The 'Power House' album by WHITE HEART has stormed its way up America's CCM sales charts. Tony Cummings met the band and records the achievements and disasters experienced by the cast-of-hundreds baring the White Heart name.
Among those whose musical tastes veer towards the heavier end of rock music a debate rages - which is the best Christian band in the world. There seem to be only two contenders, both American of course - Petra and White Heart. Petra would win most votes. But since the release of the awesome, 'Freedom' album in 1989 White Heart have gained in Europe a still small but passionately devoted following, as witness the clamorous reception at their Belfast concert in March.
While over in the States, White Heart now sell 300,000 plus copies of each album and stand at the threshold of the illusive crossover to the mainstream.
The story of the righteous rockers move from church hall to football stadium gigs is not some seamless progression. The band have faltered and hiccupped through more personnel changes than your local MacDonalds (including four different lead singers), have moved through four different record companies and went through a crisis in 1985 which was the rock gospel equivalent of the Bakker and Swaggart scandals. Yet the resilience of their founding members Billy Smiley and Mark Gersmehl and the single unswerving vision to "take the gospel to the kids" (in the words of Gersmehl) have seen White Heart not only emerge as rock gospel survivors but grow as maturer men of God while their full-throttle guitar rock goes on finding larger and larger audiences.
For a full-tilt rock band the group's origins hardly exude street cred. In the early 1980s, Bill Gaither - massively popular songwriter exponent of inspirational middle-of-the-road music was playing to packed auditoriums leading his Bill Gaither Trio. Among the Trio's backing band were Steve Green (who sang backup vocals and also fronted the Gaither Vocal Band), Billy Smiley (who played guitar and trumpet) and Mark Gersmehl (keyboards and trombone).
Frustrated by their role as anonymous sidemen they formed a band with Dann and David Huff sent a demo to Word Records and by 1983 had had their first rock gospel album released 'White Heart'. But the sight and sound of Steve Green belting out rockers like "He's Returning" and "You're The One" was not to last long. Remembers Mark Gersmehl.
"I knew it couldn't last one night after a gig. We'd just done this steaming set and there were all these kids waiting to talk to us. There we were in our rock 'n' roll bags talking to the kids when out of the dressing room comes Steve. He is wearing a suit and carrying a Bible! Steve is a beautiful Christian brother and we've remained friends. But his heart was just not in rock music!"
Steve left to find huge American success with lavishly orchestrated MOR inspirational music. And White Heart searched around for a new lead singer. The second album, 'Vital Signs' featured some particularly hot guitar from the band's superb guitarist Dann Huff but shortly after its release Dann left too, to pursue studio session work in Los Angeles. He was replaced by Gordon Kennedy (whose dad jerry produced Roger 'King Of The Road' Millar in the 60s). The band moved labels, to Chris Christian's, Home Sweet Home Records in 1985 and recorded a successful CCM album 'Hotline' where for the first time a guitar and synth rock mix of some originality was on offer.
Yet White Heart's personnel kept changing. Their drummer David Huff joined up with Michael W. Smith to embark on the mammoth 'Friends' tour. He was replaced in White Heart by Chris McHugh. But it was the departure of the band's lead singer Scott Douglas which plunged the man into nightmarish scandal. The band had just returned from a major tour (which was to eventually produce a decidedly cash-in live album)
"It had been a great tour" recalls Billy. "We had just seen some great things happening. We had just gotten off the bus and all our wives and friends are there. It's in the morning so we all drag off to our homes. Everything was fine and we were taking a couple of days off until I got a call that night from Scott's wife Joey (JoVonne Mathiesen). She sounded really broken up and she said, 'I have something that is really hard to say. Scott can no longer be with you guys. We really appreciate everything, but he can no longer be a part of he group.'"
Two days later Scott and JoVonne came over to Billy's house to meet with the group and explain the situation. "Scott looked like he had aged eight years," remembers Mark vividly. "Unbelievable in the space of two days. He gave us a very fragmentary synopsis of what had actually gone on. He said he had defiled some girls, but as far as any specifics we really weren't able to glean much from that."
"He was just shattered emotionally," adds Smiley, "Joey was there with him so he could even just talk. She just had her arm around him telling him, 'It's okay. You can go on.'"
About ten days later the Nashville news media showed pictures of White Heart's lead singer handcuffed and being led into the county courthouse. Newspapers carried headlines like 'Christian Singer Arrested on Sex Charges.' "As far as specifics go, the bulk of what we found out, we found out by watching the news," Mark continues. "We saw the news and here's a guy that was my road roommate. A guy that slept four feet away from me was walking up the steps of the courthouse with handcuffs on him. It's shattering."
Thirty-two year old Scott Douglas Mathiesen (he shortened his name to "Scott Douglas" for the stage) was convicted in March 1986 on three counts of aggravated sexual assault (so-called because minors were involved) and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He will not be eligible for parole until at least 30 percent of his sentence has been served. According to Mathiesen and his wife, the encounters occurred with the full consent of two girls aged 11 and 13 who lived near him. He was also convicted of a third incident (which he claims never took place) as part of a plea bargain arrangement. None of these acts ever took place in connection with any White Heart activities, however.
"Scott fell due to pride," said his wife of nine years at the time. "In a way, he had never been humbled before the Lord. He grew up in the church, so he had never been saved out of a lot of 'bad stuff. He lived his Christian life by his own strength. He had a real problem with lust, and he remained very weak because he was fighting it on his own strength. That was the weak place where Satan could really attack. We could see the Holy Spirit really moving in concerts. A lot of power was beginning to come out, and that's when Satan began to attack on all fronts."