Thursday, April 17, 2014

#88 - MATTHEWS, TAYLOR and JOHNSON by Randy Matthews, Danny Taylor and Mike Johnson (1976)

by Randy Matthews, Danny Taylor and Mike Johnson
NewPax (NP 33014) - 1976

Matthews, Taylor and Johnson. Three veteran singer/songwriters of the Jesus Music era joining forces and pooling their talents.

Of course, this type of thing had already been done in secular music, and with great success. Anybody remember Crosby, Stills and Nash? It would later be tried again and again in the CCM world: Albrecht, Roley & Moore teamed up in 1978, while Holm, Sheppard and Johnson got together in 1981. In fact, Dallas Holm apparently liked the trio thing so much, he tried it again! He, Jerry Williams of Harvest and Dana Key of DeGarmo & Key came together for one album as Mesa. And then the 90s gave us Keaggy, King and Dente. So at the end of the day, that’s a lot of trio projects. But the one that got the ball rolling, at least in the CCM world, was this album by Randy Matthews, Danny Taylor, and Mike Johnson.

Who were these guys? Let’s take a quick look at what each of them had accomplished as solo artists in their own right before joining forces in 1976.

During a troubled adolescence, Mike Johnson dropped out of school and ended up playing guitar for the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band. After receiving help from the Teen Challenge ministry, Mike surrendered his life to Christ. He formed a band called The Exkursions and started playing some of the world’s very first heavy Christian rock music. Johnson went on to record several influential albums of Jesus Music as a solo artist in the 1970s, the most well known being 1976’s The Artist/The Riddle.

Danny Taylor produced a handful of mellow, acoustic folk-rock albums in the 1970s. Two of them were live records, one having been recorded at the prestigious Carnegie Hall (like Andrae Crouch before him). He also made an entire album of love songs (unheard of for a Christian artist in the mid-70s). Titled Time for Love, it is said to be Taylor’s masterpiece. Danny Taylor became a spokesman of sorts for Jesus Music and wrote a monthly column for a while in Harmony Magazine (the forerunner to CCM Magazine).

Mike Johnson

And that leaves Randy Matthews. I’ll go ahead and let you in a little secret: Matthews will have other albums that rank much higher on this list. And when we get to those albums, we will take a more in-depth look at the inimitable Mr. Matthews. For now, I’ll just say that he was one of the most important early pioneers of Gospel rock and roll. His down-and-dirty, blues-inflected folk-rock, comic timing, and endearing persona would serve him well over the course of ten studio albums beginning all the way back in 1971. Never one to be judged by commercial success, it was his overall presence, body of work and cultural influence that made such a strong impact. If there was a Christian rock Mt. Rushmore, a strong case could be made for chiseling Matthews’ likeness in stone.

By the time the idea for this album was hatched, all three of these men were either at their musical peak or already beginning to coast downhill if you will. I’m really not sure how this idea came about or where the concept came from. We do know that the album was released on Gary S. Paxton’s Newpax Records and that the LP was co-produced by longtime industry executive (and now GMA Hall of Fame inductee) Bob MacKenzie (along with Matthews). Matthews, Taylors and Johnson features some of Nashville’s finest session players from the seventies, including Reggie Young, Kenny Malone, Jack Williams, Shane Keister, Steve Gibson, Steve Schaffer, Dale Sellers, Ron Oates and Farrell Morris. 

Danny Taylor

The album kicks off with Something In Common, an uptempo rocker that attempts to explain how this whole experiment came about in the first place:

Well, brother Mike had a guitar handy
So he wrote a couple songs with Randy
And they said we got to call up Danny
Got to sing, Sing for the Lord

Don’t you know we’ve got something in common
We’ve got the Lord

The horns are a little cheesy and the track lacks polish, but it sounds like these three renegades are having a blast. You can hear Randy Matthews yell, “Play that guitar! Woo!” just before Mike Johnson launches into a harmony-guitar twin lead break.

The next song continues in an autobiographical track, describing these Jesus Music veterans as Three Empty Vessels.

Oh, empty vessels
Different shape and size
Learning what you’re made to be
By living your new lives
We all are empty vessels
With little usefulness
Until the Potter fills us up
With love and faith and rest

We are only jars of clay
That crack and break and fade away
But when oil was poured within
The dying clay was born again

Musically, the song is helped along by some nice vocal harmony on the choruses. None of these guys were really known for having great voices – Matthews, especially, had a gritty, gravelly vocal style – but their blend was surprisingly pleasant when singing together. Three Empty Vessels also featured a “very 70s” ending.

Randy Matthews is given a chance to shine on a funky, 5-minute gem called The Gambler. The instrumentation features a unique combination of Shane Keister’s clavinet, Don Sanders’ saxophone and what sounds like a vibraphone (but might’ve been a keyboard).

Danny Taylor is featured on Don’t Shake My Hand. It’s a song that seems to decry shallow, surface relationships in the church.

Deep inside I’ve got a need to feel your love
And I’ve got to know you feel the same
Every time we meet it seems to be sincere
But at best it’s only been a game

When I think of all the empty words we say
Honestly, it makes me sick inside
How can we pretend to be a family
If we always build a wall of pride

Don’t shake my hand if you don’t mean it…

Randy Matthews (around 1980)

The Light Song (Keep it Burning) wraps up Side One. The ballad features the quavering voice of Matthews, a vocal technique that he sometimes used to great effect. But it was basically wasted here. It’s really an unremarkable tune, lyrically and musically. Shane Keister’s synthesizer on the chorus sounds like a slightly out of tune harpsichord, and the lyrics are very cliché-driven (When you hold the light / and share it with a friend / You start a candle burning / whose flame will never end and Have you noticed in the light / we can see each other / Now that we can see / we can help one another). This one should’ve been left off the album in favor of a stronger song.

Just in the nick of time, Side Two opens with perhaps the album’s best and most memorable song. This and That is a funky number that gives the guys another chance to show off their vocal blend and gives each man a chance to sing solo as well. The song laments the difficulties that individual Christians and Christian denominations seemingly have in trying to overcome differences. In the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I believe in this
You believe in that
This and that are keeping us from loving one another

Round and round in arguments
Lasting day and night
Even those who start out friends
Wind up in a fight
Didn’t Jesus teach us all
How to give and take
Where’s the love we talk about
Or is it just a fake?

Sounds a lot like the Facebook interactions of today, no?

I Praise You, I Thank You, I Love You was a full-on worship song. Keep in mind that this was 1976, waaay before worship was cool. On this mellow track, the gentlemen were a little ahead of their time.

Second Coming Sunset adds some legitimate comic relief. Sounding like it could’ve easily been at home on a Gary S. Paxton record, the song examines in detail a terrible day in the life of a dude who just can’t catch a break. I won’t reprint any of the lyrics here so as not to spoil it for you if you haven’t heard the song yet. But the guys just sound like they’re really having fun on this one. In order to truly appreciate Second Coming Sunset, you should listen with headphones and check out all of the adlib banter that’s being offered in the background while Danny, Mike and Randy trade off verses. The “message” of the song seems to be that no matter what life throws at you, it’s okay…because we always have Jesus’ return to look forward to. Yeah, kind of weak in the “moral of the story” department…but, hey, it gave the boys an excuse to loosen up and have a good time. Incidentally, my brother and I used to cover this song a lot while on the road with our family’s evangelistic ministry. It never failed to get smiles and even laughs from audiences large and small.

The weakest song on Side Two would be It’s Alright, with lead vocals by Mike Johnson. Musically, it’s a harmless little country number that brings the aforementioned Crosby, Stills & Nash to mind. But the message seems to be that it’s alright to wear our emotions on our sleeve, so to speak. The listener is told that it’s okay to laugh and to cry (as if we would’ve never known that otherwise). The listener is told that “Jesus wants to laugh with you,” and that “Jesus cries for you.” Alrighty then.

But the album ends on a high note with a gentle ballad titled, Over There. With Mike Johnson again handling the lead vocals, the song is an inviting look at what’s waiting for the Christian on the other side. There are some nice harmonies on this track.

If you’ve not heard this album but are inclined to look for it now on ebay, or a local thrift store, a word of caution: don’t expect a flawless performance. Part of the charm of the record is that it’s real...gritty…authentic. You’ll hear occasional flat vocals and some minor timing issues. Sometimes it sounds like the guys started recording their vocals immediately after getting out of bed (or at the end of a very long day)! The bottom line is that these were three men who had lived life. You could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices.

The aftermath of this album wasn’t pretty. The three men ended up touring with Christian comedian Mike Warnke who, at that time, was reportedly pursuing “a decadent lifestyle.” Now, we’re all responsible for our own actions; that’s true for Randy, Danny, and Mike just as it’s true for any one of us. Our trio of troubadours cannot lay all of the blame for their mistakes at Mike Warnke’s doorstep. But the Bible does say that bad company corrupts good morals.

Warnke eventually owned up to the fact that much of his (totally hilarious) testimony was either significantly embellished or not true at all; that he had a less than desirable marital/sexual track record; and that drugs and alcohol were also part of the mix. Randy Matthews admitted that he started “imbibing and toking” during this time period and “then slid downhill into harder stuff.” Danny Taylor also yielded to the temptations of Warnke’s “no accountability” approach to touring. “I can’t say Mike Warnke made me do anything,” Taylor admitted. “I made some bad choices and I take responsibility for them.” Mike Johnson declined into alcohol abuse and even saw his marriage dissolve after an affair with one of Warnke’s wives. Johnson wrote a book about his experiences titled Jesus and the Music.

Randy Matthews as "Redbeard"

Randy Matthews would record again and would somewhat rehabilitate his music career for a while. He was honored with an inclusion on First Love, a CD & DVD release that featured an exclusive group of Jesus Music pioneers, telling stories and singing songs in a cabin in Northern California (recorded in 1997). It was basically like a Gaither Homecoming for Jesus Freaks. These days, Matthews reportedly pays the bills as a character actor at an amusement park in Florida. He plays Redbeard the Pirate, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he’s perfect for the part!

Danny Taylor went on to manage a small music hall in Louisiana and also produced public access TV programming. He passed away on January 15, 2010 in Nashville, succumbing to a number of illnesses.

Mike Johnson has also gone Home. He passed away in his sleep of a heart attack on February 9, 2013, in his Nashville home. Randy Matthews has been quoted as saying that in his mind, Mike Johnson was “the true father of what we now call Contemporary Christian Music,” because of his visionary work with The Exkursions.

I’ll close this post with the liner notes from the back cover of Matthews, Taylor and Johnson. Very poignant words, in light of Mike’s and Danny’s homegoings:

It’s been a long trip
Can’t recall how it actually began…
out in Missouri,
or back east…
but it’s been a long trip.
Through countless college auditoriums,
big churches and love offerings…
asleep on park benches
to billings with top music stars…
dust storms and guitar-losing airlines…
four people at a bus stop
to thousands at Carnegie Hall…
it’s been a long trip.
The rewards, varied,
the songs many (stories of the heart),
Three individual paths that now form
one of the major musical highways
in Christian music…
Something in common brought us together…
it’s been a long trip,
heaven’s a little closer…
we’re almost there.


  1. For the uninitiated, here's a clever YouTube video of "Second Coming Sunset":

    1. That is awesome! Thanks for sharing it.

    2. Thanks! I remember seeing Mike Johnson & Mike Warnke in Denver when I was a teenager... sad to learn about the story after the concert.