theirs, that’s saying a lot. In his Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, author Mark Allan Powell calls No Shortage the group’s “all-time best song.” I wouldn’t go that far…but it’s definitely a funky gem with a hook that can get inside your head and stay there for hours at a time. The song begins with our troubadours humming an earthy chant over an African-sounding rhythm track (“Sounds like jungle music to me,” my Dad used to mutter as he walked past the stereo in our house in South Alabama). The Imperials sing the verses in unison, and then break out into harmony on the choruses and the bridge. No Shortage has been described as a perfect balance between Southern Gospel harmonies and modern funk.

Sherman Andrus is featured on No Shortage. I recently had a chance to speak with Andrus and get his thoughts on the title song.

Gary S. Paxton
I heard Gary Paxton’s demo and tried to duplicate what he did vocally,” Andrus remembers. “I learned that from working with Andrae Crouch. He used to send me cassette tapes of the songs he was writing. I always tried to sing the songs like the writers wanted them sung.”

Sherman had nice things to say about the songwriter: “Paxton was great as a writer and producer. Having him as a producer helped me to loosen up and come up with good adlibs as we did the vamp to the ending,” recalls Andrus.

"Gary had green hair (!) but he was a great producer and so easy to work with," Terry Blackwood said. "Very creative in the studio and a committed Christian. I really like Gary a lot." 

"This was the first album Gary S. Paxton produced for us," said bass singer Armond Morales. "It got us a lot of attention because of its unique style. Of course, he's a real unique writer in that his hooks are so unusual."

Gary S. Paxton himself recorded the song No Shortage on his sophomore CCM release. It was also covered by Sammy Hall, Newsong, and Tammy Faye Bakker (ugh!). Very interestingly, a new, youthful incarnation of The Imperials (which later dissolved) covered the song on their 2007 album Back to the Roots, and a Southern Gospel/bluegrass group known as The Isaacs included a re-imagined version of the song on a Gaither Homecoming video just a few years back. So it’s had legs. But the classic, definitive version of No Shortage is found only on the opening grooves of this 1975 Grammy-winning album.

At the end of the day, No Shortage was an audio snapshot that instantly recalls the events and feelings of the mid-1970s while reminding the listener of the limitless supply of God’s love and faithfulness. “It was a great song to sing at a time in our country where shortages were very prevalent,” said Sherman Andrus.

CCM radio airplay was virtually nonexistent in the mid 70s. However, just to demonstrate the crossover popularity of the song, No Shortage charted for 15 months on the Singing News (Southern Gospel) singles chart, beginning in September of 1975 and peaking at #14.

Terry Blackwood was featured on Phil Johnson’s classic Give Them All to Jesus. This is another one that was covered by a ton of others, including The Rambos, Evie, Cristy Lane, Truth, Johnny Hall, Candy Hemphill and former Imperial Gary McSpadden. But the Imps’ soft-rock, radio-friendly version is the one that we all remember. It’s a song that encourages the listener to turn hurts, disappointments, and shattered dreams over to the Lord.

Are you tired of chasing pretty rainbows
Are you tired of spinning ‘round and ‘round
Wrap up all the shattered dreams of your life
And at the feet of Jesus lay them down

Give them all, give them all
Give them all to Jesus
Shattered dreams, wounded hearts, broken toys
Give them all, Give them all
Give them all to Jesus
He will turn your sorrows into joy

"This song was a major hit," Armond Morales said, "not just because it had a great groove or because it sounded good on the radio. This was a great song because people all over the world have been ministered to as they listened to it."

By the way, the key change (at about the 1:20 mark) was alone worth the price of admission. That was the sort of thing that the Imperials frequently pulled off with ease, usually orchestrated by vocal arranger Terry Blackwood.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Terry about the recording process: “Our methods then were to go into the studio with our songs, and we gave a lot of freedom to the musicians to see what they could come up with,” said Blackwood. “We would have input as to keys, key changes, etc., and we let them create intros and endings. Once we were happy with the tracks I would take them and adapt a vocal that would fit the song. I wrote out all vocals and that saved a lot of time in the studio. We always had a plan. The No Shortage album was one that really worked well.”

After a string-drenched intro, Sherman Andrus’ falsetto opens the Tim Sheppard-penned ballad Would You Believe in Me. The intensity picks up and the group’s trademark vocal harmonies come into play on the song’s choruses. Written from the perspective of Jesus Himself, this track delivers a moving, sobering reminder of the Lordship of Christ.

If I could work a miracle before your eyes
If I could change the rain to clear blue skies
If I could open up your blinded eyes to see
Would you believe in me?

If I could part the sea or roll back the tide
If I could let you touch the hollow of my side
If I could hang for you upon a rugged tree
Would you believe in me?

If you’re looking for a sign, there ain’t no sign to see
Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe

The next song was a departure of sorts – a rare song that acknowledged the Holy Spirit as an important part of the godhead. There have been countless songs over the centuries about the character and attributes of God and the person and ministry of Jesus. But the Holy Spirit has most often been treated like a red-headed stepchild by Christian songwriters! The next song on No Shortage – Holy Spirit, Speak to Me – helps to right that wrong. I don’t want to make too big a deal of this, but as an Assemblies of God pastor’s kid, it was important to me. Hey, Pentecostals need a little validation every now and then, too!

The song outlines the roles of the members of the Trinity in a very clear yet simple and concise fashion:

Then I heard of Jesus
That He gave His life for me
And He sent the Spirit
So with Him we can be free

Then I said to God, “Lord, I’m sorry”
Then I said to Jesus, “Take my sins away”
Then I said, “Holy Spirit, won’t you speak to me
Holy Spirit, won’t you speak to me
Spirit of God, touch my heart”

Holy Spirit, Speak to Me begins with Terry Blackwood freelancing over an acoustic piano, drawing on his Southern Gospel roots. It quickly transitions into a celebratory, uptempo tune with a fifties flair, complete with a rambunctious sax solo and one of those unique bass vocal lines from Armond Morales (that distinguished the Imperials from every other CCM group in existence).

The song fades with the boys singing…

Holy Spirit, precious Holy Spirit...
Touch my heart, use my life...

Holy Spirit, Speak to Me was important from a theological standpoint…plus, it was just a lot of fun. And Terry Blackwood says itis his favorite song on the album.

Side One of No Shortage wraps with one of the record’s highlights. My Child, Welcome Home harkened back to the group’s Southern Gospel roots. Written by Gary S. Paxton, it was a ballad that featured the smooth, melodic bass voice of Armond Morales. My only quibble is that the writer refers to Jesus as “a Man” in the verses, which is somewhat problematic:

If you’re weary and threatened or hurt
And there’s nothing that is comfort to you
Well, I know 
a Man who’s been through that before
And He’s waiting to help see you through

If you’re worried and hope is not in sight
And you’ve done things that you’re so sorry for
Well, I know 
a Man who will take you back in
And He’s waiting to love you some more

Needless to say, with regard to these lyrics, Jesus is no longer “a man.” He was fully man but also fully God during His earthly ministry. That said, the message of the song is still quite clear and I don’t think the “man” stuff mattered to anybody but guys like me. I’ve been told that I can be a little too analytical and technical from time to time. I think I’m probably guilty as charged. But enough about me…

"We got a lot of requests for that song," remembers Armond Morales. "I was featured on it as a bass singer. I am known as a melodic bass, and that song kind of showed me off."

The bottom line is that My Child Welcome Home offered hope to all who were discouraged and beaten up by the world; the message was that Jesus is full of love and mercy, and that Father God is standing ready to forgive and welcome lost sheep home. The bass voice of Morales, a clear, ringing, high tenor note from Jim Murray, and a traditional Southern Gospel ending all combined to give this song a dated sound that the Imperials would for the most part leave behind after this album. Sure, they continued to sing Gospel classics like How Great Thou Art and He Touched Me in their live concerts, but songs like My Child Welcome Home became extremely rare on future Imps records. My Child Welcome Home was one of the highest charting radio hits in the Imperials' career, climbing to the #4 position on the Singing News singles chart during an 11-month run beginning in December of 1975.

What would a mid-70s Imperials album be without a song about Heaven or the Second Coming? Side Two of No Shortage opens with just such a tune, the up-tempo Someday (It May Be Tomorrow). Of interest in this song is a robust horn section, several lines featuring bass singer Armond Morales, and a key change with a higher-than-average degree of difficulty. It’s one of two songs on the album written by Jesus Music veteran Danny Lee.

One of the album’s most popular tracks was up next, the worshipful I Just Came to Praise the Lord. A “testimony song” featuring Sherman Andrus, this one fits squarely in the Inspirational/MOR category and was a staple of the group’s live concerts for many years. Andrus gave a rare spoken word message during the song:

And that’s the reason why we song – to give praise and glory to Jesus Christ. And this song was written especially to lead us, and to lead you, into praise. The Bible says that He inhabits the praises of His people. And if you’re one of His, you won’t mind singing this along with us…

There was a new focus and emphasis on praise and worship within Christendom in the 1970s that led worshipers away from traditional hymns and toward praise choruses (as they were then known). This song was part of that movement; in retrospect it sounds very conservative today, but it represented somewhat of a shift at the time.

I asked Sherman Andrus how I Just Came to Praise the Lord was chosen for No Shortage. "We toured with a Hispanic group called The Latinos," Andrus explained. "We actually rode on the same bus. They had an incredible blind pianist named Judy. We would stay up singing songs with them while Judy played her mini-piano. Wayne Romera, the writer of I Just Came to Praise the Lord, was a member of The Latinos. They sang the song in concert and it really caused people to start worshiping the Lord. So Wayne gave us permission to use the song on our next recording, which turned out to be No Shortage. I guess he and Judy got tired of hearing me sing it over and over as we rode along in the bus!"

Incidentally, my brothers and I (Bachmann Brothers Band) performed I Just Came to Praise the Lord all over the country as part of our family’s evangelistic ministry in the 70s. In fact, we recorded it on our first full-length LP in 1978. But I digress…

Let us Love One Another rocked a good bit – complete with some bold, electric guitars and a well-placed cowbell. This one had a very-70s “peace and love” message lyrically. It featured a hyperactive horn section, some impressive vocal harmonies, and more solo parts from Morales.  

Former Imperial Larry Gatlin wrote the next track, Light at the End of the Darkness. It’s an uplifting, inspirational (and somewhat vague) power ballad that features Terry Blackwood and showcases the Imperials’ amazing vocal blend. The song builds in intensity throughout, before climaxing in a full-blown, show-stopper of an ending that I’m sure made Elvis Presley proud. Light at the End of the Darkness is yet another song on No Shortage that was covered by many other artists. None of them improved on the version put forth by the Imperials.

Rounding out the album is a pop tune titled There Must Be a Better Way that calls attention to the uncertain times and despondency of the mid-70s. The group’s powerful vocal blend stood out as they sang about love, prayer, brotherhood and understanding as the answers to what was ailing the country:

Why not stand and learn to walk together
And why not learn to sing a joyful song
Lift your hearts and learn to love each other
Stretch forth your hands and learn to understand

This one would’ve been right at home on any of the many variety shows that were popular on TV in the mid-1970s.

Author Mark Allan Powell called No Shortage “a major breakthrough, evincing modern pop with a winsome Southern Gospel twist.” He wrote that it became somewhat of “a guilty pleasure for rock fans.”
The "No Shortage" Foursome
from just a few years ago (L-R):
Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood,
Sherman Andrus, Armond Morales

It was an album with cross-cultural appeal…with its finger on the pulse of life in the USA in 1975. And, as has been mentioned, this collection of songs won some hardware for the Imperials – both a Grammy and a Dove Award. Unfortunately, the group was not on hand to personally receive the Grammy. "We were too busy to be there to accept," remembers Terry Blackwood. "I think Joe Moscheo went for us as we were scheduled somewhere. I don't remember where! Later we took a photo holding the Grammy."

This particular lineup of the Imps would be together for just one more album before giving way to another very successful era for the group (featuring Russ Taff and David Will). And more great singers would follow after that. Countless miles, concerts, songs, and honors lay ahead for this trendsetting group. Most importantly, multiplied thousands of lives would have their Christian walk strengthened and encouraged as a result of the ministry of these men.

Where the Imperials are concerned, there’s been no shortage of talent, no shortage of excellence, and no shortage of meaningful ministry over the course of five decades.