Jesus music pioneer MATTHEW WARD speaks to Mike Rimmer.
In the '70s and '80s Matthew Ward was part of one of the most successful Christian vocal groups ever. The very popular 2nd Chapter Of Acts were pioneers of Christian music who plied their musical wares across churches, theatres and arenas in America and beyond. Formed with his two sisters, Nellie and Annie, the siblings' vocals blended in a natural way that can only be achieved from shared genes. From its beginnings in the American Jesus Movement to their final tour in the '80s, Matthew has a wealth of observations, stories, ministry and experience to share.
We meet face to face in a Nashville hotel to chat about his new autobiography, My Second Chapter, and Ward is affable and friendly. Before we can sit and chat, I have to fight my way through a small knot of well wishers and admirers keen to have a quick word and I can see my allotted time with him ticking slowly from my grasp. Presently, we sit down and I begin by asking why he wanted to write an autobiography at this time of his life.
"Yeah I know," he chuckles, "I'm not old enough probably to have one yet! You know, I just started writing. It wasn't intended to be a book that would be published. I was just writing memoirs for my family. A friend of mine got wind of what I was doing. He worked at WaterBrook Press at the time. I let him read some of it and he was like, 'No, this needs to be a book. You need to finish this and think about going in this direction. This is how you should do it.' I signed a deal with them and got assigned an editor and so forth and it just became a process. So I finally got done with it."
In the process of writing the book "properly", it got chopped by the editors and Ward admits he has some regrets about that. "There are some things that I wish they wouldn't have taken out. The book ended up being a little 'Christian' to me because it's a Christian publisher and that's their market, you know? So they took out a couple of stories where I got a little colourful, you know, before I was a Christian. Gone! I probably had about 130,000/140,000 words and it's been hacked down to about 70,000."
He sums it up with four words. "It's a plain read." And so it is. I spent a merry couple of days reading the account of his life and I missed the other 70,000 words because I love detail and because there are quite a few places where events are skipped. However the book is amusing, very readable and totally interesting. For fans of Christian music My Second Chapter gives a strong, behind the scenes view of one of the most influential of American CCM groups.
Some of Ward's earliest recording experiences were with the mainstream record label MGM who had signed the group. One of their earliest recordings was a short, snappy pop tune "Jesus Is" which featured a stunning vocal from a 13 year old Ward. "It was actually recorded on my 13th birthday," he says.
At the time, MGM's label boss Mike Curb liked clean cut pop acts and as was the fashion of the time, it didn't feel as though singing songs that included the name of Jesus were out of bounds. A young, unsaved Keith Green tried out for the label but was turned down and Larry Norman was signed to MGM and released his classic 'Only Visiting This Planet' through them.
Ward remembers, "Pat Boone was pretty instrumental in getting us in the door with MGM. So our first record deal was with MGM. We never did finish a whole album with them though. We cut about eight songs, some of which the public have never heard. Pretty cool songs though." But it was The Osmonds who were the huge success at MGM with worldwide hits. "Yeah," says Ward, "The Osmonds, they did real well."
I've always theorised that it could just as easily have been the Ward
family group that broke big rather than the Osmond brothers and then
perhaps the world might have been saved from those toothsome grins and
Little Jimmy's "Long Haired Lover From Liverpool" and it would have
taken a little longer for us in the UK to discover what a Mormon
Ward isn't so sure. He says, "I doubt that it ever would have been just because part of the issue was I don't think they quite knew what to do with us because we weren't singing about pop issues. We were dealing with cultural issues and Christian thematic situations that I don't think a secular company like that had a niche for yet. They didn't have a Christian division of their label. When you look at it now every Christian label is owned by a secular company so it's kind of come full circle but it wasn't that way back then."
As you discover in the book, Ward has strong opinions on the current Christian music situation and isn't afraid to step on a few toes here and there. He also spends a great deal of time letting you into his personal world, particularly into his family and upbringing. There, you discover that Ward was orphaned at a very young age. He says simply, "I lost my mother when I was 10 and I lost my dad when I was 12 years old. That's really where the group 2nd Chapter Of Acts came from. There were still kids living at home and they had to go somewhere. So all of us went to live with brothers and sisters. My sister Nellie and I went to live with my sister Annie and her husband Buck Herring in Los Angeles. That's really how the group got started."
Matthew remembers his eldest sister Annie playing the piano at their new home. "We'd come home from school. Annie was self-taught and Buck bought her a little upright piano. We would just come home from school and pull up chairs around the piano and see what she was up to and see what God was giving her. We liked a lot of what she was doing. Nellie and I would just start singing with her. We didn't know what we were doing but we just kind of fell into natural parts. That part was really easy - doing harmonies. It was always easy for me to hear a harmony. And that's really how the group got started. It was just a time of healing around a piano."
It didn't hurt them that Buck Herring was a record producer. Ward laughs, "No, it didn't hurt! He was an audio-engineer/producer. He was kind of 'up and coming' at the time. It definitely helped get us into the studio and get some real top players that really liked Buck and made it so it was at least affordable for us to go in there and do it. So that worked out."
The book includes the famous story of how Barry McGuire "discovered" the group. "Yeah that was fun," remembers Matthew, "He came over one night. He got wind of my brother-in-law doing some producing and found out he was a Christian. So Barry looked him up. He had names of three people in LA. Buck was one of them. So he came to visit Buck and in that meeting we met Barry and Buck said to us, 'Hey why don't you sing some songs for Barry?' I mean, you get to see Barry's eyes sort of glaze over. He's like, 'How many times have I heard this? Oh, the family's gonna start singing.' But we started singing and he was very impressed with what he heard. Long story short, we ended up doing a record with him and 2nd Chapter did all the background vocals on his first album."
That album was the McGuire classic 'Seeds'. As a result of the success of the album, the group toured as backing vocalists for McGuire and had their first opportunity to be involved with the nascent Christian music scene including working with a young Phil Keaggy. He recalls, "We ended up hooking up with Billy Ray Hearn at Myrrh. That's when we really got signed to our first Christian label. And then when Billy Ray left Myrrh and started Sparrow we went with him. Then some years later we started our own label."