Tony Cummings chronicles the five decade career of country and blues songsmith GUS EYRE
"People keep asking me when are you going to retire? I keep saying
when I find it in the Bible." So said country and blues
Eyre. This extraordinary musical journeyman in what could be the
defining comment illustrating his burning musical passion. After
nearly 50 years of singing, songwriting and preaching about the Lord
the Lancastrian's musical ministry shows no signs of stopping and he
still performs regularly in prisons and rehab centres across the UK.
Once a member of Blackpool's Jesus music pioneers Canaan the songsmith
felt a call to live by faith and for the last 40 years he has
travelled the world faithfully ministering wherever God has sent him.
At Cross Rhythms' Stoke-on-Trent HQ this indefatigable gospel
communicator spoke at length to me.
Gus was born in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, in 1942. "I grew
up there and went to the local grammar school. I was a bit of a black
sheep of the family; I think that happened right the way through my
life as I always seemed to be on the wrong side one way or another. My
dad was a pharmacist who had a shop in town and my mum was a housewife
who also worked in the shop during the summer. My sister went to
college and then off to Australia for a few years. Like a lot of
parents who were products of the war, everything had to be fairly safe
and ordered. They wanted their kids to follow in the right footsteps
and have a career. That was the atmosphere I grew up in yet part of me
was always kicking against it."
There were spiritual influences in Gus' life from early on. "My mum was a Christian believer, I'm sure of that and I had fellowship with her after I was converted when she was older, before she died. We had good Methodist roots, my grandfather had been a Methodist lay preacher and had always been involved in the church, but it was one of those things that just slipped over the years. So our parents sent us to church because they felt they wanted their children to have the right moral background and upbringing and in general terms the right kind of beliefs. Ever since I was 12 or 13 I never doubted that there was a God. The thing that really comes back to me is how I used to go to Lytham St Annes' sand hills which were a wonderful place to play. Occasionally I would go down by myself in the early evening if I was allowed to and just sit on a sand hill and watch the sun go down. I had a real sense of the grandeur and the wonder of the universe. In a way I would say that was when the Lord first spoke to me. Not with words but with a powerful conviction that 'somebody made this'."
In his late teens Gus' raw and untutored religious convictions began to flounder. "It all fell apart eventually. I had a girlfriend and she went through some real serious doubts about God and yet she'd been brought up in a good church-going home. I can remember sitting in the local park trying to persuade her and saying, 'Look at that tree, is it an accident or did somebody make it?' There's me, not a believer and beginning to become a bit of a lad, trying to persuade my girlfriend at the time that this stuff was really true. Yet, as I say, there was no real faith in me at that time. You look back at those things and you think in a strange way the Lord had his hand on you."
However for a time all this was left behind as his interest in music took over. "I was in my mid, late teens when I heard Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and I thought that's what I wanted to do with my life. Then, after seeing Big Bill Broonzy, the blues singer, I wanted to play a guitar more than anything else. When I was in Sixth Form College we put together a school band - it was more of a skiffle band and that became a rockabilly band. The school, thinking quite highly of itself, used to have a music competition for students. There were a lot of good classical pianists, oboe players, cellists, violinists. So our band thought we'd go in as a four piece rock and roll band. They were absolutely shocked."
It was when Gus reached his late 20s his interest in Christian things was reawakened by meeting two people; thanks to a new work colleague and a chance encounter at a post office. Gus took up the story: "It was 1969 and I was 27 years old. I'd been through college and came out with a degree in chemistry. I was working for British Gas as a chemical engineer and many nights I played in pub bands for years, picking up an alcohol habit along the way. A guy came to work for me - he was an operator, I was one of the engineering managers - and I liked him. He said to me one day, 'There's something missing in your life.' I said, 'What's that, Jim?' He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Jesus Christ.' I told him I'd had religion when I was a kid. He said, 'I didn't say religion, I said Jesus.'
"It shook me a little bit because he was a guy I liked but he was talking about something that was totally alien. Back then what I wanted out of life was some money, some music, some good times, some friends and a fast car to drive. Yet deep down I still knew there was something missing and when he said that, it shook me. He even gave me some little Gospel booklets to read which I did.
"A little later I went into the local post office. I'd had a car radio for years but never had a licence for it and strangely I had a conscience about it. So I went in to buy a licence. I really liked the young lady who served me and I asked her out. She was called Wendy and we went out for a meal. A little while later in this restaurant out in the countryside she suddenly said to me: 'Do you know, Gus, there's something missing in your life?' I kind of froze. I asked her what, so she looked at me straight in the eye and said exactly what Jim had said: 'Jesus'. I was shaken to the absolute roots. I'd met two lovely, totally different people who said exactly the same thing.
"Then Wendy went on holiday and I didn't see her for a week or two and I did more thinking and less drinking than I'd done for years. I came to a point one morning where I knew I had a choice to make. One day in August 1969 while driving to work it finally happened. I turned off the radio and I simply prayed, 'Lord, if you're real, will you be real to me? Lord, I know my life's a mess. I'm drinking too hard, had some pretty bad habits over the years, but will you be real to me, please forgive me?' It was a cry of surrender, but it was so much more than that. From that moment I knew I was different. I've often said it as a joke but I didn't swear all day long so there were big gaps in my sentences. I'd been reading a little Gideon New Testament during those weeks when Wendy was away so when I left work that day I went home via a tiny bookshop in Blackpool that sold Bibles. I went in and bought one and a book on how to read it. For the first time in my life, I felt fulfilled, I felt complete. It seemed to me that life was about living to serve Jesus. It was a bit scary and I didn't really understand what that meant. But I knew it was right. That was the beginning. Funny thing is, I told Jim and he didn't believe me! He thought I was conning him. He invited me round to his house for a meal so he could kind of unwrap it all. He became a good friend."
Continued Gus, "Wendy invited me to a church and I went along. She belonged to a choir, a traditional, non-denominational evangelical choir. They used to go round different places. I'd go along to their Bible studies and they allowed me to ask lots of questions. So I was dropped into a little Christian enclave in a non-denominational way."
Now he was fully committed Gus quickly learnt about serving God. "In my heart of hearts I knew that I should be DOING something. I thought it's not enough if all I'm doing is replacing going to the pub with going to these various Christian meetings. Wendy wisely introduced me to the only guy she knew who played guitar, Dave Lloyd. He didn't live that far away from me. Dave's dad was a builder and he had a big builder's yard on the back streets of Lytham. On the edge of the yard was a building called the hut. It was never used for anything so Dave had painted it and made it into a coffee bar. He'd invite the local kids to come in. He'd give them coffee and soft drinks and just chat to them about God. But he was stuck for helpers. So Wendy introduced me to Dave and I went down and started talking to the kids. Dave and I both played guitar so initially, when we closed the place down at night about half past 10, we would pull out our guitars and start to play. That was the embryo of the band Canaan."
Having already enjoyed writing secular songs, Gus now started to write specifically to communicate the Gospel to a younger generation. Many years later his songwriting was to reach a completely different section of society when he began to visit a drug rehab unit. Gus took up the story, "I used to visit a drug rehab unit, which sadly has just closed, to sing for the residents. I was going in one time and the clients were being allowed out on the promenade. I was setting up in the little upstairs room where I did the concert just as the sun was going down, red, gold, streaks of cloud in the sky, stars just beginning to twinkle and it took me back to when I was a kid. I just started to pray and I said, 'Lord, remind them that there really is a higher power and you are it.' It was a lovely experience and I came out of it with a song at the same time."
Gus continued, "There was an organisation called the Blackpool Christian Businessmen's Committee and they had a monthly young people's 'rally' they called it in those days. Basically they had a speaker and a few singers and sang a few songs. We got invited to play a couple of tunes at this thing and there was just the three of us - myself and Dave and another Dave, Dave Lewis, who was from his church. And the interesting thing was the same night there was another guy called Bob Fraser who was singing solo. He joined as the band's lead singer. After that it developed in all sorts of ways. We did one or two things with the choir. But we were totally different to them. Our heart was towards our local young people. We'd played at the local schools - they had some evening clubs and we did that. We were making contacts. It was just after Wendy and I were married that we got these Christian kids altogether from the churches and we said we want to do some real outreach in the town.
"Throughout the summer every Wednesday night with permission of the town council we held concerts on the promenade. This attracted kids from all over the town. We also joined in with an open air event, which was run originally by the Brethren Church on a Sunday afternoon. It was very traditional, but they let us come and join them, so we did the music. Again it drew a crowd. Then we started running a Bible study in our home and it just took off. We'd have 50 or 60 kids in our house - full to the roof. The kids were bringing their friends, that's where we were contacting them, then they started coming to the Bible study. It was all a bit crazy really because by that time the band was getting quite well known in the area and we were playing up and down the Fylde coast."
Whilst Gus felt he was making connections with more people, there were one or two old friends who made it clear they didn't like the Christian Gus Eyre. "There was one guy who had been a friend for many years and I can remember him saying to me one day that the old Gus Eyre could come round to his place anytime he likes but not the new one. It cut me like a knife. That was a real heartbreak. So that was tough but I suppose in one way it probably helped to break some old habits - particularly the drinking habit."
Meanwhile Canaan, on the small but growing Christian beat
group scene, were getting noticed. Said Gus, "We were invited to one
of the Buzz weekends. We also did something called Start The New Year
With Jesus at the Westminster Central Hall then the following year we
did the one at the Royal Albert Hall.
"We worked hard. When Bob Fraser joined he had been writing songs longer than I had and we practised twice a week every week. I suppose we were creating for ourselves a west coast sound, like the Eagles and the Byrds; it was a close harmony, country rock thing which in those days, for Christian music in Britain, was fairly unique. We started off all acoustic as I had sold all my electric gear, only to buy it all again as we became sort of a country rock band. We saw Larry Norman the first time he came to Britain and again that was a revelation about using music in a real communicative way.
"Another important aspect was a guy called Terry Ascot who is now the CEO of a missionary organisation. He joined our local church. A man of vision, he talked to us about learning to communicate, touching people's needs. Learning to communicate Terry was seminal in our thinking. How do we start to turn around their thinking? Not just kids, everybody else. Terry was the one who really sparked that. The whole American Jesus movement had a little spin off into Britain and we felt the effect of that from the people we saw converted around the North West. It wasn't a new Christianity but it was a new way of presenting it to a generation of kids who were alienated from the traditional church, yet it was the same Gospel, it was the same message."
In 1973 Canaan released their first album. Gus started to smile as he recalled the events leading to them being signed. "It started with Dovetail, which was MGO - Musical Gospel Outreach - which had started Buzz magazine back in the '60s. We went down to one of MGO's weekends just as greenhorns and we played at it and that gave us the connection. From that we had gigs at the Royal Albert Hall and through that we made the first album. It was called 'Canaan' with John Pantry producing. I'd written the song that was the album opener - 'Rock 'n' Roll Gipsy' - so I sang that. I always sang harmony with Bob." Writing decades later about the album American Jesus music expert Ken Scott wrote, "Gus Eyre's guitar work (frequently fuzzed) really cooks - 'Follow Me'* and 'Lonely Man'* both have loud acid leads, while 'Mr Jones'* and 'Jesus Revolution'* heavily utilise the reverb effect. . . One of the top Dovetail releases." (*These four songs were written by Bob Fraser.)
Continued Gus, "We then made the second album with Word but I think everybody would say the first album was far better. It was more of a country rock album but as we were very inexperienced, we tried to make it that bit edgier."
Did the albums open new pathways for Canaan and Gus Eyre? "Yes. We did quite a lot of things
because people had heard of us. Tearfund picked us up and asked us if
we'd do part of the tour with Cliff Richard when he did his gospel
tour. So we did some work in Scotland and England and that gave us a
massive amount of exposure. Over that time we sold lots of albums. It
was a great experience because you're working with total pros and yet
Cliff was very approachable. We rehearsed till we were blue in the
face so we could just walk on and play this set of music tight and
right. Again, that opened a lot of doors for us. We ended up playing
at Greenbelt one year, did the main stage there. A lot of things grew
from the Canaan albums."
As is so often the case, at the peak of the band's powers things began to unravel for Canaan. When asked to explain why Canaan folded Gus responded, "I think really it was several things. I had felt in my heart being called to full time work. I really believed the Lord spoke to me quite clearly and I took it that the band would be in full time Christian ministry. However, nobody else shared the vision for it. Quietly I had to come to terms with that. Also, the two younger lads, Bob and Dave, subsequently married their girlfriends and were feeling the pressures of being away from home. We were away weekend after weekend. But my wife was totally with me and supported me completely. Even when we had our first child, Jamie, she was at home and still telling me to go out there and do it. Eventually when Bob left the band, Canaan finished because the four of us had a musical rapport that worked and when we added other things to it, it kind of changed direction. For a short while we added a couple of girl singers and that changed the feel and then another guy came along and we added him. We even changed the name from Canaan to the New Citizens Band and that ran for two or three years. By that time I'd gone into full time Christian ministry."
Gus went on to explain how he took
such a leap of faith. "I was preaching at least once a week usually to
young people and I would often do a young people's mission in a town,
bringing the band in either at the beginning or the end of the week to
do concerts. In the band we wanted to communicate the Gospel. When we
got to that point in the programme, everybody looked at me so it
seemed natural for me to speak at the end. In a way that's where I cut
my teeth. Week by week I'd be thinking what kind of things do I talk
about to the kids? I used to listen to lots of secular music and pick
out phrases and songs and use them so I could talk to the kids from
where their language and ideas were coming from. It made me think
through lots of ways how to communicate to somebody who's not
interested, start telling them stories that would make them think.
Magazines like Buzz gave you clues because you'd read stories in there
and think oh, I could use that.
"When I felt this call I started looking for ways to do it. At first every door I pushed seemed to be pushed back. Then Rob, a friend who was a pastor in Preston, was having a tent mission and asked me to sing at it. Rob said his friend Duncan Layton, a Brethren evangelist who now lives in New Zealand, was running it. Rob and I were walking across this field by Lostock Hall and the tent was being put up. Walking up the side of the tent, barefoot, in a pair of old jeans without a shirt on was this man, holding on to the guy ropes singing at the top of his voice some gospel chorus. Something inside me said he's the man! I had to go and see him. I told him how I'd been converted, and about the band and how I felt the Lord had called me to full time work. I said, 'I'm just telling you because I feel I should.' Duncan looked up at me and smiled saying he had been looking for somebody to join them. He said, 'We can't pay you but I can grant you lots of opportunities alongside me to sing and to share the Gospel.' I went back to my local church and asked the leaders if they would recommend me to the work because he'd said he'd only take me if I was recommended. They said yes.
"I wrote out my resignation from my chemical engineer's job and took it to my boss. By that time I was married, I'd got a little boy 18 months old and all the usual commitments. I sat down to read my Bible and I read these words at the end of Hebrews 10: '"The just shall live by faith, and if any man draws back, my soul will have no pleasure in him," says the Lord.' I shut my Bible and walked into the boss's office and told him I was resigning. Three months later in 1976 I was gone. Then stuff started to happen. On a mission with Duncan in the Wirral I met the Bursar of Capernwray Bible School who asked me if I would like to come to Capernwray for the summer school, April to June.
"I always said if I can't feed and clothe the family I'd go back and be an engineer. The Lord though had made that choice a long time ago for reasons unknown to me because I know I'm not worthy of it and I mean that. He was saying this is the way you're going to go even before I knew. I had those quiet assurances that that was where the Lord was leading.
"I went through a period thinking that an evangelist was supposed to be a copy of Billy Graham. I just felt wrong doing that. One day Wendy and I sat down and we talked about it. While we agreed I'd never put my Bible down, she told me to pick my guitar up and stick it round my neck and talk to the people from there. The day I did that there was suddenly tremendous freedom to stand with a guitar round my neck, still with my Bible in my hand. So yes, I do preach and I still carry my guitar. But that was the real break: you don't have to be Billy Graham."
As Gus toured, preaching and playing his music, more and more songs about every aspect of the Christian life began to emerge. Gus was soon recording them. He recalled, "I did a couple of very, very simple recordings which I wasn't happy about with a friend of mine on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I probably did those in about 1977. The first one that I did that I took a bit more seriously was in 1980."
He went into Park Lane Studios in Preesall with four musicians and recorded six songs which were released on the cassette EP 'Comin' Home'. Two years later he started his own label Cedarwood and released another EP, 'Who Cares?', again recorded at Park Lane Studios. A year after that Gus released his first full length album, 'Travelling On'.
Gus' ministry was taking him further and further afield. He reminisced, "I did a few things in Germany. There was a big annual youth festival in Germany that a couple of thousand kids would go to and I got invited to a couple of those. I remember taking a couple of thousand of the 'Who Cares?' cassettes - stuck them in the back of my car and drove there. I came back with none. I was kind of thrilled by that. It was more to get the message out - I never wanted to make money out of the trip. In fact, I don't think I ever did. It just seemed to work out that somehow the books balanced."
An example of God balancing Gus' books came about in 1983. He recounted, "I felt called into going to Eastern Europe. They couldn't pay so it cost me to go. I always felt that if the Lord wanted me to do it then he would provide me with the money to do it. The first time I went to Eastern Europe was 1983 and early '84. I was flying and I had to get a visa, you had to buy so much cash for every day that you were there at their rate. I was going to Poland so you had to shell out a lot of money to buy their money (the zloty), all of which you had to spend while you were there. By the time I'd sorted all this out I was racking myself up a bill of £600 that I couldn't afford. The Saturday before I was going to pay all my bills - with money I didn't have - I was invited to a wedding and at the wedding I met somebody who lived in the North East who I hadn't seen for a long time. After the meal was over he told me a little about his life and then gave me a cheque for £600! I told him he'd just paid for a trip to Eastern Europe for me. I believe that was the Lord saying this is right and it continued from then on. Prison work is the same - it costs to go and play a prison concert. I just do it because I feel it's right and the Lord knows."
In 1985 Gus recorded and released
his album 'The Sower'. It was recorded in CRS Studio in Lytham St
Annes, a small concern which usually recorded jingles and aids for
sleeping (ie, the sound of whales!), with CRS' Mike Ratcliffe handling
the engineering. More Cedarwood cassette releases followed in 1987
('In The Distance') and 1989 ('Fathercare' - subtitled 'A Guide For
New Believers'). Into the '90s the prolific songsmith continued to
work tirelessly releasing an album with fellow singer/songwriter Keith
Shackleton, 'Alive And Well' and again with Keith in 1991 a
Poland-only release 'Praise And Worship'. His 1993 album 'Against The
Tide' was something of a milestone release in that Gus' son Jamie
contributed keys and drum programming, and after a compilation release
'So Far So Good' was also playing synths on the 1996 CD 'As The Light
As the years rolled on another aspect of Gus' ministry opened for the country and blues veteran. He explained, "It was years after I started in full time work, on my own, doing schools and missions. I was thinking one day and I thought I really ought to go into prisons. I felt I really ought to give some of my time to prison work so I spoke to one prison chaplain that I knew and he said to send them a letter and a cassette. I sent 16 letters to 16 different prisons and I received 15 replies. That's how it started. The number continued to grow; I've cut it back down to about 15 again because I'm easing back on how much I do as it involves a lot of travelling but I'll probably do a hundred this year. I'm able to give a lot of albums away in prisons and to people on the edge of society to encourage them."
In 1998 the limited edition cassette 'County Blues And Gospel Shoes' CD was released and in 1999 Gus' 'Wyierz Zycie' was released in Poland with the English version 'Choose Life' followed by a second version with extra drum and synth tracks added. Around this time the schools work in Poland took a different tack. The opportunity opened up to present a drug and alcohol awareness programme from a specific Christian angle. Using fast moving film clips and translated songs with relevant visual backgrounds the 'Choose Life' programme was born. This expanded into Hungary with tens of thousands of young people across Europe hearing the Gospel, all taking home a leaflet containing the elements of the programme. Later this was produced as a DVD subtitled in German, Polish and Hungarian.
In 2003 the 'Brand New Morning' CD was issued and in 2005 a compilation, the aptly titled 'Long Time Down The Road', was released. While most full time musicians would be thinking of retiring human dynamo Gus continued to relentlessly gig and record. 'Country Blues & Gospel Shoes' CD came out in 2007 and the following year Gus and Keith Shackleton recorded and produced 'Love, Life. . .Everything' and followed that a year later with 'Travelling Man: A Work In Progress'. Last year Gus released his 18th full length album 'Salvation Songs. . .And Some That Are Heading That Way!' about which Cross Rhythms enthused, "I personally liked the poignant 'Slow Train To Georgia'. Nearly every track here features just Gus' nimbly picked guitar with no other accompaniment and works just fine. . . The instrumental 'Broonzie's Blues' is something that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Rev Gary Davis album. Also, 'Celestial Angels' is a better Christmas song than most penned these days. . . I was impressed to find that my attention hadn't wandered, which is no mean feat for an 18-song collection of largely voice-and-guitar recordings." Talking about his prolific output the veteran commented, "I've written hundreds of songs over the years but do have occasional dry spells. A friend of mine from Sunderland sent me a CD a year or so ago. He'd made lots of reel-to-reel copies of concerts I did, transferred them onto CD and sent it to me. I listened to it and there were three songs I'd written and had totally forgotten! Something about 'senior moments'!"
Despite his vast repertoire there is one song that is a constant in his live set, Canaan's 1974 classic "Rock 'n' Roll Gypsy". Gus recounted, "The song was a bit of a vague autobiography but it really came out of a story that I was told by the pastor of a big church in America. He was doing a mission years and years ago and at the same time there was a band playing a club in the same town. For some reason one of the band members came to this little hall where the mission was being held. The guy always arrived late and he would just listen to the preacher and then he was off. Night after night the preacher saw him stood at the back. On the last night of the mission he got the chance to speak with this musician. He admitted that he just came to laugh but said that what the preacher said made real sense. 'What are you going to do about it?' asked the preacher. 'Nothing,' he replied. 'Why?' Just one word came back, 'Chicken!' With that he walked off into the darkness. 'Rock 'n' Roll Gipsy', the song, was born! The guy in the story is now a world famous musician!"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.