Tony Cummings plots the decades-long involvement in Christian music ministry of PAUL DAVIS
There's something quite appropriate that the recently published biography of THE veteran of American Christian music, George Beverly Shea, should be written by one of the behind-the-scenes veterans of UK Christian music, Paul Davis. For though Paul has yet to reach Shea's stunning 100 years Paul has for decades worked in numerous capacities in the Christian music world as a broadcaster, journalist, publisher, album compiler and record producer as well as heading up New Christian Music (NCM), an organisation which seeks to bring much needed profile and radio play to a bevy of Christian artists. Paul visited the Cross Rhythms studios recently to talk about his years in Christian music. He began by speaking about his book George Beverly Shea: Tell Me The Story, published by Ambassador International.
"George was a 100 years old last year, which is an incredible achievement, and I must say that if I did nothing else, this book is the pinnacle of all that I've done. I have to pinch myself to think that I've been given the responsibility, and the opportunity, to put out the authorised biography of such an important person in Christian music, and in Church history too. Remember he's a co-worker, one of the closest of three, with Dr Billy Graham. George actually goes back to the days of Sankey and Moody. Ira Sankey was alive when Bev Shea was born. That puts it in the context of his history, and the history of George Beverly Shea, in many senses, is the history of Christian music in the 20th century."
Paul continued, "The number of people George has sung to is larger than anybody else in history. We know that because broadly speaking, it's the same number that Billy Graham has preached to. And that figure, although it isn't immediately available in my head, is known because records have been kept. It would be very difficult for the kind of opportunity that George has had for so many years, remembering the longevity of the man. He's been with Billy Graham since 1944, still singing today, even on his 100th birthday, and the communication he's had to people around the world has been unequalled down through history."
Since the '60s Paul has had many meetings and interviews with George. He observed, "To be honest I don't know anyone from the journalistic side, or the media side, who's had that opportunity on a continuous basis. Remembering that we're dealing with someone here who doesn't see himself as a show business person by any stretch of the imagination, but sees himself as a Church minister rather than an entertainer, he doesn't see himself in that context. I spent time staying with him at his home when I did the book, so I'm not sure how many times I've interviewed him through the years, but there has been correspondence year after year that I've maintained with him. I've also been a student of what he's done since 1954, believe it or not, because I remember when he came over to Haringey. I remember going to Stamford Bridge Football Club one week to watch Newcastle play Chelsea. I wish I'd remembered this for the book. I'd forgotten all about it. At half time Billy Graham came on preceded by George and he sang to all that vast crowd.
"As a 10 year old boy, that made a big impression on me. I used to go to Sunday school in West London and this was just up the road in Stamford Bridge and that really touched my heart. So there he was singing and he actually sang a song that I was familiar with from the Mission Hall that I used to attend in West London. So in that sense, the association goes back all those years. I've had all the albums from RCA Victor. He's not only, as you know, a great recording artist, he's got 70 or 80 recordings out plus a history on RCA when it was the flagship for all those other labels. It was Elvis's record label too and his history, in the context of that show business record label, is unique for a Christian artist. Nobody even begins to touch him. It's a phenomenal story that I felt needed to be told, and he was reluctant to tell it because of his aversion to making a fuss about himself. The man is about the Gospel, not about himself".
The same thing could be said for Paul Davis. This 65 year old jack-of-all-trades has for decades worked promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul, the son of a London City Missionary, grew up in a poor part of West London. He recalled, "Like tens of thousands more my family grew up with the scarcities that followed World War Two. But I was fortunate - I grew up in a Christian home were Christ was central and my parents lived out their Christian faith. Even though I, from time to time, wandered or was led astray, whatever one wants to call it, I knew deep down that I had to come to terms with what Christ was saying, and I needed to come to a salvation which was personal. I remember going forward at Wembley in 1955 at the Billy Graham rally and I never looked back. I remember it was soaking wet and I was with a bunch of kids and teachers from Sunday school. It was an evening meeting and I can remember walking on that turf knowing, even at that young age, that the commitment was going to be real."
Trials followed his teenage years. He admitted, "In your teens you tend to follow your peers and I did struggle in that direction, but the depth of Christian faith that had been laid in my heart by my parents and faithful people [helped me through]. I praise God for those faithful people that have ministered to me down through the years. There was never any doubt that the wanderer was going to return. When I found the right girl it helped too. We were married when Hazel was 19 and I was 20. We were childhood sweethearts. We also went to the same Sunday school and church, The London City Mission Hall in Notting Hill - it was called Norland Hall. That's where the big motorway is now, and that big shopping mall, the multi million dollar thing they put near Sheppard's Bush. It was a small shed of a place, but it was a place that reverberated with true spirituality. In my youth I can remember encountering giants of the faith, people who didn't have two pennies to rub together who were regulars at the prayer meetings. It stirs and moves me even thinking about some of those people and their earnestness and faith."
Like tens of thousands of other young people, Paul listened on the radio to the emergent rock'n'roll music, not on the BBC - the Beeb only caught up with the musical revolution in the '60s - but on the wildly oscillating signal of Radio Luxembourg. "I used to tune into Radio Luxemburg and stay tuned in for the Christian programmes that followed the pop music programmes. They were a blessing in my life. I used to be an ardent listener and that helped me gain a tremendous amount of background in theology and service that has been valuable to me down through the years. Billy Graham of course was one of the evangelists, and the Back To The Bible broadcast, The Old Time Revival Hour. All of this sounds very old fashioned now, which it was, but there was a vibrancy there that I enjoyed and I also enjoyed the gospel music."
Paul began exploring the record shops looking for country and western gospel and Southern gospel music like that performed on The Old Time Revival Hour. He also developed a taste for secular country hitmakers such as Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash. In 1970 folk singer Judy Collins scored a surprise international hit with her rendition of the old John Newton hymn "Amazing Grace". As it turned out the record's success proved to be a catalyst in Paul's life. He explained, "I stuck my neck out and wrote an article about 'Amazing Grace' based on the story of John Newton, the converted slave trader, because I had read that story and I was amazed at the autobiography that was coming through in that song. I thought it was a story worth telling. In country music 'Amazing Grace' was on every other record and it has maintained its position down through the centuries. So I wrote the article and sent it in to Country Music People magazine but they never used it. This was 1971 I think. Then 'Amazing Grace' was a hit a second time around by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the bagpipe band, and the editor Bob Powell who lived very close to me in Bromley came around and saw me. He said, 'I've been waiting, I've been holding on to your article. I didn't use it because I was frightened to because it was so religious. But I was fascinated by the story and as it is a hit a second time around I've jumped in with both feet and put it in the magazine'. Then Polydor Records, who I think had responsibility for The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, decided to take my article and send it around the world. So suddenly I found myself a journalist getting a lot of promotion."
Paul was working in local government administration but suddenly found opportunities opening in broadcasting. He explained. "I had BBC Radio Medway contact me and say that they were going to do a series on country gospel music because their country music deejay Larry Adams had just been to Nashville, and he'd been taken to church on a Sunday morning and had been impressed, to say the least. So Larry had badgered the station to do this country gospel programme but didn't know where to start. When he saw my involvement they thought they'd use me to pick the songs and write the scripts. So suddenly I find myself an advisor to the radio, and that in turn was so well received that I then had a call from Radio 2, from David Winter, who asked me to write the scripts and work with Cliff Richard. I think it was a couple of years that I was writing Cliff Richard's scripts for Sunday morning called the Gospel Road or The Gospel Train, I can't be sure now. That was about 1973. That also gave me a very useful association with Cliff Richard down through the years. From that I was asked for more articles for a country music magazine. Then Billboard asked me to do something for their Music Week publication in the UK. So I had a page article in there about Christian music."
Not that all the media jobs were doing much for the Davis finances. As he admitted, "I kept my job because I found that in Christian service you can achieve so much if you're willing not to be paid for it and it would have been foolish and unwise for me to neglect my family and go unwisely into something that would put our livelihood at risk. So I stayed in paid employment down through the years, but most things I have done I haven't been paid for."
In 1975 with a small band of intrepid helpers Paul took the highly hazardous step of publishing and editing Britain's first magazine committed entirely to Christian music, titled New Music. Said Paul, "I saw the need, because there was nothing in the UK that promoted Christian music. I saw that all the other genres of music had their own magazine, and I got together with a few friends and in a very 'home made' way we put together the New Music magazine. We always had a distribution problem because things are so small in the UK and even record companies struggle from a distribution point of view. New Music was distributed, right from the start, by STL who were based in Bromley and many of the STL people went to our local church where Hazel and I were worshipping, so they were personal friends. So with the help of those people and also Peter Holmes, Roger Hill and Richard Deverell, we were able to put together something that was presentable. The first issue had Johnny Cash on the cover. Johnny Cash was then at his height as an icon of country music. Other articles were on the Jesus music band Liberation Suite, another country music artist Wanda Jackson, a British singer with her first solo album, Lois Buckley, and my piece on 'Amazing Grace'. There was also the very first article ever published in Europe on the Bill Gaither Trio. I thought their songwriting held immense possibilities so it was interesting that I included them in the first edition."
In such a small scene as UK Christian bookshops, sales of New Music were very small but over the next few years the magazine bravely battled on in giving Christian music consumers some idea of what was out there. Issue 2 predictably featured Cliff Richard on the cover while early 1977's Issue 5 had a cover story on Andrae Crouch and the back page advertised a new book, New Life In Country Music by Paul Davis. That paperback offered potted biographies of Johnny Cash, Skeeter Davis, Wanda Jackson, Pat Boone, George Hamilton IV, Marijohn Wilkin, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Stuart Hamblin, Anita Bryant, Redd Harper, Roy Rogers and Jimmie Davis. Issue 10 (April-June 1978) of New Music featured a cover story on Swedish MOR group The Samuelssons, Issue 14 had Welsh pop gospeller Kevin Gould on its cover and Issue 19 (July-September 1980) devoted its cover to country singer Jerry Arhelger. That issue also had a page ad highlighting the first four releases of a new independent record label New Music Enterprises - Judy Herring's 'God's Rose', Roland Friday's 'Living Keyboard Sounds', Jerry Arhelger's 'Portrait' and Erv Lewis' 'Word Pictures'. Paul spoke about becoming a reluctant record label boss. "The country singer Erv Lewis and his label Herald Records were why we started the record label and the publishing arm. Erv, Jerry Arhelger and Judy Herring were touring the UK at the time and they wanted their material out in the UK. So I developed a close relationship as a publisher with SESAC (the copyright organisation) in the States and various other people and it built from then. We're not an active record company as such. All I've been doing is doing people favours down through the years. In our small gentle way we did quite well with the albums. We don't have, in the UK, a circuit as they do in America, and artists struggle to put together a tour of any kind. So we experimented with that, with artists who had a missionary spirit. I've looked at people who I've worked with down through the years who have had a heart for mission rather than simply to do the commercial thing. Obviously, we've got to try and break even when we can and we will continue to act wisely. But the secret I believe is to maintain a missionary spirit."
In the early '80s Paul joined the staff of Britain's biggest Christian label, Milton Keynes-based Word Records, as Commercial Manager. His particular specialty was assembling album releases from archive material and while at Word he compiled albums and wrote sleevenotes for albums by acts like Johnny Cash, Bill Gaither, Marty Robbins, Burl Ives and Mahalia Jackson. Things were also changing for Paul's pioneering magazine. It was relaunched in October 1980 as New Christian Music with a full colour cover, the first of which featured Bob Dylan (though like the other evangelical publications of the time there was no direct interview with the superstar). But by July 1982 New Christian Music was beginning to look seriously dated with a Face-To-Face interview with MOR balladeer Andrew Culverwell; an advert for the Linda Bartholomew album 'A New Song' on the New Christian Music label and a cover story on country music's Rosemary Wilhelm, the relative obscurity of the latter emanating from New Christian Music's policy to sell its cover stories to aspiring artists. A revamp/redesign was overdue and in 1983 the magazine emerged once more, now titled NCM and with a cool looking Sheila Walsh on the cover. As well as being NCM's editor/publisher Paul acted as consultant or executive record producer for a myriad of album releases for a wide assortment of companies. Explained Paul, "Down through the years all the big record companies, not just the Christian companies, most of the majors, used me to compile albums. For Reader's Digest I did a whole series on country artists, so there's a box of Johnny Cash, a box of Jim Reeves, a box of Glen Campbell, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers; I've got boxes on all those sorts of people, plus compilations. I did a Gospel compilation for them called 'Peace In The Valley' and a couple of other boxes on mixed artists."
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