Tony Cummings tells the story of the unlikely teaming of GORDON GILTRAP with CAROL LEE SAMPSON and MARTIN GREEN
Albums of hymns and worship songs come in many different forms and guises. But it's unlikely that any such album has had a more unusual back story than 'Echoes Of Heaven' by Gordon Giltrap with Carol Lee Sampson and Martin Green. How a renowned guitarist who today wouldn't call himself a Christian should link up with a singer once well known in worship music circles before "falling into sin" and a vicar-cum-lyricist/poet sounds like a story line from a Christian soap. But this is the background to 'Echoes Of Heaven' recently released on BigNet Entertainment label and now getting enthusiastic reviews from all quarters. Cross Rhythms spoke at length to Gordon and Carol to catch up on their stories.
Giltrap has, of course, been a hugely respected fixture of Britain's entertainment industry for decades. Born in Benchley, Kent in 1948 he started learning guitar at the age of 12 and over the years developed a dazzling technique on both acoustic and electric instruments that was able to nimbly cross multiple genres taking in folk, progressive rock, jazz, classical and more. First emerging on the British folk scene in London playing alongside such figures as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Mike Oldfield by the age of 18 he was signed to Transatlantic Records and began releasing vocals and guitar folk albums. He also began playing sessions for other artists. Some were with the son of a Northamptonshire Baptist minister who, having cut his teeth in a psychedelic-tinged family group Whispers Of Truth had developed into a folk-style troubadour singing songs about the Christian faith. Graham Kendrick got signed to Music Gospel Outreach's Key Records and Gordon played a major part on Kendrick's solo debut released in 1971, 'Footsteps On The Sea'.
Said Gordon, "I contributed big time to the arrangements; I introduced him to Chris Laurence, the bass player (who recorded with acts like Elton John). I had quite a say in the production of that album, although at the end of the day Graham knew exactly what he wanted. I think that was his finest period: brilliant songs - even non-Christians would find it thought provoking. His guitar playing was pretty hot. Let's be honest, Graham Kendrick is not the greatest singer in the world, but because the quality of the material was so good, you accepted that. It's very sad that they've never released 'Footsteps On The Sea' on CD. Isn't that a travesty? If they did, I'd go out and buy it."
Another session of which Gordon played was for a long-haired American singer/songwriter who in 1971 was recording an album for MGM called 'Only Visiting This Planet'. Gordon remembered his studio encounter with Larry Norman, "In the early days I didn't fully understand Larry. I hadn't met many Americans, and I hadn't met that many Americans with that mindset. Larry came across as being quite arrogant, but he wasn't, he was just a cool Californian guy. It was through him I met my producers, who then produced four of my classic albums, so it's all networking. Looking back, I liked Larry a lot. He was a great guy, incredible talent. Those songs were good songs."
Gordon had developed close friendship with Graham Kendrick and in May 1972 Britain's evangelical magazine Buzz wrote, "Folk artist Gordon Giltrap is to be a special guest at the Key Records concert featuring Graham Kendrick at London's Central Hall on Saturday June 3rd. Gordon, who writes his own songs and guitar tunes, is recognised as one of the most outstanding folk guitarists in Britain. He has been heard by millions through appearances on The Old Gray Whistle Test; Country Meets Folk; Sounds of The Seventies and the like. Gordon has been a Christian for not much more than a year but already the influence of the Lord Jesus Christ is beginning to show through in the kind of songs he is writing. So much so that he has asked MGO to organise several gospel concerts for him."
As it turned out, Buzz's report was to be overtaken by subsequent events. Gordon's music began to expand beyond a folk singer/songwriter approach to take a more eclectic approach concentrating on purely instrumental pieces. In 1976 he released his most successful album so far, 'Visionary', based on the art and poetry of William Blake. Gordon also stepped away from evangelical Christianity. He explained, "In the mid-'70s I broadened out with my approach to spirituality. It's a lot broader than just religion, than just Christianity - although I personally cannot find any fault in the teachings of Christ. Who can? But I was looking at other people, and at spirituality generally, and spirituality comes out in many forms - not just the domain of religion. Spirituality is more powerful than that. My late mother-in-law was the most spiritual person I'd ever met, but she was an atheist. She was spiritual because she was in tune with other people, she was in tune with nature; she understand the way of nature and energy. These things are factual anyway: you can't say, 'I believe in energy'. Energy exists, electricity exists. When you listen to something and it moves you in a very strong way, that's spirituality. You look at a painting and it moves you; you can't find the words. That is spirituality. I've been pursuing that path all my life, trying to create something beautiful from imperfection - the imperfection being me as a human being. That's fascinated me, that human beings can create perfection."
In 1976 the guitar maestro formed the Gordon Giltrap Band who toured extensively. Gordon's album 'Perilous Journey' was named one of the best albums of 1977 by The Sunday Times, peaking in the UK Albums Chart at number 29. A single taken from the album, "Heartsong", received extensive airplay and reached number 21 in the UK Singles Chart. The track was later used as the signature tune of the BBC TV series Holiday. Giltrap's next album, 'Fear Of The Dark', was released in 1978. By the end of the 1970s Gordon was commissioned to write a number of notable pieces, such as the classically inspired "The Brotherhood", based on the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, and "The Eye Of The Wind Rhapsody", an orchestral work celebrating the exploration of the New World by British sailing ships. In the 1990s, Gordon played a key role in Cliff Richard's Heathcliff musical, playing the musical narrator. He also composed a number of pieces for the show.
In late 2009, Giltrap started Three Parts Guitar, a four date world tour with classical guitarist Raymond Burley and jazz guitarist John Etheridge. For two years Giltrap wrote a regular acoustic column for Total Guitar magazine. An anthology of 26 articles was published in Total Giltrap, a book with an accompanying CD. Giltrap is also a regular columnist for the Acoustic magazine.
For a long time the acclaimed guitarist had the idea of taking a batch of his instrumentals and transforming them into hymns. Remembered Gordon, "I've had this idea for some time: Graham came along to a concert I was doing at an open-air festival years ago in Kent, and of course he'd become this country's most famous writer of modern hymns. So I said to him, 'How do you fancy putting lyrics to some of my tunes?' He said, 'Mm, let me think about it. I need to go away and pray about it.' I didn't hear anything after that! He's obviously had a pray about it, and thought, 'I don't think so'."
But Gordon didn't let his idea die. He explained, "I approached a very good friend of mine, who's an Anglican minister, Rev Martin Green - a very fine musician, a very sweet man. I said, 'Do you fancy taking some of my tunes, your choice, and see what inspires you?' Lo and behold, a year and a half later we have enough material to make this album happen. Being a fan, he already had the bulk of my back catalogue anyway. He would listen through and think, 'That one would work'. A lot of these tunes are 30 years old; all we've done is overlaid vocals. They sound as though they are stand-alone songs, as though they were written to have words."
With the songs/hymns coming together, a vocalist was needed to sing them. And so Carol Lee Sampson stepped into the picture. She explained, "I'd met Gordon a few times over the last few years - mainly at a friend's annual Christmas party. A friend of mine called Paul White, who is a musician and editor of Sound On Sound magazine - Home and Studio Recording, it used to be - has a party where he invites lots of musicians every year. I've met Gordon at several of those in past years. It was just before the New Year of 2011 that was I there and Gordon was there, and he played some music. I took a shakey egg along, and I was playing alongside. As I was playing my shakey egg, sat on the sofa, the thought came to my mind, 'Wouldn't it be great to work alongside this chap?' I think sometimes God gives you little imaginings, you see yourself doing something. I had this little imagining at the time: 'It'd be great, even if it was just a little support slot at a concert'. Then I was having at chat to him afterwards, about life in general. I'd been a little bit frustrated with my musical life. I'd been singing and playing pubs over a few years, and I was getting a bit disheartened. I think that was the Lord: time to get focused on him more. That was that, nothing was said, then a few weeks later I had an email from Gordon saying, 'I'm doing this project with a friend of mine Martin Green, he's putting Christian lyrics to some of my tunes; we need a singer - are you interested?'"
Carol was born in Jersey. Her father was a professional musician playing in dance bands and by age 11 Carol was learning piano and guitar by age 14. She came to England in the early '80s. Eventually Carol found herself in Worcestershire where she met musician Colin Owen. She remembered, "I met Colin at a recording studio he was working at; I was going there doing session singing on adverts. Very soon after that we became Christians, which was very exciting - God did amazing things with us. Colin and I began leading worship at the Kingdom Faith events. We made several independent worship albums and then in 1995 we recorded the album 'You Alone Are God' for Kingsway. As well as Kingdom Faith I'd also been leading worship for two years at the camps run by the evangelist Don Double. There was a lot of pressure. That's why I felt doubly awful about it when my marriage fell apart."
Carol spoke candidly about her marriage breakup. "We make mistakes in life, we make wrong choices. I was married to Colin for quite a while, we did lots together for God, then unforeseen things happened in life and I made a wrong choice. I was in a disastrous relationship with the chap I left Colin for. He was a heroin addict. A worship leader was off with a heroin addict! But I am really amazed how God protected me through that time, and gradually my heart's desire was to come back to him. When he gave me the strength to finish it with the chap - this was 2001 - I'd already started thinking. I remember the moment that I gave it all over to God. I was walking down the road where I was living. I knew that we were not helping each other - I couldn't help him, and he certainly wasn't helping me. I cried out to God as I was walking to work: 'Please give me the strength to do what I know I've got to do. Give me the strength to do what I've got to do.' I still cared for this chap, but I knew there was no future in it. From that time on, the situation changed: I had the strength to say, 'You've got to move out'. Thankfully his mother had moved up from another area, so there was somewhere he could go. I didn't want to throw him out on the streets. He was off the drugs, thankfully, but he was very vulnerable. God began to restore me, and it's been amazing. I went to this great church where I sat in the back crying - just wanted to hide in the back where nobody knew me. I stayed in that church for 10 years."
Looking back on her fall, Carol observed, "I wonder how many people feel a failure in their Christian walk. Maybe they think, 'No, I can't go back'. But we can! The truth is we can. Nothing we do will ever shock God. We're never going to shock him with what we do, how we fail. It is so humbling. Yes, I've fallen. But God has drawn me back. It shows that his call is irrevocable. His calling, his anointing on us, he doesn't take that away. When we come back to the place of repentance, thinking, 'God, I'm sorry. Please restore me,' he leads us on the path again. I went on a big detour. It's taken me about 10 years, to be honest, to get back to the place I really want to be with God again. He is just amazing the way he does restore. I'm no different to all those thousands of Christians out there that may feel a failure. Don't ever feel that we can't return, because he's waiting with his open arms."
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