Tony Cummings charts the five-decade history of Christian music pioneer DAVE POPE
One of the most surprising musical comebacks of last year was the re-emergence of Dave Pope. With long time compatriot John Daniels, Dave has released a worship album 'Still Waters' which will rekindle memories when in the late '70s Pope and Daniels enjoyed two major Christian music sellers with 'Love Offering' and 'Thank Offering'. Dave Pope will be remembered as the man who for many years led worship at Britain's largest Christian event Spring Harvest. But of course the veteran has achieved many other things in his decades-long Christian ministry. Many will know him as the man who started the influential outreach and arts ministry Saltmine Trust while there are still Jesus music collectors who will acknowledge Dave as a pioneer of '70s Christian music with one of his albums being produced by Cliff Richard.
It was 12 months ago that it was suggested that Dave put some time aside and return to the recording studio. Singer, songwriter and keyboard player John Daniels had settled in the USA and the album 'Still Waters' was recorded in Dallas. Under the watchful eye and expertise of producer Ian Watson (best known for his many albums with the Praise Gathering Choir) many of Pope's and Daniels' old songs were given new arrangements and were supplemented by two new contributions from a very talented singer/songwriter Caleb Collins - one of the music team at the renowned Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York.
Pope spoke about his unexpected re-entrance into music ministry. "It was never my intention to go back to the studio. I do enjoy making music, but never considered that this should be the one string on my bow. The past 20 years have seen me primarily engaged in developmental projects and work with disadvantaged and marginalised people, as well as committing myself locally to the development of a brand new Academy in North Birmingham. But I am grateful to those who encouraged and sponsored a return to the music, and I hope the new album will inspire and encourage all who listen."
Dave was born in Dudley, West Midlands in 1948. Commented Dave, "My father was a shoe repairer but as someone cleverly said maybe he dealt more in souls than heels. I was brought up in a Methodist church and that was all part of the culture. Looking back, I guess I just went along with it. I must admit that today, if I had children, I wouldn't put them through the regime that I went through. But I don't look back in any sense of having missed out; I think I really appreciated what my parents and that culture was trying to do. And so I was surrounded with the Jesus thing and an evangelistic kind of atmosphere. But at the age of 10 I remember being in a children's meeting run by the Lord's Day Observance Society (the people who take the budgie's swing out of his cage so he doesn't enjoy himself on a Sunday - no, not really). I remember making a very simple commitment and that really was a milestone. As life went on, friendships, school, challenges, laddishness, all the rest of it, [that commitment] faded but there was that basic recognition, there was never a doubting the existence of God, there was never a doubting of the existence of Christ and what he'd done. It was in the latter years of school and then on to university when I chose to do psychology a lot of my Christian friends at that time thought I'd really lost my marbles with that because everybody said 'you know you'll come out of university and you'll never be a Christian again'. My theology of assurance took me through that but I think I knew what they meant. I actually came out much stronger but it was in those middle teen, late teen years that I thought through what Christian commitment is all about, which is very different to Christian decision-making."
Even as a child Dave was fascinated by music. He said, "It's a standard phrase: I've always had an interest in music but yes, I have. Brian Gilbert playing the guitar and Play In A Day, I picked that up and someone gave me a guitar and I started strumming away. I've said this many times, I'm not a brilliant musician. Without a capo and the knowledge of a few chords I'd be totally lost. I had the wisdom to surround myself with some good musicians and I think that's where my commitment to team work came from. Although I'd have loved to have been a great piano player or a good guitarist, maybe because I wasn't it led me down the path of finding people who were. I've always loved singing. I was in all the Gilbert And Sullivan operas in school: I sang the lead in Mikado, I sang Nankipoo; I played Frederick in Pirates Of Penzance. And it just developed. I've never had voice training, I did a bit of breathing exercises but I just loved singing and that's the way it went."
In 1971, Dave's Christian faith and his level of music converged when he joined a Midlands-based male/female gospel folk group The Alethians. They quickly became popular around the churches, performing in a style which American Jesus music expert Ken Scott described as "Peter, Paul & Mary with British accents." The Alethians and an instrumental group The Right Angle - who specialised in soft lounge jazz - were both signed to Word UK Records, who had recently started a contemporary offshoot, Myrrh. The resulting album 'One Way' was recorded in one day. Remembered Dave, or David as he was credited on the album, "It was recorded on a Saturday afternoon in North London and it was a bit of a rushed session because I was already in London and the rest of the team were in the West Midlands. We'd got a huge string double bass and wherever we went, we called it the coffin, we had to put this double bass in a big coffin-like structure that we built, and it had to be taken everywhere. You never knew what condition this double bass would arrive in. But when we got to the studio the other members of the group were late so time was really getting compressed. So it was recorded very, very quickly but I can remember the session as if it was yesterday. These were the days when nothing was done electronically. It was the thick tape running over 16 heads and we were very excited because this was a 16 track recording machine. It meant we could put a few more mics on the drums rather than spread it across all the other instruments."
In 1973 Word's Myrrh label released a second album, 'RSVP', by The Alethians this time without The Right Angle. For a semi-pro group The Alethians achieved quite a bit. The outstanding track on 'RSVP' was the haunting "Three Crosses". Commented Dave, "That was a great song that Roger Hurrell wrote I think, not absolutely sure but we worked with Roger and Jan quite a bit. Chris, the lead vocalist, has got a lovely alto, soulful kind of voice. It gave us goose bumps whenever we played it live." Continued Dave, "The popularity of the folk style of music continued to grow. Cliff Richard really put The Alethians on the map when he invited us to do the first half of all of his Tear Fund charity concerts and we did that for about seven years. It was the first time we'd played to packed houses. Normally we could get our audiences into a phone box but we were playing the Odeons of this world, the big venues. Admittedly, people came to see Cliff but we played for 25 minutes and they were great audiences."
Having left university Dave was now working full time as a preacher and singer for the Movement Of World Evangelism organisation. In '73 Myrrh released what was to be the first of many Dave Pope solo albums. 'Time To Take Account' was something of a humble effort with originals like "Come Let Us Reason Together" and "Somebody Told Me" alongside covers like Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready". Four years later Dave told New Music magazine, "I listen to my first LP now and cringe."
Gradually The Alethians began to run out of steam. With MOWE, Dave was doing a lot of travelling, speaking at churches and large events like Filey. Also members of The Alethians started getting married and having children. But as The Alethians' engagements tailed off, Dave found himself working more and more with John Daniels. Explained Dave, "John sent me some of his songs. I knew some of his friends at his church in Portsmouth and I began to listen to these songs and I thought these are amazing. Just like when I was working with The Right Angle, I began to develop a working relationship with John and we began to do things together: piano and vocal, he was also a very good guitarist. We did some duos. He came along on missions I was involved in from a Saturday to a Saturday."
In 1976, Dave Pope had emerged as a solo artist. Several of the songs featured on Dave's debut solo album 'Writing On The Wall' were written by John and one of them, "Love", a beautiful reflection on 1 Corinthians 13, has been re-recorded and is the opening track on Pope/Daniels' 'Still Waters' CD. 'Writing On The Wall' was a major UK success for the singing evangelist. And not just in Britain. A Cross Rhythms reader, Tania from Cape Town, enthused about the project, "Dave's words and voice are so soothing and the words apply to us now as they did then. I was 10 years old when the group visited Cape Town and played at the Methodist Church in Heathfield. My grandmother hosted them at a lunch and I had the pleasure of meeting Dave."
Dave's smooth, warm vocal tones applied to faith building lyrics made him an increasingly popular figure on the Christian scene. This was reinforced in 1976 when he recorded the 'Face To Face' album. Even today, Dave is reminded of the impact he had on a generation of Christians. He recounted, "I recently opened my emails and there was a lady saying 'I remember you when you were doing the late night sessions at Filey and I've got all your albums'. I think the reason for the popularity was, there weren't a lot of people doing what I was doing at the time. I suppose unashamedly my music was middle of the road but back then it wasn't necessarily uncool to listen to pop-orientated music because it was out in the secular arena as well; like the New Seekers. It was the right thing, at the right time in the right kind of Christian culture and I had some very useful opportunities that bore fruit."
Not that being a travelling evangelist was a particularly easy lifestyle. Dave told Buzz magazine in November 1977, "I think people have got a really glossy image of what it's like to travel around. If people think there is any glamour in evangelism and gospel singing, come on a tour for six weeks and you'll soon have that idea squashed. We're right on the battlefront. A school in Scotland I went to one afternoon was invaded by a gang from another school. There was a big punch-up in the playground. There was literally blood in the playground."
In 1978, Pope had the opportunity of recording a big budget album with one of the biggest figures on the UK pop scene producing. Dave explained how he came to make the 'Sail Away' album with production by Cliff Richard, "After three or four years of The Alethians doing the Tear Fund concerts, I got to know Cliff reasonably well. He became a good friend, still is a good friend. We played tennis and socialised a little bit. So when the opportunity came to do a different style of album, I talked to him about it, the record company talked to him about it and he looked in his diary. His management weren't wildly excited but they said ok, he's got a few days here. If he wants to do it, we won't stop Cliff doing what he wants to do. So we began to look at material and it all came together."
Cliff brought in a whole pile of top class musicians to back Dave on the 'Sail Away' album. Dave admitted, "Cliff didn't charge us a penny. In fact, I'll let you into a secret (I don't think I've ever told anybody this); we actually recorded it at Morgan Studios in London - great studios. And when we came out, we took it back and Cliff called me and said, 'Dave, we're bass light.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I think there's a balance we haven't got.' So he booked Abbey Road for the day, off his own bat, and said, 'I'm going back in to remix.' So I said if you're going to Abbey Road, Cliff, I'm going to cancel everything, I'm coming down. We did the pedestrian crossing stuff, went in and suddenly the door opened behind me and this lady said 'Hi, Cliff, how are you doing?' I looked around - it was Kate Bush. I'm quite intimidated by people I respect and look up to, as we all are at times. That was a great experience, remix at Abbey Road. I was on the phone (not the mobile, of course, cos we didn't have mobiles in those days): 'I've been to Abbey Road!'"