Tony Cummings charts the history of the group who in the '50s and '60s led the way in changing the Church's approach to music, THE VENTURERS
On 3rd March 1958 Britain's biggest selling newspaper The Daily Mirror startled its four and a half million readers with a story headed Dig These Hep-Cat Preachers. And so a truly pioneering band of British musical evangelists, The Venturers, momentarily caught the attention of the mass media. In the 1950s, in an age when Britain's churches were cocooned in a musical diet of ancient hymnody and sacred solos this band of Bible college students had the temerity to strum guitars and play music not dissimilar to the popular music of the day. Although The Venturers were never quite the hep-cat rock'n'rollers of the Mirror headline writer's imagination they unquestionably pioneered music that the man-in-the-street, particularly youth, could relate to. Their popularity, and their notoriety, was to spread through Britain's evangelical churches. By the early '60s The Venturers were, for a short time, the best-selling recording artists in Britain's Christian bookshops. But after the band finally called it a day in 1965 The Venturers' groundbreaking efforts in what was to eventually become contemporary Christian music were forgotten. When the book The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music was published in 2002 there was no mention of The Venturers (or for that matter Britain's other pioneering Christian beat groups like the Liverpool Raiders, the Joystrings and the Crossbeats) therefore perpetuating the long repeated myth that contemporary Christian music was essentially an American invention that had originated in the late '60s out of Southern California's Jesus music.
In 2014 a book, Striking The Right Note: The Story Of The Venturers by Doug Hollidge, was published which at last sought to put the historic record straight. Hollidge, a retired Baptist minister, had once been a member of The Venturers and his book is a scrapbook of memorabilia, photos, reminiscences and essays from band members, fans and ministers. In it Doug neatly condensed The Venturers' contribution to post-war Christianity. "Heartache, controversy and downright opposition failed to deflect them from their enthusiastic endeavours. They would thankfully enjoy encouragement and support from many. Their contemporary music style would develop from a mid-'50s 'skiffle' to a mid-'60s 'electric beat'. Their music and preaching would be in the open air, in town squares, on bandstands, or at the seaside on the beach, in pubs and clubs and schools and colleges, prisons and borstals, in churches, cinemas and theatres, sports halls, marquees, onboard ships (be they Naval or pleasure) or in any other available secular venue they could find. Their top selling commercially recorded Christian music would find its way into homes throughout the country. Their intention was to encourage churches to engage, meet and interact with people wherever they could find them. all for the sake of the opportunity to share the life-challenging relevancy and hope of the Gospel of Jesus."
The story of The Venturers really began when Bryan Gilbert, a friend of Doug Hollidge's cousin Peter, turned up at Doug's home saying he was interested in playing cricket for the church team. Bryan was a young man with an impressive musical past. For three years he had studied at the Royal Academy Of Music and was an accomplished Spanish guitarist. In December 1952 Bryan attended the baptism of his friend Peter. It had a profound effect on the talented musician. In an email to Doug 60 years later he wrote, "You stood by my side in the balcony of Wealdstone Baptist Church and prayed for me as I went forward to accept Jesus as my Saviour. What a wonderful day and what a great decision to make. He has been such a wonderful Saviour to me over the years."
In less than a year of his conversion Bryan had landed a job as a professional singer as one of the backing singers at London's popular ice shows held at London's Empire Pool, Wembley though singing Chu Chin Chow On Ice and Humpty Dumpty On Ice may not have been the most glamourous of engagements. By 1954 Bryan was the choir master at Wealdstone Baptist and was also visiting other churches where his guitar playing and testimony made him a popular attraction. In May and June 1954 he made his first foray into Christian music recording when the Christian Radio & Television Commission recorded and released two 78 rpm singles by Bryan Gilbert and his friend and fellow singer/guitarist Brian Winter, "I'm Travelling On" and "Carry Me Through". The following year Bryan joined the ministry team at Vernon Baptist Church in London's King's Cross. Then in September 1956 Bryan entered Spurgeon's College, the evangelical teaching establishment in South Norwood, Croydon which had a history going back to 1856 when it was founded by the famed "Prince of preachers" C H Spurgeon.
At Spurgeon's College alongside his studies Gilbert was out many weekends visiting churches where he found a receptive audience to his repertoire of spiritual and folk songs. A natural musical eclectic, during some visits to Vernon Baptist Church he ventured into skiffle, the hybrid of American folk, blues and jazz often performed on homemade instruments such as washboard, tea chest bass and kazoo. In the pop world by 1956 Lonnie Donegan had released what was to become a skiffle million seller, "Rock Island Line", and ad hoc skiffle groups - with their easy to play, homemade instrument ethos - were springing up all over the country, including one in London's King's Cross. As Bryan Gilbert wrote in his diary for 9th July 1957, "We are having an experiment at the YPCE (Young People's Christian Endeavour). We have a skiffle group and are accompanying the hymns and doing solos." Clearly the group had some effect. Four months later Gilbert's diary entry intriguingly read, "Squash with Vernon Skiffle Group, many responded, only six converted."
Gilbert's daring move into skiffle with Vernon Baptist Church was soon taking root in Spurgeon's College. He wrote about The Venturers' genesis, "It was 1956 when I arrived in College. It was a centenary year when the College tried to run 100 missions led by students. It was not a good success, I know because I served on some of them. I was then determined that we could reach people for Christ outside the church. So the music group [The Venturers] was born. We had Roger Collins on the accordion, Dave Sayer on the drum, Ken Mullis on violin, Brian Lloyd on tea chest bass (a box we stole from the matron. We got into trouble about it.). I played guitar and arranged the songs and chords, etc. Eddie Flynn attempted the ukulele, but didn't really know when we changed key! How we practised and prayed. We began taking school meetings (packed out), youth weekends and rallies."
After the unexpected article about The Venturers in the Daily Mirror the unculturalised mass within many churches began to raise their voices in protest. Remembered Bryan, "Soon the letters arrived from College supporters saying it was of the Devil and that they would stop supporting the College if we continued playing! Eric Worstead had been the principal and he had not been too enamoured with The Venturers. When he departed it was left to the remaining three members of the Faculty to tell me to stop. We had just printed 2000 prayer cards for the South Coast Venture. (We each contributed an eighth of our money to support the group), I told the Faculty it was too late to stop us going to the South Coast in 1958 for our first Mission. George Beasley-Murray was present at the meeting only because he was going to be the incoming principal. He spoke up for us, so enabling us to continue, but without the support of the College. We were told, 'Do not say where you come from!' The three staff said we must stop this skiffle music. I asked which of the instruments did people object to, bearing in mind we had a BB drummer, an accordion, a violin and tea chest bass and I had already been playing my guitar in lots of churches. They replied it was 'the washboard.' I said, 'We don't use a washboard!'"
By August 1958 the team of musicians and helpers originally dubbed The South Coast Venture Team was in full flow. The Brighton Evening Argus ran a story on the team headed Gospel With A Guitar and the following year the Baptist Times were commenting on the "eight students from Spurgeon's College went 'modern' in evangelism last summer and used modern music as a means of attracting crowds to listen to the preaching of the Gospel." The article went on to report on a sold out performance on the Royal Isis as it sailed down the river Mersey during The Venturers' Liverpool campaign. (It was to be two years before the Beatles were to play the first of their four performances on the 900-capacity The Royal Isis.)
It was Bryan Gilbert's prowess on the guitar that gave the musical evangelists the chance to make some recordings. Bryan told NCM magazine, "While I was at college Mr Hogbin of Evangelical Recordings asked me to do a guitar backing on an existing tape so I went down and did this and at the same time sang a song at the studio. Then they said would you make a record so I made some records with Evangelical Recordings."
Just before The Venturers' Evangelical Recordings sessions Bryan's old friend Doug Hollidge had joined Spurgeon's and was immediately drafted in to The Venturers initially as a vocalist though at college he learnt to play guitar "in a three chord plus cappo" sort of way and also, while at college, learnt to play clarinet. He said, "A number of the Venturers' recordings have a clarinet solo on them. I say 'solo' - just a few clarinet notes here and there. . . I was no Acker Bilk." The Venturers who assembled in the Evangelical Recordings studio featured, in Doug's words, "a very peculiar set of instruments." Remembered Doug, "Bryan was the classically-trained Spanish guitarist - a very fine musician; there was another guitarist who was not a member of the college but brought into the group- for the South Coast tour in the summer of 1959; Ken Mullis, a very fine, classically-trained violinist - still alive, met him a few years ago; Dave Sayer played a side-drum that he'd learnt in the Boys Brigade; Eddie Flynn was given a ukulele, and he could play a chord or two but not quite in the right order; and Brian Lloyd on the tea-chest bass."
With Evangelical Recordings 13 songs were recorded. They were credited Bryan Gilbert And The Spurgeon College "Venturers". Remembered Doug, "One of the singles Evangelical Recordings put out had me singing 'It Is No Secret (What God Can Do" and the second, on the other side, was 'Lord, Keep Your Mighty Hand On Me'. Those two songs were written in 1952 by a couple of Christian cowboys in the States, Stuart Hamblen and Red Harper. The EPs confusingly had almost identical titles and sleeve designs. Doug spoke about them: "The first EP has five songs. There was the classic spiritual 'Gospel Train'; many groups have done that. The one that Bryan majored on himself was 'Christian Cowboy' - 'The Devil is a rustler, and many are his men.' He did a fantastic Spanish finger-ripple up the belly of his guitar to make the sound of the horses going. He took the lead on 'He'll Understand'. On the second EP there was a guy by the name of Barry Heather, who together with another member of the group, Keith Davies, wrote 'You Need Him Too'. Bryan got me to sing that song. The last song on the second EP was called 'Wonderful Love' that Bryan had written. He started it off by reading a chunk of Scripture then I finished it off by singing his words surrounding the Scripture."
One reviewer wrote about the second EP, "Basically folky, with violin and electric organ, though 'When I Survey The Wondrous Cross' is just a solo voice and organ. 'You Need Him Too' has a 'Lazybones' feel with pom-pom-poms and the occasional bit of harmonica and is arguably too short."
The band's founding father Bryan Gilbert was set to leave Spurgeon's in 1960. Remembered Doug, "Before Brian left college in 1960, the group were invited to play at the Baptist Union Assembly at Westminster Chapel - the 2,000-seater Westminster Chapel, with that huge open pulpit six feet above. The group took over the pulpit. As we started playing, a young upstart in the congregation stood up and said, 'You can't play that sort of music here!' It was a set-up - the organisers knew it was going to happen - because we wanted to face the challenge we'd received privately. We wanted to put it in a public setting, and the challenge was going to be, if there are results in what's going on, you've got to vote for the new presentation. That's how it was all being worked out. We were viewable throughout the whole country. Because there were the huge number of people involved in the group, from the time I was in the college from '59 to '64, some 30 men went through some sort of Venturer experience, whether it was preaching in the open air, playing or singing."
The Venturers continued to play all manner of events as often as their studies would allow. One memorable one was in September 1960 at the vast Trocadero cinema in London's Elephant & Castle. It was during the interval of the kids regular Saturday Morning Picture Show. Remembered Doug, "During the performance we became target practise. We were shot at several times. Not with guns, but with paper pellets fired from an elastic band catapult. Whilst we were playing we could hear the 'thwack' as the pellets hit the screen behind us."
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