Gift-Wrapped Stories and the Smooth Sounds of Melvin Johnson

About 18 months ago, I got it in my head to write an essay about the history and significance of the Peoples Temple record album He’s Able, an excellent little recording I’d come across after hearing a few of the tunes in Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple. I spent much of the summer of 2007 talking to former Temple members and others involved with the recording—the owner of the recording studio, the sound engineer—and I’ve been working on the resulting essay off and on throughout the last year. Last November, I contributed a short comment about my writing process.

Not long ago, I scrapped about two-thirds of the essay-in-progress and started out on a different tack. I had simply realized another (I hope better) way of telling the story. I’ve always found this to be a rather fascinating aspect of writing creative nonfiction—the sheer number of ways any given story can be told without losing its essential truth.

In fact, I saw this principle at work last year while interviewing a number of very gracious former Temple members. Several people told the same story in fairly distinct ways. From something as simple as their explanation of the choir’s role in Temple services, it was clear to me who among my subjects most deeply mourned the Temple’s collapse and who leaned closer to regretting their involvement. No one had to mention their feelings overtly; they were implicit in the delivery. The stories we tell come wrapped in sentiment, like gifts. The toughest task of the storyteller is in selecting the appropriate packaging. But the packaging is important. Without it, stories become just loose collections of facts.

The following is a very short section of my essay taken from the cutting room floor, an excerpt of a few paragraphs I’ve opted to set aside as I try out a different approach. It deals not with the stories we tell, but the stories we leave behind, and it suggests my frustration at the absence of packaging while I try and piece together some of the story of Melvin Johnson, one of the most talented performers on He’s Able.

My favorite track on the record takes a hot-buttered-soul spin on Joe South’s country rock anthem “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” It comes in on a little funk-guitar riff, a wah-ka-chicka-chick that’s repeated for few bars before the sax, trumpet, and drums come pouring in on top. Then a man’s voice, smooth and clean and confident: Oooh yea-eah-eah…

And what a voice. A golden throat. Though the choir joins in on the chorus to chant the title line, it’s the soloist that carries this one all the way through, crooning like a long-lost member of the Temptations on a social justice rap. Over a bedrock of piano and brass, he purrs with preacher-like conviction, channeling Al Green on lines like:

Well I may be…common people…but I’m your brother (oh yeah)
and when you strike out…and try to hurt me…it’s hurting you….(mmm hmmm)

According to The Living Word, my soloist’s namewas Melvin Johnson. I found a mimeographed copy of his passport application in the archives, his name scrawled across the top in a toddler’s shaky font. Johnson was a black man, born in Kaufman, Texas in 1945. That would have made him twenty-seven when He’s Able was recorded. My age. On the passport application, he listed his occupation as a cab driver, but a “former employment” field referenced stints as a porter, a domestic worker, a custodian, and a “lumber cutter.” At the time of the application, he lived in San Francisco with his wife Sharon, who, according to the application, he had married in 1961.

And that’s it. Not another word about Melvin or Sharon Johnson in any of the boxes of materials I scoured that day. Not so much as a postcard or a headshot. It seemed almost criminal. Here I was, sitting in a room literally surrounded by the life stories of Peoples Temple members, and that one yellowing scrap of paper was the sole evidence this man had ever existed. Piecing together bios in the archives was like trying to build a castle with just a handful of bricks and a blueprint that obscured the finished product. I was amazed by how hard it was to gather even a few precious facts.

More frustrating still was how the facts, once found, just hovered there, like loose notes sprinkled on a piece of sheet music, detached and unable to form a melody.

Melvin Johnson did not travel to Guyana or die in Jonestown, but he did not escape tragedy. After returning to the kind of street crime that Temple lifted him out of, he died in San Francisco in the early 1990s.

(Brian Kevin is a writer and a graduate student at the University of Montana. He can be contacted at He’s Able is on the web, including the lyrics and downloadable mp3 files, here.)