He’s Able: They Live On

(A second article by Leslie Wagner-Wilson in this edition of the jonestown report is Eternally Grateful. Her complete collection of articles for this site appears here. She can be reached at leslie.wagnerwilson@yahoo.com.)

As a child I always loved to sing. Our family was musical. When we were young, my sister Michelle and I were given private piano lessons by a small woman who had carrot red hair. My mother also exposed us to as many of the arts as possible. My heart was always that of a dancer, while Michelle sang, and my brother Mark played the drums.

When we joined the church, I became a part of the choir as an alto and second soprano. Jack Arnold was the choir director, and while Loretta Cordell played piano most of the time, our beloved Deanna Wilkerson sat in for her periodically. Our band included the likes of Mike Cartmell on his saxophone and, of course, Deanna was our powerhouse singer. Her voice resonated through the pain she suffered from the fire that left her face permanently scarred, and with the joy she must have felt to be in a place where she found love.

Jack Arnold chose the 10 to 15 strongest voices of the larger choir to record the music for an album that we all know now as He’s Able. I felt honored at the invitation. Until that moment, I never really thought I could sing.

On the night our group sang, there were probably 20 people in a small studio. I remember feeling very important to be able to be a part of this event. Never had I seen a professional recording studio, and I can still see the panel of instruments that looked like the mother board of a space ship I had seen in a movie. I wondered how the men behind the glass could learn to operate all of the instruments.

We arrived late in the evening, and the session lasted until the wee hours of the morning. When it was time for my section – the Alto section – to record, about four of us went behind the glass and put on our headsets. We were excited and felt like professionals. Jack told us we would hear the lead singer and we would sing the background. When the first sound came through, I was shocked and surprised. Jack gave us a few minutes to listen to the lead so we had an idea of the sound. As we began to sing, Jack stood as he did at choir rehearsal, intently listening for anyone who was off key. In his search for perfection, he never had a problem telling you if something was wrong, although I always heard the love in his voice when he did.

We sang the first track and waited for him to signal whether or not they needed a retake. They did. We had to sing that first track over… and over… and over. I could feel my voice begin to strain, but pushing through, we managed to lay one track down. We had several more to go. He waved for us to come out, and we drank tea and lemon to soothe our voices. By the end of the night, we had probably laid four down tracks. We continued this for a couple of more trips to Los Angeles, until the album was complete.

I feel proud to have been a part of the making of He’s Able. The album represents a time of innocence and optimism. The voices on that it recall a better time and place. I don’t know how many of those voices were lost in Jonestown, but it somehow keeps them alive in a way which we can hear and remember. Besides just their names, we have their voices in joyful power and harmony, and we always will.