Of the many thoughtful efforts to treat members of Peoples Temple as well-intentioned, ordinary folks, Brian Kevin’s Songs (Largely) In The Key of Life is perhaps the most personal and touching. Although his focus is on He’s Able, the album we in the Peoples Temple Choir recorded in early 1973, he generalizes from that particular experience to a consideration of what all of us in the church hoped to accomplish by our day-to-day commitment to the Temple’s transcendent goals. To paraphrase Brian’s most compelling observations, our “good intention” can be heard “plain as day in the first up-tempo piano solo” and “everything that drew [us] in, everything [we] wanted to accomplish, everything [we] failed at . . . comes out of your stereo speakers like a sunbeam through a stained-glass window. And it sort of breaks your heart.”
I played tenor sax and, along with our trombonist Rick Cordell, made up the Temple choir’s brass section. My solo may be heard in “Set Them Free,” a song written and arranged, as were most of the songs on the album, by Jack Beam, our choir director. His sister, Joyce, one of the album’s featured soloists, sang it beautifully.
Given the choir’s travel and engagement schedule, recording the album was, in some ways, just one more job. Nevertheless, I warmly welcomed anything which offered escape from the Temple’s endless public meetings and horrific planning commission sessions. I soon found the recording sessions of He’s Able altogether exciting in their own right.
On the Saturday evenings we were recording, we’d load up the choir bus immediately after the afternoon Temple meeting in Los Angeles and head off to the Producers’ Workshop Studio in Hollywood. As I remember it, the studio was a cramped two-room affair with a couple of padded barrel chairs as its only concessions to comfort. We’d begin our sessions at about 6:00 PM and remain there until we’d completed the scheduled cuts, usually about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
I imagined we’d beamed up to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise when I first walked into the studio. I’d never seen such an extraordinary collection of sound and recording equipment. It all seemed so, well, professional. The studio used ten-track recording tape for our sessions. This allowed us to lay down a separate recording of each element of the choir and gave our choir director considerable flexibility in mixing the many components of each song. A relatively limited number of voices or instruments were required for each track, so only a few of us were needed at any given session. I reached the high point of my musical career when I donned the studio’s padded earphones and stood alone in the recording booth warming up my Selmer for my big solo.
Any consideration of He’s Able would be pretty weak if it failed to acknowledge the contribution of Jack Beam, the album’s gifted creator and Peoples Temple Choir Director.
Like so many other Temple families, the Beams were a photo op for anyone wishing to depict the typical values-oriented Midwestern family. They had been in the Temple since its founding. My earliest memory of anyone in the church, apart from Jim Jones, is of Jack’s father, Jack Beam, Sr. A larger than life figure with a striking resemblance to Nikita Khrushchev, Jack Sr. coupled a winning personality with a raconteur’s talent. As for Jack’s mother, Rheaviana, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more competent. Had she lived to appear on any of today’s “reality” shows, she’d have made $millions. Joyce was – still is – beautiful, kind, and capable. Ellie was the much adored if mischievous littlest sister, about fifteen years younger than Joyce.
For much of my early life in the Temple, Jack, the family’s eldest child, was the mysterious prodigal son. Although Jack grew up in the Temple, he left to pursue a career as a rock musician after graduating high school in 1961. While “outside,” he created the cheerily-named club band, Stark Naked And The Car Thieves, and played successfully in venues throughout California and Hawaii.
In the years Jack was playing professionally, Jack Sr. would often speak admiringly of him and relate stories of the young rocker. These were like tales of the Gold Rush to an aspiring musician like me. As a result, I was already a little intimidated when Jack reclaimed his Temple membership in 1968, and I (at 19) first met him. Every inch a blonde Paul McCartney complete with Fu Manchu mustache, hip floral shirt and red on black bell-bottoms, Jack pretty much fulfilled my image of the bad ass Rock Star. We became, and are to this day, fast friends.
As the primary creative force behind the choir and “He’s Able,” Jack was both enormously talented and uncompromisingly demanding. He had the knack of identifying our best talents (less than modest in my case) and then showcasing them to their best effect and artistic power. On the other hand, if choir practice were scheduled for two hours, he might just keep us there three or four or five hours (I forgive ya, Jack, but really). Ordinarily casual and friendly in his relationship with others, when it came to our performances, Jack was an unrelenting perfectionist. No detail was too small to pass unnoticed by his practiced eye and no mistake too inconsequential to escape his despairing glance.
To be sure, the choir was the creation of more than any single individual; it reflected the talent and genius of all its participants. Many Temple members of all races came out of musically expressive spiritual traditions and displayed astonishing talent. We all remember Deanna Wilkerson, who was far and away the most artistically gifted of any of us, and, in my opinion, someone with as much talent as that of any Motown artist. For all these reasons and many more, the People Temple Choir was in itself extraordinary, and in its appeal, a wonderful introduction to the Temple and a symbol of all the greater organization wished to be.
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The Peoples Temple Choir was, in musical parlance, a “head band”: all our music was sung and played by ear. Jack would draft or copy the lyrics and pick out the melody lines on his guitar before our choir practices. During practice, he would hum or sing each lead, harmony, or instrumental part, phrase by phrase, to the respective member, who would then repeat it until he or she had it down cold. This process gave the music a linear flow, absent in other “church” or even classical choral arrangements. Inasmuch as all our pieces were memorized in this way, and our solos were improvised, the music had a felt emotional and organic quality.
While the record itself is entertaining even now, it’s difficult to appreciate the transformative appeal of the choir in person and in full voice. We came at our audiences like a soulful all-consuming wave of sound, and we swung like (what I imagine would be) Duke Ellington’s own heavenly chorale. We were invited to perform all over California. Of course, Jim Jones conditioned each acceptance on his being given an opportunity to speak.
Ultimately, remembrances of the Peoples Temple Choir and its recorded expression in He’s Able must sadly, so very sadly, bring to mind and heart alike, feelings of longing, sorrow and loss. With little more than a glance at the original album jacket, any Temple survivor will be reminded that nearly all those who participated in the creation of He’s Able died on November 18, 1978. Like mine, Jack’s family (except his sister Joyce), and that of his wife, Cyndie, died in Jonestown on its final day. Memories cascade as I look over the album.
And it’s never far from my thoughts that little more than five years after the children sing the opening number, “Welcome,” they were all gone. More than anything else, that breaks my heart.