RON SALSBURY and JC POWER OUTLET
Ron Salsbury and JC Power Outlet (Myrrh, 1972)
"Raw"..."unpolished"..."rowdy." This was some high-energy rock-n-roll-for-Jesus in 1972. The historical significance alone recommends this one for inclusion. According to historian Ken Scott, this much-loved album from Ron Salsbury, John Pantano, Rick Frye, and Greg Prough featured "fast-pounding drums, chooka-chooka rhythm guitar, in-your-face lyrics, and blitzing hard rock electric guitar solos." Shaggy-haired Jesus freaks with goofy grins and a garage band sound.
The Exkursions (Custom, 1971)
Mike Johnson played and sang with this blues-rock trio, formed in Chicago in 1968 and said to be influenced by Cream and Jimi Hendrix. A blog called Jesus Rock Legends says this album was "surprisingly crisp" and had "a great drum sound and groovy stereo effects." The reviewer continued: "It still sounds raw, like someone jamming out in your living room but the production quality is not muddy or muffled like so many other recordings of that period. This is the band's only album and it’s a treasure of fuzz guitar and blues licks with those 'growly hippy' vocals that are just too cool!" And to think that it was 1971. The release date alone argues for inclusion on historical merit. The album's liner notes say, "The most critical factor in their music today is a relationship to Jesus, the Messiah. Their commitment to Him has brought a new sound, a new hope, and a new way." This record has been somewhat overlooked in the historical canvas of Jesus Music, but it shouldn't be. And how about that psychedelic cover?
Randy Matthews (who later recorded with Mike Johnson as part of the trio Matthews Taylor and Johnson) has written about first meeting Mike at a "rather primitive Christian rock festival held in a high school gym" in 1972. Larry Norman was there as well. "I was excited about meeting Larry, but even more so about meeting Mike who, in my mind, was THE true father of what we now call Contemporary Christian Music," wrote Matthews in a blog by Mark Hollingsworth called Embracing the Gray. "It was because of his young visionary work with The Exkursions, a missionary band who worked with the Billy Graham Association and at the same time performed on street corners that had captured my imagination."
THE ARTIST/THE RIDDLE
Mike Johnson (NewPax, 1976)
This has been called Johnson's finest moment. An oddity was that the album actually had two title tracks: a country tune called The Artist and a Renaissance-influenced track called The Riddle (complete with flute and recorder). The record is said to feature a diversity of styles. Harmony magazine named Mike Johnson "Artist of the Year" on the strength of this album, co-produced by Jesus Music legend Randy Matthews. On the album cover, you notice a smiling Johnson with a sparkle in his eye in the foreground, while the background reflects the peace and tranquility of Christ’s future millennial reign.
Randy Matthews has called Johnson "truly one of the most talented and inspirational [artists] of them all" and "the most prolific writer I've ever known." Matthews also said that Johnson was "without a doubt, the funniest guy I ever met." Coming from Matthews, that's high praise. Author Mark Hollingsworth said, "I always respected his vision, skill, and hard work in wanting to expand God’s kingdom through creative means."
Mike Johnson passed away in his sleep of a heart attack on February 9th, 2013 at his home in Nashville.
HENCEFORTH I CALL YOU NOT SERVANTS BUT...FRIENDS
Debby Kerner & Ernie Rettino (Maranatha! Music, 1974)
Well, they would eventually be known as the creators of Psalty the Singing Songbook. But they began as a musical duo. Ernie and Debby met at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, where she led worship. They started making music together and have never stopped. Their 1974 release on Maranatha Music had a clunky, somewhat wordy title: Henceforth I Call You Not Servants But...Friends. Most people just shorten it down to Friends. Love Song alums John Mehler and Jay Truax played on this one. It includes original songs, covers of songs by Jimmy Owens and Kenn Gulliksen, and some traditional spirituals. Pretty much a gentle, mellow, easy-listening record.
MORE THAN FRIENDS
Debby Kerner & Ernie Rettino (Maranatha! Music, 1976)
The two were married in 1976 and named their next album More Than Friends. Karen Lafferty and a then-largely unknown Keith Green contributed to More Than Friends with their talents. The record features everything from orchestrated pop and ballads to kiddie ditties and hillbilly country. And there's a gatefold cover with a wedding photo inside.
In 2006, Kerner became Director of Worship Leadership at Saddleback Church where she trains and mentors worship leaders. Dr. Debby Kerner Rettino graduated from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary with a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2010.
BIRD IN A GOLDEN SKY
Karen Lafferty (Maranatha! Music, 1973)
Originally from Alamogordo, New Mexico, Karen graduated from Eastern New Mexico University and unsuccessfully attempted to join a Campus Crusade for Christ musical ensemble shortly after. Intending to pursue a career in secular music, she moved to southern California but soon beginning to perform at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. She wrote a worship chorus called Seek Ye First. And the rest is history. Jesus Music royalty such as Fred Field, Alex MacDougall, Darrell Mansfield, and Al Perkins all contributed to this, Karen's debut album. This record has been called one of her best. Lafferty has been described by David Lowman as "one of the very best songwriters of the era." Lowman says this album's title track would've been a huge Christian radio hit had there been much CCM radio in 1975. Lafferty beautifully describes the freedom found through Biblical faith as being similar to that experienced by a bird flying in a golden sky. "I actually wrote that song for a woman who I new had a lot of personal problems, but she was not open to the Lord at all. That's why I have lines in it like 'Tell me why it is you're crying' and 'I'm singing of my liberty.' It was one of the first songs that I was known for." The album was arranged by Children Of The Day's Peter Jacobs "who tastefully applied horns and strings to Karen's clear, beautiful voice," according to crossrhythms.com.
Karen Lafferty (Maranatha! Music, 1978)
Produced by the great Jonathan David Brown early in his career, this one had a bit of a country feel. The album is said to be Karen Lafferty's favorite among the recordings she has made. As she explained to crossrhythms.com, "It actually came out of a very difficult time. There were four people in my life that I was close to that all died within about two years. Most of those songs came out of the emotions of that period. God was with me and ministering to me deeply in that time." A young Kelly Willard supplied backing vocals and played most of the keyboards on the album. A year after the release of Sweet Communion, Karen relocated to the Netherlands to work with Youth With A Mission. She founded Musicians for Missions in 1981, under YWAM in Holland. Lafferty would spend her entire adult life traveling, teaching and ministering with YWAM.
Danny Lee & the Children of Truth (RCA Victor, 1971)
"Danny Lee and the Children of Truth bring a brand new sound to religious music," announced the liner notes for this 1971 album, "a sound that can be understood by all generations." This pioneering group was actually an early crossover band since their albums were released by secular giant RCA. Author Mark Allan Powell says frontman Danny Lee Stutzman was an excellent pianist and a great singer who could get pretty funky when he wanted to. This album's title song, the Larry Norman classic, was a theme song for the Jesus Movement. Danny Lee & company were credited with popularizing the song and bringing Larry to the attention of a wider audience within the Church.
SPREAD A LITTLE LOVE AROUND
Danny Lee & the Children of Truth (RCA Victor, 1972)
Produced by Hal Spencer, Danny Lee's sophomore effort was named for an iconic song that would be covered again and again in the early 70s (notably by the Imperials). Spread a Little Love Around ended up being included on the influential soundtrack album for Explo '72. This album's liner notes exaggerate a bit when they compare Danny Lee to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and The Beatles. But Lee was definitely a pioneer that I don't believe ever fully got his due. Danny Lee Stutzman passed away after suffering a heart attack in the 1980s.
Liberation Suite (Myrrh, 1975)
A hard-rocking Jesus Music band from Texas that incorporated brass? Sign me up! Historian Mark Allan Powell says this album remains one of the most important - and one of the best - contributions of the Jesus Music era. John Pantry produced this record, which contains plenty of Zeppelinesque blues-rock, progressive art-rock, and ballads. Bonus style points for that groovy logo on the front cover. Sometimes compared to Chicago, Kansas, Styx and even Supertramp, Liberation Suite was said to often be even more innovative than what was being produced in the secular marketplace. Powell also wrote that Liberation Suite demonstrated both the passion and the naivete of the Jesus Movement revival. The group later spent a lot of time in Europe, playing many concerts in Ireland, as well as the very first Greenbelt Festival in England. For a time, they were said to be one of the top Christian bands in the U.K.
LIMPIC & RAYBURN
Gerry Limpic & Mark Rayburn with Dave Pollard (Myrrh, 1976)
This was actually a custom LP with production values that were good enough for the record to be picked up by Myrrh in 1976. Historian Ken Scott calls it "a catchy blend of wholesome, folky, pop/light-rock and acoustic ballads, with similarities to both Gospel Seed and the Pat Terry Group." Limpic and Rayburn took turns playing acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards. Pollard played bass. Most memorable songs were Sunshine In My Soul and Come To The River.
I WISH WE'D ALL BEEN READY
Randy Matthews (Word, 1971)
He would go on to become one of the most important pioneers of Gospel Rock and Roll, leaving quite a legacy. And it all started here. This album has been described as very tame and churchy...with lots of piano and female background vocals. But the title track was a cover of Larry Norman's most popular song at the time (Matthews says he just happened to find the song and knew nothing of the author), and the album's liner notes include this quote from Isaac Watts: "Why should the devil have all the good music?" That line, of course, was picked up by Larry Norman as the title of a song about a year later and became a battle cry for Jesus freaks everywhere. This record, conservative as it may be, should've been considered for inclusion on this list due to the historical fact that it was the first non-traditional gospel record to be issued on any gospel label.
ALL I AM IS WHAT YOU SEE
Randy Matthews (Myrrh, 1972)
This record was initially rejected by Word as too radical (bonus points!). So it was Randy Matthews who suggested that Word start a subsidiary label that could release more culturally relevant records without tarnishing the reputation of the parent company (WORD). And they bought it! Myrrh Records was born, Billy Ray Hearn was installed as president, and All I Am Is What You See became the very first release on the storied Myrrh label. Matthews was starting to look like a real live hippie on the cover of this album, although the record itself is actually said to be quite tame, with a few guitar solos here and there. The hand-clapping, foot-stomping Country Faith became a concert favorite. Matthews went on to leave quite a mark as one of the all-time most effective communicators in CCM history.
Barry McGuire (Sparrow, 1976)
The hairy, lovable, folksy Jesus freak known as Barry McGuire had some really influential albums on Myrrh Records. Once he followed Billy Ray Hearn over to Sparrow, his recorded output was less consistent, more uneven. A little hit or miss. But a record like C'mon Along still had its moments. The song Clouds is considered an all-time Barry McGuire classic. It's been described as a sweet and simple ballad about longing for the Lord's return. McGuire is supported on C'mon Along by an all-star cast that included the likes of Al Perkins, Matthew Ward, Terry Talbot, Richard Souther, and Mike Deasy.
HAVE YOU HEARD
Barry McGuire (Sparrow, 1977)
I so wanted to put this one on the list. Let's start with that album jacket. Lots of white space with a stunning photo of a somber McGuire on the front cover and Barry breaking into laughter on the back. Each side opens with a classic - There is a Peace on side one and the unforgettable Communion Song on side two. Author Mark Allan Powell called Communion Song probably the finest song Barry McGuire has ever recorded. I don't know if I would go that far...but it's definitely a classic, and very important from a doctrinal standpoint, as there are far too few songs that deal with the Lord's Supper. The Dogwood song Sometime, Someplace gets an upgrade here by Barry...and who could ever forget Chubby, Chubby? A song that takes Christians to task for being overweight (much like Gary S. Paxton's Fat, Fat Christians). In this Mike Deasy composition, McGuire worries (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) that some Christians will miss the rapture because they'll be too fat to fly. It's just too good. McGuire stretches out and growls a bit on the rocker Light of the World, and deflects praise on Don't Thank Me. Yeah, maybe I should've found room for this one in there somewhere...
Barry McGuire (Sparrow, 1978)
OK, what was I thinking here? This record might've made the list on the strength of that epic title track alone! I don't know...people tend to either love or hate the song Cosmic Cowboy. But there's no denying it's a classic. It was the biggest hit on Christian radio in 1978. The problem is that after Cosmic Cowboy there's little else on this record that really sticks with you. The album does benefit greatly, however, from the performances of three members of what I sometimes lovingly refer to as the Koinonia mafia - bassist Abraham Laboriel, drummer Bill Maxwell, and keyboardist Harlan Rogers. Also appearing on Cosmic Cowboy: Mike Deasy, David Diggs, Bili Thedford, Al Perkins, and Michael Omartian. Truly an all-star cast. If only the songs were better.
Ken Medema (Word, 1974)
Ken Medema is a classically trained musician who has been blind from birth. He taught himself to play the piano and earned a doctorate from Michigan State University. He got a job in the early 70s as Director of Music and Creative Arts Therapies at a children's psychiatric hospital in New Jersey. While there, he recorded a couple of albums and started playing concerts. One such concert took place in Waco, Texas, the home of Word Records. Word signed him up and Harmony Magazine (forerunner to CCM) wrote that Medema "effectively bridged the gap between contemporary and traditional music," giving him a little street cred with Jesus people. The title track from this album shows off Medema's piano work and was later shared with a larger audience when The Imperials covered it. Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying is remembered fondly and even made it into some hymnals. In the funky You Can't Go Back, Medema enthusiastically sings, "You can't go back to the music of yesterday!" Mr. Simon is another track that made an impact from this record. Medema has been called a consummate musical storyteller.
Medema is basically a spiritual and political liberal these days. He still performs but his lyrics generally provide social commentary on themes such as "justice," hunger, poverty, homelessness, and the like. He and his wife Jane now live near San Francisco, California.
David Meece (Myrrh, 1976)
He's been called "the Christian Barry Manilow." He was a child prodigy from the Lone Star state, a concert pianist who played with symphony orchestras as a teenager. While attending the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Meece surrendered his life to Jesus. His musical tastes began to change as well, trading an affinity for classical music for psychedelic pop sounds. His debut album on Myrrh Records was pretty tame - lots of easy listening tunes. One author said that Meece came off like a quasi-classical Christian Mancini. The songs Jesus and I Love You, Lord are fondly remembered from this album, with I Love You, Lord having appeared on the influential Jubilation, Too sampler set.
EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE HELP
David Meece (Myrrh, 1979)
In 1978, Meece donned a warm-up suit and posed for one of the most unfortunate album covers of the 70s. And something had happened to David's voice. It was all falsetto, all the time. It sounded like Meece was kidnapped and literally replaced with the Bee Gees on this album. I mean, it was shameless! But here's the thing...the dude flat-out pulled it off. On this album, he did the Bee Gees better than they did! Songs like the title track, God Holds the Future and I Can't Believe It's True sound exactly like the Gibbs brothers and get stuck in your head for days at a time. Put this one in the Guilty Pleasure category.
Meece would reinvent himself and recorded a slew of big-time Christian radio hits throughout the 80s and into the 90s.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled countdown of the greatest CCM albums of the 1970s...