Tag Archives: Envoys

Complications

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With a fall wedding planned, an Envoys, “Just Returned from Europe” tour was the thing to do for the summer. We were a dynamic group, changing piano players and hiring singers as necessary, but now we seemed to have hit a magic combination and hoped the group would be stabilized, at least for a few years to come. For most of my adult musical career I had hoped to take on enough talent to make up a quartet, as a trio seemed a bit weak to me in stage sound. Now, with the right personnel in place we were able to add an anchored, macho sound that could fill any auditorium with a spectrum of vocal gymnastics from tenor to bass. Our sound system never sounded so good. The group stood across the stage, approaching microphones on stands to sing while dressed in matching tailored suits and ties. Our piano player smiled at the keys, intermittently turning his face to the crowd to dazzle them with keyboard show biz. Every bit of our music came from vocals and piano; there were no sidemen, no back-up tapes, no extras. We were it, the whole show! It must have sounded good as our record sales continued to grow. Fortunately for us, our fans wanted to take our music home on L.P.’s to play. What they might do with our autographed group photo was left up to our curious imaginations and better left unstated.

It was a bright new day when we were able to buy a vehicle to sleep the four of us. We proceeded to carve out sleeping areas in our newly purchased former Greyhound bus then converted it into a four bunk, three-compartment vehicle for riding, sleeping and “show-prep.” We had now become a roving advertisement on every highway we travelled with our 20-foot side sign that read proudly, “The Envoys.” Travel habits were forced to change as we often showed up to concerts with the smell of diesel fumes and blackened grease on our bodies and stage wear. No matter. We forged ahead in our bus eventually learning the nuances of caring for a fifth mouth on the road. Our bus needed constant fuel and moderate attention. But we were riding in style and declaring to the world that we were here to stay. Well, maybe for a few more tours…

You would think the hours between gigs presented themselves as opportunities to challenge our minds. But exhausted as we were it seemed that little kept our attention beyond sleep. There were the lazy days of mindless chatter, dreaming of home and friends and far-away places. My brother, Rich, who later became a medical doctor, tried his best to keep his ample mind stimulated by reading Dostoevsky, Jung and Kierkegaard. There were days when all we did was watch the curtains sway then unfurl in a spasmodic power puff from the highway wind spraying the chasm of our metal monster. Except for Hawaii and Alaska, we inched our way across a well-worn map of most states in the Union crisscrossing familiar travel routes with regularity. Some of our fans lived on frequent routes we used giving us opportunity to make unscheduled stops for casual conversation. The bus always drew neighborly attention. On occasion, even police attention. When the police came we did our best to buy off the law officer with a bit of sweet talk, a tour of the bus and a collection of Envoy LP’s. Some took the bait, others looked grim and wrote the requisite ticket that stated our bus was not parked appropriately in suburbia.

Piling out of a bus to sing after skimming the road on tall tires, hovering over a non-powered steering wheel, plotting the route to the next predictably constructed church in some town of least resistance to our musical charms, was the sum-total of what we did day in and day out. We yearned for a day to recoup.

We liked the ocean. Returning to the sea one late night after a concert we thought it a great idea to park on a road adjacent to the ocean, as the breeze was intoxicating and the temperature a balmy bounce of freshness on our flesh. We slept contentedly with the sound of surf in our ears. But the light of a dawn sun attached itself to our vehicle in attack mode. It was not about to let go and we weren’t aware of our situation, sleeping soundly as we were. Like a lobster in an ever-warming pot we found ourselves near to baked before we awakened to the sound of surf closer than we wanted and an inside “hot tin roof” temperature. Our morning swim had to be delayed as we were forced to find a tree full of mature leaves to shade our metallic hell. In due time we cooled ourselves but lost vinyl recordings and an “RCA 44” vintage ribbon microphone to the oppressive heat.

On occasion, The Envoys and The Singing Kolendas staged appearances together. The Kolendas were a family group made up of Mom and Dad, three teen-age daughters and a son. Their “shtick” was emotional. Their music was a mix of old-time gospel and youth driven contemporary. The Gospel music went well, the contemporary stuff, not so well. Dad played bass guitar and his eldest daughter played piano and sang. The son was out front and center, the remaining two daughters sang their hearts out while pumping the audience for tears. There were moments when all music came to a stop as the emotion of the moment overcame one or the other. No one dared speak about it as it was like the AA “elephant in the room.” These young people were friendly and sexy, even a bit bawdy in dress, but the church people lapped it up like they were the personification of heaven itself. I can’t say that the Envoys, all single men, didn’t find it enchanting in its own way. Frankly, I think they may have been playing to our sensual side. We looked forward to these occasions when the two groups would perform on stage together. But, many good things come to a quick end. They exited our stage and we went on as before.

There weren’t many days left for the Envoys as a group. Rich was talking more and more about medical school; David and Chuck were thinking marriage, as I was. We kept it together for a couple years while each graduated and married. The final Envoys concert was in a church comprised of people we hardly knew in a town who knew us. Dismantling the equipment and shoving it in the bus one last time brought a kind of anger, disappointment, and melancholia to me. The memories flooded my mind while thinking of what could have been, about relocating the group to Indianapolis where the highway system seemed to suit our travel needs and the people receptive to our presentation.

That didn’t occur. The bus keys were turned over to another Gospel singer, the sound equipment, to a rival of ours. I was now married and needed to tend to the business of making a home and marriage, while still convinced the Gospel message would be my main source of inspiration. And it was, for many years to come. In fact, for most of my life. It was deeply buried in my psyche. I always believed I was destined to die with a Bible in my hand. So, off to seminary Margaret and I went. It was a major turn in my life as I planned to enter the Air Force as Chaplain and needed a seminary education for that to be possible. This was to be a new venture but this time would be with my wife, Margaret, at my side.

Seminary offered new challenges, the least of which were opportunities to hone my preaching skills on rural churches of minimal numbers. I was used to undeserved adulation of crowds who attended Envoy concerts. Now, no more adoring crowds. I was now a “nobody.” That was hard to take as I was no longer sought for an autograph or photo with the locals. It was now going to be hard work as guest preacher and pastor for the day.

While attending seminary we initially lived in a trailer just off a buzzing highway north of Boston. Several months later we ended up as live-in custodians to an apartment house in Lynn, MA, a few miles north of Boston. We learned a lot there as we dealt with people who had little means to support themselves and were, in some cases, social misfits looking for a good fit. It was there that I was expected to clean a porch on the 2nd floor full of bird droppings as it had now become part of my job as custodian. I don’t know for certain if there was a direct connection but a few months later I was in a hospital in Braintree treated for “pulmonary sarcoid”, a disease of the lungs that showed up in a physical exam x-ray when I tried to enter the Air Force as a Chaplain Candidate. My x-ray looked like I had been shot through with BB’s. I was disappointed as I believed that was the reason I went to Seminary in the first place. I desired to become a Chaplain in the Air Force. I never made it to the military but continued to do my work as a student in an evangelical institution of great reputation. I was duly impressed by the faculty who helped me gain yet another degree. While a student, I pastored a small church a few miles from the seminary that offered housing for Margaret and myself. I was deep into the ministry as profession.

As graduation approached and my M.Div. degree was now becoming a reality, I began to look at another seminary offering a doctorate in pastoral counseling and psychology. This degree established the direction of my professional career. I would later become a licensed psychologist and would practice under that rubric for years while keeping my ministry credentialing intact. As I neared completing my doctoral degree, the pastor of a city church in Boston, whom I had met at a small gathering where Billy Graham was speaker, asked me to join his staff and begin a counseling center in the heart of Boston. It was a church of great historicity and self-importance as it lived off its past reputation having hosted the likes of Presidents Roosevelt and Lincoln, to name a few who had occupied its pulpit. It had been a center for political conventions permitted by the church with a makeover for Sunday morning worship. I was told that lit cigars of a Saturday afternoon on the convention floor left their lingering smoke among the two balconies for the next-day worshippers to be reminded that this was a multi-function auditorium. In my day, the building was about one-third full with worshippers, the organ antiquated, its sounds majestic but seemed to come from a calliope out of the last century. The balconies echoed with memories of glories past and the burgundy tones of carpet against mahogany wooden panels set the tone for a lustrous worship experience.

Preaching from Tremont Temple’s pulpit with its heavy brass horizontal rail on four brass pillars, leaning on it to catch my breath while supporting my thoughts, and thinking about the esteemed men of the past who had preached from this spot, was a singular thrill for me. And I, I was supposed to preach sermons radiating confidence and assurance. I did my best.

I was told about the past glories of this place of worship and gave some thought as to how we might experience the crowds once again. Months later, taking my experience with musical performances of years past, I began a musical series called, “The Gospel Musical” later expanded to include “The Saturday Night Special.” One was traditional gospel music the other contemporary gospel music. You can easily guess which one was which. In any case, we packed the place over and over. So much so that we were forced to move a few of the concerts to Boston’s Symphony Hall. Packing out their place of worship on a Saturday night and sometimes, afternoon, was greeted with skepticism by the diaconate of the church who were suspicious of my motives. For most of the concerts, Margaret and I would open with several songs then I would take up the emceeing for the event. I was identified as the leader of this burgeoning ministry that drew people from all corners of New England. I was in my element.

During the time I spent in Boston I met a couple young men who introduced me to a couple other young men who eventually we called, The Brotherhood. All musicians, they were seeking a degree at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music and were all Christian. As a self-taught musician, I was humbled by the musicianship of each of these young men. They effortlessly played circles around me but humbly took up their instruments to support me in my music. If I stumbled on my guitar, Mark, an outstanding guitarist and currently a leading studio musician in Nashville, would bail me out with stuff I never, ever thought of. I could only sit back in awe of what had just happened. And there were the vocals too. Some of them were aspiring songwriters who desired an audience. We attempted to make that a possibility within each concert.

The Brotherhood began to take the place of Ed and Margaret, my wife and I, doing the warm-up before each of our sponsored concerts. I remember two concerts in particular in Boston that had been sold out for weeks, as we had a current headliner drawing in the crowd. We knew this was going to be big. The Brotherhood had prepared for many weeks for this very special occasion.

Even though the counseling center grew moderately and the concerts gained momentum, it was time to leave. The Senior Pastor had announced his resignation. While trying to figure out what to do next, a call from the Midwest from an old roommate of mine moved us on to the next ministry opportunity.

Meanwhile, two children came along to bless our household. Ed and Mathias. Margaret became a stay-at-home mother while I explored these new opportunities. We left for the Midwest with certainty that this was to be a good move.


A Touring Spectacle

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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.