The Way: California's fondly remembered Jesus music band

Friday 20th April 2012

Tony Cummings sets out the history of the pioneering '70s band THE WAY

Continued from page 1

"So I went to Europe, then when I came back my friend Alex MacDougal, who was playing in a music group called Selah, asked me to go to a Maranatha meeting with him. And I said, 'What's a Maranatha meeting?' He said, 'Well, it's just a group of musicians and we meet and get in the Word.' And I said ok. So I went to it and as I was going in Dana was coming down the walkway and I was holding the door open for him and he goes, 'You in any group?' or 'How's your group doing?' I said, 'I'm not in any group.' He goes, 'How'd you like to be in ours?' I said, 'I'll pray about it.' And so we went in the meeting. I did pray about it and felt like I was supposed to do it. I rolled my amplifier up to their door and knocked. Some of the other members of the group didn't even know I was coming. We practised together and it just worked."

Dana Angle picked up the story of The Way. "We quickly discovered that John was the best musician in the band, and I, very humbly, started to share lead guitar duties. This posed different problems for the band that we had not encountered before. But, that was okay. We now had the dilemma of having two acoustic rhythm guitar players and two electric lead guitar players, and no bass player. Well, we all started to play bass. Bruce was always a good bass player. His experiences in playing the drums gave him a good understanding of rhythm patterns. Gary became a good bass player, his good musical ear and his strong hands from gymnastics made it easier to pick up the bass. John was a good bass player and I was always trying to play lead bass. So we threw up the deck and let the cards land where they may. Every song we performed seemed to have different people on different instruments. Watching The Way was like watching a carousel of musical instruments. We were switching fools."

Driven by the Holy Spirit the Jesus Movement was continuing to expand and The Way were invited to tour. Remembered Dana, "One tour was to the Houston area and the other one was to the Seattle area. Ray Johnson had the vision to bring us to Houston. He flew us out there (a rare occurrence) and made all of the arrangements, which were much nicer than usual. While we were in Houston we played at many different venues. One in particular was The University of Houston. Just from having songs on 'Maranatha! One' and 'Maranatha! Two' we were starting to be known in Christian circles across the country. They sold tickets to the concert at the university and they almost sold out. We were starting to realise the effect that that 'little church', and the work that God was doing there, was having on the Christian movement as a whole.

While we were in Texas we met a young art student named Tracy Guthrie, whose specialty was sculpture. He invited us to his house to see the sculptures he had made. The first was a front porch setting with people sitting on a swing and the other was a small country train station with people waiting for a train. I'm not sure who had the idea first, Gary or our new friend, but Tracy decided he was going to take pictures of us posing and then work on sculptures of the band. He took many pictures in several locations. In one shot I was kneeling on the ground with the others standing behind me, when this little dog from down the street came running up to me and set its paws on my leg, probably to lick my face. At that moment, Tracy snapped a shot with the dog on my leg. Later, we agreed to pay him a certain amount to work on the sculptures of the band members. We were back in California when the statues arrived. They were magnificent. They were proportionate and relative to scale. When mine arrived it had the little dog with its paws on my leg."

(l-r) Dana Angle, Bruce Herring, John Wickham, Gary Arthur
(l-r) Dana Angle, Bruce Herring, John Wickham, Gary Arthur

Continued Dana, "Meanwhile back at the Calvary ranch, Maranatha! Music was starting to put out album after album. The 'small circle of musicians' were becoming the new musical voice for young Christian music. I'm not saying they were the only ones, Larry Norman, Andrae Crouch, Paul Clark, Randy Stonehill and too many others to mention were all being blessed by the Holy Spirit of God. And his Word was being put to music in more areas than ever before by young musicians who were willing to go anywhere to play and spread the Word of God.

"Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa had completely outgrown its capacity. Fire marshals finally said, 'Hey, no way!' Down the street, where there used to be orange groves, was some land that had been purchased by the church. Calvary Chapel purchased the largest tent I've have ever seen. It had to have held about 1500 people. Before long, the tent was filled with people, four times a day on Sundays, and just about every night of the week. Calvary Chapel had broken ground on a new 1800 seat chapel next door and everybody knew that the tent was only temporary. Actually, the new chapel was outgrown before they ever moved into it. So, instead of trying to get everyone to go to Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Chuck Smith started to oversee Calvary Chapels in other cities with the new pastors being appointed by him. At last count, I believe, there were over 800 Calvary Chapels around the world. Before long, the new chapel was complete and Maranatha! Music was giving us the green light to work on our own album. It was the seventh album Maranatha! was going to release and our production number was HS-777/7, the lone seven indicating the seventh album.

"The four of us got together to pray and discuss which songs might be appropriate for our new album. We all voted in a very democratic manner for our final selection. The songs we selected showed the variety of singers and songwriters we had in the band. Up to this point we were pretty much an acoustic band, meaning most of our songs were centred around the acoustic guitar sound. We added bass guitar to give our sound bottom, but we did not have a drummer. This made our sound more mellow than rockish, and part of that was because of the relatively smaller audiences we were playing to. And the kind of people that were listening to our songs, mostly church goers who were already saved, and were just strengthening their walk, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But for the album we knew that some of our songs had to have drums or percussion, due to the nature of the songs. This is where Alex MacDougall comes back into the story. 'Does anybody know any drummers?' John, 'Well, I do!' We were rehearsing with Alex as our drummer for the album within a week. He was an excellent drummer and almost an even better percussionist. His rhythm was solid and true and we again became instantly better because of our newly found talents, namely John and Alex.

"Before long we were back at Buddy King Studios, only this time we were in charge of our own project. We were diligent to the task. We went in and we knew what we wanted. By now [record producer/engineer] Buddy King had progressed enough to purchase an eight channel Ampex recorder, meaning we had four more channels than we had before. This meant that with a lot of ping-ponging of tracks, we could get closer to the Hollywood studio quality. In the meantime Gary had taken all of our custom sculptured statues into a professional photography studio, along with some wood he had stained as a background. When we saw the final album cover with the statues on the front we were very pleased."

The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music's Mark Allan Powell wrote about 'The Way' album, released in mid-1973, "'The Way' presents 10 near perfect country folk songs, each of which is distinctive and remarkable on its own terms. 'Son Come Out' opens the project with a confident melody and indelible chorus that represents one of the first uses of what would become a very overworked play on words ('sonshine') as Jesus music developed. 'You're Caught In A World' is more of a Top 40 pop song built on an infectious hook that belies the seriousness of the lyric. The song promises those whose life is 'sometimes hard to take' that 'there is only one way to escape.' An uncharacteristic electric guitar kicks off 'Song Of Joy', which also features a piano interlude and an overlay of instruments that builds with some intensity before resolving in a haunting, almost acapella summons: 'Listen to Jesus/Listen to his word/Listen to Jesus/And think about what you've heard.' The next track is the album's prettiest country ballad, 'Come On Down', a song that, apart from its evangelical lyrics, would not have been out of place on Neil Young's 'Comes A Time' album. After these four excellent tracks, side one closes with the album's absolute best: a gorgeous, worshipful song of yearning called 'Closer To God', which features what might be the finest guitar harmonics ever put on record."

Powell continued, "Side two of 'The Way' opens with the album's darkest tone, another electric song called 'New Song'. Edgier than the rest of the album, the song once again addresses those who may be searching for peace and love, promising that Jesus 'can make you happy' and provide 'life abundantly, with no more envy or strife'. A very simple and very pretty acoustic guitar line leads out of that song's momentary darkness to introduce 'There's A Love', another basic folk song sung almost as a solo with slight percussion kicking in at key moments. 'He's The Reason To Go On' is a country ballad reminiscent of Poco. 'Harvest Time' also has a country flavour, but works better than the previous song, presenting words of warning based on Jesus' rural parables: 'Jesus said, you will reap what you've sown/When judgment comes, what you've done will be made known.' Such a theme offsets the predominantly sunny character of 'The Way' and provides it with necessary grounding in more melancholy sounds and sombre themes. The next track, 'Are You Listening?', has a similar gloomy but haunting quality, allowing the listener to feel as well as hear the seriousness of its inquiry and claim: 'Are you listening?/Can you hear?/The Holy Spirit is drawing you near/Are you feeling?/Can you feel?/The Son of God will show you it's real.'"

(l-r) John Wickham, Gary Arthur, Alex MacDougall,
(l-r) John Wickham, Gary Arthur, Alex MacDougall,

With the release of 'The Way' everything moved up a gear for the band. Wrote Dana, "Shortly after our album was released in mid-1973, we were being booked to do concert tours all over the country including Hawaii. We found ourselves playing in increasingly larger venues. What used to be little churches were now becoming auditoriums and music festivals. Our album moved into the top 10 of the Christian music selling market and all of a sudden we were away as much as we were home. We toured in a van that we bought from friends that we had met in Houston. It was a big Chevy van with no seats and a lot of windows. Once, we were booked to perform on a tour of the Washington DC area. There was a church in DC that wanted Debby Kerner and The Way to come and play. We only had our one van. We piled all of our equipment into the bed of the van, as flat as we could make it, and then we threw a mattress on top, to lie on, during our tour. We also brought along a soundman, which was a first for us, named Steve Giglio. He went by Bugsy for short. That meant that the five of us, plus our two new guests, had to pile into the van, and ride that way all the way across the country. I think it was especially tough on Debbie. She had to watch her blood sugar levels and touring sometimes made that very difficult.

"Sometimes the conditions under which we were touring were very hard to take. Sometimes the lack of decent food got to us and it was hard to stay cheerful. Sometimes we would drive for 16 hours, sleep for four and get up at dinner time to start getting ready for a 7:00 concert. Such was the life of a musician, but the difference was that God was working everywhere we went. When we played, God was always true to his word and the Holy Spirit would just fill the places we were playing. Every time we played people would come forward and dedicate their lives to the Lord.

"Before long we were being booked to play at a lot of college campuses and, surprisingly, prisons. We met a young, eager Christian named Sean Michael who wanted to be our soundman full time. Once on the road, I'm not sure that he was so sure that he had made the right decision, but he was a 'road warrior' and he stuck with us through thick and thin, which says a lot for his character. Our mellow sound was no longer cutting it for these types of situations. We decided that we needed a rocky set of songs and some high energy country songs to fit into the places we were ministering. The size and power of our equipment had to be increased and our songs had to be more up-tempo. This meant that a soundman was no longer a luxury, but a necessity. This also meant that we were probably going to lose a lot of our listeners, who preferred our mellower side, but the nature of our ministry was changing. We now were ready for large concerts. Bruce would sing lead and mostly play acoustic guitar, Gary would play bass almost full time now, John and I would play lead at the same time, and switch off (we were known for our dual lead guitar solos), and Alex played drums and percussion.

"Several tours and thousands and thousands of miles later, we were slated by Maranatha! Music to go back into the studio for our second album, 'Can It Be?' This time they gave us a bigger budget. And this time we were able to procure the services of a Christian brother named Al Perkins to be the producer. Al had played and recorded with many pro touring bands, including Steven Stills Manassas, and was way ahead of us as far as the right way to go about making a professional sounding product. Now, Love Song were under contract by a Hollywood producer that owned his own studio. Through channels of discussion, we were invited to use the studio when they could fit us in. His studio was called Mama Jo's and it was in North Hollywood. We had done a little bit of recording there for the first album and now we had the whole studio to ourselves for our second project. This studio was very professional with all state of the art equipment, and we had it all to ourselves. . . during the hours they could fit us in, which were 8:00 pm to 6:00 am. The rest of the time the studio was being occupied by a band called Ambrosia and some upstart producer named Alan Parsons.

"Anyway, we struggled through the nightshift schedule, many times falling asleep on the floor, anywhere, while drums and guitars were being recorded. We would just wait, until it was our turn, to contribute to the recording process. Someone would say, 'Hey go wake up Bruce, it's time for him to sing a lead vocal' but we were still blessed as can be to be there and never, ever complained. And finally our second album was complete. It was rockier and had more lively country tunes and we actually had a string section play on one of our songs."

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Reader Comments

Posted by Ron Raport in Seattle, WA @ 22:29 on Mar 27 2016

I was in junior high school when The Way's second album arrived in unopened boxes at the Calvary Chapel bookstore in Costa Mesa. I had been anxiously awaiting its release, and I'll never forget buying the very first one as they cut open the first box fresh off the truck. Huge fan then, still a huge fan. I've also learned how to play guitar with most of the first album's songs.

Posted by Patti Smith in Huntington Beach, CA @ 01:14 on Mar 7 2014

IN the late 70's Bruce Herring was worship leader for Calvary Chapel Huntington Beach. I was on his worship team. SO gifted. He mentored me spiritually and musically. I am so grateful, I'm still in worship teams and playing like he taught me!

Posted by Jon jackson in Southern California @ 19:10 on May 18 2013

I was attending Calvary Chapel, and those amazing concerts back in'69-'71, I was 16 yrs. old. I used to play their first album over and over. Through these 44 years "Closer to God" still goes through my head, I sing it to myself! I haven't had that cassette for 40 years! So now after all these years, I decided to go "on line" and try to get a recording of that album, and I stumbled on this fabulous article! It's so true how the Holy Spirit worked through these young men to bring us closer to God! Thank you for posting it! Now I'll go back to try to find a recording , God bless.

Reply by Dana Angle in Ione, CA @ 00:53 on Aug 20 2019

You can find The Way on Amazon, (The Way/Can It Be?) two albums on one CD.............

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Posted by Gina in Wisconsin @ 14:44 on May 12 2012

Great message, very interesting.
Thank you for the blessing you have been in my life for so many years. Also there was a song, I don't remember the name, but part of it was "seated on the throne with a rainbow ....with all nations bowing at his feet, I guess getting old and can't remember more. I loved it and it brought me through some rough times just playing it over and over and kneeling by the bed, GREAT TIMES.

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