Tony Cummings charts the history of one of Jesus music's most important, and controversial, groups, the ALL SAVED FREAK BAND.
The release in the States in July 2006 of the 'Best Of' compilation 'Harps On Willows' by the All Saved Freak Band brought into the spotlight one of the most fascinating - and controversial - aggregations in the whole development of Christian music. The All Saved Freak Band were a pivotal group as the Church sought to come to terms with the '60s and '70s musical culture to develop Jesus music. And when Glenn Schwartz joined the band in 1971 they had in their ranks a world famous musician who had been dubbed "the white Hendrix", had once fronted the hitmaking James Gang and had enjoyed a top 20 US hit with "Are You Ready?" with his group Pacific Gas And Electric. According to disc jockey Dale Yancy, Schwartz's Christian conversion was announced very publicly. Said Yancy, "Glenn played a screaming solo on his Gibson Firebird at the Miami Pop Festival. Then he walked to the microphone and broke the news in front of 80,000 people that he had accepted Christ as his Saviour, quit drugs and encouraged them to do the same. The place came apart and it blew the rock world's mind!"
While a member of Pacific Gas And Electric, Schwartz had played a key role in the conversion of session musician Rick "Levi" Coghill who in 1972 was, with Joel Chernoff, to form the Messianic duo Lamb. The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music reports that after Glenn Schwartz's conversion his family had him committed to an insane asylum. But after his release he joined the Ohio commune which was the base for the All Saved Freak Band. One time Assemblies Of God minister and musician Larry Hill had founded the Church Of The Risen Christ (first called Harper's Field Community Bible Church) in the late '60s. It was a Christian commune overseen by Hill and his right-hand prophetess Diane Sullivan. Initially they focussed on witnessing to lost souls on the streets of Cleveland and to students on the campus of Kent State University. Guitarist and singer Joe Markko explained to Jeff Stevenson how he and the pastor/singer/pianist Hill had started the All Saved Freak Band. "Larry and I started the group in his living room on Blaine Street in Geneva, Ohio in September of 1968. Since our commitment to Christ included separating ourselves from anything having to do with the world, we stopped buying and listening to contemporary music as soon as we got saved. You couldn't help but hear the latest tunes on the radio so we kept loosely in touch with what was happening in music but there was zero Jesus content in their music until more than a year later when Larry and I sat down to listen to Larry Norman's album 'Upon This Rock'. We were astonished by the fact that this musical 'thing' seemed to be happening simultaneously in pockets across America. While the album provided great encouragement and validation for what we were doing, it actually discouraged me a bit as a musician. It made me think, 'Man, have we got a long way to go.' It was so good and we were so amateurish. Because we lived in an isolated community we didn't know anything about anybody until long after things happened. We didn't even have TV sets. Word of Fred Caban and his band Agape reached us earliest, I believe, then the groups Selah and Bridge. In early 1974 Larry made a trip to Scott Ross's Love Inn, another Christian commune in New York, where Phil Keaggy had recently joined their number. Phil played with us for a few weekends while he was still playing with the college bar band, Glass Harp. We received glowing reports from Larry of the great things happening in Brother Keaggy's life and we were thrilled when he began to record exclusively Christian content, but other than those kinds of connections, we really didn't know of any others."
Markko explained how the admittedly shambolic All Saved Freak Band suddenly came to have a world famous rock guitarist in their ranks. "Larry went to meet Glenn when Pacific Gas & Electric was on tour in Buffalo just after 'Are You Ready' first hit. As soon as Glenn returned to Cleveland, Larry asked me to go see him play. He was playing as part of a power-trio with his brother Gene and friend Jim Fox. When we walked into Faragher's Bar in Cleveland Heights, the band was cranked up playing Glenn's version of 'Brick House'. Though I'd heard his work on recordings nothing quite prepared me for his live performance. He simply blisters the air. There was absolutely no thought that Glenn would play with us. We just went to hear, meet and encourage another brother in Christ.
"The band was primitive when Glenn arrived - drums, piano, rhythm guitar and bass. Though I'd been in a studio a few times in Chicago, none of the others had any experience in recording or writing songs. In fact, I had to teach my brother Randy how to play bass. Larry was a wordsmith and gifted poet and I'd performed publicly as a musician since I was nine so, between us, we managed to hammer out enough songs to constitute a 'set' before Glenn arrived. It was the exclusively Christian lyric content that attracted Glenn."
Gradually over time the band's line up evolved and grew. The band would regularly play with 12 musicians. Remembered Joe Markko, "The band played every week for church services, wherever we were meeting, and we tended to play locally several times each year as well as some sort of annual tour. Other than pulling the acoustic guitars from the trunk of the car and singing to a few folks on street corners, the smallest venue we played was likely a mental institution in Vermont. It was outside and there were probably a dozen patients there, one who continued to announce himself as a long-deceased king. One young lady thanked me afterward by giving me a picture she'd drawn of me: a stick figure with a big smile and hook on the right arm. What a great gift. You had to be there. The largest venues also tended to be outside in Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, New Orleans and a few Ohio rock concerts.
"We were reared on Hendrix, Cream and Blue Cheer. When it was time to crank it up. we smiled. However, we always moved toward an acoustical, classical edge as we approached a concert's end. We gave our testimonies between songs and had altar calls at the end!"
Tragedy struck the band on the eve of 1971 when percussionist conga player Brett Hill died on his way home after playing at a New Year's Eve service in Kent. Within eight months percussionist Tom Miller and bass player Randy Markko also died in a car crash. In 1973 the band released the first of its four albums, 'My Poor Generation', on their own Rock The World label. In his Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music author Mark Allan Powell described it and the following albums 'Brainwashed' (1976), 'For Christians, Elves And Lovers' (1976) and 'Sower' (1980). "The four albums by ASFB fluctuate between songs driven by Schwartz's guitar licks and ones that showcase the sweet vocals and baroque strings of the Massmann sisters. Hard rock and folk tunes intertwine with flourishes of classical influence."
Though the band's music was genuinely creative and groundbreaking, inside the commune things were unravelling spiritually. Revelations began to appear in the media declaring that the Church Of The Risen Christ was a cult and legal action was begun against Hill for allegations of Felony child abuse raised by departing members themselves. Over the years a considerable amount of false information (including, sadly, errors in the Encyclopedia Of Christian Music) have been disseminated. Joe Markko has recently agreed to set the record straight about what went on within CRC and this will be documented in a future Cross Rhythms article and in a book Joe is writing. What can be established now is that an 18 month disintegration of the All Saved Freak Band took place between late 1977 and August of 1979.
The albums 'Brainwashed' based on the theme of the notorious cult de programmer Ted Patrick who had held Glenn Schwartz prisoner in a Cleveland hotel room in an effort to release him from his Christian conversion, and 'For Christians, Elves And Lovers' loosely based on JR Tolkein's Fellowship Of The Ring were actually recorded in 1971 but not released until 1976. The album 'Sower' was recorded in 1976 but had to wait until 1981 for its release by which time Joe Markko had left Church Of The Risen Christ. He remembered, "I'd left the band prior to its release and had issued a letter stating I didn't want my name or music to appear on the recording. Since much of the music on that project was mine, it put the band and communal church at the CRC farm at a distinct disadvantage. After threatening me with a lawsuit and the destruction of my ministry (I'd since become a pastor with the Assemblies Of God), I prayed about it and decided to let it go. I didn't have the heart to battle my old friends."
The tragic disintegration of the commune-church founded by Larry Hill is a subject deserving of a book in its own right. As history is now showing us, the churches planted in that astonishing late '60s move of the Holy Spirit in the USA when disillusioned hippies and burnt out drug casualties turned in their tens of thousands to Jesus produced good fruit (Calvary Chapel and Jesus People USA) but also bad (the Children Of God cult). But whatever the precise truth of the mistakes and abuses that occurred in Larry Hill's Ohio commune is, it did leave an unexpected and ongoing musical legacy. Sealed copies of the All Saved Freak Band's albums fetch anywhere between $200 and $500 on eBay and the band's music even occasionally turns up on cooler mainstream radio station playlists. Their story is a fascinating if ultimately a tragic one.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.