Sing the song of life … Follow your dreams

Music has always been the driving force in my life. The spark turned to flame my Grandfather Beam, who played piano with the Paul Whiteman band in the 1920’s. The torch was then passed on to my dad who loved to play rockin’ “Boogie Woogie” songs on the piano. He was my inspiration to start taking piano lessons when I was about nine years old. The lessons only lasted about a year, but it was long enough to let me know I wanted more music, just not the way I was being taught.

Around that time in Indianapolis, my parents began going to Jim’s meetings in the earliest incarnation of Peoples Temple. The meetings gave me a first class education in gospel music. Loretta Cordell had a really big influence on my musical ambitions. I was in love with the sounds of that Hammond B-3 Organ combined with those great gospel vocals, cranking out wonderful rhythmic songs. Also, I saturated my listening experience with artists such as Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles and all the rhythm and blues records that I could get my hands on.

While singing in several different vocal groups at Tech High School, I met Jerry Mills through another friend of mine. As it turned out, Jerry was like the brother that I never had. He was an outstanding guitarist, and as our friendship developed, I was finally able to get him to teach me how to play the guitar. I recall him telling me, “ I think it would be easier if you kept your day job” and at one point, after looking at the blisters on my fingers, I thought he might be right. However, due to his persistent tutelage, I was able to become a professional musician years later with him in California.

A couple of months after I got out of high school, my mom, dad and two sisters went to South America with Jim, Marcie and their family. They were going to do missionary work there, or so they said (Ha!), I decided not to go with them, so at 17 I was on my own. While they were gone, I snuck in every nightclub in town to watch the bands play and – along the way – to have a couple of cold ones. I wanted to be in the middle of music and I was determined to do whatever it took to get there. I had a lot of fun following my dream and did a lot of growing up while my parents were gone.

My parents came back from Brazil shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a full year ahead of Jim’s return, and moved to Hayward, California. A few months later Jerry and I decided to go out to California too, since that’s where the real music business was, so we could be one step closer to our dream. We made the move in 1963.

And our dreams really did come true. Both of us were able to find work in the music business. I got married in 1964 to my high school sweetheart. I was able to travel and work with a lot of world class entertainers and musicians. My groups were signed with several top recording labels, and I got to play at the very best clubs, hotels and casinos in California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Nevada.

Eventually, my first wife got tired of all the years of life on the road, and we finally ended in a divorce. It was a very painful time for both of us to get through. Since I was on my own again, I decided that I wanted to study music so I could write, arrange and record music. As fate would have it, I was still on the road when I got a call from my mom. When I told her that I was thinking about going back to school to study music, she said that Peoples Temple would pay for my college education. Not knowing all the details, I took her word for it and said I thought that was a great idea. It was a way to get where I wanted to go. I needed that change in direction, so I quit the band and moved to Ukiah in February of 1969 to study music. Little did I know what was in store for me there.

When I went to my first Temple meeting on a Wednesday night, I felt like a duck out of water. With my long hair, sideburns, a moustache, big bell bottom pants, leather jacket and my two hundred dollar boots, I was the only one there that looked like a hippie. When I walked in and sat down on one of the hard metal fold up chairs, everyone in the place eyeballed me, and I could just hear them thinking, “How in the hell did he get in here?” All of the men there had short hair, were clean shaven and wore very conservative clothes. At that point I didn’t know if I was going to stay in Ukiah or not, even if college was free.

I was not into religion at all. I was into smoking dope and having fun. But I did like what I saw going on there to help young people straighten out their lives and get them off of hard drugs. I saw the message of helping the downtrodden people of the world in action, and that was what finally made me want to stay and try to help others. After I was there a couple of weeks, Jim asked me to work with Loretta to try and reorganize the choir and band.

I remember the first choir practice I held. I listened intently to most of the arrangements and thought there was a lot of work to do, but I knew everything could be much better. The challenge before me was to make the music sound as professional as possible. There was some great raw talent to work with, and I was totally inspired and committed.

For a while the music was a sounding a little edgy, so we began digging into the arrangements. It was like starting from scratch. We had to tear all the songs apart and teach everyone the parts they should be singing and playing. And of course, there was some grumbling from a few who really shouldn’t have been in the choir but who loved to sing. We had to do the best we could with what we had to work with, until they either caught on or dropped out. It took a few months and a lot of afternoon and late night rehearsals, but we starting to sound better and better. As we were practicing, I could see a sense of pride building in all the members of the choir and band. We couldn’t wait to perform, so we could show off each new song that we had worked so hard on together, It wasn’t long until Peoples Temple started rockin’. The audiences loved us. I’m not sure exactly how long it took or when it happened, but the choir and band finally began to realize, we were really getting good!

It took us a couple years or so of performing and developing all of our repertoire before the whole idea of cutting an album came up. As I recall, I talked to Jim and he thought it would be a good idea, We could not only promote Peoples Temple with music, but sales of the record would make money for the church.

Once the decision was made, I started organizing all the details. Looking back over all the years of my recording career, I realize just what an enormous undertaking He’s Able was. The first difficult decision was picking the songs to put on the album. We ended up going with twelve songs from all we had. After we had chosen all the songs, singers and musical arrangements, we went in to rehearsal polishing mode, for who knows how long. To put this whole project into perspective, everyone in the choir and band was either working a full time job, going to college full time, traveling on buses or in meetings till at least twelve o’clock at night. So as you can see, there was very little time to devote to the Temple’s musical program. Working under those circumstances, I’m amazed we accomplished as much as we did. I guess it was because music was one of the only escapes we had, to do something we truly loved.

I was referred to Producers Workshop in Hollywood through one of the guys I used to work with in my old band “Stark Naked And The Car Thieves.” At that time in L.A. they were one of the best recording studios. They had sixteen track recording, which back then was the best technology available. I was able to work out an hourly rate with them and book some time to start recording the band tracks.

I remember the first recording session for the band. It was late at night after a Los Angeles Temple meeting. We rolled up in one of our Greyhound buses outside Producers Workshop, looking a little out of place on Hollywood Boulevard as we got unloaded and set up in the studio. None of the band except me had ever been in a real recording session before, I had to laugh at our teenage drummers. They were so excited and hyper, they couldn’t wait to get started. They thought they had died and gone to heaven.

I wanted to cut all the band tracks first, to all the songs. It was much easier to stay organized and get more work done with smaller numbers of people in the studio. Spirits were high and we had a lot of fun playing together. And as always, there were several musical adjustments as we went along. With the rigorous work and travel schedules we all had, it took several sessions to get all the instrumental tracks finished.

The next step was recording all the choir parts. Again, we could only take about thirty or so choir members in the studio. There just wasn’t enough space for everyone to fit into the room. Everybody had their little head phones on singing their hearts out to the imaginary audience in the microphones. We did have a blast. I can’t remember exactly how many sessions we spent working on and recording all the vocal parts, but we finally got them together.

Before we did all the final vocals, we had junior choir night. Don Beck had them all polished up and ready to go. I was thinking it was going to be a real fiasco with all the kids in the studio. I had already envisioned them running around tripping over microphone cords, dropping their headphones and knocking over microphone stands. But “O Ye of little faith.” To my total amazement, they marched in like little ladies and gentlemen, put on their headphones and were ready for business. They were all watching Don like little trained circus seals, ready to follow his every command. It wasn’t long before they had “Welcome” recorded completely perfect and we sent them home to bed.

One of the last steps in the completion of the album was to record all the lead singers. It was really great once the vocals were on to hear the finished version of each song. There were some tense moments, however, for the engineers at Producer’s Workshop, the night Jim made his “grand” appearance to sing “Down From His Glory” with his entourage of “soldiers” guarding him. The engineers were probably thinking, “There’s no need for bodyguards here, the microphones aren’t going to attack you.” Somehow we got through the evening. Jim sang his song as only he could, changing a few crucial lyrics to make sure everyone knew he was God, and then marched out of the studio with his uniformed followers right behind him, like nothing ever happened. You could hear a sigh of relief from the engineers booth as the door shut behind them.

The entire endeavor was worth all the months of hard work, to finally see the end of the project getting closer. All that was left to do was to mix the album and have it pressed. I remember the day we introduced the album at a meeting and how excited everybody was to buy one. He’s Able sold thousands of copies, even before the Temple’s tragic end.

Looking back, I’ve been privileged to know so many wonderful people there and work with some really fine musicians and singers. It’s nice to realize that after all these years, the music we created still seems very special to many people who were never a part of the Peoples Temple experience. I would like to think that in some small way He’s Able could be a lasting inspirational tribute to all those people that lost their lives that day in November 1978.

(Jack Arnold Beam’s collection of writings for this site may be found here.)