Arguably the finest harmony group in America's world of CCM, FIRST CALL have enjoyed industry awards, album sales and high profile media exposure. But the trio also have a growing consciousness that they're on a sacred journey. Jan Willem Vink spoke to the group's Bonnie Keene.
They are known throughout the length and breadth of American CCM for their intricate harmonies. Even before they cut their first album Dick Tunney, Bonnie Keene, Marty McCall and Melody 'Mel' Tunney - the original First Call - had built up legendary status as Session Singers Supreme. The group's unerring ability to instantly pluck apposite harmonies to suit any pop, easy listening, TV jingle or CCM session that came their way made First Call Nashville backing singer legends. In 1985 the group cut their first tracks under their own name. They were, not entirely surprisingly, acappella. It was in fact a live Christmas album with guest performances from a bevy of Christian music luminaries. 'An Evening In December' sold exceptionally well (well enough to warrant another volume with more guests) while in 1986 Word/Dayspring released First Call's debut studio album. They immediately came out of it with a major Christian radio hit and tours which demonstrated to the public something the industry had known for a while, that in the vocal harmony field First Call had few peers. Both Undivided' (1986) and 'Something Takes Over' (1987) were ear-catching displays of vocal virtuosity and dazzling technique. American critic Warren Anderson wrote how the albums "provided lovers of tight jazz vocals a Christian answer to mainstream stalwarts like Manhattan Transfer and Rare Silk. No group in Christian music had ever tackled traditional jazz singing - as opposed to the contemporary jazz/pop vocalising of Take 6, for instance - and pulled it off."
The Christian answer to Manhattan Transfer enjoyed radio hits with "Undivided", "The Reason We Sing" and "Lord Of All" all reaching number 1 on radio playlists. But adventurously the acclaimed harmonisers switched styles to emerge with a funkier, more youth orientated pop sound for their third album. Popmeister Keith Thomas produced the successful "God Is Good' from which sprang CCM hits "Sweet Love" and "Breaking Through". But then the group underwent changes, some painful. Bonnie Keene went through a traumatic divorce and Dick and Mel Tunney struck out as a duet (signing for Warner Alliance). First Call went on hold until they found a new singer. One day in 1991 Bonnie Keene and Marty McCall were doing backups at a Rich Mullins session and they found themselves sharing the vocal mike with Marabeth Jordan, a singer who was doing backup and jingle sessions and gigging weekends with Paul Smith. The trio hit it off right away and soon a new version of First Call was up and running. An album, the Michael Omartian produced 'Human Song', was released in 1992. Again their snappy, catchy, hook-laden harmony pop sound brought First Call huge American radio exposure and two more number one songs "Broken Places" and "I Will Always Come Back To You" were enjoyed by the group.
In 1993 'Sacred Journey' was released to enthusiastic reviews in America. Reviewer Thorn Grainger commented, "were it not for the inclusion of a few electric instruments, this could've been 'First Call...unplugged' 'cause the accent is on the vocals even more this time and arrangements are stripped down to a minimum with a mostly acoustic approach. The results are tasteful and impressive with all three Callers singing not only like they mean it but like they love it." Contributors to 'Sacred Journey' included legendary Stax/Volt guitarist Steve Cropper, bluegrass fiddle wondergirl Alison Krauss and, as an arranger, ex-Take 6-man Mervyn Warren for an acappella number "Lazarus Unwound". I talked at length to Bonny Keene about the album and the thinking and vision behind it.
Can you tell me something about how the actual recording went?
"On 'Sacred Journey' we really feel like God opened some new horizons for us as writers and producers. We decided we wanted to co-produce this record. We co-produced it together with two other writers, David Batteau and Darrell Brown. So we were there for the whole thing, for the tracking session with the players, and were able to get it how we wanted it to sound. It was great also being on the other side of the board trying to understand and learn what the whole production side was about, which was the first time for us to do that after this long, this many records."
Your previous producers Keith Thomas and Michael Omartian have a very distinct style of producing, very different from the sound of Sacred Journey'. Weren't you completely satisfied with what they did with you?
"Oh no. Actually we felt really honoured and blessed to work with so many great arrangers and producers. From David Maddox, who did some of our earlier charts - the jazz kind of things - to Keith Thomas and Michael Omartian. The only frustrating aspect of that is that somebody else always kind of has the vision of you that is nice to go with but it is really different when you sit out and say, "This is what we really want to do.' I think as we mature and grow, as God moves us on in this career, and we've been doing this for almost 10 years now, there comes a place where you don't need anybody to define you, you need to have a voice in what happens. It was really time for us to move into a place where we really put some responsibility for getting the sound that's going to be on the record instead of having somebody else dictate that."
Human Song' was a very personal album and had a more programmed sound while this album is maybe, more about celebrating your faith. It has a more down to earth musical style. Was there any reason to do that?
"It's a real departure musically, but we feel lyrically it is still a continuation of the "Human Song' idea of God really affecting our entire life and our humanity by his presence. "Human Song' had a lot of celebratory moments on it but it also talks a lot about the pain in the human experience. I think 'Sacred Journey' is an extension of that into the celebratory parts of the human experience."
Why the vast change musically?
"Instrumental" we didn't want a lot of machines on the record. There is a lot of simplicity, people sitting down with just a guitar or a keyboard and singing -the unplugged thing. We wanted this record to be full of harmony because that's really what people love about the group. And we wanted to be able to tour with this record, without having a lot of production, sometimes when you go into a lot of machine stuff it's a lot of fun, but when you try to reproduce that live, it's a little bit difficult. With 'Sacred Journey' we can go out and take a couple of guitar players and a keyboardist and just about do the entire album, pretty much as it sounds on the record."
How much were you influenced by the early 2nd Chapter Of Acts?
"Yeah, a lot of people have asked us that about this record. We all are huge fans of 2nd Chapter Of Acts and are always so pleased if someone brings up that analogy but to be really honest, when we were writing these songs and the harmonies we kept asking, 'What are the timeless harmonies that people love? They love the Beatles harmonies; they love Crosby, Stills And Nash. What are the harmonies that have survived over many, many years and are just timeless-sounding?' Just some real easy to sing-along with and three parts, where in the past we've done a lot more wavering apart. Harmonically though I think it is a very interesting record. It never gets boring. But we really talked a lot about what is happening in the last 40-50 years in pop music."
Was there any reason you put the songs about human suffering on the back burner?