Tony Cummings spoke at length to a seminal figure in the development of UK Christian music, 74 year old singer/songwriter PETER LEWIS
Despite five decades of music making fame and fortune has eluded Peter Lewis yet he is a key figure in the development of British Christian music. His years on the road and his recordings were in many ways milestones in what was to eventually develop into today's contemporary Christian music. In a quiet corner of a Chesterfield restaurant I spoke to the Liverpool-born folk-tinged songsmith about his life in music.
Peter is, in his own words, "a proper Scouser." He began, "I was born in 1940 in the boiler house of the Liverpool Maternity Hospital, I believe during an air raid. I went to the Mosspits Lane County Primary School, Woolton Road, in Liverpool. I've got a copy of the admissions book for 1945 from that primary school, and on one line it shows Peter Roy Lewis - that's me - and on the next line, John Winston Lennon."
John Lennon wasn't the only pupil of Mosspits Lane Primary to find eventually fame. Politician Edwina Curry and songwriter Richard Stilgoe also once went there. After primary school Peter went on to the Holt High School. He recalled, "It was a sausage machine for producing scientists, but we did have an art department, and I produced some decent art which I've still got at home somewhere. Funny, you know, because there was I going to this school; yes, they had an art department - they also had a music department, and I think they probably had a religious studies department as well, but I had nothing to do with music or religion at school."
Peter continued, "My mum was a high church Anglican and my dad a Methodist. Together they ran the Sunday School of St David's Church, Childwall where I was in the choir. I joined the choir as a treble, probably when I was six years old, went right through to an alto, then ended up as a tenor; and I'm now a bass, I suppose. I also attended St Peter's, Woolton, Bible Class and youth club together with members of a skiffle group, The Quarrymen. Other young people who went there were Peter Sissons (later to become a renowned newscaster) and Rita Tushingham (who later found fame as an actress)."
For a season skiffle, with its peculiarly British attempt to recreate the downhome joys of American rural music by playing folk and country songs on strummed acoustic guitars, tea chest bass and washboards, was a UK pop chart sensation with hitmakers like Lonnie Donegan and Tessa O'Shea and with its do-it-yourself ethos at its height skiffle boasted 30,000 groups in the UK. Continued Peter, "While I was in high school I started the Union City skiffle group. In due course there was a skiffle competition in a Gaumont theatre and Union City 'beat' The Quarrymen, who were, of course, to eventually become The Beatles."
After leaving high school Peter went to work in pharmaceutics, metallurgy and electronics. While working at Evans Medical in the Liverpool suburb of Speke he "was doing research into anti-diarrhoea mixtures for cattle." Peter chuckled, "The stuff we produced to solve the problem looked worse than the problem itself. I then worked at Liverpool university doing research into rare metals which were going to be used in alloys in spacecraft - so had we missed the moon, it might've been my fault! Then I worked in a lab at Automatic Telephone And Electric Company; they later became Plessey's."
An encounter with an evangelical Franciscan friar, Brother Ronald, was to radically transform Peter's spiritual and, as it turned out, musical life. He remembered, "I was a youth club leader by that time and I went with my parents as Sunday school teachers to many a conference. On one holiday in Scarisbrick Hall near Southport, this guy turned up in this brown dressing gown with this white rope round his waist - an absolutely amazing guy. This was Brother Ronald. He told me that those three knots in his rope around his waist meant that he'd taken three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. That is, no money, no women, and he had to do what he head of the community said: he'd given up his freedom. They're the things most men live for; he'd given them up, yet he was the most happy and fulfilled guy I'd met. He played a guitar, he didn't preach: he got this glove puppet called Brother Happy to do the preaching. He always ducked down in the pulpit and out the top came little Brother Happy who did all the preaching."
By the late '50s skiffle had lost its popularity in favour of rock 'n' roll. Reflecting this change Union City became The Liverpool Raiders (Peter Lewis, guitar, vocals; Mal Sim, bass; and Mike Waiting, drums). Remembered Peter, "Skiffle gradually became rock 'n' roll, and we got electric guitars; instead of the tea chest bass, we got a proper one that you plugged in and we changed our name to The Liverpool Raiders. We were one of 160 rock and roll groups in Liverpool at that particular time; The Beatles were another one.
"Brother Ronald got me playing rock and roll versions of things like 'Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross': you can rock anything up. We started off taking hymns from the hymn book - the ones I was singing as a choir boy - hotting them up and filling the church with teenagers. It was something absolutely new then, to have guitars and that sort of music occurring in church. I think I was a pioneer - I must've been - one of the first people involved in getting rock and roll into the Church."
Peter continued, "All this time - evenings, weekends, every spare moment - I was either out with Brother Ronald or my band singing in churches and schools. I thought God wanted me to be a monk, and I did actually go to the friary in Dorset to check out whether God really did want me to become a monk. It was very clear to me during the week I had there that he didn't, but that he wanted me to use the musical gifts he'd given me in his praise and worship, and in evangelism."
The Liverpool Raiders were one of many expressions of a loose-knit organisation, The 20th Century Light Music Group who had been set up with the intention of introducing music into the churches different from the congregation-and-organ sounds that dominated UK church life at the time. The founder of the Group was Geoffrey Beaumont, who while chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge had caused something of a furore in conservative church circles with the publication in 1956 of the 20th Century Folk Mass. Despite its name the Folk Mass drew heavily on big band jazz and Broadway-style show tunes for its musical influences. When broadcast by the BBC the Folk Mass got some decidedly hostile reviews, the Daily Express writing, "This grotesque mixture had moments of madness. The creed began with a boogie beat and turned into a samba. Within minutes the saxophones were moaning in waltz time." Classical music's The Musical Times was even more hostile, suggesting the Mass was reminiscent of "the fetid atmosphere of a nightclub, dancehall or cabaret and its emphasis on cheap, moronic, sexual allurement."
Despite such vilification, Geoffrey Beaumont carried on undisturbed and in 1959 he and one-time student at Trinity College when Beaumont was chaplain, Patrick Appleford formed The 20th Century Light Music Group. Explained Peter, "Geoffrey Beaumont's compositions were being published by Joseph Weinberger, a Jewish company in Crawford Street, London. Weinberger started producing these modern hymn books; there's a pink book called Thirty 20th Century Hymn Tunes - I can picture it in my mind - and it had tunes like, 'O Jesus, I Have Promised To Serve Thee To The End' and 'At The Name Of Jesus Every Knee Shall Bow'. I remember going on missions with Geoffrey Beaumont in pubs and things. He played the piano wonderfully."
The pioneering work of The 20th Century Light Music Group was slowly
wrenching the Church out of its fossilised attitudes in its perspective of modern music. In 1963 the Church took another giant step forward. A Presbyterian Church minister in Bristol, Rev Ernest Marvin, together with Ewan Hooper, wrote a rock opera about the life of Jesus, A Man Dies. It caused more shockwaves. Remembered Peter, "They actually had a debate in the Houses of Parliament as to whether a young person in jeans could represent Jesus Christ. As far as young people were concerned it was completely relevant. I gathered young people from all over the place and got them involved in doing A Man Dies. I can remember Swaffham parish church in Norfolk - this huge cathedral of a church - filled with young people, all dancing, all jiving."
In 1966 an aggregation associated with The 20th Century Light Music Group, Reflection, had been formed and starting their own record label released an album, 'The Present Tense', featuring the songs of Sydney Carter. Also in 1966 Joseph Weinberger released an EP of The Liverpool Raiders. It was called 'The Big Story' and the four songs were recorded in an afternoon in a small London studio. By this time an electric folk element had come into the band's sound. The sleevenote for 'The Big Story' enthused that they "have developed a distinctive style whether they are playing for a dance or a service. Featured in the Church Times as 'Missionaries with a difference' they have sung in Liverpool Cathedral and many parish churches and made their own contribution to the church's teaching and worship. In this recording they present five sermons-in-song." Three of the songs were written or co-written by Geoffrey Beaumont, who also added some piano on a couple of tracks.
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