Music part 1 – The album that changed the trajectory of my life

The (Christian) Music that Shaped Me – Part 1

(I introduce this series here. In this series I’ll be sharing music that has been influential to me, personally. My hope is twofold: First, that some of my younger friends will be able to appreciate “from whence we’ve come” and to be encouraged to continue to seek fresh ways to communicate their faith through music. Second, that those of my generation will enjoy looking back a bit, but more than that, I pray that we will continue to recognize and encourage the creativity of today’s Christian musicians.)

I know it sounds exaggerated, but I believe there was one album that changed the trajectory of my life.

I grew up in a small church on the east side of Cincinnati. (I share some about what I learned in that church here.) I’ve heard it said that Cincinnati experiences all the same cultural trends that occur on the coasts, just 5 years later. I think there’s truth in that, and I think it may apply in this case.

My love of music began and was fueled in high school. Specifically, my love for dissecting and creating interesting music. I was also definitely serious about my faith, but the truth is much of the music of the church that I experienced left me a little flat.

In the time and place where I grew up Christians liked both kinds of music: Southern and Gospel. I suppose there were really 3 types: hymns (All Hail the Power), camp choruses (Walkin’ On the Heaven Road), and Southern Gospel.

See, I was in the process of exploring the music of some great jazz musicians, and wondering why some of that same creativity couldn’t be applied to Christian music. I don’t want to get any hate mail here, but southern Gospel music just isn’t very creative. You need a tenor who can make your hair stand up, a bass who can vibrate your intestines and a couple of guys who can harmonize in the middle. Have them sing some material about the “golden streets,” “mama’s Bible,” or the conversion of the town drunk, and you’ve got yourself a Southern Gospel song. Now, please understand, I don’t hate Southern Gospel music. In fact, there are times when it is exactly what I need. It’s just that those times don’t come around all that often.

Anyway, in 1969 I remember going to a concert at Taft Auditorium in downtown Cincinnati. They would have these gospel concerts there from time to time featuring all your favorite Southern Gospel groups: The Florida Boys, The Oak Ridge Boys (when they did only gospel), The LeFevres, The Rambos, The Statesmen, etc.

This particular night, they introduced a quartet called The Imperials. I had heard some rumors about these guys and how I absolutely needed to hear them, but figured they would be more of the same, only maybe a notch better. Our seats were in the balcony. After their introduction the band began playing. Suddenly I heard voices singing but didn’t see anyone. Soon I saw these guys walking down the aisles from the back of the auditorium singing into cordless(!!) microphones!

I simply wasn’t prepared for what I heard. Their music featured arrangements like I’d never heard in Christian music before. Their music became a bridge for me. A bridge between interesting and meaningful music and a growing and deepening Christian faith. I bought this album that night and, over time, purchased virtually every album they ever produced.

This was a group that came out of the Southern Gospel culture (Jake Hess and the Imperials) and began to push the boundaries. While they celebrated their heritage, they seemed to have no desire to remain stuck in the past. I looked forward to each new release to see what their next step was going to be.

I mentioned in my previous post about how I loved big band jazz because of the way it combined a creative and coherent arrangement with opportunities for soloists to spread their wings. The Imperials music did the same thing vocally. Their arrangements influenced my own vocal arranging for decades to come.

What I didn’t realize until later was that they were beginning to bring together some of the new music coming out of the “Jesus Movement(Which I didn’t really know anything about at the time. Remember, Cincinnati is five years late.) along with more traditional elements, and even some current popular hits, and creating something that I found extremely powerful. This combining of styles and cultures is something that has informed my approach to church music over the decades.

You don’t always realize a life-changing event when it’s happening, but in looking back, I can safely say that this group, and this album specifically, changed the trajectory of my life and career.

Listen to this track and you can hear a vocal arrangement closer to The Association than The Statesmen. Also, the lyrics spoke to me in a way that the Christian music I had been familiar with never did…

A New World
Ronn Huff – Heartwarming Music
It’s a new world you say, things have changed,
they’re not the same today.
It’s a new world today, your walk, your style,
and the words that you say.
It’s a new world you say.

But you still walk in trouble, that hasn’t changed.
Men hate men, and that hasn’t changed.
Nations rise against nations, and that hasn’t changed.
And men still turn away from God, and you tell me, brother,
It’s a new world today!

But if you really want a new world, start a new way,
Sing a new song on a new day,
You need a new heart,
And only Christ can give a new heart.
And what a change, my friend, there will be!

It’s a breakthrough to a new life.
It’s a breakthrough to a great life.

Now you really have a breakthrough to a new world today!

The album also included a cover of the song People Got to Be Free by The Rascals

In case you’d like to compare, here are The Rascals in concert the same year…

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