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Tanignak Productions is honored to present this web page for:

Jesus-Rock pioneers, 1970 to 1980

L to R: Randy Wilcox, Tom Slipp, Mike Messer, Jim Bartlett live in Spokane, 1971

If you would like to skip the article and go directly to the Order Form for Wilson McKinley CD Releases - Please click on the logo below. A list of tracks for Anthology 1 is available on the sound sample page!

Text by Timothy Smith, Tanignak Productions (revised May 2001)


Their scarce albums can command hundreds of dollars from collectors across North America and Europe. Their mystique seems to grow by the year among their few but avid fans, to a level more befitting a stadium-filling supergroup. They are the Wilson McKinley, a West Coast guitar-based rock group who may just be the first Jesus People rock band. They certainly were the first Christian rock band to be known in Washington, Alaska and throughout the Pacific Northwest. There were, of course, Christian solo artists who produced rock albums, but the Wilson McKinley is the first known band to come out of a secular rock and roll background and into the Kingdom of Heaven, name and all, bringing their instruments and rocking style with them. It is a long and fascinating story, with elements of legend and apocrypha that deserve a good sorting out. For those blessed to have heard them in person or worked with them, this ongoing interest may be a bit unnerving. That is because the Wilson McKinley also tried to adopt a humble, self-sacrificing, "Whole Body Ministry" style that has yet to catch on in the current Christian music industry (more on that later).

Not much in the way of official history of the Wilson McKinley exists, especially after their conversion. Much of what is written (usually in conjunction with a review of one of their albums on somebody’s "Top List Of Collectible Albums" or whatever) is factually wrong or fails to factor in the spiritual side. The band was the musical arm of a ten-year ministry called The Voice of Elijah, that produced a monthly street paper called TRUTH, so some contemporary facts exist. This web article also relies on recent personal interviews with participants in that ministry, and includes some of their perspectives on the true legacy of the band and its music. With that in mind, here is a thumbnail sketch of the most fascinating and elusive of the pioneers of Contemporary Christian Music, the Wilson McKinley of Spokane, Washington.

The Rocking Chair single, 1970. The "A" side featured "Blues Go Home" by Messer.

The Early Years, 1968 - 1970

The Wilson McKinley was already a well-known regional hippie rocker band when they made the jump into the Kingdom of God. Their status in their native Spokane and throughout the Pacific Northwest as an up and coming rock group landed them an anonymous (but national) stint with Alshire Records. They recorded one LP as the California Poppy Pickers, an Alshire Records band put together to make quick knock-offs of current rock hits to sell in supermarkets and drugstores along with Alshire’s ever popular 101 Strings. Listening to the album, one can tell that their vocal and instrumental talents were considerable, but only one song on the album was written by them and showcases their own style. Ironically, the modest, quick-profit LP was about the best studio production they ever enjoyed. With the money they got for that gig, the band recorded a 3-song 45 with all original material. If they were trying to impress the public with their psychedelic licks and hippie persona, this didn’t do it. The pleasant tunes are more reminiscent of a folk group, and featured banjo, acoustic piano, and carefully layered harmonies. The songs were not particularly commercially successful, and were not the ticket to national exposure they had hoped for. They then wrote and worked on a rock opera called "Bread and Butter", but it never went beyond the practice tape stage.

Hand-stenciled logo from the "On Stage" LP

Conversion and "On Stage" LP

In early June of 1970, a group of Jesus People came to town for some street meetings at a local Spokane park. A local minister with a heart for street ministry, Carl Parks, participated in the street meetings, helping the Jesus People to establish a local base of operations. The meetings caught the attention of the members of the band. Curious, several members went to the park and over the course of a couple of visits, ended up getting saved. What’s more, they stashed their instruments and joined with Carl Parks in the street ministry in Spokane. The Wilson McKinley essentially dissolved at this point, one member leaving the group outright (or the other members leaving to join the believers). The new believers felt strongly that the club scene and the rock culture was incompatible with their newfound faith. They left their rock careers at the foot of the Cross, and never expected to pick it up again. The individual members took up their duties in the street ministry led by Parks, and lived communally with the other Christians in the Voice of Elijah Ministries. Although they all participated informally in the music, none expected to ever be on stage as a rock band again. The rest of the story began one day when Parks asked the guys to put together some music for a street meeting he was planning. The exchange (according to Parks) went something like this: "The boys explained that they didn’t know anything except rock, and I said that would be fine." With his simple acceptance, and his faith that their commitment to Christ would still come through in the music, a new genre was born. At first, the songs were often rock arrangements of folk spirituals and rewriting of popular rock numbers with Christian lyrics, but it wasn’t long before original Christian rock compositions joined their repertoire. Mike Messer and Randy Wilcox of the original band were both talented songwriters, as was new member Jimmy Bartlett. When the band members realized that they needed to form a group again, they had immediately thought of Jimmy, whom they had met in Idaho. He gladly joined the band, as both a bassist and one of the lead vocalists. The band had attempted to include spiritual songs in their sets before their conversion, but according to Messer, this was definitely something different, "more of an Acts 2 kind of thing--we were so excited we could hardly wait to get out and share with people about Jesus!"

Graphic from the original pressings of "On Stage"

"On Stage (Jesus People’s Army)", their first LP as believers, was recorded informally on one of their first road trips. Recorded in mono off the soundboard in Pender Auditorium in Vancouver, British Columbia, the album abounds in balance and fidelity problems, missed cues and uneven musicianship. This is due to several factors, not the least of which is that several other members of the community participated in the concert. The loud congas and the country-style steel guitar were both contributed by enthusiastic non-band members. When the boys heard the tape, which was recorded without their knowledge, they were reportedly appalled. Billed as "Powered by the Holy Spirit!" the album does live up to its billing, at least as a reflection of what had personally happened to them. Notwithstanding all its obvious flaws, it is one of the most outstanding testimonies to the joy of conversion that one could hope to find. One exuberant song says, "I know the Lord laid His hand on me!" Another rocker says, "Word’s getting’ out fast, the world ain’t gonna last, one day you’ll look around, find us gone, babe it won’t be that long, yeah!" One of the most miscued and unpolished songs has the sweetest sentiment on the album: "Jesus, I’m standing here with tears in my eyes, and I’m telling you from my heart, that my love for you never dies!" Intermingled with the driving guitar riffs and insistent vocals on the album are spontaneous shouts of "Hallelujah, Jesus!" and "Oh, Jesus, have your will tonight!" Those who had previously seen the Wilson McKinley through a smoky haze in some club just had to have been surprised. There is no denying the spontaneous energy and passion that was now in their performances, and no denying why they were acting that way: "That’s the love of my Savior!"

A write-up in the TRUTH newspaper (November, 1971) featured this spread on the band.

"Voice of Elijah" and Whole Body Ministry

From the information found in old editions of the ministry’s TRUTH newspaper, the entire community of believers was up to their ears in road trips, street ministry, feeding the homeless and studying God’s Word. The band’s first album was promoted heavily in the TRUTH paper, and community members seem to have been enlisted in hand stenciling the album covers. The LP was sold in buff dust jackets made from the backsides of surplus circus posters, and featured a crudely lettered "Wilson McKinley" stenciled in yellow and orange paint. A small "One Way"-style hand symbol with lettering in a circle that said "Jesus People’s Army" in black ink graced the lower right corner of the LP. This is the version that made it to Alaska for my side of the story. Later pressings featured an actual printed cover with artwork and artist credits (a rarity in their ministry).

From the cover of TRUTH, January 1972

The reach of the Voice of Elijah ministry was already far beyond the confines of Washington State, or even the road system. TRUTH featured articles from across the US and Canada, and as far away as Paris, France. I first heard of the Wilson McKinley when someone in the growing fellowship of young Jesus People in Kodiak, Alaska got a copy of the TRUTH paper. We immediately ordered a couple of bundles per month to pass out on the streets. (We really did that--fifteen-degree weather, blowing snow, amazed drunks, annoyed merchants and lots of curious neighbors eyeing us with suspicion but usually taking our TRUTH papers just the same). We even sent them an article about us, and we got published in the January, 1972 issue. That’s me in the front row in the group photo, flashing the "One Way" sign! A sweet old Russian immigrant named Nina Gilbreath, about the only adult that stood by us, ordered a few of copies of the "On Stage" LP and gave one to me. I listened to it a couple of times a day for a month, usually dragging some hapless acquaintance to listen, accompanied by "Can you believe that?" and "This is about Jesus!" That LP was a watershed event for me, inspiring both my Christian walk and an interest in contemporary Jesus music that continues to this day. Stories even more dramatic than this abound, and need collecting. Please send us an e-mail if you have a story to share. The Wilson McKinley had a deep impact on thousands of young Christians in the early 1970s.

The Wilson McKinley at the "I Am" Coffee House, Spokane

Meanwhile, back in Spokane, the style of ministry at Voice of Elijah was developing into what they called "Whole Body Ministry". It was a terrible way to run a band, if your goal was national exposure, radio airplay, or a lucrative recording contract. But it was a noble and rarely tried model of servant ministry. The band was essentially a drawing card for the rest of the ministry team. Their message was clear enough, but to them the real ministry was in the one to one witnessing and counseling being done by the others in the crowds as they sang. This attitude may explain why no album has artist credits or personalized recording information, and why at about this time they turned down an opportunity to audition for (and undoubtedly sign) with a large secular record label. That just wasn’t what they were about. A quote in the TRUTH newspaper from a member of the band at about this time is instructive: "At first I didn’t understand how we could be used to spread the Gospel. I had concluded that rock was evil, and I didn't even want to play it. I quickly found out different. We learned that we could function as a drawing card. …Showing the street people that Jesus isn't bound by a certain mode of music helps to make them understand how much freedom there is in Christ!"

A team member witnesses in a park (from the "Spirit of Elijah" LP back cover)

The growing competence of the Wilson McKinley in the new genre of Jesus Rock meant that they were still at the top of their craft as rock musicians, and their reputation actually grew, even as old fans eyed the new spiritual fervor with suspicion. They would even show up at local rock festivals and boogie along with other bands. It’s just that now, while the Wilson McKinley sang, the staff would be out striking up conversations, and likely as not, praying on the spot with new believers. The Voice of Elijah ministry had a coffee house in Spokane by this time, called the "I Am", located just down the street from a local nightspot which featured secular rock bands. It was a perfect venue for working out new arrangements and testing the effectiveness of new material.

The "Spirit of Elijah" logo, creaded by Dave Joern

The "Spirit of Elijah" LP

In the summer of 1971, the band released its second LP, the critically acclaimed "Spirit of Elijah". Once again, self-production was the rule of the day, but this time the album made a stab at studio production values, and featured a nice stereo mix. The band had almost no budget for recording, but had been practicing daily at the House of David, where the single guys in the community were staying. "Spirit of Elijah" was recorded with no editing or overdubs in an all-night session at the house! Under the circumstances, it is amazing it came out as well as it did, and it reflects the competent musicianship and cohesiveness of a real band. Some blends were a little off, and one or two songs sound like the tape ran out before they stopped playing, but it was a vast improvement in fidelity and quality over "On Stage". Like its predecessor, it preserves well the exuberance of the Jesus People scene, as well as reflecting some deepening spiritual growth. The awkward syntax of the previous album ("He’s never given his children up for Lent"?) was almost entirely absent. For the last time on record, the Wilson McKinley borrowed secular tunes to retread as Jesus music. "He" was borrowed from Moby Grape, while "It’s Up to You" absolutely blew the doors off the original Moody Blues version. Mike Messer’s guitar leads were more imaginative and soaring on this outing than on any of the other LPs, laying down some of the most classy licks of that era. Perhaps even more noticeable was Tom Slipp’s loose and daring drumming, which had been nearly inaudible in "On Stage". If I were to become a drummer, I would want to sound like Tom Slipp on this album! At least one former band member ranks Tom as one of the top drummers of the rock era, and I’m not about to argue. Randy Wilcox’ vocals and rhythm guitar seemed more competent and polished than previous outings. And Jimmy Bartlett’s bass and soaring classic rock vocal on "His Eye is On the Sparrow" makes it a track for the ages. I often find myself wishing other bands sounded like that. Although there are moments of unevenness, some of the finest cuts in early Jesus Music are here. The title cut, "Spirit of Elijah", was described by one early listener as "a musical version of the end of the world," and it very nearly is that, with complex rhythms and dynamics, a classic rock riff or two and a spine-tingling, barely audible opening narration. Randy’s electric piano energizes "Tree of Life", which transitions at mid-point from a fairly uninteresting rock ballad to a driving anthem stating the group’s philosophy of ministry. "I know I’ll never be alone, I know this world it ain’t my home; And so, my eyes are opened up, Living the life of a servant of God is enough!" The band’s flat out boogie on "We are One in the Spirit (They’ll Know We Are Christians)" is sanctified hippie rock at its finest. This in spite of a recap of the first verse that sounds like everyone is out of breath, and the fact that the track stops abruptly in the middle of a riff. Casualties such as this (symptoms of the all-night session, to be sure) just make the LP all the more interesting. No wonder this LP fetches hundreds of dollars in mint condition!

When the original masters for this album were discovered in the spring of 2000, several interesting facts came to light. The most important was that the infamous reverb which nearly drowned side two of the LP was completely absent from the original tape. Another important fact was that the tapes had not greatly deteriorated in their nearly thirty-year absence. Except for some prominent tape hiss (much of which is audible in the LP as well) and a couple of minor dropouts, the tracks sparkle with detail that was never hinted at previously. Getting rid of that extreme reverb was a major plus. It is actually possible to understand the words to "Crown of Glory" and to distinctly hear Tom Slipp's eerie narration on the title track. I am sure that the album will attract many new fans in its original form. It still stands as one of the finest examples of early 1970s garage rock and as a major milestone in Contemporary Christian Music.

A portion of the last vinyl album cover

In The Studio: "Heaven's Gonna Be a Blast"

Barely six months later, in February 1972, the Wilson McKinley released their third and final Jesus Rock LP, a soaring achievement called "Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast". To give you historians a sense of perspective, consider this: In February of 1972, Love Song had yet to release their first, classic Jesus People LP. Larry Norman was readying his first national release ("Upon this Rock" having been dropped by Capitol), "Only Visiting This Planet". And the Wilson McKinley released their third Contemporary Christian album, selling it through the ads in the TRUTH newspaper, which by then had a free street circulation of over 120,000 copies. The fact that a studio was used and that Sound Recordings, Inc. helped in the production didn’t keep the LP mix from major flaws: huge dropouts in the keyboard tracks, a bass track that overpowers the other instruments, and weird EQ on the (sometimes distracting) vocal overdubs. There is a reason for this: the producer at Sound Recordings had never done a rock session before, and quite literally left the band to their own devices. When the time came to do the mixdown, the boys realized that none of them had editing experience. The band members felt that the production snafus were largely a result of their attempts at learning on the fly. Nevertheless, this is their most consistently satisfying LP, showcasing some mature songwriting and performances.

The Wilson McKinley had received a lot of flak from secular radio stations for adapting non-Christian rock tunes instead of relying on their own considerable writing talents. So for the first time, all the tracks on the album were written by members of the band. There’s a slightly countrified feeling to much of this LP, much as "Spirit of Elijah" had a hippie rocker feel to it. Others have compared the album to the Allman Brothers, and there is one instance of the requisite double guitar lead, but the album has a much wider sound than that. "Almighty God", the closing track, is soft jazz in construction (check out Tom’s fabulous drum work). The title cut could easily be a Grateful Dead tune (on a good day) including free-form improvisation and trading of licks, including a memorable bass solo by Jimmy set off by some of the most energetic drumming on the LP. "Then I Fell In Love", with its insistent beat and memorable rock riffs, could easily pass for a Ska song today. Their own philosophy of ministry comes out in "Never Cry No More": "He doesn’t rule with an iron hand; (it ) takes a servant to be a King". The coolest line comes from "Wish I Had the Words to Tell You", written by Jimmy Bartlett: "When the kingdoms turn to ashes, and the pride of man falls down, then the ones who really love Him make a loud and joyful sound!" Vocally and musically the album reaches an emotional peak with the beautiful "Warm Summer Day". This album bears up well under repeated hearing, and I find myself fast-forwarding my cassette of scratchy dubs to these songs first. There is a competence of musicianship that is enjoyable, even inspiring. Mike proves his competence at country and jazz, Tom’s percussion effects give this LP an entirely new flavor, Jimmy’s bass is more daring and creative, and Randy’s liberal use of electric piano fits the songs and the era perfectly. "Spirit of Elijah" may be the Great Eldorado of Jesus Rock albums, but for me, "Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast" is their most meaningful, most consistent and ultimately most enduring offering.

The "Heaven's Gonna Be a Blast" tracks took a giant leap forward when the original master tapes were replayed. The tapes were on 10 1/2 inch reels, recorded at 15 ips, and were in nearly new condition. That in itself was a blessing. But amazingly, the previously noted notorious equalizations and strange dropouts that are present in the album pressings are completely absent from these masters. Apparently, the record company had run off an inferior dub from the masters, and used that for pressing the LPs. It gave the band a lot of grief, and kept this album from achieving the admiration it deserved. In point of fact, the bass does not overpower the mix, and on a couple of tracks actually needed to be boosted a little. In addition, the left-channel dropouts and tape flutter that plagued two of Randy's keyboard introductions and that nearly ruined three of the vocal tracks were products of the record company's poor dub, and are absent in the original. The overall clarity of this project is astounding, and even the overdubbed vocals seem to blend better. Certainly Tom Slipp's drum and percussion work will be heard as though for the first time. I kept hearing things I never had heard before, and had hardly any work to do in remixing. This is, once again for the first time, a great album!

Conclusion: A Legacy

"Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast" was to be their last rock LP, but a smattering of other tracks exist, including a cassette-only country-flavored album called "Country in the Sky", followed in 1974 by their swan song, an instrumental cassette-only release featuring well-known hymns called "Yesterday/Forever". The choice of final project was significant: the Jesus Movement was moving out of the street and into the churches, both by bringing new vitality into the churches and by becoming mainstream itself. The Voice of Elijah ministry was itself beginning to fade into history. In the first place, it was impossible to maintain a communal lifestyle, eating, sleeping and ministering together without a break for years on end. Members of the community felt pressure to get married, start families, hold traditional jobs, go on vacation, do something non-communal. It was very understandable. After ten years of ministry, Carl Parks closed down the Voice of Elijah ministry, to the relief of some and the devastation of others. I suppose there would be no way to close down such a close-knit enterprise without hurting some of the participants. The community was no longer healthy or viable, and the ministry to which it had been so clearly called did not require such an austere and sacrificial model to be successful. It was many years before some members of the community made contact with each other. Even today, some recognize the remarkable accomplishments of that ministry while others repudiate it. As Carl Parks noted, there were always some who were along for the ride, caught up in the excitement of the moment ("Jesus Tripping", we used to call it). But others made it into the Kingdom of Heaven and are there for the duration. And stories keep pouring in of chance meetings in a park somewhere that lead to a passport to Eternity.

What then is the legacy of the Wilson McKinley? What assurance do you and I have, as musicians, as teachers, as leaders, as volunteers of all sorts, that our own work will endure for eternity? The first and most obvious fact is that there is only one kind of believer in Jesus, the kind that "hear His voice" and produce "fruit that endures". You may have been raised on Rock or born listening to pipe organ and chimes. But at some point, you either gave your life to Jesus or you didn’t. If you did, then you have instant and unbreakable kinship with any other believer anywhere and from any generation. If you didn’t, then it’s really a shame how the Wilson McKinley wasted all that talent on all that religious stuff, and you listen to the licks and ignore the Lord. In that case, the story of the Wilson McKinley is a story of squandered talent and wasted opportunities, a lesson in the dangers of going off the deep end. For me as a believer, the story of the Wilson McKinley is the story of some remarkable brethren who were willing to be used and who bloomed where they were planted. And because they were instrumental in bringing new believers into the Kingdom, their legacy will never fade away, because it is of eternal consequence. To the third category of person, neither believer nor heathen, hiding in the trappings of "the movement" (the "Jesus Trippers"), I leave you these thoughts from Carl Parks and Mike Messer. When I asked each of them what it was like to be on the cutting edge of ministry, to have helped to found a whole genre of music, to have been prominent in a major cultural movement, Carl Parks said, "We were never seeking to start a movement. We were only looking for revival." Mike Messer simply said, "It is the believer’s job to find out what God is doing and then go do it."

Addendum: the later Wilson McKinley music projects (Including NEW information from spring 2001 on the newly-discovered tracks from the "I AM" and over an album's worth of practice tapes!)

The later music projects of the band were pretty much a mystery to me until very recently. I had seen a copy of "Yesterday / Forever" at the Calvary Chapel book store in Costa Mesa, California, back in 1975, but didn't buy it. I had heard rumors of other releases, but had never seen and evidence of them. When I first made contact with members of the Wilson McKinley in early 2000, I asked if there really had been a "Country in the Sky" album. Mike Messer assured me that there was, and proceeded to loan me his only copy of an original cassette dub. What a low-fi, hissy and noisy album! Yet the songs were intriguing, memorable and very well crafted. His copy of "Yesterday / Forever" was even worse. Didn't anyone ever clean the heads on that tape duplicator? Most of the tracks were simply unlistenable. If any reissues of those projects were to take place, it would require heroic efforts.

When the original masters surfaced, I was delightedly surprised that the elusive and poor-quality cassette releases of 1973 and 1974 were originally recorded on four-channel high quality reel tape! By the time of these releases, the ministry had moved out of Spokane to a place called "the Ranch". The band had built a small studio, just barely big enough for all their instruments and amplifiers. Carl Parks acquired a TEAC four-channel reel machine, and soon they were putting it to good use. The leadership of the ministry felt a need to broaden the Wilson McKinley's appeal. In addition, both they and Carl felt that on previous recordings the vocals had often been a little on the rough side. These elements coincided as the group recorded its eight-song cassette called "Country in the Sky".

All of the songs have a mellower sound, and all have greatly improved vocal blend (reminiscent of the "Blues Go Home" sound the earlier band had). Jim Bartlett, especially, feels that Carl's tutelage in voice was useful in helping him unlearn a lot of bad habits he had. It's hard to believe that the smooth, mellow voice singing lead on "I'm In Love With Someone" (albeit in too low a key) is the same person that warbled his way through "I Know the Lord" on the live album. In addition, the band took full advantage of multitracking, and stacked their vocals for an awesome blend. "Ship Adrift" and the title track exemplify this. Instrumentally as well there are some outstanding tracks here, with Randy adding dulcimer on two songs, and Tom trying out new percussion effects. Mike's guitar is suitably mellow and bluesy (like his work on the previous album's "Almighty God", and he adds wah-wah pedal for some very clean countrified licks. The songs themselves are often compelling. "Simple Song" features a multitracked vocal by Randy, a simple guitar track and a bass track, and that's all. It works, and grows quickly on the listener. "I See With Different Eyes" has some excellent 12-string guitar work, as well as unusual percussion. The harmonies are reminiscent to many listeners of some of the mellower songs by the Byrds, and the lyrics are among the Wilson McKinley's best. Mike takes a rare solo spot on "God is Everywhere," and minus the original spacey editing, the four channel master shines with sweet sincerity, producing one of the more uplifting songs in their repertoire. And all of this was on an album (cassette) that hardly anyone heard originally. The band's reputation as songwriters will now benefit from the clean, crisp master tapes that showcase these wonderful songs.

Cover photo for Country in the Sky, 1973. L to R: Tom Slipp, Jim Bartlett, Randy Wilcox and Mike Messer

(courtesy of Jim Bartlett)

The infamous instrumental cassette "Yesterday / Forever" project of 1974 was an event that most of the band would just as soon forget. The band was not cut out to play lounge-act versions of hymns. It was like using a racehorse to haul hay. Designed to broaden the appeal of the band to include retirees and older church folk, the album ended up pleasing practically no one. As mentioned, the cassette version was dismal. However, four channel fidelity and Wilson McKinley talent make several of the instrumentals outstanding in spite of the infamy. Taking a cue from Dave Brubeck, the band did a kicking 5/4 time version of the old Jesus People classic "Jesus, Jesus". In addition, they reprised their jazzy "Almighty God" and did such a good job that instrumentally it is the equal of the original. Their calypso take on "Come By Here" (Kum Ba Ya) was interesting enough on the cassette, but in the master tape it disintegrates at the end into a flurry of competing riffs and ends abruptly with a "Wipeout"-style falsetto laugh. That elevates it into one of the band's more interesting outings. But for every good track, there were several horrible ones. "Amazing Grace" is an unrecognizable piece of uninspired fluff, and "How Great Thou Art" sounds like a circus tune when they get through with it. But it wasn't really their fault. The band was happy to try, but it wasn't their sound, and it really couldn't be. As it stood, it was a rather down way to end their illustrious recording career.

Thankfully, there is more. Much more, as it turns out! In early 2001, over five hours of vintage Wilson McKinley tunes surfaced, including: a full album of practice songs (some of their best straight-ahead rock) recorded between their conversion and the November 1970 Gonzaga concert, most of which never got an album version; hours of reasonably good-quality tapes containing some of their best original material and classiest performances, recorded at random by Mike Sheets at the 1971-1972 "I Am" coffee house sets; four outstanding ballads that were cut in the practice stage from the "Country in the Sky" sessions; and retrievable quality live pirate cassettes of sets in 1974 Calgary Alberta and a 1975 "Adams Apple" Fort Wayne Indiana concert (which illustrate the band's on the road persona as a top rock act even after they had been pressured to tone it down in the studio). It is hoped that these will all someday see the light as a full CD of unreleased super garage Jesus Rock! Finally, in 1976, eager to return to their rock roots, the band agreed to be a recording project for a student at a local Spokane college. The campus studio was pretty much state of the art for the time, and the resulting unreleased two-song session is pure Wilson McKinley. They chose two soul/black spirituals to cover for the sessions. The band did outstanding work getting the rock groove on tape once again. Randy lays down some of the best piano licks I've ever heard, and Mike's guitar work is superb. The drumming is tight and clean, as always full of interesting added Tom Slipp-isms. Jim Bartlett's bass playing is as aggressive as ever, but a lot tighter than on some of the earlier recordings. But vocally, the songs exhibit the best of what they had as a high energy garage band and what they learned as a smooth gospel pop band. There are soulful lead vocals by Randy and Jim, but also an incredible series of acapella half-chorus breaks, amazing because no overdubs were used. One track even has a soulful harmonica lick added by one of the other brothers in the ministry. The masters of that session surfaced at the same time as the stereo November 1970 Gonzaga concert tapes,so "Ain't That Good News" and "You Don't Knock" will now be added to the Wilson McKinley story.

Even that isn't really the end, for there was at least one live concert, recorded just before the band's break-up in 1979 with Barney Dasovich on drums, that needs to be heard, if only for the nine previously unheard Wilson McKinley songs in the set. They went out blazing, with absolutely wonderful, vital songs. The band sounds more like a late-70s group, with elements reminiscent of Orleans, Boston, Kansas and others all uniquely blended into that famous Wilson McKinley style. Some samples may sift out through this web page, but eventually the plan is to release key cuts from that concert in a final 1970 to 1979 retrospective anthology (God willing). Stay tuned!

The Wilson McKinley in 1977. L to R: Tom Slipp, Randy Wilcox, Jim Bartlett and Mike Messer

(Photo courtesy Jim Bartlett)

A Personal Postscript:

When I was considering various song titles to include on "The Love and the Mercy", the first album by the Stone Table String Band, it was really a no-brainer to include several from the Wilson McKinley. Bruce, Kelly and I have all been doing "Sparrow" and "He is a Friend of Mine" since the early days, and the latter title is the first song I ever sang lead on, back in the summer of 1971. Dave immediately pressed the latter song into service at his church after helping me record it. These songs have been meaningful to us, and judging by the reaction to our practice tapes, will undoubtedly bless many others through our versions. Obviously I picked up on the message, if not the style, conveyed in the songs, because I can’t even attempt their authentic rock sound. I opt for my authentic folk! We hope to do interpretive covers of other Wilson McKinley songs on future albums, because the songs are very well-liked in concert, and still minister well. A sincere thank-you to the members of the Wilson McKinley and the other servants of God through the years, who have sung the truth, lived the life and borne fruit that remains. May we do the same.

To contact Wilson McKinley, please send your e-mails to Tanignak Productions at:


...Stone Table String Band

...Wilson McKinley SOUND samples.


...Mike Messer

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write This article and website is © 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images are courtesy of the Wilson McKinley or are from old TRUTH newspapers put out by the band's ministry. Text material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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