One of the founding fathers of British CCM, JOHN PANTRY has now re-invented himself as a radio presenter. Chris Tozer reports on the veteran musos decades of Christian music.
John Pantry's career in British contemporary Christian music goes back almost as far as anyone can remember. Over the years since he produced its very first chart success with Parchment's "Light Up The Fire" in 1972, his name has been inextricably linked with a variety of bold initiatives to promote the Gospel in song.
Almost every record company to emerge over the past 30 years - from Kingswa^s Dovetail label through Marshall's to Ears And Eyes - featured an album of Pantry's songs at its inception. He was one of the first to have an anthology album on vinyl in the early '80s, and now ICC have just released a second compilation.
John's name was even featured prominently in the first issue of Cross Rhythms magazine in 1990 when the equally long-in-the-tooth Tony Cummings guizzed him about the ignominious demise of the Ears And Eyes record company. Since then Pantry has written hundreds of songs - including the evergreen "I Will Build My Church", and produced countless worship albums. In recent years he has deejayed for London's Premier Radio and entered the Anglican ministry! Clearly, an updated article is long overdue.
Trevor Kirk was assigned to interview John for his UCB programme and began by asking him about his "baby boomer" origins in the late '40s. "I was born in Harrow though I grew up in Southend. I am almost exactly the same age as President Clinton. My dad was training for the Methodist ministry though he never actually made it. I feel, in a way, that I have stepped into his shoes by entering the ministry, albeit for a different church."
Not surprisingly, John claimed that other members of his family were also "pretty musical". Both his parents played the piano and various uncles and a grandfather were professional musicians at some stage in their lives. One of John's cousins has only recently retired from playing the violin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
"Being a bit of a rebel, I didn't stick at my piano lessons as I found I could play quite well without them. I joined a local band called Sounds Around. It comes over as an awful name now - though at the time it seemed quite trendy! We supported a lot of big bands such as The Who and Eric Clapton's Cream when their tours came to Essex."
With a change of name to Peter And The Wolves, Pantry's group gained greater success through television promotion and a record deal. A couple of solo singles were released and several albums (including one for Playboy Records!) before he gained work writing advertising jingles. But, a move into songwriting and production work with a variety of stars, from East Enders' Barbara Windsor to '60s heroes The Fortunes and Billy J Kramer, was a sign of where his career was heading.
John's move into Christian music was, as Kirk put it to him, "through the back door" as he produced a Christian album before actually committing his life to the Lord. "I had a Christian upbringing, but like many in their teens, I felt that the world was far more exciting as God didn't seem terribly interesting. But after producing Parchment's minor hit their record company introduced me to their other artists, including Adrian Snell, Dave Pope and a sandy haired little chap called Graham Kendrick. I thought that he looked and sounded funny, but wrote some interesting songs! Working with these early Christian artists five days a week and producing their albums brought me back to Christ."
'Empty Handed' - his own classic debut Christian album - is still on the UCB "gold" play list, yet it was only recorded when a cash starved Pantry found that his visa to work with Maranatha! Records in California had been delayed and he desperately sought financial help from Kingsway Records. "They suggested that I should sign over some of my songs and record decent demos of them. When I eventually got to the States, I heard that Kingsway were going to release them on an album. I was pretty gobsmacked as that wasn't the original intention at all.
"Working with Maranatha! in the States was a tremendous learning experience. I had been trained in London as a recording engineer, but the way that they did things in California was quite different. I was able to help them set up a new state-of-the-art studio and I produced various albums over a year - including Graham Kendrick's 'Fighter'. It was a fantastic lifestyle compared to what we were used to back home - a real gift of God."
On his return to Britain, John recorded 'Fresh Air" - an album that brought together the vocal talents of several experienced Christian musicians, including Julie Costello and Phil Potter. He has also staged his own Hot Coals show - complete with a guy on a motorbike and a hoop of fire. Production credits at that time ranged from Songs Of Fellowship to the punk sounds of the Predators
I was, and still am, primarily interested in communicating the Gospel. The Predators did it in an unusual way. When they asked me to produce their album I felt that I was fulfilling what God has called me to do. I would take on any work that would further the cause, as far as I was concerned."
Throughout the '80s John worked with arranger Christopher Norton and Adrian Snell's manager Kevin Hoy under the banner of the Yorkshire based Ears And Eyes record company. The ever popular Martyn Joseph and Nia both began their recording careers under John's guiding hand. A huge roster of other now long forgotten artists such as Shirley Novak and Zero Option showed how rapidly the company was growing. There was even room for more esoteric releases connected with the World Wildlife Fund and even Emmerdale!
One of John's songs from that time -"Wonderful Grace" - has recently been recorded live at Stoneleigh and it serves as a timely reminder of the quality of his work for Ears And Eyes. However, by the end of the decade the company went pear shaped as Hoy was pilloried in the satirical Private Eye amidst rumours of unpaid hotel bills in Australia and forged signatures of Gloria Gaynor.
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