Monday, July 18, 2016

#48 MANSION BUILDER by 2nd Chapter of Acts (1978)

MANSION BUILDER by 2nd Chapter of Acts (1978)
Sparrow - SPR-1020
It was a new chapter for the 2nd Chapter: a new label, a new theme, and a new, more polished sound.

The rowdy rock and roll of their early studio projects and rough edges of their live albums gave way to a more mature, ‘adult contemporary’ approach. Synthesizers were there, albeit muted. Searing guitar solos were few and far between (actually, there was only one on the entire album!). Instead, these songs were built almost entirely around the acoustic piano and the siblings’ unique vocal blend (which was more exquisite than ever). It worked. And it set a new tone for the remainder of the group’s recorded output.

Conceptually, the Second Coming of Jesus and eternal life with Father God are twin themes that run through this record likes threads through a priceless tapestry. “I think it’s a continuation of what the Lord has called us to do,” Annie Herring said in an interview with Keystone Magazine in 1978, “because it seems all the songs turned out to be songs of looking up – keeping your eyes on the Lord because He is coming.” Annie’s rich poetry was also a focal point for the project.

Mansion Builder was just the group’s third studio album, but it marked a turning point for the 2nd Chapter of Acts.

You might say that the 2nd Chapter of Acts was born out of tragedy. Annie, Nelly and Matthew came from a large Catholic family, and lost both parents within a span of 2 years when Matthew was a pre-teen. Nelly and Matthew went to live with their older sister Annie, a newlywed, in Hollywood, California. Annie and her husband Buck, who’d been rocked to their core by their experiences with Jesus, shared their faith with the younger siblings and saw them come to the Lord as well. It wasn’t long before the Lord taught Annie to play the piano and started giving her songs that didn’t necessarily rhyme, but were obviously birthed of the Spirit of God. Nelly and Matthew gathered around the piano, began to effortlessly find and sing their harmony parts as they learned their big sister’s songs…and the rest is history. We’ll have plenty of time and space to explore the group’s beginnings in much greater detail in future posts. (I have a feeling we’ll be writing about more 2nd Chapter albums as the countdown moves along.)

The group began their “recording career” (although they would shun the use of such industry-related terms) with some singles for MGM in an effort to get mainstream airplay. That bid never really got off the ground, so they ended up at Myrrh Records with the late, great Billy Ray Hearn. Their four Myrrh albums (two studio records and 2 multi-album live sets recorded with other artists) are all bona fide classics. But when their commitment to Myrrh was satisfied, the Herrings and Wards decided (after much prayer) that a change was in order. Billy Ray Hearn had left Myrrh to start a new label intent on ministry, and the group felt that the Lord would be pleased for them to make that move as well. In fact, Buck Herring was basically responsible for the name of the label.

Billy Ray Hearn was reportedly thinking of calling the new venture Chalice Records (can you imagine?) and called Buck to ask what he thought of the name. After thinking about it, Buck suggested “Sparrow,” saying that it denotes simplicity and humility, and because “the Bible says the Lord’s eye is on the Sparrow.” And Sparrow it was.

Their first album for Sparrow Records, as a group, would be titled Mansion Builder.

The album begins with a lilting, buoyant tune called Rod and Staff, and it’s a great example of a style that the 2nd Chapter of Acts could legitimately lay claim to as uniquely their own, whether within CCM or in the broader music industry at large. Comparisons have been made to Christian music’s Silverwind and to ABBA from the secular world, but those comparisons fall short and ring hollow. Many 2nd Chapter songs featured a bouncy, neo-classical tune combined with deeply poetic lyrics, piano-based instrumentation, vocal harmonies that only siblings can produce, and an undeniable anointing of the Holy Spirit. There still are no satisfactory comparisons to be made to any other group, past or present, sacred or secular. Rod and Staff was a good example of many of those elements coming together.

With lyrics like these, it’s a great song to listen to when you’re facing trials or just need a lift:

Love the skies are shining so bright today
That a miracle could happen
Just don’t let those dark clouds get into the way
And don’t let your faith get dampened
Let one of His teardrops touch your pain
And ease it away like a summer rain

The song then veers into language that only believers would understand…

Let His love flow through your harvest of grain
And let His fire burn up your chaff
Get ahold of His rod and staff
And let the praises flow like a river

but, interestingly, concludes with an invitation to get to know the Lord:

You’ve always wanted to know Him
And now He’s asking you
Won’t you come on in?

Slightly confusing, but the song’s still a classic…and a real faith-booster.

In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:2,3

The title track is up next, the first of several songs on this record that allude to either the return of Christ or eternity in Heaven. This mellow ballad with smooth-as-silk vocals contains one of the most beautiful reflections on the afterlife (for the Christian) ever set to music:

I've been told that there are those
Who will learn how to fly
And I've been told that there are those
Who will never die

And I've been told that there are stars
That will never lose their shine
And that there is a Morning Star
Who knows my mind

And I've been told that there's a
Crystal lake in the sky
And every tear from my eyes
Is saved when I cry

And I've been told there'll come a time
When the sun will cease to shine
And that there is a Morning Star
Who knows my mind

So why should I worry?
Why should I fret?
'Cause I've got a Mansion Builder
Who ain't through with me yet

It’s a standout track that has brought comfort to millions over the years. Blogger David Lowman has written that this song is a “true classic” and belongs on any list of the Top 100 songs in CCM history. 

When Benson Records created a “greatest hits” release for Matthew Ward in 1992, this next song should’ve been on it. Continuing a tradition that began with Psalm 63 on 1975’s In the Volume of the Book and Psalm 61 on 1977’s How the West Was One, Psalm 93 was a collaboration between Matthew Ward and his longtime friend (and extraordinary keyboardist) Richard Souther. Ward and Souther composed the music on this one, while the New American Standard Bible was given credit for the lyrics.

Psalm 93 begins in a similar fashion to its predecessors, with Mr. Ward singing the timeless truths of Scripture over Souther’s reverential piano. That’s where the similarities end. The tempo and intensity pick up as horns, organ and the album’s only true lead guitar solo bring the intensity level up several notches. The musicianship, supplied on this track (as well as on six others) by A Band Called David is tight and impressive, but it is Matthew Ward’s vocal performance that makes this song so memorable. The range, the runs, the control, the tone…it all defies explanation, as you know if you’re familiar with Mr. Ward’s considerable gift. My only complaint is that at 2:32, the track is simply way too short. Especially when you factor in that this was basically the album's only real nod to rock and roll.

The very Omartian-esque Gold in the Clouds is up next. With Michael Omartian on piano, it really does have the feel of something that could’ve been right at home on one of his solo albums, or one of his records with his wife Stormie. The Omartians shared a special relationship with the 2nd Chapter of Acts; they attended the same church together (Jack Hayford’s Church On The Way), recorded a live album together (Together Live) and Omartian paid tribute to Annie Herring by writing a song about her (Annie the Poet from Adam Again in 1977). Annie’s poetry was on full display on this brief track (clocking in at just 2:18):

Even when the rainbows seem to pass right by me
I’m still finding gold in the clouds
Through all the shadows and the patterns of doubt
I’m still finding gold in the clouds
There, I said it again

Even when the Eastern sky fills up with light
I don’t see the sun ‘till You’re there
Even when the moon comes out to play at night
I don’t see the light ‘till You’re there
There, I said it again

I wonder if I were in someone else’s shoes
Would I be like them, or would I still be me?
I wonder when I’m old if I will understand everything I say?
I sure hope it’s that way

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. –I Thessalonians 4:16,17

I’ll Give My Life Away is a short ballad (2:20) that alludes to the rapture of the Church and the Second Coming of Jesus:

Look at the sky
And tell me there’s a limit
To the way I feel
I could fly away in a minute
On the wings of the dawn’s early light
To the Morning Star

The group’s splendid vocal harmonies are on display on this one.

And the short songs just keep on comin’!

The punchy, rhythmic Rainbow wraps Side One with a quirky song about God’s promise to never again destroy the earth or its inhabitants. This is another one that sounds like something Michael & Stormie could’ve done on The Builder. Sadly, listening to this song in 2016, I’m reminded of the fact that the rainbow is best known today as the symbol of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism (LGBT). Ironically, the rainbow was officially popularized as a “gay” symbol the same year that Mansion Builder was released (although none of us knew it at the time). In 1978 a San Francisco artist designed what is believed to be the first “Gay Pride” rainbow flag. When homosexual militants marched to protest the death of Harvey Milk, it’s said that they marched with rainbow flags.  

Since God designated the rainbow as a sign and a symbol that He would not destroy the earth and her people again as a result of sin, it’s ironic and more than a little disturbing to see an entire community of people adopt that symbol as a sign of pride in a particular category of sexual sin. In light of all of that, it’s very fitting that this song by Annie Herring not only presents the Biblical purpose of the rainbow, but gives an invitation for sinners to make Jesus their Lord and allow Him to wash away their sin:

The rainbow is a promise
No rain will fall upon us
To destroy the life on earth again
Or the living creatures
That means you, that means me
Every bird, every tree
And He signed it with a rainbow

You can have a rainbow
Yes, a living rainbow
If you will accept the Son of God
His name is Jesus
He’ll wash away your old life
God gave His Son so you might
Know the One who made the rainbow

Rainbow featured an all-star rhythm section that included Bill Maxwell on drums, Abraham Laboriel on bass, and Michael Omartian at the piano. A “cliffhanger” ending invites the listener to turn the album over and proceed!

Mansion Builder was recorded and mixed at Buckskin Studio. Buckskin was located inside a home that the Herrings and Wards shared in Northridge, California. The house also had a swimming pool and lots of fruit trees, but Buck Herring was concerned that the recording studio would negatively affect the home’s resale value. Turns out the home was purchased by soul singer Jeffrey Osborne, so the studio ended up being a selling point!  

This album, like all others by the 2nd Chapter of Acts, was produced and engineered by Buck Herring. String and horn arrangements were turned in by Michael Omartian. The front and back covers featured photographs of the group taken by Joanna Van Zant Wyk.

Four of the album’s songs featured the aforementioned Bill Maxwell (drums) and Michael Omartian (piano, Aarp synthesizers, and percussion) along with Abraham Laboriel (bass) and Jay Graydon (guitars).

The album’s other 7 tracks were played by A Band Called DavidRichard Souther (piano, clavinet, organ, and Minimoog synthesizer), Herb Melton (bass), Gene Gunnels (drums) and Peter York (guitars).

Annie Herring also played piano on 5 of the album’s tracks. Annie had listened to her mother play the piano when she was younger and had longed to be able to play herself, but with 8 siblings, there was no money for luxuries like piano lessons. But as a newlywed, at age 23, she was given an old acoustic piano as a wedding gift from her husband, Buck. The piano was affectionately dubbed “Brother Bear.”

“There I was, five or six months old in the Lord and two months into a marriage, and my husband would go away to work, and there was this piano,” Annie remembered in an interview with Keystone Magazine. “I’d just go over and lay my fingers on it. I didn’t know what chords I was playing. I’d just think, ‘That sound wonderful.’”

Annie was amazed as the notes, chords, and melodies began to pour forth. She later recognized that God was literally teaching her to play and gave her “the gift of music.” 

“I had such a sweet communion that first year by myself with the piano,” Annie recalls, “and that’s when the Lord really taught me how to receive a song from Him.”

One thing I have so appreciated over the years about the 2nd Chapter of Acts is that they perceive and flow in the deeper things of the Spirit and do not hesitate to talk about those things, and to share them with others using language that I understand and grew up with. There has always been a very strong ‘charismatic’ flow present in their music and ministry. This probably makes some folks uncomfortable, but it has always had the opposite effect on me. Growing up in a Pentecostal denomination (the Assemblies of God), I always felt like an outsider at school. It seemed that all the other students in my south Alabama high school attended a Southern Baptist church. I felt like I was somehow from the wrong side of the tracks, spiritually speaking. It helped that the 2nd Chapter of Acts spoke my language. For example, Annie talks about waging spiritual warfare by playing the piano. Is that possible? Absolutely.

“I look at my hands and I know I couldn’t train them,” she says. “I know God trained them for battle – He trained my fingers for war. You know, the Scriptures talk about that in the Psalms, about how He teaches our hands. I know He’s taught my hands, and there’s so much depth behind it. We’re only scratching the surface when we say He taught me to play the piano, for beyond that, the music goes forth and fights a spiritual battle.”

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God…And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
-Revelation 19:11-16

The end-times anthem that opens Side Two of Mansion Builder would definitely be included in any boxed set of CCM classics from the 1970s. Well, Haven’t You Heard presents Jesus as revealed in the Book of Revelation. The Jesus described in this song is not a meek and mild peace guru; this Jesus is waging war and ruling in power, with eyes set ablaze and blood dripping from his clothes! Annie, Nelly and Matthew sing this song as with one voice…with power and conviction. Omartian, Maxwell and Laboriel make their presence known on this track as well.

I suppose I should mention the fact that the second Coming of Christ and/or the “rapture” is a much maligned event these days. The internet age and social media have created or at least unleashed thousands of skeptics. The conversation usually sounds something like this:

"The rapture is a discredited concept."

"What? What about Paul’s writings?"

"Dude…the Second Coming was dreamed up by some dude in the 1800s…"


"I don’t know…just Google it. some guy made it up to scare people."

"But what about the things that Jesus Himself had to say about…"

"Misinterpreted! And then Larry Norman wrote that song that scared everybody…and then they made those horrible movies to really scare the crap out of everybody…"

And so it goes.

Usually, in the heat of an internet argument, someone will say, “Well, I believe in the Second Coming of Christ, just not the rapture. None of that ‘flying away’ stuff. Jesus will return, but we’re not escaping the tribulation. We’ll be right here for all the gory details!”

Look, here’s my take: I’m not a scholar. I don’t pretend to know what was being foretold by Daniel or John (in Revelation). I’m not an eschatological expert. I can barely even pronounce eschatological. But I take Jesus at His word. Ditto for Paul. I also know that the Bible says no man knows the day or the hour. So my plan is to let God handle His business, to rest secure in the knowledge that He knows the end from the beginning, confident that He’s got it all under control, and just try to stay ready to go. I’ll leave it to others to argue about dates, times and tribulation periods.

For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be…Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
-Matthew 24:27, 29-31

Lightning Flash is up next, and it’s another standout track from this album. Again centered on end-times events, this one took a more nuanced approach:

I sat and watched the waves
Beat yesterdays into the ground
Like through an hourglass
The hours passed without sound
Circling above me the sound of wings
The earth shakes my feet
And she starts to sing
Now time stands still in space
The cloud-like lace surrounds Him
The perfect love affair
His bride to carry is home
Longing to tell her the love He bore
Was worth His whole life
And there’s nothing worth more
Then I saw the lightning flash
Heard the thunder in the sky

Lightning Flash begins quietly with Annie Herring’s piano intro, but quickly builds in intensity. Matthew Ward turns in a memorable solo on one of the verses.

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…
-Revelation 1:7

With Starlight, Starbright we get back to something approaching rock and roll. It’s almost a solo by Matthew (there can never be too many of those) and it creatively uses the old English nursery rhyme to express the Christian’s hope to one day fly through time and space to meet the Lord in the clouds. As usual, Matthew Ward’s performance is amazing. I just love listening to the guy sing. On this track, for example, he takes the word ‘time’ and gives it about 7 or 8 syllables (at the 1:01 and 2:07 marks). Unreal.

Starlight, Starbright is one of the album’s classics, but it’s followed by a cover that just never gets off the ground, for whatever reason. Melody Green’s Make My Life A Prayer To You (recorded by her husband Keith) is a perfectly fine song…but for some reason it just comes across flat on Mansion Builder. It’s presented as a solo by Nelly, and it lacks the immediacy and passion of Green’s version (recorded on his No Compromise album, released in 1978, the same year as Mansion Builder). It’s by no means a reflection on Nelly’s performance (although pretty much any cover of a Green tune is going to suffer in comparison to his version); it’s just that this version of the song has a different feel than the rest of the album, sounding a little stale or sterile. It does, however, mange to fit in with the theme of Mansion Builder due to the following lyric line:

Oh, You’re coming again
Coming to take me away

The record concludes with a lively, bouncy pop tune called Daydreamer. The last song on Mansion Builder begins just like the first – with Annie Herring’s staccato acoustic piano. And, like Rod and Staff, Daydreamer contains many of the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from 2nd Chapter of Acts tunes: melodies and time signatures that move in surprising directions, rich poetry with deep meaning, and, of course, the trademark vocal harmonies soaring above it all.

Author and CCM historian Mark Allan Powell wrote that Mansion Builder was “an undeniable showcase of professionalism” with “beautiful songs.” He notes that it was “hailed as a quintessential example of what Christian music could be.”

Following Mansion Builder, Matthew Ward recorded a critically acclaimed solo project on Sparrow titled Toward Eternity, and the group released a concept album based on C.S. Lewis’ literary classic, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Titled The Roar of Love, it had been held up for about three years due to copyright concerns and such.

As the calendar turned from the 70s to the 80s, other 2nd Chapter of Acts albums hit store shelves (Rejoice, Night Light, Singer Sower, Faraway Places) that seemed to more of less follow the musical direction established on Mansion Builder (or expand upon it).

Members of the group have been known to remark that they, like other “First Wave” artists such as Chuck Girard, Nancy Honeytree, Pat Terry, Terry Clark, and Keith Green, sensed a change in the Christian music “industry” as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s. And it wasn’t a positive change.

“I think it’s sad that, today, Christian music has become an industry rather than a ministry,” Buck Herring lamented. “I don’t really know the answer to this. We used to fight against it continually, and got ourselves into a lot of hot water.

“Radical” stands taken by the 2nd Chapter of Acts include the following:

• Would not be interviewed by music magazines and would not appear on magazine covers (to avoid self-promotion and ‘superlatives’)

• Would not play Christian music festivals (not conducive to ministry)

• For a time, would not allow promoters to sell tickets to their concerts

• Engaged in ‘spiritual warfare’ and intercessory prayer on a regular basis at concert venues

In his autobiography, My Second Chapter, Matthew Ward writes that the group didn’t care for hype and had no desire to set themselves up as celebrities.

“Now, we have so many magazines, music charts, and popularity contests, it all has the potential to put ministries in competition with each other, rather than coming alongside and working together for Jesus,” observed Buck Herring.

At the end of the day, the Herrings and the Wards believed that their concerts were vehicles whereby the audience members could be ushered into a worship experience. “We believe God had called us to be a wooer of the Body of Christ,” Annie explained, “so they could come and just be loved by Jesus and be healed.”

In the early 80s, the group followed their friend Keith Green and relocated to Lindale, Texas. Land was plentiful (and much more affordable than in California), and being centrally located would be beneficial (with touring costs in mind). Nelly was married by this time with a young family, which played into the decision as well. As it turned out, Texas became quite the hub for ministries during those years. In addition to Last Days Ministries (Keith Green’s outfit) and the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Dallas Holm, David Wilkerson, Agape Force, YWAM, Winkie Pratney, Leonard Ravenhill and Barry McGuire all called the area home at one time or another.

Melody & Keith
The 2nd Chapter had enjoyed being neighbors with Keith and Melody Green for just about a year when tragedy struck. Christendom was rocked to its core when Keith Green, two of his children, his pilot and another entire ministry family were killed in a plane crash in July of 1982. For the 2nd Chapter of Acts, the loss was personal.

The group took 1983 off from touring in order to re-center and hear God’s voice in a specific way. In addition to allowing God to perform supernatural “surgery” on their hearts, they also built a recording studio and welcomed a new family member, as Matthew Ward got married.

Nelly (now Greisen) and her husband Steve used the time off to focus on family. Looking back, Nelly shares sentiments that, sadly, could even be considered politically incorrect today:

“Being a mother is a high position in God’s eyes. We are the hands of Jesus to our children. They learn about God by seeing our commitment to Him, lived out in our homes. We can be pillars of strength to our husbands as we help release the gifts God has placed in them. And we do this by being consistent and available with our love.”

Hear, hear!

Keith Green
When the group returned to touring in 1984, they were personally revived…but found that the spiritual climate within the CCM world had deteriorated even further. Buck Herring blamed this, in part, on the absence of Keith Green.

“It seemed as though once this incredibly powerful standard had been removed, the flood dikes were opened to all sorts of things,” Buck observed. “For whatever reason, Christian music began to be highly diluted from a spiritual standpoint.”

The mid-to-late 80s (marked by the albums Night Light, Singer-Sower and Faraway Places) found the group enjoying “elder statesmen” status and lots of radio airplay as Jesus Music had become a full-blown music industry known as CCM. Author Mark Allan Powell complains about this period in the group’s history, writing that they got “scrubbed and tamed” and turned into a “churchy group.” He opines that “the fire” had “gone out” and says that the group’s records from this period could no longer be accurately described as “rock albums.” I couldn’t disagree more. Any changes to the group’s music and appearance was simply organic; music is tweaked as styles change – this dynamic was noticeably present in the careers of artists such as DeGarmo & Key, Resurrection Band, Petra and many others. As for the charge of being “churchy” and no longer worthy of the “rock” designation…I would simply encourage you to listen to the albums. Most egregious was his assertion that their “fire” had somehow “gone out.” Frankly, I know of no other group that so regularly devoted themselves to hearing God’s voice and obeying His will for their ministry. It is well documented that the group members came together at the first of each new year for the sole purpose of seeking God’s face for direction and purpose, several times taking an entire year off for this reason. The group also served on the front lines in the struggle against the killing of unborn children in America; they spoke out against the holocaust of our time and spearheaded the recording of a pro-life anthem titled Fight the Fight. Annie wrote the song and dozens of artists participated in the recording and video, which raised support for Americans Against Abortion. Does it sound like the fire had gone out? Powell’s charge is ridiculous, if not
In fact, the group’s decision to record a trio of “hymns” updates at the end of their time together was a response to three separate prophetic words. After breathing new life into those classic songs for a new generation of believers (the first Hymns album became the group’s all-time best-selling record), the group members came to the realization that the Lord was telling them that a shift, a new season, was coming. They knew that their tour that year would be their last. They sang to packed auditoriums and felt an outpouring of love and support from audiences everywhere they went.

The official final concert took place in Houston, Texas on August 12, 1988. “We finished the concert and the 7,500 people attending rose to their feet, and clapped and clapped,” Matthew Ward remembers. “Nelly and Annie were crying and I was losing it, too. I think it had finally dawned on us: This is our last concert. This is it! We weren’t tired of ministering to people. It was just God’s time for something new.”

That “something new” meant solo ministries for Annie and Matthew, and an expanded role as full-time wife and mom for Nelly, as she supported husband Steve and her sons in their video production business. Matthew Ward is also a family man (with a wife and three daughters) and a cancer survivor. His book My Second Chapter is a great read and fills in lots of details that you'll not find anywhere else.

Annie, Matthew and Nelly today

All in all, the 2nd Chapter of Acts recorded sixteen albums and performed close to two thousand concerts. They toured the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe. They received a Dove Award for their Hymns album, and were inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1999. But awards and accolades mean very little to this group.

“All we ever wanted was for people to see Jesus,” said Buck Herring. “If anything made us different, it was our fervent desire to please the Lord and to be obedient to Him, regardless of the costs.”

Remembering GARY S. PAXTON

Gary S. Paxton
CCM’s Eccentric Uncle has gone Home.

It’s very difficult to adequately describe the Christian music phenomenon that was Gary S. Paxton in the mid- to late-70s. He was a multi-talented artist, producer and songwriter with a knack for novelty songs and humor. He also had a keen sense of issues and problems plaguing America and Christendom, and never shied away from sounding a warning call. Paxton was involved in a substantial way (artist, songwriter, producer, engineer, arranger, label owner) with records that are said to have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide since 1956.

Gary had a storied secular music career before meeting the Lord. It gained him a great deal of notoriety but also saddled him with substance abuse issues and broken relationships. He wandered into a Nashville church and made a life-changing decision in the mid-1970s. “I was walking around completely stoned and kept hearing this voice in my head,” recalls Paxton. “I was walking up and down Music Row, and there was a little Christian bookstore and a church there. Don Pinto was the pastor; Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant went there when Amy was about 15 or 16. I went in that church, drunk out of my mind. They said I ought to come back. So I did – the next week. Rev. Pinto said, ‘You need to get saved…from yourself!’ So I went down to the front, got saved and baptized, and that was the last time I ever touched drugs or alcohol.”

Keeping one foot in the secular music business (he had some huge success as a writer and producer for country artists in the mid-70s), Paxton also began to try his hand at Gospel music following his dramatic conversion. His “Midas touch” worked there as well. He wrote popular songs for The Imperials like No Shortage and My Child, Welcome Home. Other Christian music successes came with typical Paxton titles such as If You’re Happy (Notify Your Face) and If Nobody Loves You, Create the Demand. He won Grammys as writer and producer for The Blackwood Brothers and The Imperials.

Then in 1976, the Wildman took center stage as an artist in his own right. He released an album with an unusual gatefold cover that featured Paxton, smiling, bearded, and dressed in a red jumpsuit and hat, coming up out of a manhole cover. If that didn’t clue us in that this was going to be something entirely different, the album title itself would leave no doubt: The Astonishing, Outrageous, Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable, Different World of Gary S. Paxton. Even though Paxton had already been around for a lifetime or two in the music industry, this record served as an introduction to most Christian music listeners.

Other Christian albums followed and Paxton infused them all with eccentricity, individuality and hippie humor. Lyrically, the surreal and satirical would be set to humorous poetry. One reviewer described him as a cross between Steve Taylor and Frank Zappa. Musically, Paxton alternated between country, gospel, rock, disco and funk. You never knew just what you were going to hear next!

Gary S. Paxton’s life and times always had a fair amount of craziness swirling about. Early in his career, by his own admission, he was married to one woman and simultaneously engaged to two others; he tells of an incident in 1980 during which he was attacked and shot three times by hit men who were trying to avenge a music deal gone bad; while in the hospital a business partner embezzled a half million dollars from him, resulting in his sleeping in a sleeping bag on a concrete floor for two years; he went bankrupt and lived on welfare and food stamps after having been a very wealthy man four or five different times; and then he was rumored to have had an adulterous affair with Tammy Faye Bakker during his time of appearing on the PTL Club television program – a charge that he vehemently denied.

Paxton lived out his final years in Branson, Missouri with his fourth wife; he suffered from hepatitis C and almost died from the disease in 1990. He was inducted into the Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999. 

“I had to begin again with Jesus,” said Paxton. “If you have God on your side, no matter what, you can begin again. I thank God for every trial, every scar, every setback I’ve ever had, because they help you grow.”
Gary S. Paxton died at his home in Branson on July 16, 2016. He was 77 years old.

I mean no disrespect whatsoever by sharing the following video clip. It's a song that Gary wrote and recorded about the end of life that we all will face sooner or later. I think it's a great representation of the genre that Gary perfected in the mid to late 70s: novelty songs that disarmed with humor but also drove home an important spiritual message (in this case, that your soul had better be prepared when you take your last breath). Killer ending, too!