Tony Cummings chronicles the life and times of one of the pioneers of contemporary Christian music, CHARLES McPHEETERS.
In 1994 small American independent label Sonrise Records released various artists album 'The Rock Revival', one of the few attempts to document on CD the music of the '70s Jesus Movement which was to prove to be the foundation stone for the emergent CCM. It was a dazzling evocation of another, more innocent era when converted hippies, druggies and street people having turned to Jesus sang about their new found faith through the vehicle of rock and pop music.
Jesus music's creative standards were sometimes patchy and the production values decidedly budget line, but the sheer evangelistic zeal of the Jesus music pioneers showcased on 'The Rock Revival''s two volumes shone powerfully through. Featured on the albums alongside well known figures like Larry Norman, Love Song, Barry McGuire and Randy Stonehill were two tracks by the wonderfully named Charles McPheeters And The Bible Belt Boogie Band. Charles' inclusion on those compilations, alongside an entry in The Encyclopedia Of Christian Music where his 'Faces' album (from which 'The Rock Revival''s tracks were taken) is called "a Christian music classic" plus an obituary in the September 1982 issue of CCM magazine are just about all the scant examples you will find of the CCM industry's due recognition to Charles McPheeters. But though unknown to a new generation of Nashville scene suits, Charles' vision to take the Gospel to the addicts, hookers, pimps and drunks of the inner city jungle is a legacy that today lives on in the ongoing work of Charles' widow Judy Radachy. The Oasis drop-in centre she runs in Hollywood is, unquestionably, one of the GREAT faith-in-action works of the modern Church. With her second husband Ron, Judy has seen thousands of lives changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that, I'm sure, is worth far more to this brave and godly woman than any Dove Awards.
Charles' upbringing was decidedly problematic. In the album 'High On Life' he shared his testimony in between a few songs. He said, "My high school life was pretty bad. My dad got sick and went into a mental hospital when I was about 11 years old and so for the rest of that time I didn't have a dad and it was kind of rough. My mom was working as a nurse to support us four kids and we were kind of poor and everything, we weren't rich by any means. I was always stealing this and that and on my paper route I would break into homes. I ran away from home. I was on probation half my high school years and I'd always try and act tough in jail during the day but at night I'd stick my head under the pillow and I'd cry. Sometimes I'd even pray. I'd say, 'Oh God help me out of trouble!' and the Lord would help me out of trouble and I'd say, 'Well, see you next time I'm in trouble!' That's the way it was."
Charles dropped out of school about six weeks before he graduated. He remembered, "I travelled coast to coast. 44 different states, hitch-hiking here, there, working different jobs, night clubs, different clubs. The old saying if you don't stand for something, you're going to fall for anything. I mean I was hung up on grass, I was a grass freak. I know they say that you can't get addicted and all these little word games, addiction, habituation, dependency. Okay, fine, whatever you want to call it, I know I was hung up in my head. Now of course I wasn't smoking this little nickel dime stuff that some people are smoking today. Some people are smoking cat nip and tea leaves and grass from the lawnmower. I mean it's incredible, the variety that goes around today. But I was into heavy grass - Acapulco gold, what have you, and it's no game. Let me illustrate. You roll a joint, you light up, you're getting loaded. Now depending on what type of grass it is, how much THC is in it - and by the way THC is the chemical in marijuana that gets you high: tetrahydrocannabinol, THC. And it's a scientific fact that if you get a high enough dosage of it, it can prove pretty disastrous. I know personally that THC can really wreck your head as it did me. I really thought that I was getting it together."
Charles was 19 when he arrived at the ultimate "freak town" Hollywood. He recounted, "I was getting into other things. You know there was a time when I said that I'd never smoke anything other than grass and I was getting into mescaline, cayote cactus - I got into hard drugs! I began to snort cocaine and heroine, speed balls and I can't deny you get a buzz, man, you go on a trip, you feel good, sure you do. But like the song says, 'What goes up must come down.' You know, one minute you're high, the next minute you're ready to rip your brain out and commit suicide. Your brain turns into a yo-yo sometimes, it's incredible. I tell you, I never graduated to the needle for one reason: I never got the chance because I got messed up on a lower level. But here's the revelation: you don't have to go to the needle, you don't have to go to shooting smack heroine man, to get messed up. You can get messed up at any step of this staircase."
He continued, "One night at a party in Palm Springs I really blew it - I took an overdose of drugs and I freaked out - I was on a bummer and a half. And people weren't just turning into skeletons or baboons or gorillas, no, they were turning into demons, like I was going on a death trip man, I was dying. You needn't grasp it but there was so much terror, so much fear, I can't. . . words aren't sufficient to really explain it. I began to realise that something, 'Hey, you dummy, this is no trip, this is the ultimate destination of the trip - death, hell and destruction.' What do you do when you're dying of an overdose of drugs? I'll tell you what you do, man. When you're hurting and you've run out of answers, you get on the hot line to Heaven real fast! I tell you, I wasn't the praying kind - God had been a swear word to me, I couldn't care less. I began to pray. I said, 'God, if you're for real, man, help me.' You see, I was figuring that if the Devil was this real man, then God had better be more real otherwise I was hurting. Well, God was for real and he came through with some real answers. I don't mean that the heavens opened and an angel flew down and said, 'Zap, you're okay now!' No, not quite! But you know what I mean - the Lord really came through. The pressure eased off my head a little bit and just certain things, but you still got to reap what you sow.
"For the next few weeks I went crazy. My friends had to tie me up for a few days because, they said, I was trying to kill people. One minute I would be crying, whimpering like a little baby, my little jellyfish mind being ripped up by the egg-beater of fear, not knowing whether I was dead or alive or where or who or anything, and the next minute trying to kill people. I shaved my head bald and everybody said, 'Wow, McPheeter's dropped some bad acid!' That's what everybody thought and that's what I thought too. But whatever, it did the job. I went from Beverley Hills to Skid Row in about two to three weeks. My life fell apart. I sat in a gutter and ripped up everything in my wallet - it was crazy. Here I was, no hair, no money no groovy clothes, no nothing."
Like the prodigal son, he crawled back home to his mother. She was attending St Luke's Episcopal Church in Washington. As Charles said, "I asked Jesus to come into my life and forgive my sins. It was about like dropping a new Corvette engine into a Volkswagen." A couple of young men laid hands on Charles and prayed for him to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Much to Charles' amazement he found himself lying on the floor of St Luke's stately building praising God in tongues. He lay there for three hours. After this dramatic experience he rushed outside to tell someone about what Jesus had done in his life. Charles began to share the Good News at any and every opportunity. His travels took him to the Seattle area, where he played in a gospel folk group called Disciples Three. The group's songs of faith played on acoustic guitars drew opposition from conservative churches. Then McPheeters settled in Los Angeles where he worked with the Southern California branch of Teen Challenge, the outreach organisation founded by Pentecostal minister David 'Cross & The Switchblade' Wilkerson. At the Southern California Teen Challenge Center, another young musician, Andrae Crouch, was then directing the 40-voice addicts choir. Since Andrae was also already working with a group called The Disciples, Charles changed the Disciples Three to the New Creatures. The newly named group continued to perform gospel folk music in Christian coffee houses.
Charles became a regular performer at His Place on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, a coffee house started by street evangelist Arthur Blessitt who gained international fame by hauling a life size cross around various parts of the world. One night while playing at His Place, Charles' brother Jim turned up unannounced in the audience. Such was the transformation from the brother Jim had remembered as a drug-addled wreck that he didn't recognise Charles. Jim experienced a conversion through his brother's ministry and became a member of Blessitt's Christian rock band Eternal Rush.
McPheeters migrated to upstate New York in 1969 to work as a midday deejay on the Christian Broadcasting Network radio stations while living in what would later become the Love Inn community in Freeville. Next, McPheeters relocated to Dallas, where he worked at Christ For The Nations Institute.
In 1971 Charles released an album 'High On Life', largely his spoken word testimony interspersed with five songs, one his own composition "Bad News Blues" and covers of songs by Noel Paul Stookey, The Exkursions, Joe South and James Taylor. By 1972 Charles was in Denver working as a youth pastor at Redeemer Temple. On crime-ridden East Colfax Avenue, near the State Capital, Redeemer Temple helped Charles establish the Holy Ghost Repair Service, Inc, a ministry directed at the street people of Denver - addicts, prostitutes, pimps, drunks, transients and the like. A street paper The End Times was also published by HGRS.
Charles' ministerial calling then took him to Florida for a few years where he worked as youth pastor at a local church. In late 1979, Charles relocated to Hollywood where he set up the HGRS on Hollywood Boulevard, the forerunner of The Oasis. While in Hollywood Charles released his second album. 'Faces' by Charles McPheeters And The Bible Belt Boogie Band is a gem. The Boogie Band included Mike Johnson and Randy Matthews (at the time well known Christian artists in their own right) and with wacky titles like "Greasy Truth" and "First Church Of The Frigid-Air" every song is performed in a different style taking in doowop, cocktail jazz, mariachi and blues rock. A pioneering album, it demonstrated its strong satirical edge by lampooning religious formulism and worldliness and pre-dated what Steve Taylor was to achieve in his rock satires a few years later. The Holy Ghost Repair Service continued to rescue the human flotsam and jetsam of Hollywood street people and some of the numerous miracles and deliverances the ministry experienced are recorded in the book Walk Of Faith On The Walk Of Fame by Charles' wife Judy Radachy (Joshua Publishing, 2004). But on 31st July, 1982 Charles lost his battle with stomach cancer and died aged 38. He was a true pioneer and courageous man of faith who should not be forgotten.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.