Tony Cummings looks at the fascinating and ultimately sad history of Jesus music pioneers CHILDREN OF THE DAY
The current furore surrounding the recent admission by American singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp that she is a lesbian is a sad phenomenon. But in a strange way it demonstrates that history has a habit of repeating itself. Back in the '70s Children Of The Day were one of the pioneering groups in the emergent Jesus Music. Their albums for Maranatha! Music 'Come To The Waters' (1971) and 'With All Our Love' (1973) were considered folk rock classics and recently America's Retroactive Records re-issued 'Come To The Waters' as a digitally remastered CD. But the nine year career of Children Of The Day was to end in scandal. In 1979 the marriage between group members Russ Stevens and Marsha Carter ended in divorce with Marsha rocking the world of Christian music by announcing she was a lesbian. The singer then started a relationship with another woman, Cindy Pino, she'd met at her church before eventually forging a new career as a "lesbian gospel singer".
The story of Children Of The Day begins in the earliest days of California's Jesus Movement. As one historian wrote, "Children Of The Day were first - and Love Song were about 10 minutes behind." Marsha and Wendy Carter were still in high school when the group formed. Marsha was the first to discover the excitement of a personal relationship with Jesus, after attending an evangelistic service at the beach. She led her little sister Wendy (who was only 14) to the Lord as well, and then her friend Peter Jacobs, who at 16 was already a professional musician. The Peter Jacobs Quartet, an instrumental jazz group that included Russ Stevens, had won the California State Battle Of The Bands for their class. They had even made an album, giving Jacobs and Stevens a little early experience with the whole recording process. Almost inevitably, the duo joined with Marsha and Wendy to form the foursome known as Children Of The Day.
Marsha Carter Stevens (vocals, guitar), Wendy Carter Fremin (vocals, guitar), Russ Stevens (vocals, bass) and Peter Jacobs (vocals, keyboards, guitar) took their name from 1 Thessalonians 5:5. A true ensemble, all four members wrote songs and all four sang and played. They were integrally related to the ministry of Costa Mesa's Calvary Chapel (ground zero for the Jesus Movement) and, eventually, they all attended Azusa Pacific University, where they joined the choir and performed as a madrigal special attraction on tours.
In 1971 Children Of The Day began their recording career when Calvary Chapel's Maranatha! Music released a various artists album of studio cuts, 'The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert'. The album showcased acts like Children Of The Day, Love Song and Debby Kerner who were to subsequently get their own albums along with acts like Blessed Hope, Selah and Country Faith who never got such profile. In his Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music author Mark Allan Powell commented that the album "remains to this day the most important album of Christian music (and one of the best) ever released" while in the same work he singled out Children Of The Day's contribution "For Those Tears I Died" (sometimes called "Come To The Waters"): "An absolute masterpiece, written by a 16 year old (Marsha Stevens), it expresses adolescent piety better than any other Christian song ever written - and yet does so in language that evokes imagery of baptism and liberation that even theologically mature adults (who may or not care for the sentimental qualities) can appreciate: 'Jesus said, Come to the waters/Stand by my side/I know you are thirsty/You won't be denied/I felt every teardrop/When in darkness you cried/And I strove to remind you/That for those tears I died.'"
'The Everlastin' Living Jesus Music Concert' sold a (then) phenomenal 25,000 copies in the first six months of release and later in the year Children Of The Day's 'Come To The Waters' was released by Maranatha! Music. In an internet interview Marsha Stevens spoke about her "For Those Tears I Died" classic. "I happened to write at a time that there was a big change-over in music styles in the Christian community and so I was the first one that was published and in the first group that was called that. So it wasn't because I was the most important or the best or most prolific. I was just the first. It was weird to write that first song. Naturally I wrote it for strictly personal purposes. All my friends were hippies and back then you didn't get high to get loaded, you got high to expand your minds. And so being able to talk about ideas was a big deal, and I kind of hit upon the idea of writing a song about my experience with Christ, 'cause it would seem less hackneyed to my kid sister and my friends if I would put it my own words and had my own thing about it. As it happened I had never written a song before, but I knew four chords on the guitar, so hey. And I listened to a lot of folk music so I sort of patterned it after that. I sang it for my kid sister and my friends at school, and really I was done with it. I was astounded that people started to sing it. I had no idea that that would happen. In fact it was only two weeks later that I had a friend call me back and say, 'Oh I heard this great song at church and I know you're into music, so you'll love this song,' and she sang me my song. About a month later Pat Boone called my house, actually physically called my house. I picked up the phone and it was Pat Boone on the phone. To me, I wasn't even aware that he was still living; he was somebody that my mother listened to. And he asked if he could sing my song, and I thought, well heck, sure, go ahead. And you know the song really just took off without me. It went around the world. I got translations of it in about. . . I think at one point I had it in about 12 different languages. It was just like a huge reaction to that song."
Marsha continued, "That was my senior year in high school, and I got a music scholarship to Bible college, and as it happened the choir in the Bible college was touring Europe and Israel that year. So because the other people in the group and I were there on scholarship, they allowed my kid sister who was also in the group to come with the choir. And so we would sing in the choir and then in the interim the group would sing. So that meant that the group got heard all over Europe and we opened for Billy Graham at the First Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Prophecy. By the time we got back to Norway Kathryn Kuhlman called and flew us home to do a TC special. You know, it just sort of took off. It was like a whirlwind. You know how at 16 you don't have any idea of what's normal or not in the world, so I didn't quite realize exactly how weird it was, until years later, 'cause at the time it was, I don't know, it was just what happened."
The 'Come To The Waters' album was recorded for $900 which band member Russ Stevens says they borrowed from Calvary Chapel's pastor Chuck Smith. It was eventually to sell more than 150,000 copies. On it Buck Herring (who was to eventually marry Annie Ward of 2nd Chapter Of Acts) served as engineer at Abbey Sound in Hollywood.
Russ Stevens recalls that one day Children Of The Day were unable to use the piano because a more uninhibited artist, one Larry Norman, had broken it. 'Come To The Waters' may sound tame to today's Christian music buffs but at the time it was groundbreaking. AS Mark Allan Powell wrote, "The thought that Christian music could sound like popular music was a radical innovation that would ultimately launch a revolution in liturgies unparalleled by anything since the Reformers introduced congregational singing in the 16th century." On the album "New Life" is a joyful pop song which sounds like something Fifth Dimension or Bread might have recorded; "As A Child" has a haunting, baroque flavour; "Children Of The Day" is a bouncy country hoedown; and "Two Hands" was a cover of Love Song's still-to-be-released song.
In 1973 Maranatha! Music released Children Of The Day's second album 'With All Our Love'. Like its predecessor it contained a wide range of styles, like bouncy country pop on "If You'll Take My Hand"; an epic presentation of "The Crucifixion" featuring narration of the Bible account by Pastor Smith; and a hard hitting song aimed at backsliding, "Just Pretending" with pointed lyrics ("Did you really mean to make a brand new start?/Or did you come along just for the ride/Just pretending that you've changed inside"). The album also contained the particularly catchy "If You'll Take My Hand". Mark Allan Powell wrote, "'If You'll Take My Hand' is probably Jacobs' best pop song. Indeed, if one looks at a list of all the number one pop songs of 1973 (Dawn's 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon' for four weeks; Paul McCartney's 'My Love' for four weeks), this one is so obviously better as to force a surprising conclusion: some of the time, at least, the much maligned Jesus freaks of the early '70s with their much maligned imitative, sanitized Jesus music were actually listening to better music than their haughty compatriots could access in the commercial pool of artists that the Christians were supposedly just mimicking."
On subsequent albums Children Of The Day moved away from the folk rock style toward the mellow MOR sound associated with "adult contemporary". 'Where Else Would I Go?' was more orchestrated than the first two albums and featured studio assistance from a number of Maranatha! acts: Fred Field (of Love Song), Alex MacDougall (of Daniel Amos), John Mehler (of Love Song) and John Wickham (of The Way). Standout songs included the title track (which has a strong 2nd Chapter Of Acts feel) and the engaging "The Holy Spirit".
Also released in 1975 was a rather dull 'Christmas Album', with so-so renditions of Christmas carols accompanied by Jacobs on synthesizer. It was originally released on Maranatha! Music and subsequently re-issued by Light Records, the Ralph Carmichael run company with whom Children Of The Day signed in 1977. Unfortunately, the group's Light debut 'Never Felt So Free' signalled a big change for the group as they moved even further into MOR and lounge jazz typical of the Light label. Occasionally a catchy melody could be gleaned from the soporific surroundings like on "Born Again (Never Felt So Free)" and the jazzy "Givin' To Jesus" while the musicianship from the likes of John Mehler (drums) and Bob Ayala (guitar) was tight. But the spark was waning.
And it diminished further with the release of Children Of The Day's final album, 'Butterfly' (1979). Peter Jacobs had left the group and his replacement was Jeff Crandall who would later find fame as the drummer with punk rockers The Altar Boys. 'Butterfly' featured more strings and brass, swamping the group and removing completely the folk lilt of their early recordings. There was even a track, "Glory", which was an ill considered excursion into disco while a re-recording of "For Those Tears I Died" didn't capture the transcendent quality of the original.
But if the music on their album was disappointing, the announcement to their legion of evangelical supporters of the breakup of Marsha and Russ Stevens' marriage was even more so. In an interview given years later Marsha Stevens gave her account of her marriage breakdown. She said, "I married one of the guys in the group, and we really, we had a perfectly okay relationship; it's just that we didn't have much of a physical relationship. It actually occurred to me that he might be gay before it occurred to me that I might be gay, because kind of growing up in that religious whirlwind there just wasn't a lot of time for personal examination. You know, we were singing sometimes 14 times a week. So we kind of did what was expedient and what worked in order to keep on singing. And even when I realised I was gay, we said well why don't we have just a platonic relationship. Not like we hate each other's guts but we'll stay together for the kids, but like, we get along fine, we make perfectly good co-parents, so why not stay together.
"He actually got tired of it, which I don't blame him for. I mean, people think of it as something different than it was. He kind of said, you know, after a couple of years this isn't really working for me, so I think you need to look for somewhere else to get your attention, and we need to start moving on. And we actually planned to stay together till the end of the year, so that we wouldn't mess up our taxes. You know, he moved out on December 31st."
Marsha continued, "It started out very civil, until the church got a hold of it and that pretty much went down the drain pretty quick once the church found out what was going on. It started out with what I would call a pseudo-spirituality, like, 'Well, I've known for years.' And I'm thinking, you have? Why didn't you tell me? You know, it was almost like what convinced me that I really was gay because until then I would have said that being gay was an activity, not a being. And once people at the church started saying, 'I've known for years that you were gay,' I thought, So I really am. I'm not just doing a thing. I'm not just making love to a woman. I actually am a gay person. And I don't think that they probably really meant to do that, but I thought that, if they knew before I knew, then I must really be gay. And you know basically they didn't want me to sing anyplace that the group was singing anymore. And they didn't want me picking up my kids at the church school that my kids attended. They started getting really cautious about where I could be and what I could do.
"The Christian community then started really having a backlash and people wrote me nasty letters and called me and sent me packages with pages of my songs torn out of their hymnals, all torn up in little pieces, and stuff like that. By the time we got to court, even though it was in California where they say that you can't lose your kids for being gay, I mean, I lost. . . Of course I lost my job, because I couldn't sing in the group anymore. The judge decided that even though 'For Those Tears I Died' had been written and published and recorded by Pat Boone and a lot of other people before I'd even met my husband, he decided that he should have half of all the royalties from that song, and any other song that I wrote, which cut. . . already I was losing my livelihood from singing at concerts and that cut my royalties in half. And the judge said that because I had never worked outside the home that I should have to get a career while dad took care of the kids. I mean, he just kind of made no bones about the fact that he was prejudiced. He said, oh well, we'll just give dad a chance. I said, 'Wait a minute, I haven't had a job outside the home because I've been raising kids, what are you talking about?' He basically said I couldn't talk to my kids about my views on homosexuality, if I had any, and I couldn't live with anyone, anyone of any gender to whom I was not married or related by blood, if I even wanted visitation rights.
"And at the end of the whole thing he said, 'Now these may be hard to get upheld in superior court, but you'll have to wait 18 months to get a date in superior court, won't you?' So he essentially knew he was making an illegal ruling, but they can say anything they want till you hire a lawyer to prove that you can't, you know. So I lost the house, the car, my career, half my royalties, my kids. I lost everything in like one fell swoop, and it took me a long time to start to put things back together again."
In 1987 Marsha, astonishingly, re-established her career as a gospel singer. She began singing in ultra-liberal churches and in all kinds of events organised by the gay community. In 1993 she appeared on the various artists album 'Songs Of Praise From A Strange Land' followed by the solo albums 'I Will Not Behave Like Prey' (1995) 'The Waiting's Over' (1996) and 'I Found You' (1998). In 1999 the liberal Christian Century magazine ran an enthusiastic article about Marsha saying she had become "conservative Christianity's worst nightmare - a Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, God-fearing lesbian Christian." In 2005 the album 'You Called Us Good' credited to Marsha Stevens-Pino with Cindy Stevens-Pino was released and was subsequently given an award by a gay rights organisation. Today Marsha describes her calling is to "make contemporary Christian music for the gay, lesbian, bi- and transgendered Christian community."
Of the other one-time members of Children Of The Day, Peter Jacobs, described by the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music as "one of the Jesus Movement's early musical geniuses," is today leading a big band swing ensemble in California, the Wartime Radio Review who've released the albums 'Would You Like To Dance' and 'Kiss The Boys Goodbye' while the Pete Jacobs Quintet released 'The Rose Room' in 2002.
Whatever one feels about Marsha Stevens' work in the "gay church", no follower of Christian music should undervalue the major part played by Children Of The Day in the development of contemporary Christian music. As one historian wrote, "Children Of The Day were true pioneers, and that cannot be taken away from them."