Tony Cummings chronicles the 20 years of music making and ministry by roots singer/songwriter SAMMY HORNER
Sammy Horner may be the frontman of rock'n'reel pioneers The Electrics but he's more, much more, than that. Dumbarton-based Sammy is a singer/songwriter who's toured the world, recorded over 20 albums and almost single-handedly popularised a new genre (or should that be marketing niche?), "Celtic praise".
A biography printed in a Youth And Children's Ministry leaflet published by Sammy's early support base The Eagle Trust succinctly summed up Horner's early years. "Born in Belfast, Sammy came up through all the usual avenues of church life such as Boys Brigade, Bible class, etc, until at the ripe old age of 11 he became sick of church, clubs, coffee bars and established Christianity! It was a few years later with the help of a park bench, a stolen boat, a Christian and the Spirit of God that Sammy came to know God personally. Over the next six years he became an active member of an Elim Church in Belfast where he was involved in youth and children's work mainly in Adventurers and Youth Fellowships and with a gospel group who worked extensively throughout Ireland. Sammy worked as an electrician for six years before coming to Glasgow to study at the Bible Training Institute. After finishing his studies, he worked as a youth evangelist for the YWCA of Scotland for four years in the east end of Glasgow. After this he worked for an evangelical church in Dumbarton."
The Electrics were up and running by 1988. But even in their hey day in the '90s with US tours and record label deals there was never a chance for the band to give up their regular jobs. Said Sammy, "The Electrics were never full time. Even I have only been full time in music for about seven years now. We all had other things. Most of the guys had daytime gigs and I was working in a schools thing. The Electrics was part of what I did but it wasn't all of it. I was working with the church and doing youth and children's ministry."
In 1990 to support his children's work Sammy released a humble cassette album, 'SWAT', though Horner's SWAT Team weren't committed to Special Weapons And Tactics but Spiritual Weapons And Tactics. Sammy spoke candidly about the 'SWAT' cassette. "Once again, I had no idea what I was doing. I think we did the whole thing on a four-track cassette recorder. I seem to remember Cross Rhythms' review of it said people may not be ready for it. I was doing a lot of children's ministry in those days and that really helped me to earn a living."
With The Electrics gigging just about every weekend after the release of their 'Visions And Dreams' album Sammy still found the time in 1991 to record an album. 'Celtic Praise: With Every Blessing' was the first ever attempt to fuse the sounds of Irish and Scottish folk music to praise and worship music. Sammy spoke about the circumstances that led to the seminal album. "I was still doing a lot of preaching in those days and I got invited to a church but on the Saturday night they had a ceilidh. Ceilidhs in Scotland are social dancing, kind of like barn dancing, there's a caller and everybody knows what the dances are. They are lovely events and the good thing about them is nobody is ever too cool to go to a ceilidh. So teenagers go, grannies go, children go and it really is a real community thing. It's lovely. So there was a ceilidh the night before and Sunday morning I was speaking and playing a bit. Of course Saturday night the place was jumping; Sunday morning - not. I remember thinking to myself what's the difference? It's the same building, the same people, what's the difference? Surely this should be as good as last night. The one difference might have been that I was speaking; that might have been a problem. But something in my head told me it might have something to do with the music, that the music of the ceilidh actually connected with people. I already had the song 'The Blessing', which was off the 'Visions And Dreams' album. So I just sat down and wrote a bunch of stuff with that ceilidh thing in mind."
Although Sammy handled the bulk of the lead vocals on 'Celtic Praise: With Every Blessing' there were guest lead vocals from Paul Northup (the frontman of the increasingly popular folk rockers Eden Burning), Stuart Trotter (a Scottish worship leader and a long time friend of Sammy's), Jonathan Day (a Midlands-based roots musician whose 'A Different Land' was about to be distributed by Kingsway) and Christie McAlindon (a Scottish folk singer). It was produced at Electric Avenue Studios, Birmingham by Horner and Kevin Edwards who had earlier produced the album 'Friends' by UK gospel diva Tracey Riggan, who also sang some bvs on Sammy's project. Continued Sammy, "The plan was just to put out a little cassette from what I was doing in Scotland. Then Kingsway got wind of it and phoned me. They asked if they could hear 'Celtic Praise' and I said sure. So they put it out. You'll know what I mean by this and you'll smirk which people won't be able to see as they read this. The recording 'Celtic Praise' sold more in the first quarter than Michael W Smith did in the UK, which of course is big. I remember Kingsway phoning me and telling me and I couldn't believe it. Then I started getting letters from people asking me what it was about and of course I had no clue really. I understood it had something to do with the music and the culture but I had no real knowledge of what Celtic spirituality was about so I just began to read. And that led on to more stuff."
In the early '90s Sammy organised an annual weekend Christian festival in Glasgow called Impact. Alongside The Electrics numerous other acts from all over Britain were showcased plus during one surreal set, Sammy, complete with rock star wig, performing a credible parody of heavy metal.
Also released in 1992 was the children's album on ICC (originally released only on cassette) 'Obey The Maker's Instructions' and billed Sam Horner And The Wonderkids. So who were the Wonderkids? "They were a bunch of kids from Glasgow. We had the basement of this old church. I recorded most of it down at ICC in Eastbourne and then we brought a mobile unit up to Glasgow to record the kids. It was lovely. I had young kids of my own and they were listening to terrible kids album. You'll remember Psalty the songbook. I used to be driving my car with this stuff on and I wanted to plough into a truck it was driving me insane listening to it. That's not to say the kids weren't enjoying it. But I wanted to write something that parents playing it in cars might like, that was the idea. And who doesn't like '50s and '60s rock and roll? So that was it. I just thought of all my favourite '50s and '60s rock and roll songs and did pastiches of them. It was great."
By 1993 The Electrics were signed to Germany's Pila Records. But when not recording and touring with them the band's human dynamo frontman still found time to record a couple of independent projects that could not have been more different from each other. Sammy explained the origins of the off-kilter cassette EP 'Pub Praise'. "We were bored. It was Christmas and Davey (the Electrics drummer Davey McArthur) was down at my house. We had one of these little four-track cassette recorders. Somebody had given me a Casio keyboard where you hit one note and it plays bass and the tune and one of those drum things. I said listen to this and we were laughing. Billy Connolly used to do a thing where he said he used to love listening to guys who were drunk in Glasgow singing 'cos when they sang 'Danny Boy' it always sounded completely different. And I said maybe we should do this with worship songs. We went round to a local pub and just recorded people talking and clinking beer glasses. It was only four songs if you want to call them that. And then we took the vocals off so you could karaoke to the King. I know it sounds stupid but even back then I could see the way the marketing of worship music was heading. They were bringing out things like 'Praise Him On The Panpipes' and they were selling. That's really not trying to put people down who were doing albums like that but it was starting to get stupid. 'Pub Praise' was a comment about this stupidity."
The other 1993 release was the EP 'Rain From A Red Sky' by Jonathan Day and Sammy Horner. The project was to raise funds for YMCA German's Children Of Chernobyl fund and was recorded after singer/songwriter Day visited the area blighted by the USSR's nuclear reactor disaster. The Celtic stomper "Ceal Na Tschernobyl" and the traditional "Glen A John Air" connected with the Cross Rhythms reviewer.
The following year ICC released 'Celtic Praise Vol 2: T-Allt Ruadh (The Red Burn)'. Recorded at ICC Studios and produced by Sammy and Bruce Pont, the project, like its predecessor, had some roots music guests, this time Martha Comer, Christie McAlindon, Stuart Trotter, Samantha Smith and Irish folkie Rodney Cordner. Intriguingly, the album also contained the track "Dancing At The Crossroads" by Chicago-based Irish American band The Crossing taken from their album on Jesus People USA's Grrr Records. Sammy spoke about the origins of 'Celtic Praise 2'. "I was in Culloden up near Inverness and Culloden battlefield is there for tourists to walk around. All the graves are there. It's very depressing, as with much of Scottish history. There's one place in it called the Red Burn where the slaughter at Culloden was so immense that the blood from the people who were killed soaked through the soil into an underground stream. And where the stream sprung out of the ground it sprung out water and blood. I remember thinking about that part in the Gospels where it says when Jesus was pierced with the spear and out came water and blood and how this notion of sacrifice for salvation and redemption and purchase is actually crucial. Throughout history it's crucial. And a picture of that was right there at Culloden."
After the popularity of the rock'n'roll pastiche 'Obey The Maker's Instructions' ICC also offered Sammy the chance to record another children's album, though this time the inventive Ulsterman turned his attention to country music. Sammy spoke about the 'Country Parables' album. "Country music is generally story songs and there are lots of stories in the Bible. So it seemed perfect. Working with the kids was lovely because you didn't have to worry about things. In America they would auto tune everything. They would get these kids from theatre school who'd been voice trained. I got a little bunch of inner city kids who just belted it out and we weren't caring about tuning, I just wanted energy. I can honestly say I'm very proud of those children's records and I'm still stunned that they're not out on CD after all this time."
Also released in 1994 was a live worship project, 'Powerpoint Live'. Remembered Sammy, "It was made over a weekend of a short tour in Scotland with kids worker Richard Hubbard. The Electrics learned all the music and we took the best live cuts from three shows as far as I remember. It gave us some experience of recording live with no overdubs."
1996 saw The Electrics switch from Germany's Pila Music to the USA's Five Minute Walk/Sara Bellum Records. The following year while Sara Bellum were releasing 'The Electrics' for the US market, Sammy recorded the third volume of his hit 'Celtic Praise' series. "The 'Celtic Praise' thing was just one of these things - I never wanted to call it 'Celtic Praise'. All of the albums had a Gallic title. The third one was 'Celtic Praise Vol 3: Quaich'. The quaich is a cup, it's got two handles on the side and it used to be just the cup that when someone came to your house you'd pour whisky in it, it was a common cup. So if you're a lord or a peasant everyone had a quaich and everybody drank from it. So the idea was community and common humanity I guess. Every couple of years ICC would say these are trickling out nicely. The budgets were always really low but I think we had Jean Pierre Rudolf over, who's best known for his work with Rodney Cordner. Jean Pierre plays everything, he's amazing. So I flew him in from Strasbourg, gave him half the budget and he played on the whole album."