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
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West Woolwich Baptist Church was Bryan's first church after his ordination. The Venturers joined him and other members of the church in a mission to the area. They certainly got noticed, The Kentish Mercury reporting "Swinging Gospel Group Come Marching In." Doug Hollidge's Striking The Right Note book contains plenty of photos of The Venturers' tireless activities - a beach mission on the Isle Of Wight in July 1961, numerous concerts at colleges and schools, a concert at HM Borstal Portland and before big crowds in front of the Weymouth Royal Hotel. There was still criticism from more conservative elements in the Church and they intensified when, in response to the changing tastes in popular music, the group discarded the tea-chest bass and began using electric guitars.
With their popularity increasing The Venturers decided to record again. Remembered Doug, "The recording session in Eltham College Chapel took place late at night in order to cut out the noise of any passing traffic. There were times when, after a passing car was heard we were told 'Sorry guys, you have to do it again.'"
Despite the recording challenges, four songs were recorded and released on an EP, 'The Venturers'. It was issued on the group's own label c/o Spurgeon's College. It contained the group's arrangement of the old spiritual "Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho" and an original song "Can It Be True". Doug Hollidge explained how the band found the song. "It came to us in such a beautiful way. One of the classic outreach occasions taken up by The Venturers was every Monday lunchtime going up to Tower Hill - the open concourse where anyone could stand on a box and say whatever he or she wanted to say to a crowd of lunchtime hecklers, who were businessmen and dockworkers. The Venturers would go of a Monday lunchtime, play and sing, preach a bit, answer questions, get heckled. If you start talking philosophy, there were greater philosophers in the crowd, and they'd damn you down; but as soon as you started talking about personal witness - what Jesus meant to your life - then you had control of the crowds, and beautiful responses to that sort of thing. At the end of one of these meetings, this brown-robed friar, besandled, with a briefcase under his arm, said, 'Like what you're doing lads. I've written a few songs; would you like to see them?' I have, to this day, the copy of the songs that Brother William, Society of St Francis, gave us. The group looked at these songs; they were heavily of the tradition of the Society of St Francis. This particular song that came to be recorded by a number of people, 'Can It Be True', in its original five verse setting was heavily Eucharistic. Brother William was not toying with the idea but was very sensitive to the idea of the discovery of Jesus as you handed the bread and the wine in the rite itself - because that's where Jesus was to be discovered."
Doug continued, "We told him we loved the sentiment of the song, but
we wanted to redirect it. So we changed the five verse setting to a
three verse setting, which totally majored on the living experience of
the historical Jesus becoming relevant to individual lives - 'Can it
be true, the things they say of you?' - and the song evolved into
'Yes, of course it can be true: you came to this earth and we can
respond to you.' All the words are Brother William's, but they're in a
different order and the music is exactly as Brother William wrote it.
He realised we were a group that was presenting the Gospel and he
okayed the song as we rewrote it. When 'Can It Be True' was finally
published in Youth Praise 1, the copyright acknowledgement was
'Brother William, SSF; this arrangement only by The Venturers'. Our one claim to worldwide
fame is that when Cliff Richard recorded the song, it was The Venturers'
arrangement he sang."
The track on 'The Venturers' which most upset the Church's conservative elements was "John 3:16". One reviewer described it as being "introduced by clicking fingers followed by a tune that has a rhythm and blues flavour about it." Explained Hollidge, "Mike Wood, having come into the group, wrote in a bluesy, soft rock style. Mike took John 3:16 and set it to a rock beat with verses. A lot of flak came our way as we sang that one. We were still at college: a number of occasions we were hauled into the principal's study. A very convivial George Beasley-Murray - who was very much on our side, because he was an evangelist at heart - said, 'Guys, the college is losing money because of what you're doing'. This was to do with the strict historic support of the college coming from certain areas within the Baptist family, not only in the UK but worldwide, were to look askance at this public appraisal of college life in this incredibly daring setting of music. George would say, 'Look, I want you to continue but I want to know where you are'. So he took the flak for that, and the college went on losing money."
As it turned out, Spurgeon's College lost money as some of their regular donors cancelled their standing orders but made quite a bit back through the sales of 'The Venturers' EP. Recalled Doug, "Keith Clarke and Roger Watkins were in charge of the marketing of the records. They made contact with Christian bookshops throughout the country. Roger says he was constantly wrapping packages of 10 or more and taking them down the hill to the South Norwood Post Office. It was acknowledged by the 'trade' that they became the highest selling Christian records of the day."
The Venturers received more and more invitations to visit local churches. Said Doug ruefully, "If you went through any of our diaries at the time, you'd see a hugely varied bit of geography as to where we were going and what sort of style of setting. During Easter and summer vacations was when the major outreach work was done; every weekend in college we'd go out, either preaching on our own to a church, or members would take a small musical group to those events. If I can describe a typical weekend, we would leave college Friday, pack ourselves into the college dormobile - instruments and all - arrive at a venue, sleep in a church hall or be farmed out to people's houses. We might have a welcome meeting on the Friday night when we got there, set up the instruments and sing to a welcome meeting. Then on Saturday, the typical setting would be to go to a town centre, set up on the bandstand, play, preach, questions. We'd have people out in the crowd from the local church saying, 'What do you think of this?' 'Rubbish.' 'What do you think of this?' 'OK.' 'What do you think of this?' 'Blah blah blah.' So it was totally geared to meeting the man, the woman, the young person on the street. On the Sunday, we might have morning service, outreach event in the afternoon. The weekend would be jam-packed with opportunity, and it would be totally varied depending on how expert the local church was in getting us into places."
In 1963 the group recorded and released another EP, 'The Venturers Again!'. Commented Doug, "We rather cheekily put it out under a black cover with no picture. We were not trying to upstage the Beatles, but we thought, 'Why can't we?' On that one, there were four songs - the traditional spiritual 'Go Down, Moses'; the traditional gospel song 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee'; another traditional, 'O Sinner Man'; and a final song that Mike wrote called 'God Cares For You', which became a favourite song on the campaign work we were doing. Mike, when he came into the group with his new style, challenged us in the way we were doings things: it became an electric sound, where before that it was Spanish guitars, whatever. Our first amplifier was made by one of the group - a huge, great coffin of a thing we used to carry around with us; but in Mike's time, totally electrified. I think when Mike was leaving Spurgeon's, and when I was leaving the college, the group said, 'Two major contributors are no longer going to be with us'; and I have to say, a lot of energy had been put into the group activity." So in 1965 The Venturers came to an end.
The original mastermind of The Venturers, Bryan Gilbert, had by that time established a successful triple pronged ministry as a preacher, musician (recording such albums as 'Gospel Songs And Spiritual In Country And Western Style' in 1962 and 'Travelling With The Lord', 1964) and author (books as diverse as 1971's Playing Guitar For The Lord's Work and 1980's Lord, Help Me To Grow). For his own part Doug served as a minister of Woodgrange Baptist Church for 34 years and even in his retirement has found the energy to write Striking The Right Note and, in 2009, a whodunit thriller Calculated Concealment.
My visit to the Southend-on-Sea home of Doug Hollidge was drawing to a close when I asked him to single out a memory from the hundreds he had of his years with The Venturers. He responded, "In 1965, I'm going home to my parents' place with my washing - being a typical bachelor - and I'm sitting in an Underground train; sitting opposite me is a young man looking at me in a strange sort of way: I'm getting a little concerned. I get off the train, he gets off the train. He said, 'You came to the Portland borstal with The Venturers. I was there; my life hasn't been the same since.' He just walked away, and it was one of those strange, God-given moments: I haven't got his name, I haven't got his number, I haven't got a clue who he is. It was just a moment when he was declaring something beautiful happened to him in a very difficult setting."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.
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