January 18, 2018

Go Where you are Celebrated, Not Tolerated

When I talked about making things happen, we surely tried. Wayne Coombs, our manager, was trying to put us before a younger, hipper college audience because he felt that would open a lot of doors for us to tour America’s colleges. It was a nice idea and a worthy effort. We were very excited about that possibility and so we “bought in” and got the clothes and the songs we thought would make that happen. There was a major college showcase in Los Angeles and Wayne got us on that show. It was October of 1970. Many young, hip artists appeared, but we were the only gospel artists on the bill. We bought these black military suits with a black belt outside and a red turtleneck sweater. We thought we looked pretty good. Unfortunately, when you are singing to a secular crowd of students who didn’t like government intrusion into their lives at all, and you walk out there looking like Hitler’s Gestapo, you can imagine what happened. That secular crowd of young people didn’t like us one bit!  They didn’t boo, but they didn’t applaud much. Nothing was thrown at the stage but after 45 long and painful minutes we left the stage with our tails between our legs and wondering what we were doing there in the first place.

It taught us a great lesson that I will never forget. There’s a very appropriate saying, “Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated”.  Ricky Nelson had a tune he wrote for just such a situation as we endured. The song was called Garden Party. It talks of trying to be something you are not and getting shot down by the crowd because you tried to please a crowd that simply didn’t want to hear what you had to say. He wound up in that song saying, “If memories were all I’ve got, I’d rather drive a truck”.  So, stay true to your calling and be who God made you to be. Nobody can be you better than YOU. Yes, stretch your limits and try new things like we did. You will find your boundaries and your limits or the audience will do it for you.

January 11, 2018

The First Jesus Festival

During those first three years with the Imperials, many doors were opened for us.  Joe Moscheo had gotten acquainted with Wayne Coombs, who managed several different artists outside our industry. He wanted to take us on and manage the Imperials. Since we weren’t strictly “southern gospel” he wanted to try to branch out and put us in venues that were a bit different. We were working with Elvis, with Jimmy Dean, and we were also striking out into new directions with music that might appeal to a wider audience. One of the first attempts was to place us at the very first “Jesus Festival” in Dallas, TX. We were doing a three-week stint at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas with Jimmy, and the festival occurred during that time frame. It was around 1971, in the summer, and we had a huge GMC Double Decker Scenic Cruiser bus with a double axle in the back. Jim Murray was driving and he pulled into the entrance of the luxurious Fairmont Hotel with our bus. There was a dip from the street to the hotel entrance and we got that bus stuck on concrete!  That dip in the pavement was just enough, that we got the front of the bus in fine, but the dip just happened to occur on the wheels that we needed for traction. The back end of the bus hit the pavement in the street and there we were – STUCK! The wheels that we needed for traction were unable to help us because we were dragging on the rear end. We had to get a tow truck to pull us out of the entrance of that hotel! How embarrassing!

The “Jesus Festival” was a huge success. It was an outdoor concert, much like a Christian Woodstock without the drugs. There were thousands of kids sitting on the ground enjoying the music. We were a headliner along with the likes of Andre Crouch and the Disciples, Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Nancy Honeytree, Keith Green, and many others. I will never forget seeing Larry Norman come on stage dressed in his tie-dyed t-shirt and funky tennis shoes, singing “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”. It was a world all its own and we were experiencing that world with the younger, next generation of Christian music fans.

January 4, 2018

Windows of Opportunity

There are three types of people in the world, so I’m told. There are those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those who stand around, scratching their heads saying, “what happened”?  I have to admit I had no clue of what was happening in my life when I graduated from Memphis State University with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a minor in music. I had made B’s and C’s in Business Administration and straight A’s in music but there were no signs of anyone interested in me upon graduation. So, my first job ever was selling ladies shoes in downtown Memphis. I can’t say I was very good at it. In fact, I was awful!  A lady would come in, I would greet her and she would show me the shoe she was interested in and tell me her size. The next step for me was to go to the back of the store where all the shoes were stored and find the shoe she wanted and her size. By the time I located the proper size and returned to the show room floor I had forgotten who I had spoken with!  The boss was very gracious with me and helped me through much of this but because I wasn’t cut out for this kind of work, I didn’t last very long.  After two months of agony for me and for my boss, I left the shoe business and waited for my new challenge that hopefully brought a better outcome.

I was at home, licking my wounds over my failure as a shoe salesman when Jake Hess of the Imperials called me and told me the doctors had ordered him to get off the road. He had a heart condition that required him to take his leave of the Imperials, the group he had founded in 1964. He had prided himself in selecting the best talent available and doing things differently on the stage than other groups. He had chosen Henry Slaughter on piano, Sheryl Neilson on tenor, Gary McSpadden on baritone and Armond Morales on bass. This group was built around Jake and he was an amazing singer/personality. I was a young, inexperienced shy young man without a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I was so confused that it took me a few weeks to even decide. I knew it was going to be a huge change in life for me and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it.  So, I did what we all should do when we don’t know what to do. I prayed about it and I acted upon my impressions that I now believe were from the Holy Spirit. We all have windows of opportunity that open for us and if we don’t seize the moment, they disappear. I think, looking back, God opened a door and I walked through it. My life took a dramatic turn from then on.

December 27, 2017

The Imperials and Exciting Opportunities with Jimmy Dean

The Imperials were exposed to many new and exciting opportunities with Jimmy Dean. He knew many in the television industry. One, in particular, was a man named Mike Douglas. His show was filmed out of Philadelphia, Pa, but was shown around the country on many different stations. It was like being on the network without actually being on the network. He was such a nice man and treated us with great respect. You can see him in this shot with Jimmy and the Imperials. We were singing on the set of his show and someone captured the shot. It had to be around 1969, the year we began working with Elvis at the Hilton International Hotel on July 31, 1969. The guy standing to my left is Roger Wiles. He came to the Imperials in 1967 when I joined. We actually rented an apartment together in Nashville since we weren’t making much money then. Roger was a great singer and our blend was the best with him on baritone.

Roger stayed with us three years. Not long after we went with Elvis, Roger decided to leave to pursue a solo career. We had to quickly find a replacement. We had been with Elvis at Houston’s Astrodome and while there we ran into Larry Gatlin. He was attending the University of Houston and singing in some in local venues there. We were frantically looking for a replacement and asked Larry if he would fill in for a while. He jumped at the chance to leave college. One of the first dates we did with Larry was at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas. Dottie West was the co-star and Jimmy Dean was the headliner. This was the beginning of our attempts to work with both Elvis and Jimmy and juggle the dates to accommodate both. Larry didn’t stay with us long as after meeting Dottie, he moved to Nashville to write songs for her publishing company. Not long after that, the Gatlin Brothers were organized.