Monthly Archives: September 2013
A Touring Spectacle
My first venture into a 12-week summer collegiate concert tour took us through the Southern states then up along the Eastern seaboard to end up in Ohio, all of it in a two-door aging blue Dodge with scant baggage room. Five members comprised the group; a piano player, a preacher and three singers crowded by baggage, brass instruments and sound equipment.
Imagine two people, big men, arguing, sweat trickling down their cheeks, broad,hap-hazard, glistening streaks wending their way over wet flesh adjacent to blood vessels, some near to bursting. Those sweat streaks turn into a repulsive spray goosed by a loud mouth while the rest of us are constrained to listen and watch. We were observing a bad play. The temperature was inescapable while floating down the highway in a non air-conditioned car and a baked highway. It was summer. A mix of curdled breath and brackish perspiration along with ninety-degree, sixty-five mile per hour wind howling through open windows was more than enough to call to question one’s faith. But that night, or perhaps any evening, we would take the stage to make our pronouncements as heroes of song. The Envoys were here! We sang as if an air-conditioner ran in our car all day and we were best of friends. We were programmed robots in a hurricane.
Arrangements for this first summer tour as a non-family group was done by our alma mater. The free-will offerings were staggering amounts but by prior agreement were to be given to the school we represented. At first, we were only mildly irritated by this but soon grew resentful. We decided to change all that, after all, didn’t they give in the collection because it was us they were giving to? That’s how we saw it. The next summer our concert tour took us out on our own. We did not admit it but the money was very important. There were stars in our eyes. Our motives were not just about ministry as we often heard and foolishly believed, “You guys are better than the Blackwood Brothers!” (The Blackwood Brothers were a southern gospel quartet who had a massive following in the 50’s and throughout the 70’s, particularly in the South among Christians.) We were convinced that all we had to do was sing for the crowds and the requisite adulation would follow. When summer came to an end it was back to school, dismemberment of this group soon followed.
Having a voice that by itself has inflated my importance without an ounce of substantiation has given me the opportunity to ride the wave of musical ministry since my youth. My voice has always been a coin of wealth for me.
The musical group we named while in college was called, “The Envoys Trio.” We did our thing on weekends while working on unaccredited college degrees in a Bible school. Being unaccredited did not matter much to us since we believed we were there to do the work of God. And, what did we need an accredited degree for anyway? We were clearly unable to evaluate our school’s value being anxious to spread the Word and our music. I recall few counter arguments to any Bible School instructor’s position on anything. We accepted what was taught as if the foundations of their truth were sacrosanct. Questions the theological sages found unanswerable were often responded to with this inane (insane?) response, “Ed, where’s your faith!” I now regret putting my questions on hold. At the time I fell for this inept, shifty and slipshod kind of answer. I regret not having pushed for a cogent response as it would have saved me a lifetime of heartache and anxiety. After all, these things are about life and death issues. (This topic will have to wait…)
We expanded our growing presence throughout the Midwest and South with long and drawn out summer tours. We just knew we were special because we believed people came from miles around just to hear us sing. Once again, the composition of that group was abandoned. I wondered what might be next.
While still in college I met a young man from Indiana who played piano like a buzz saw in three keys. His unorthodox and insanely rhythmic approach to gospel standards set us apart from other groups. We found ourselves in demand as a singing and preaching duo. Both of us aspired to preach so we thought of this as an evangelistic enterprise with gospel music. We would use our music and sermonic expertise to win the world. Along the way, a well-known radio evangelist of the day heard us and declared that we could be heirs to his legacy. We were encouraged by his remark and made a commitment to save the world!
Remember “Little Richy”, who rode the fake horse? He came with us on one of our first efforts. A church in Ohio hosted a weekend of meetings for us. “Little Richy” so impressed the congregation that they insisted he join our full-time, traveling, save the world, kind of team. He became our lead singer. That was the start of a “brotherly relationship” taking us throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean with “Butch” at piano singing tenor. I, as the baritone and the go-to, default M.C. was left with the assignment to massage the crowds with words. Rich always looked handsome and available. Once again we used the name, “The Envoys Trio.” Packaged as singers we used our songs to lead to a message of some sort at the end hoping that someone would respond to the call of Jesus. Often we saw results that led to a reputation putting us in some demand among believers. We gladly accepted those assignments. Some were good to excellent, some were not so good.
Growing crowds did appear, especially at repeat appearances, but there was always the down day when arriving early to set up our sound equipment we observed the pastor or promoter hastily putting up promotional material for our concert that was to occur in less than a few hours. We knew the “take” in the offering that night would be slim as well as the crowd. And we were right. But, the show must go on! We’d sing our hearts out with maybe ten people in the audience. We knew upon our return we would see many more occupied seats.
Given that we were finding ourselves in demand our efforts at evangelizing the world became a nightly and Sunday morning event. Several years in a row our only days off were Christmas and New Year’s Day. It was exhausting work, driving and riding all day, setting up, deciding a song list and stage assignment, doing the concert, taking down and packing equipment and merchandise, socializing with people after the concert, getting up and doing it all over again in another place, another city, another group. It got a bit sour at times, arguments ensued, disagreements about what had been spoken in front of a crowd to technicalities around our sound system to pastors and promoters who did not ask us back, to lower than expected sales, to transportation or housing problems. We had a long list of complaints and issues.
Then there were the moments of outstanding results when people seemed to give exorbitantly in the “free-will offering.” Sales were up and people said, “Can’t wait for you to come back.” It could be glamorous at times, but in reality, those times were few. Most of our days were soulless highway blind grinds between promising gigs. It was a bit like an addiction. We seemed to need our fix for the day. We found it in front of the faithful.
The Envoys took a trip to Jamaica that had some of the locals sitting on church windowsills to get a peek at us. They flooded their church sanctuaries to capacity with eager and more than friendly souls. The citizenry turned out in Montego Bay as if the King of England were visiting. One evening we sang in a village just outside Montego Bay where we came to learn what “dark 30” meant. We had flown to Jamaica with little but the clothes on our backs and were used to our stateside sound system to reinforce our message. So, in an empty church building after finding the house sound system inadequate for our use we chose to do our music without it. Being used to professional sound reinforcement we found that without it our vocal cords were stretched and brutalized to the maximum. After adjusting the stage to give us room to maneuver during the concert we began to sing, warming up our voices, just getting used to the place. It was then we looked about and saw a church filling up fast with quiet respect for us as we vocalized. At that point I turned to the pastor and asked if we should go ahead and begin our concert. He told me to wait for “dark-30”, as if I should know what he meant. I brought back his message to the rest of the Envoys to see if we could decipher what it was he had said. Since the people comprised a group with dark skin we thought it might have to do with that, but what was the “30” about? We were soon to learn that “Dark 30” meant 30 minutes after dark. We were given the go-ahead to sing. It was now “Dark 30.”
Open windows were the custom for evening services in the warmth of Jamaica. We sang, they cheered, we sang some more, they wanted more. Finally, as we neared the end of our songs for the night, Butch, our piano player and tenor, began to cough. We had to stop. He grabbed a water glass hastily shoved his direction and seemed to be regaining his composure when he told the congregants that he had just swallowed a bug and then quoted a Scripture he believed to be appropriate, “I was a stranger and he took me in.” The crowd loved it but Rich and I were convinced he made it all up. Yet, it was good performance. It earned us a memory jogger for the sweet people we were soon to leave behind.
The island people became a memory lodged in our minds for years to come. People who had virtually nothing came to our concerts with smiles wider than their island. We came to love these people and when it came time to leave we were fighting tears as we were driven to the airport. We soon found that emotion quashed. Our boxed, covert cache’ of rum miniatures and trinkets for American friends was “busted” by one of the deacons of the church, an immigration official. As if by divine design he shook our bags, heard a familiar clank-clinking of miniature bottles, then declared triumphantly that we had contraband forbidden by the church and shouldn’t we be ashamed? We were profoundly embarrassed but continued as planned through the gate to our waiting flight. The word would soon be out that would prohibit our return to the island. The sweet people of the Jamaica church’s we sang in came to believe we were a bunch of covert drunks disguised as gospel singers. We were never invited back. Never having had a drink to that moment in my life I had trouble stomaching the gossip this incident provoked. We had to move on. And move on we did…
One night, while singing for a group of young people at a campground in Illinois, we allowed the stress of performing every day to get the best of us. Generally, for our concerts, Rich and I stood near the piano using a single standing vintage microphone between us. Butch played the piano and sang on a microphone held over the keyboard on a boom. As practiced, and for most nights, we would tip our microphone to him allowing the three of us to conclude the song on one microphone, it was to be a “theatrical” ending. Not this night. An incident that day caused a rift between us resulting in withdrawal from each other. Since we weren’t on speaking terms that evening, we chose not to tip the microphone stand toward Butch. Off mike, Butch yelled at us to get our attention. Rich and I stood firm, ending the song with Butch yelling into his microphone in front of a shocked crowd. The whole thing was embarrassing, ridiculous and immature. We were preaching love through our songs when hatred seemed to be the theme that night. That was the end of that Envoys configuration.
My brother and I thought our singing days were over but the itch to perform was still very much a part of us. We had always sung, from the days of tent meetings to the moments when our passion for music became an opportunity to do it on our own. We just knew we had to start over. And we did…
We were able to obtain an invitation to tour our U.S. military in Europe. Before leaving the states we hired a piano player from Michigan who was also a composer with a funky gospel style, and a tenor from New York City whose voice took us to new heights as we were now a quartet. There quickly loomed an insoluble problem between the two new hires. They each thought the other a phony. My job, I thought, was to massage their egos. That was a mistake.
We flew off to Europe with three of the four of us since our tenor was completing some personal obligations. Just before leaving for Europe we purchased a former Greyhound bus and new sound equipment for use when we returned from our tour in Europe. We also purchased a VW “bug” for the three of us to move about in Europe. We thought we were ready for the big-time once we returned to the states.
While in Europe we entertained the troops on numerous bases and did our best to keep homesickness at bay. Just before that trip, while traveling through Northwestern Ohio with the Envoys, I had become enamored with a beautiful and charming young lady who was to become my wife and knew the time would be unrelentingly slow before given the opportunity to ask her father’s permission for her hand. I did not anticipate this would be one of the reasons we would disband the group and move to other challenges, but that was a distant concern for me then.
While in Europe, I was to meet one of my future brothers-in-law who came to our concert on his military base. Much to my chagrin he didn’t seem particularly impressed with what he heard.
We moved on to do our song ministry in many other bases hosted by the local military chaplain. During those visits I came to find the work of the chaplain an occupational interest of mine and decided I would pursue this opportunity if the Envoys ever disbanded.
I remember Venice, Italy very clearly. It was in Venice where I nearly burned a pastor’s house to the ground. Getting ready for our concert in their church I asked to use an iron to press a shirt. I absent-mindedly left the iron on. When we returned to the house the pastor thought he saw smoke and quickly ran into the house to find the source of smoke. It appeared at first to be devouring the entire dwelling. When he showed his face he was pointing at me as the cause of this near disaster. No question about it, I was guilty. The wooden ironing board had taken fire from the hot iron, then fell to the floor leaving permanent singe marks on the carpet. Though embarrassed by this near disaster it was the same pastor who, several days later, announced he had to leave early for work and knowing that we would be on our way to our next appointment passionately kissed us on the lips as a “Goodbye” gesture. The imagined taste of that has never quite left me. I believe I can still taste it today.
After making the rounds of a number of military bases in Europe my brother, Rich, left for a semester of school in Ireland. That left me with Chuck, our piano player who also sang and preached. We tried to carry on for a few months until one day while climbing a tower in Bologna, Italy, he felt he had torn something in his abdomen, later diagnosed as a hernia. He thought it necessary to return to the U.S. for surgery leaving me to complete the few concerts/meetings we had left. I was miserable and longing for home. I was anxious to be with Margaret, my wife to be. I also had a chore to complete and that was to ask my father-in-law if I could marry his daughter. After returning home, with much trepidation I got it done. We planned to marry in a little over a year giving us time to set the stage for our marriage and the Envoys who we thought would set up headquarters in Indianapolis after completing school obligations. We finished school but the move to Indianapolis never happened.
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
― Charles Bukowski, Life Magazine, December 1988
“The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards,’ as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith—perfect faith, as it turns out—and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.”
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
A quote for the religious among us…”The next time believers tell you that ‘separation of church and state’ does not appear in our founding document, tell them to stop using the word ‘trinity.’ The word ‘trinity’ appears nowhere in the bible. Neither does Rapture, or Second Coming, or Original Sin.
If they are still unfazed (or unphrased), by this, then add Omniscience, Omnipresence, Supernatural, Transcendence, Immaculate Conception, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Methodist, Purgatory, Penance, Transubstantiation, Excommunication, Dogma, Chastity, Unpardonable Sin, Infallibility, Inerrancy, Incarnation, Epiphany, Sermon, Eucharist, Sunday School, Morality, Ethics, Patriotism, Education, Apostasy, Capital Punishment, Monogamy, Abortion, Pornography, Homosexual, Lesbian, Fairness, Logic, Republic, Democracy, Capitalism, Funeral, Decalogue, or Bible.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Co-President Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith