The Wilson McKinley Story

The Story of the Pioneering Jesus Rock band, Wilson McKinley

Revised and Expanded for their Fiftieth Anniversary, 2020

By Timothy Smith, from Original Sources

Introduction to the 50th Anniversary of the Wilson McKinley as a Jesus Rock Band, and the 30th Anniversary of This Article

Those familiar with the articles on will know that the Wilson McKinley is a group that I mention frequently. Their music and their ministry were a huge influence on me in the 1970’s. Then in the late 1990’s, I had the privilege of releasing their music for the first time on legitimate, band-sponsored CD albums, from original master tapes. After 50 years of listening to their music and many years of reading their Facebook posts, I still find them to be compelling both musically and spiritually. It has been a great honor to be associated with them for three decades. I’m basically just a dedicated fan and a brother, but somehow this website and those CD’s have helped to bring them, and their ministry, to the attention of many more people, literally across the planet.

I never got to see the Wilson McKinley perform live, and didn’t even have all of their albums until a year or so before I began a hunt for their master tapes. But in that search, a lot of unreleased material came my way, much of which they had forgotten about! So now, as I prepare their latest CD, of live performances from 1970-1979, I present a newly-updated version of their story. They spent their ten year ministry serving those who were right in front of them, never able to fully represent their music on albums, and unwilling to drop their street ministry for a “career change” to professional recording artists with some big label. How surprised they would have been then to know that their music would still be blessing people half a century later!  

Original Introduction (1999, revised 2020):

Their scarce vinyl LP’s, released privately through concerts and mail order five decades ago, can now command hundreds of dollars from collectors across North America, Europe and Asia. Their mystique seems to grow by the year among their few but avid fans, and every year more people are drawn to their vital music and compelling story. They are the Wilson McKinley, a West Coast guitar-based rock group who were one of the first Jesus People rock bands. For those who lived in Washington State, Alaska, and across the Pacific Northwest, they were certainly the first Jesus Rock band they’d ever heard.

In the early 1970’s, there were solo artists who produced Christian Rock. But the Wilson McKinley seems to be unique: the first known band to come out of secular rock and roll and into Jesus Music name and all, bringing their instruments and rocking style with them. Theirs is a fascinating story, a moving testimony, and as pertinent now as when it was taking place. If you were one of the people who were blessed enough to witness the band in person, or worked with them, this ongoing interest may be a bit unnerving. That is because the Wilson McKinley tried to adopt a humble, self-sacrificing, “Whole Body Ministry” style that has sadly yet to catch on in the current Christian Music industry (more on that later).

The band logo for the Spirit of Elijah LP is the most common one for the Wilson McKinley.  Artwork for the band and the Truth newspaper was often the work of drummer Tom Slipp.

The Wilson McKinley’s written history (until 1999 when this article was first posted) was sketchy at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, usually coming in the form of short blurbs about their LP’s on somebody’s list of the “Top 100 Christian Rock Albums of All Time” or even “Most Intriguing Psych-Rock (or Garage Rock) of the Seventies” or whatever.  Most often, however, the available information has failed to recognize the significance and importance of their spiritual side, which to the band is what they were really about.  The Wilson McKinley was part of a ten-year itinerant street ministry and Christian community called “Voice of Elijah,” and much of the information in this article is drawn from their ministry’s newspaper, Truth.  I also was able to interview band members, ministry leaders, and folks who were impacted by their ministry over the years. As a result, I hope I have produced here not only an accurate account of their remarkable ministry, but also a clear explanation of the true legacy of the band and its music.

The Early Years, 1968-1970

The Wilson McKinley were already a well-known regional hippie-rocker band when they made the jump into the Kingdom of God. Although well-equipped to play almost any style of rock, the early rehearsal tapes of the Wilson McKinley shows a band heavily influenced by the Country-Rock that was common at the time. However, their improvisational style and aggressive approach, especially in their live concerts, gave them an edgy, gritty side that had already garnered them considerable regional popularity and had even caught the attention of several national music outlets.  

One such company, impressed by their ability to competently play all types of rock, the budget label Alshire (home of the ubiquitous 101 Strings franchise) hired them  in 1969. They tapped the Wilson McKinley to be their in-house band for an album called Honky Tonk Woman, recording under Alshire’s proprietary name as the “California Poppy Pickers.” Other releases under that name featured other unknown bands; this is the only release that had the participation of the Wilson McKinley.  The LP that went to supermarket bargain bins in early 1970 was designed by Alshire for a quick profit from knock-off tunes, but ironically may have been the Wilson McKinley’s best-recorded album.  Even amidst all the low-budget covers, the Wilson McKinley somehow managed to shine, especially on the one original song permitted by Alshire, a scorcher called “Brick Walls.” That cut alone is worth the price of the album, and is one of the more obscure pieces of the band’s history.

The Alshire release of the “California Poppy Pickers” This release featured the original lineup of The Wilson McKinley. Below: a snippet of two of the cuts from the 1969 “Honky Tonk Women” LP:

Chains of Love / Brick Walls

For their part in the Alshire adventure, the Wilson McKinley earned enough to record a three-song single, featuring songs written by Randy and Mike.  If they were trying to impress the public with their rock bona-fides, this release didn’t do it.  The pleasant A-side tune, called “Blues Go Home,” written by Mike, is clearly folk-rock.  It features acoustic piano, beautifully layered harmonies, and even a touch of banjo.  Although the tune grows on you with each hearing, it did not attract much radio airplay, and didn’t match the band’s live persona.  The flip side has Randy’s soulful “Last One Asleep” and Mike’s “When I See Her Smile” (which is constructed and mixed like a mid-60’s oldie).  The pleasant but unfocused record was not commercially successful, and wasn’t the ticket to national fame they had hoped for.  Undaunted, the band went into a studio in Spokane and worked on a rock opera called “Bread and Butter,” which never went beyond the practice tape stage.  But much greater things were in store.

One incident that took place around this time demonstrates how God was working on their hearts.  They were offered a deal with a major record label, but only if they would tone down their spiritual songs.  The band by this time was including a lot of songs such as “Jesus is Just Alright With Me” and other Byrds numbers, and even songs they had written that had spiritual messages, into their sets, and the label would have none of it.  The band held a meeting and unanimously voted to reject the offer in favor of more artistic freedom. So even then, God was obviously working on members of the band.

The Wilson McKinley’s single on Rocking Chair Records, released in 1970. The other side featured “Blues Go Home,” by Mike Messer

Blues Go Home sample

Personal Conversion and the Rebirth of the Band

In early June of 1970, a group of Jesus People (“street Christians”) came to town for some street meetings at Highbridge Park in Spokane. A local minister with a heart for street ministry, Carl Parks, participated in the meetings, helping the Jesus People to establish a local base of operations.  The meetings were the talk of the town across Spokane, and eventually 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 becoming followers of Jesus. Convinced now that the rock-band lifestyle was no longer for them, the three new Christians loaded up their instruments into the band’s touring van and parked them in the driveway of the fourth member, for him to dispose of as he saw fit.

Whether the one member left the band or the other three left to join the believers, the Wilson McKinley essentially dissolved at this point. “And they left everything and followed Christ” (as Peter, James and John had done in the first century). They joined Carl Parks and the street Christians as they witnessed across the city, convinced that they had left rock and roll forever. The three new believers felt strongly that the club scene and the rocker lifestyle were incompatible with their newfound faith, and what’s more, they didn’t miss it.  Mike Messer describes their experience as sheer joy and confidence in their Lord, as they were filled with a sense of fulfillment and purpose they had never known before. They left everything to follow Jesus, and realized that what they left behind wasn’t all that much after all.

The individual former band members took up their duties in the street ministry led by Parks, and lived communally (and frugally) with the other believers in the organization which was now known as Voice of Elijah ministries.  Although they all participated in the music and worship, none of them ever expected to be on stage as a rock band again.  The next step in their journey was as low-key, and as accidental as one could imagine. Carl Parks asked the guys if they would be willing to put together some music for a street meeting he was planning. The exchange (according the Parks) went something like this: “The boys explained that they didn’t know anything except rock, and I said that would be fine.”  With this simple acceptance, and his confidence that their commitment to Christ would still shine through the music, the Wilson McKinley’s role as pioneers in a new genre began.

At first, the songs that the Wilson McKinley came up with were rock arrangements of folk spirituals and rewritings of current rock hits to feature Christian lyrics.  But it wasn’t long before original Christian Rock compositions joined their repertoire. They quickly realized that they needed to reconstitute a full rock band if they were to do justice to the music ministry they had begun. Jimmy Bartlett, bassist and vocalist of Sleepy John, an Idaho band, had impressed Mike a good six months before the Wilson McKinley’s conversion.  Jimmy was a believer, but working in a secular band. His joyful faith had a great impact on Mike. So soon after they decided to be a band again, the remaining three, Mike Messer, Randy Wilcox, and Tom Slipp, drove down to Lewiston, Idaho, and picked up Jimmy Bartlett. On the drive home, Mike remembers, the band really melded together, and had a powerful, Spirit-filled praise and worship time all the way home. One band member says he couldn’t even speak when they got home. They were being prepared for a remarkable ministry in the years to come.

Jimmy took over the job of bassist, became one of the lead singers, and joined the others in writing new, Christ-centered rock songs. Mike, Randy and Jim were all talented songwriters, and soon the new songs were just pouring out of them. Practice tapes from late summer, 1970, show prototype versions of several tunes that appeared on later albums. Unlike before conversion, when the Wilson McKinley regularly included spiritual songs in their sets (that was a popular trend started by groups such as the Byrds) this was definitely something different, as one of them remarked, “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.”  At a concert at Gonzaga University in late fall, 1970, Mike introduced a song by admitting that they had been on ego trips as rock musicians.  Then he told the crowd about his love for Jesus and how different everything was now.  The lasting fame and influence which they had so desperately sought after finally came when they stopped looking for it and just served Jesus with their music.  

One song from a practice tape from late 1970 (included on the Now I’m a Jesus Freak anthology) takes on the excitement of those days, admonishing onlookers that this was no drug trip, political movement or passing fad, but something entirely different:

“Jesus came in, cleansed me from sin,

And now I don’t have to fake it!

It’s all right; it’s Jesus Christ!”

The On Stage LP

The Wilson McKinley’s first album as believers would most likely have stopped their career cold if they still possessed the old rock-star attitude, because its flaws seemed to overshadow its strengths. But it went on to have influence far beyond the band’s musical ability, and far beyond what such a humble effort should ever have accomplished, because of the spirit and excitement which overpowers all of the album’s weaknesses. On Stage (Jesus People’s Army) was recorded in mono on an old reel to reel without the band’s knowledge, and with no particular setup or concern for fidelity and balance. The band had gone to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a gig at the Pender Auditorium, in late June of 1970, having only recently added Jimmy Bartlett to the lineup, and still possessing only a short and limited number of songs. In addition, other members of the ministry joined in for a happy hodgepodge in what must have been an amazing concert to witness, if only for its energy and sincerity.

The On Stage album abounds in balance and fidelity problems, missed cues, dropouts and crude edits, and features several songs of (to be very kind) only limited value. Due to haphazard mic placement, the loud congas and the country-style steel guitar heard on several tracks (from other members of the ministry) nearly buried both Mike’s lead guitar and Tom’s signature drumming. Jimmy’s bass sounds like a microphone was placed too close to an overly-loud bass amp, which is probably exactly what happened.  

When the boys heard the tape, which was recorded without their knowledge, they were understandably appalled. But the LP was released nonetheless, billed as “Powered By the Holy Spirit!” In that sense it lives up to its billing, because it is one of the best testaments to the joy of conversion that one could hope to find. Mixed among the sometimes raucous music are spontaneous cries of “Hallelujah, Jesus!” and “Oh, Jesus, have your will tonight!”  The original songs have some of the same insistent exuberance (in a line quoted in Time Magazine):

“Word’s getting out fast, the world ain’t gonna last,

One day you’ll look around and find us gone,

Baby, won’t be that long, yeah!”  

Anyone who had ever seen the Wilson McKinley through the smoky haze of some club would have been very surprised. But anyone who was even slightly curious about what this Jesus Movement thing was would have gotten an earful that night!  Yet the sweetest sentiment on the album comes from one of the most miscued and unpolished songs 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!”  There’s no denying the passion that was now part of the Wilson McKinley’s performances, and no denying why they were acting that way: “That’s the Love of my Saviour!” (Hear Randy’s beautiful remake of that song on disc 2 of Now I’m a Jesus Freak).

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 were enlisted to hand-stencil the album covers. The LP was sold in buff dust jackets made from the backsides of surplus circus posters and other recycled materials, and featured a crudely-lettered “Wilson McKinley” stenciled in yellow and orange paint.  A small “One Way” 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 of the LP that made it to Alaska for my side of the story. Later pressings lost the “Jesus People’s Army” slogan and eventually featured an actual printed cover with a beautiful band caricature and artist credits (a rarity in their ministry). Artwork elements from both early and late versions of On Stage were used in the production of the double-CD anthology Now I’m a Jesus Freak, as an acknowledgement of the wide influence of that first album.

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 promptly 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 the newspaper 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 who stood by us, ordered a few 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 with me, accompanied by “Can you believe that?  This is a rock song about Jesus!”  That LP was a watershed event for me, inspiring my Christian walk, my own music ministry. The band’s rewrite of “He is a Friend of Mine” is the first song I ever sang lead on in 1971, and was covered on my Stone Table String Band album. Stories far more dramatic than mine abound, and need collecting. If you have a testimony of those days, send me an email.  The Wilson McKinley had a deep and lasting impact on thousands of young Christians in the early 1970’s.

Right: Carl Parks, the leader of Voice of Elijah. 1973 photo from the Truth paper.

“The boys explained that they didn’t know anything except rock, and I said that would be fine.”  June, 1970 – thus beginning the Wilson McKinley’s storied career as Jesus Rock pioneers!

“We were never seeking to start a movement. We were looking for a revival!” – quotes by Carl Parks, from a 1982 phone interview.

The On Stage LP was released in 1970. Left: the original, hand-stenciled cover, made apparently from circus posters and other recycled fiberboard. Right: still available throughout the band’s ten year ministry, by the mid-70’s the album featured attractive caricatures of the band members. Below: the hand-stenciled first logo of the band.

Recorded in mono, without the band’s input or approval, and showing all the rough edges of a new lineup and new material, the LP still reached legendary status as the first Jesus Rock album released by a rock band. And its most attractive feature is the raw energy, spiritual intensity, and spontaneous joy in evidence in many of its tracks. Below are two tracks from a mint LP (since no masters exist). On this LP, and for the first few months of touring, the band was joined by Lou St. Cyr, a percussionist who played congas. That sound is one of the memorable features of this album and the Gonzaga concert in November of 1970.

(Sample) A traditional spiritual: I Know The Lord   – This track shows a little of the band’s future versatility and improvisational skills, in evidence in the live tracks from the “I AM” coffee house. This track is on the Now I’m a Jesus Freak CD.

(Complete) An original song: Coming to Take His Children  – There are three surviving live recordings of this song, all with garbled lyrics. This is the first release of the edited and corrected LP version, which had an obvious tape splice.

(Sample) Original song: You Gotta Hear About My Friend  The one On Stage track that got some local airplay, and quoted in Time magazine, from the mix on the Message Brought to Us  CD (from a mint LP – no masters exist for On Stage).

Top Left: the Truth paper’s masthead. Top Right: Nina Gilbreath, the wonderful saint of a lady who supported us kids so much, and gave me my first Wilson McKinley album, with two Russian refugees she was sponsoring, in her home in 1971. Left: a blurb on the front of the January, 1971 issue of Truth advertising an article about the Kodiak Jesus People (I’m in the front on one knee, flashing the “One Way, Jesus” sign.

Top Left: a photo in Truth, shortly after their first LP, said, “The thundering, driving sounds of ‘solid’ Gospel Rock music as performed by the Wilson McKinley has built up quite a following, although it is true what they say: ‘It’s all Jesus, man!’” Top Right: A description of Voice of Elijah Ministries’ “Full Body Ministry.” Right: another 1970 photo said, “They’re playing for Jesus now!”

The Voice of Elijah Organization and Whole Body Ministry

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 selfless and rarely-tried model of servant ministry. The band was essentially a drawing card for the rest of the ministry team.  Their music was loud and attention-grabbing, and their message was clear thanks to increasingly competent songwriting. But to the band members, the real ministry was in the one-to-one witnessing and counseling being done by the other team members as they scattered through the crowds as the Wilson McKinley 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. The label offered a huge package, a two-record deal and a major tour, with a large advance. But the band said no. This decision, they say, was easy. The Wilson McKinley had been called to the streets, they had been called to proclaim a clear message of faith in Jesus, and they had also been called to play Rock and Roll.  And the only way for all of this to happen at once was on their own, as part of a larger ministry.

A quote in the Truth newspaper from a band member 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!”  

Even as the Wilson McKinley became more comfortable in this new genre of Jesus Rock, they were also at the top of their craft as rock musicians. Their reputation actually grew, although old fans eyed the new spiritual dimension with considerable suspicion. The band even showed up at local rock festivals to boogie with the other bands, but now the rest of the staff were out there in the crowd making contacts, witnessing, and even leading people to the Lord in the middle of a rough-and-tumble rock concert! Live recordings from “secular” venues show how free they were with their honest witnessing. When told at the “Moby” rock festival in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho that they could not preach from the stage, they asked, “Can we still introduce our songs?” The audio of that concert shows some very creative descriptions of the songs!

Another important venue for the band and the other ministries of Voice of Elijah was their new coffeehouse at Main and Browne in Spokane, just down the road from a local nightspot which featured secular rock bands. The “I Am” coffeehouse, in a vacated one-story retail facility, was the perfect place for working out new arrangements and testing the effectiveness of new material before their road trips. That was not the band’s motivation. They always ministered to whomever was right in front of them.

Some of the best performances that were ever recorded by the band were laid down when the Wilson McKinley was just having an average night at the “I Am”, but some high school kid with a reel to reel showed up and taped them. Michael Sheets, who graciously put his finishing touches on the artwork for Now I’m a Jesus Freak, contributed half a dozen tracks to that project. He had been one of those young men with a Roberts tape deck, and provided some of the dazzling performances he had recorded. The band was always at their best in front of a live audience. Yet the unofficial recordings from the “I Am” show that the band was energetically focused on sharing the Good News as clearly as possible. Many of the songs they sung at the “I Am” were shared from group to group far beyond the boundaries of their tour bus, blessing many young believers across the planet. And the songs are about to travel outward yet again!

The Fiftieth Anniversary live project, Rolled Away the Stone, features an amazing forty-five minutes of live performances from the “I Am,” recorded over a two-year period by several young people with open reel tape decks. It’s doubtful that the band knew or minded that they were being recorded, and if they did, it didn’t translate into grandstanding (or nervousness either). The high level of musicianship in the tracks is usually in fine stereo thanks to open reel technology. And their clear and direct witness for Christ leaves us a clear audio testimony of genuine revival. As great as it is to release classic rock from a legendary band, the music actually uplifts, blesses and edifies. It is exactly what they were intending to do.

Scenes from the “I Am” coffeehouse at Main and Browne in downtown Spokane, 1971-1972. All photos are from various issues of the Truth paper. The site is now a parking lot. The live album: Rolled Away the Stone features over 45 minutes of stereo tracks from the “I Am” as well as tracks from Gonzaga University and other venues from 1970-1979.

The Spirit of Elijah LP

In late summer of 1971, the band released its second LP, the critically acclaimed Spirit of Elijah.  In both graphics and audio quality the album was light years from On Stage, and the performances and songwriting reflected the talents of a very solid rock band. The back story of the LP’s recording session is the stuff of legend. Collectors around the world eagerly seek out the original records, frequently shelling out big bucks for them. In fact, since this website published the original article in 1999, someone in Europe has seen fit to release a pirate CD version of that album, replete with quotes from my original article! As unfair as that is to the band (and who would deliberately steal Jesus Music anyhow?) it is a compliment of sorts to a record that is easily one of the top 100 Jesus Rock albums of all time.

So here’s the story: several of the guys were living in a small two-bedroom bungalow they called the House of David, practicing frequently, when they made arrangements with Terry Sheets to bring his recording equipment by for a new album project. Terry brought in his reel to reel deck, mixer and some microphones, and in an all-night session in April of 1971, the Spirit of Elijah album was born. Terry was a great engineer with a good ear, but previously bulk-erased tape, a microphone pot left open, the use of ordinary PA microphones, and the limitations of recording in the tight space of the House of David’s living room are what give this album its classic, raw, immediate sound.

When the closest guitar would crank up, the drum set would rattle. Some of the vocal mixes are a little off, the volume of the bass amp varies widely, and there are several instances of little imperfections that are very noticeable in the unedited reel tapes. One of the songs runs out of tape a few seconds before the band stopped playing, another has pitch variations as the reel caught a bad patch of tape. And it all sounds perfectly fantastic, a classic, “fly on the wall” testament to the Wilson McKinley at the top of their craft. The LP featured spacey double-exposed photos tinted bright pink, blue and purple, and a nifty graphic designed by Dave Joern.  But the record company had minimal quality control, the final disc was stereo-reversed and off pitch from the masters, and one side of the LP had tons of reverb while the other side had none. But this album hit the Christian music scene like an A-Bomb and continues to attract new fans today. What a treasure those live audiences were able to go home with for a mere four bucks!

The tracks of Spirit of Elijah are almost uniformly strong, as Rock and Roll and as Christian witness. The band took its last foray into rewriting secular material on the first two tracks, revising Moby Grape’s “He” and the Moody Blues’ “It’s Up to You.”  The latter track mimics the original guitar licks, but manages to veer as far away from the genteel sweetness of the Moody Blues as could be imagined, with an edgy, almost urgent treatment. Their version made it into the playlist at the “I Am” for several years. The other “cover” song was a rock rebirthing of Fr. Peter Scholtes’ anthem, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love,” known popularly as “We are One in the Spirit.” Here again, the edgy vocals and driving instrumentation of the Wilson McKinley combine to make this song their own.

The rest of the tracks on the LP are all originals, including songs that would be part of their ministry until the end. The title cut was described by a listener at the time as “a musical version of the end of the world.” It certainly approaches that, with complex rhythms and dynamics, several extended instrumental interludes, impassioned vocals and soaring harmonies, a spooky and barely audible opening narration by Tom Slipp, and the loudest appearance of Tom’s drums on the album. Other standouts include “Tree of Life,” featuring Randy on electric piano, and a shift in rhythm midway that elevates the track into a driving anthem to the band’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!

One of the finest moments is in one of the slower songs, as Randy’s haunting, earnest vocal on “Come on Home” gets more powerful with each hearing.  And the amazing full-on Rock beat in six-eight time that accompanies “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” along with Jimmy’s Classic-Rock vocal, elevates the lyrics of a dignified old hymn into Rock Heaven.  

So what makes Spirit of Elijah such a classic?  One could argue that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s a point to that. But some of the parts are pretty special. The Wilson McKinley’s songwriting was finally at the forefront. The recording quality this time was at least an approximation of what listeners in the early 1970’s expected in terms of stereo mix, fidelity and clarity. The front cover artwork was in tune with the times, and has stood up well over the years, especially considering how limited their budget was. The back cover photo managed to capture all of the fervor of their street ministry, of young people who strongly believed in a Jesus who is not only alive, but on His way back. On this record, the band sounded like a cohesive unit that could jam very effectively, even in an all-night recording session.

In short, those fans who felt that the band had sold themselves down the river with this Jesus thing got a real earful of convincing contrary evidence with Spirit of Elijah. Instrumentally the sound was solidly “hippie rocker” in a genre (Jesus Rock) that still had precious few participants. Lead vocals highlighted the strengths and varied styles of all three of the singers, and they frequently traded lead and harmony duties even within individual lines of songs, giving this album extra vocal punch and versatility. But for me, one of the standout features is Tom Slipp’s fabulous drumming, of which this album is the best recorded example. He could elevate and energize any tune, play in any rhythm, and add those famous fills that prompted one of the band members to compare him to Ginger Baker.  Terry Sheets captured all of it in stunning stereo, and it’s quite the frosting on this already fabulous cake. The new digital remix of these tracks, available in full on Now I’m a Jesus Freak, gives everyone a chance to hear this amazing album in the closest approximation yet to what it would have been like to be there that night in the House of David.

When the album was finally released in August of 1971, Truth naturally advertised it heavily, and truth be told, the band and the ministry were proud of how it turned out. But it was a Wilson McKinley Jesus Rock album, meaning it was made on a shoestring budget, the vinyl was a noisy pressing, the ministry could only afford to add reverb to one side of the disc, etc. etc. – the pattern of unfortunate distractions that all official Wilson McKinley products had. Yet its very high reputation, including among secular “Psych-Rock” and garage band enthusiasts, proves its value as an amazing ministry tool and (in the age of mega-studios and 16-track tape machines) that the “foolish things confound the wise.”  The joy of their salvation is all over this album! As Randy’s haunting track “All My Life” states,

What’s a wretch like me doing with all of this Joy?

Jesus, He’s my everything, and I’m just His boy!

Samples from the CD mixes of Spirit of Elijah:

Tree of Life Original song, a signature concert song for the next decade

His Eye is On the Sparrow  Cover  – new tune, old hymn lyrics

It’s Up to You  Cover song with Christian lyrics

Three photos from the April, 1971 recording session for Spirit of Elijah at the House of David. Photos by Dave Joern. Far right: Mike Messer listens to playback.

Above: Three ads in Truth for Spirit of Elijah. The album’s logo was designed by Dave Joern. Stereo was no big deal in the music industry by 1971, but after the disappointment of On Stage, perhaps the editors of Truth wanted to reassure everyone that this LP was different! Below: the cover of Spirit of Elijah, a masterpiece in low-budget album art.

In The Studio: the Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast LP

Barely six months after the release of Spirit of Elijah, in February 1972, the Wilson McKinley released their third and final Jesus Rock LP, a soaring achievement in songwriting called Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast. To give music historians a sense of perspective, consider this: in February 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) called Only Visiting This Planet. And the Wilson McKinley was releasing their third Jesus Rock album, selling it at their concerts and through ads in the Truth paper, which by now had a street circulation of over 120,000 copies a month.

The album was an immediate sensation, with its psychedelic yellow, cyan, and magenta colors, the slightly oversized cover a throwback to the homemade On Stage. The Truth paper boasted about the five-minute jams, and again touted its “Full Stereo.” Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast, with its aggressively double-tracked vocals, extreme stereo mix, and completely original songs, was a worthy follow-up to the Wilson McKinley’s last LP.  However, it also quickly gained a reputation as one of the most weirdly mixed albums anyone had heard in a long time. Many a stereo had its tone controls working overtime to coax a more normal sound out of the speakers.

Here’s the story behind the strange mix. The fact that a “professional” studio was used and that Sound Recordings, Inc. helped in the production of the album didn’t keep the LP mix from major flaws: huge dropouts, a bass-heavy mix that makes the whole production sound muddy, and weird equalization on the (sometimes distracting) vocal overdubs. There is a reason for this: the engineer at the Sound Recordings studio (the owner, actually, a lady named Irene) had never done a rock session before, having been set up to record sermons and vocals and piano numbers. The studio had an adequate mixing board, and a new 2-channel reel deck running at a then-standard 15 inches per second. But poor Irene was simply beside herself, and was convinced at one point that the soundboard was about to explode! She had no idea how to successfully equalize an aggressive electric bass in the hands of Jimmy Bartlett (or what to do with Tom Slipp’s kick drum for that matter), or how to mix multiple vocals for a proper blend. She cut the low bass by about as much as the soundboard would allow in an attempt to make it sound balanced through whatever monitors the studio had.

When the time came for final mixdown, everyone in the band realized they had no real soundboard experience, and they could not undo what the original engineer had done. The original mix was horribly thin, and the vocal tracks had quite a bit of distortion. But the band managed some tasty overdubs, including some creative percussion work by Tom, which helped widen the sound a bit. Then when the record company heard the masters, they were finally convinced that the tracks needed bass. So they decided to heavily equalize the dubbing master, inadvertently compounding the problems. The dubbing tape suffered from several instances of major dropouts, which made it straight to the LP, and the engineer heavily boosted the mid-bass instead of low bass, in an ill-advised attempt to compensate for the original mix. So yet another Wilson McKinley recording experience was given birth under less than perfect circumstances. The result is one of the muddiest albums ever released, famous for being very bass-heavy.   

But the muddy sound is not what anyone remembers about this LP.  The songs are astounding, and every one is a Wilson McKinley original. Mike, Jim and Randy wrote individual and collaborative numbers that are among the very best Jesus Rock ever penned.  In keeping with their primary role in live appearances, that of getting a crowd’s attention while the street workers witnessed in the audience, many of the songs feature a loud, in-your-face, exuberant theology. The title track includes extended solos from every member, rhymes “Jesus” with “sweetness,” and bellows out, “I’ve been freed at last, Heaven’s gonna be a blast!”  A song titled “Then I Fell in Love,” with its insistent beat and memorable riffs, could easily pass as a “Ska” song today. “He Made Us Free” features a double guitar lead reminiscent of the Allman Brothers, and some of the other tracks (such as “Standin’ at the Crossroads”) also feature the slightly countrified rock that was popular at the time.  Other tracks are still thoroughly drenched in the Hippie Rocker sound of the previous LP.

But some of the strongest work on this or any other Wilson McKinley recording is found in their softer numbers, which exhibit a maturing songwriting ability and a deepening spiritual walk. “Almighty God” has an almost dreamlike quality to the lyrics, as the soft jazz accompaniment of the instruments lends a mesmerizing wall of sound, as “Almighty God stands and stretches His hand…,” insistently calling us to His side.  Their philosophy of ministry is again apparent in “Never Cry No More,” when they sing:

Well, my home is in another land, Where Jesus is the King,

He doesn’t rule with an iron hand, (It takes a servant to be a King).

There’s a beautiful, worshipful feeling to the lyrics of “Like a Warm Summer Day,” and the instruments almost perfectly propel the message along.  The coolest lines come from “Wish I Had the Words to Tell You,” which incidentally trumpets the fact that Jimmy wrote it while playing his electric bass.  The words declare:

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

If you need to know why He came, Just take a look around!

In short, Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast holds up well under repeated listening, as we hear more of the instrumental and lyrical creativity that mark this as another milestone in Jesus Rock. Now that the original master tapes have been digitized, and the bass and balance problems have largely corrected, this album sparkles like no other Wilson McKinley project.  Spirit of Elijah may be the Great Eldorado of Jesus Rock for LP collectors, but for me, Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast is has the most meaningful, most interesting, and ultimately most enduring songs of the early “Contemporary Christian” era.

Samples from the CD mixes of Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast:

Then I Fell In Love

He Made Us Free

I Wish I Had the Words to Tell You

Below: The front and back day-glo cover of Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast, with artwork done by Tom Slipp, drummer for the Wilson McKinley and cartoonist for the Truth paper. When the opportunity came for a classic rock reissue company to license and release the LP on high quality vinyl, it caused them no end of trouble replicating the artwork accurately!

Above: Three cuttings from Truth papers after the third LP was released, including a blurry blurb about the purpose and hoped-for results of the Wilson McKinley’s music. Inset is a photo of the 10 ½ inch master reel of side two of Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast. Notice that throughout, there was a running debate about whether “Wilson McKinley” should get a hyphen and whether to add the word “the” when appearing in print!

Released and Unreleased: the Country in the Sky Cassette Project

By 1973, the Voice of Elijah ministry had closed down its coffeehouse and had moved out of town to a site about 40 miles from Spokane, that they called “The Ranch.”  The band was at the peak of their creative and musical powers, but their leadership decided to set aside the Christian Rock in favor of a musical style that would appeal to older audiences.  The wisdom of that move is not to be debated here; thankfully the band kept up their rock persona in live appearances, and kept writing songs in that style in the hopes that another Jesus Rock LP would materialize. Some of those tracks survive in cassette dubs of live performances. They wanted to continue their Jesus Rock career on record, but it was not to be.  The next project went straight to cassette (a much more dubious medium in the mid-1970’s than it was when Dolby HX Pro and Chrome tape at least approximated full fidelity). When I first made contact with Mike Messer, and heard his copy of the album, I couldn’t believe any produced album could be so lo-fi and hissy. When they were located, the master tapes were a spectacular surprise. One saving grace of these recordings is that the originals were laid down in a very nice little studio at the Ranch on a four-track reel to reel, and are among the best recorded songs of their career.  The musicianship is among their most polished, as well.

The other saving grace of the project is the songwriting.  The band rose to the challenge of the new stylistic constraints, and wrote a pile of truly wonderful songs in a quieter vein. Country in the Sky was a beautiful album released on a highly limited medium, which originally found only a small audience. Instrumentally, the band’s chance to try some adventurous acoustic guitar work and electric pedal effects make these songs quite satisfying.  The one person left totally bored was poor Tom, who was relegated to swish, tap, swish tap for most of the projects.  The songs are well-crafted, and the layered harmonies are as good as anything Love Song was doing at the time.  “I See With Different Eyes” has a Byrds-like quality. “Ship Adrift” (one of two covers) showcases the band’s awesome vocal layering skills on a totally convincing Country Gospel remake. The band members actually went through some vocal coaching for this album (for example, Jimmy’s rock persona was apparently inappropriate for their new sound). It’s hard to believe that the energetic rock and roller of “I Know the Lord” is the same vocalist as “I’m in Love With Someone.”  Jimmy sings practically at a whisper, in far too low a key, and sounds almost like a crooner. Randy does a beautiful, understated vocal on “Simple Song.” Mike has a solo turn on “God is Everywhere,” which features their most psychedelic mix, as the dulcimer and guitars swirl around the vocals. Perhaps the high point of the cassette was the title track, which is not a corn pone ditty as the title might imply, but a thoughtful rewrite of the verse in Hebrews about the “great crowd of witnesses” who are in the Lord’s presence now.  Mike’s pedal effects are intended to mimic the sound of an orchestra, and do lend a transcendent feel to the track.

There’s a Country in the Sky, where we all do long to see,

And we don’t have to die, to get a glimpse of how it’s going to be…

In short, they all proved in spades that they could radically change their style and be good at it. Most of the tracks from Country in the Sky grace the first CD, Message Brought to Us, and the two cover tunes are on Now I’m a Jesus Freak.

Of perhaps even more interest than the songs on the cassette were the tunes that for some reason were left off of it. When the collection of master tapes surfaced, so did a pile of unlabeled practice reels, all recorded in mono, and all featuring songs in various levels of completion. But the four complete numbers from that collection show that a full twelve song LP would have given the Wilson McKinley a well-deserved place in the growing genre of harmony-based, songwriter-based Contemporary Christian music.  It’s not Rock per se, but the music of that period shows the Wilson McKinley as songwriters and vocalists without many equals.  “If You Never See Me Again” features Mike’s writing, in the style of Gram Parsons and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “Bright and Shining One” could have possibly fit into Spirit of Elijah as a slightly quieter psychedelic hippie number, marred perhaps only by its vocal riffing chorus of “baddula da da dum!” (It’s only a few seconds in a five minute song, and I suppose it demonstrates versatility).  “There’ll Come a Time” is another of Mike’s Country Rock contributions, with a layered harmony and strong lyric that would have been just killer in a full stereo, completed version, as all of them would. The spiritual high point of the “lost” tracks of Country in the Sky is Randy’s beautiful “Deep in the Arms of My Lord.”  It’s one of the most memorable Wilson McKinley lyrics:

Looking in my past, I was moving much too fast,

I took the fruit of knowledge, and I wept,

But now my heart is filled with Everlasting Love,

Deep in the Arms of my Lord!

Sample Country in the Sky Practice Tapes Released On  Now I’m a Jesus Freak CD:

Deep in the Arms of My Lord

If You Never See Me Again

A Horrible Misuse of Talent: the Yesterday / Forever Fiasco

Yet one more recording is in the official output of the Wilson McKinley: the cassette-only, instrumental-only monstrosity known as Yesterday / Forever.  It was a collection of instrumental hymns, as only the Wilson McKinley could be forced to play them.  I’ll leave the “what were they thinking?” to others, because the band was fully aware of what they were being asked to do, and it’s a credit to their character that they didn’t resign on the spot.  The thing to remember is that all during this period (1974 onward) as the ministry they were a part of grew weirder, they still had the great outlet of going out on the road and cutting loose with their signature Jesus Rock, including a 1975 tour of the Midwest where they befriended Bob Hartmann, of Petra fame. But back to the album, the last official release of the Wilson McKinley Jesus Rock band. It was recorded in four track, but the machine had not been regularly maintained or degaussed since purchase, and even the master tapes have considerable hiss.  The duplicator they used for releasing copies was even worse, so we’ll ignore the cassette copies.  

What does a Wilson McKinley instrumental album of hymns sound like?  Occasionally awful, like the circus music effect of “How Great Thou Art.” Sometimes like the band of old, as in their credible instrumental of their own “Almighty God.”  And on one occasion, it’s completely chaotic, as in the last minute of “Come By Here;” yes, the great Wilson McKinley did an instrumental of Kum Ba Ya!  Towards the end, Randy and Tom both begin a chaotic little riff, ending in a frantic flurry of drumming and keyboard trills and Tom’s “Wipeout” laugh.  The track ends as Jimmy calls out, “Hey, wait a minute!” The cassette version was carefully faded before that point, I assure you! The whole sorry project was like trying to get a racehorse to pull a hay wagon.  

It was a pathetic waste of good talent.  One track managed to rise above the mush, and even made it to the band’s live playlist as late as 1979: their jazzy remake of a Jesus People classic (“Jesus, Jesus, can I tell you how I feel, you have given us your Spirit, we love you so!”) Their approach definitely elevated the material, and the restored track of “Jesus, Jesus” ends disc one of Now I’m a Jesus Freak!  So it’s the only two minutes of that album that is likely to be released, and trust me, I picked the best out of what is decidedly the worst idea of their careers. But it wasn’t their idea, nor were closing down the “I Am,” moving to “The Ranch” and curtailing their Jesus Rock recording right at the height of their ministry.

But the Wilson McKinley were still being sent out to witness and give concerts, raising enough money from subscriptions to Truth and sales of their albums to help keep the home ministry going. And on the road, they were free to play any songs they wished. The cassette tapes recorded by their sound man, Greg Beumer, show energy, vitality, and a steady stream of new material worthy of their reputation. And they embraced the new variety in their sound, including Gospel Quartet material as well as hard rock, Country Gospel, and the aforementioned instrumentals here and there. Due to the terrible fidelity of  those live cassettes, it has been difficult to make the concerts sound reasonable, but from a song quality and performance point of view, it’s classic Wilson McKinley expanding their range, and well worth hearing.  And to their credit, they tried to get approval to record a new album of original Jesus Rock, but were turned down. It’s also to their credit that they kept touring, ministering wholeheartedly to those in front of them.

Left: A building at “The Ranch,” courtesy of one of its many visitors in the 1970’s.  The ministry was centered there from 1973 to 1979.  This building housed the kitchen, eating area, laundry room, offices, and the layout room for the Truth newspaper.  Mike says he cut the lumber for most of the building.

The cassette-only 1973 release of Country in the Sky was self-produced, of low fidelity on cheap tape. But it was in stereo. The photo was used on the cover. Jimmy seems to have his eyes closed!

Finding  and listening to the original masters was a revelation, as the sparkling clarity of the originals came to light in full four-channel glory. The songwriting and musicianship is excellent, but it is a radical departure in a softer direction from the Wilson McKinley of the LP’s. The 1973 Country in the Sky tracks were released in high fidelity stereo for the first time in 1999 onTanignak Productions’ Message Brought to Us CD. Six of the eight tracks from that CD (all the original compositions) were included, along with the band’s favorite songs from the three LP’s.

Samples from the CD mix of Country in the Sky (from Message Brought to Us):

Country in the Sky (title track)

Saviour Changed My Life

I See With Different Eyes  

Right: Three photos from a 1971 recording session backing up a solo artist in the Sound Recordings studio, months before the Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast sessions. These snapshots turn out to be the only color photos of the Wilson McKinley that have surfaced.

Sample tracks from the 1974 cassette-only instrumental album Yesterday / Forever:

(Sample) Jesus, Jesus  — this track was in their live concerts until 1979

(Complete track, not on CD) Almighty God  —  This was their own composition, and otherwise unknown. But done as an instrumental, it is one of the few high points of a terrible and disappointing project. Take my word for it! Members of the band had to be persuaded to include any tracks from this project on their CD anthologies!

Greg Beumer’s Recording Project, 1976

In the studio, the Wilson McKinley finally got to go out with a bang, when their longtime sound man asked them to be his recording project for a class he was taking at a Spokane college.  I believe the original was on 16 tracks, but the mixdown which Greg provided me on half-track stereo is nothing short of awesome.  Although most of the band remembers three songs, only two survived to the mix down stage, but they are well-crafted reminders that the Wilson McKinley are true Jesus Rock pioneers.  

Mike says that by that time in their ministry, they had been discouraged from writing many songs by the general deterioration of their organization, and opted for two cover songs, one by the Staple Singers and another a traditional spiritual.  “You Don’t Knock” features Jimmy back in splendid Rock form, and has an amazing three-voice a cappella break.  “Ain’t that Good News” is led by Randy, not only in fine voice, but in some of the best piano work I’ve ever heard anywhere. One of the brothers from the ministry, Rob Greenslade, contributes a soulful harmonica break as one of the band’s few guest musicians since Lou St. Cyr and his congas back in 1970.  Both songs are featured on disc two of Now I’m a Jesus Freak.

By this time the band was facing moral and spiritual failings all around them (none of their own doing), and by the late 1970’s, Tom had left the band, replaced by newcomer Barney Dasovich. They loved being on the road, and providing music for street meetings, but after 1975, those opportunities were few and far between. So the recordings of Greg Beumer’s project are a happy addition in an otherwise dark time.

The Wilson McKinley’s last studio recordings: The Greg Beumer sessions, mixed down from 16 tracks in 1976.

(Sample) You Don’t Knock – a cover of a Staples Singers track.

(Sample) Ain’t That Good News – one of several spirituals that were very effective in concert. “I’ll Live Again” and “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself” were two others that would have been scorchers in studio versions!

The Lessons and Legacy of the Wilson McKinley

The ten-year ministry of the Wilson McKinley is unique. Their emphasis on “Full Body Ministry” meant that they regarded themselves as team members and as fellow servants, rather than regarding themselves as the focus or the stars of the show. This servant attitude might help explain how they could let themselves do some of the strange projects that were laid on them toward the end of their recording career.  It also explains why no major label whisked them away to fame and fortune, although I keep hearing of labels that tried. Something truly significant happened to them in that park in Spokane in June of 1970, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed their lives forever. However, there were so many “might have been’s,” such as their attempt to record and release a new Jesus Rock LP in 1975. Upon returning from a successful tour of the Midwest, and armed with more than an album’s worth of fresh new songs, they were ready to go back to their roots, and back into the studio. But the ministry leadership voted it down, for reasons that have never made sense to any of us. And yet (remember their ministry attitude) the band stayed on the team for another four years.  

The ministry they were part of was changing, and so was the Jesus Movement.  The band’s last project of instrumental hymns was an extreme example of what was happening everywhere.  The Jesus Movement was moving out of the streets and into the churches, bringing new vitality into old organizations, and by so doing becoming mainstream itself. New denominations such as the Vineyard and Calvary Chapel fellowships owed their start to the Jesus Movement, and retain some of that flavor today. Worship bands and Contemporary Christian Music artists (although most don’t realize it) owe so much to the early pioneers such as the Wilson McKinley, who proved to street people and church-goers alike that the message of the Gospel and the sound of a Rock groove could blend together splendidly.  As that Wilson McKinley song said in the summer of 1970, as if to reassure worried church-folk, “It’s all right, it’s Jesus Christ!” A later composition stated,

All it ever meant to you was sitting in a pew,

Reciting all the liturgies you knew,

But that’s OK, ‘cause now that you can walk and talk with Jesus,

There’s a well of Living Water flowing through!

(“Welcome Back Home,” from the “I Am” Coffeehouse tapes)

So by the mid-1970’s, the Voice of Elijah ministry was beginning to fade into history. In the first place, it was probably impossible to maintain a communal lifestyle, eating, sleeping, and ministering together without a break for years on end. Members of the community felt the desire 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, to the relief of some and the devastation of others. I suppose there could be no way to disband such a close-knit group of people without hurting the members, but the organization was no longer healthy or viable. Besides, the ministry to which they had been so clearly called did not require such an austere and sacrificial model to be successful. And it was many years before some members of the community began to make contact with each other.  

Even today, some recognize and celebrate the remarkable achievements of that ministry, while others repudiate it. The Wilson McKinley as a unit was clearly part of the glue that held the ministry together for so long, even as the upper leadership wavered and faltered. That alone is a testament to their servant hearts, and to the strength of their calling. There were always a few people in every Jesus People fellowship 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 a chance meeting in a park somewhere, or of stepping into a coffeehouse, or of listening to a friend’s album, that eventually led someone to a whole new Eternity.

What then is the legacy of the Wilson McKinley? The larger question is what assurance do you and I have (as musicians, teachers, leaders and 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 of person who “hears His voice” and “produces fruit that endures.”  You may have been raised on Rock or born listening to organ and chimes. But at some point, you either gave your life to Jesus or you didn’t. If you did, then you have an instant and unbreakable kinship with any other believer anywhere and from any generation. If you haven’t yet decided to follow Jesus, then it’s really a shame how the Wilson McKinley wasted all that talent on 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 of God to reach their generation, and who took to that calling with all their heart and soul.  And because they were participants in bringing new believers into the Kingdom, their legacy will never fade, because it is of eternal consequence.  To the third category of person, trying to be neither believer nor heathen, hiding in the trappings of the movement as a “Jesus Tripper,” 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’s the believer’s job to find out what God is doing, and then go do it.  The servant’s heart is the heart that’s closest to Christ.”

Thank you to Randy, Mike, Tom, Jimmy, Barney, Greg and all the other ministry friends who contributed to this amazing story. Thank you for being faithful and for leaving us such a fantastic legacy.

They have sung the truth, lived the life, kept the faith, and borne fruit that remains. May we do the same!    

By Timothy Smith, Tanignak Productions, originally posted 1999, expanded in 2021 honoring the  Fiftieth Anniversary of the first Jesus Rock band, the Wilson McKinley!

Top right: Randy Berk’s artwork to look like the “Spirit of Elijah” logo. Left, the 1973 publicity shot used on the cover of the CD (Bottom Right).

Below Left: A scan of the cover art of Yesterday / Forever (1974). Below Right: a 1975 ad in Truth touting “Rock or Un-Rock” Wilson McKinley records and tapes. Bottom: a detail from a stunning 1974 full-page ad in Truth gives the band members’ names and roles in the band in unusual detail.

Left: the Now I’m a Jesus Freak cover art, based on the original On Stage handmade cover. The two LP’s pictured are on disc one, and disc two has practice songs, live tracks, and three new songs from band members.

Making official releases, from superior-sounding master recordings, was the band’s best defense against a series of pirated recordings which used old LP’s as the source material. And no one else had all those unreleased tracks! Most of the sound samples above are on this album.

At Their Best Live! The Rolled Away the Stone Release

When the decision was made to release Now I’m a Jesus Freak as a double CD, it gave us the opportunity to put many of the band’s most important tracks out in a single package. A 45-song album is pretty representative of almost any group’s output. But there’s more, much of it on par with the tracks on the “Jesus Freak” CD. We held back on releasing many of the live recordings, in the hopes that one day a live Wilson McKinley album of some kind could be produced. And now, over a decade later, it’s finally available.

That LIVE album, titled Rolled Away The Stone! (LIVE! 1970 - 1979), has been released. It was delayed by my retirement, moving to a new state, and then by cancer surgery and the COVID slowdown, sadly missing the 2020 landmark of the fifty-year anniversary of the band’s conversion! But its December 2021 release marks fifty years since the recording of both Spirit of Elijah and Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast, a good enough milestone! And along the way, the album expanded to a double CD, one full stereo, and the other mono.

The Soundtrack to Revival (The Very Soul of the Jesus Movement)

Some of the Wilson McKinley’s most memorable and important tracks are on this album. But what the songs serve as the soundtrack to a genuine revival, as Jimmy put it while introducing a song: “If we all work hand in hand in one accord, there’ll be souls saved and seeds sown.” The heart and soul of the worldwide “Jesus Movement” can be heard in the songs on this album!

Disc One has about 46 minutes of good stereo recordings from the “I AM” coffeehouse in downtown Spokane in 1971-72. These are all thanks to those kids with reel to reel tape recorders! And there’s a set from Gonzaga University, from late fall of 1970. The revival spirit of those early meetings is very much in evidence. And two more venues have surfaced: Silver Valley, Idaho (Kellogg) and the “Moby” concerts in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Those events were taped by James Zehm. He has graciously allowed us to use many of the tracks, edited into two sets. James has released a full CD of his recordings, at Discogs, CD Baby, etc. His email is


Disc Two is all mono, and all historic, including a mini-set of my remix of On Stage tracks, restored and smoothed out as much as I could. And there are concerts in 1974 in Calgary, and in 1975 at a small venue in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Finally, there’s a 38-minute, two set concert at “The Ranch,” in May of 1979, almost exactly ten years after their conversion. That ended up being their last recorded concert. By that time Barney Dasovich was on drums, in his only performance with the band. The concert features many previously unknown compositions and the widest range of styles any Wilson McKinley fan has ever heard, from Gospel Quartet style to the wildest “Spirit of Elijah” ever recorded.  

The sound samples below give a little hint of what the Wilson McKinley Jesus Band was like in concert. I’ve included some great live photos.

Gonzaga University, November 1970 Outdoor Concert:

(Sample) Won’t You Come

(Complete) He’s Coming in the Clouds

“I Am” Coffee House, 1971-1972:

(Sample) He Is A Friend of Mine

(Sample) Welcome Back Home

(Sample) Rolled Away the Stone

Kellogg, Idaho (Silver Valley), 1971-1972:

(Sample) King of Love

(Complete) Give Your Heart to Himthe band’s live jam sound, with mostly lost vocals

(Complete) I Need a Saviour

“Moby “ Rock Concert, Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, 1971-72:

(Complete) Vote for Jesus/He’s Coming Soonanother example of WM as a boogie band

(Complete) Crown of Glorythe band was working out the arrangement of this song, that ended up on Spirit of Elijah. It’s fun to hear a flubbed vocal and quick save in this great, short song.

Highbridge Park, Spokane outdoor concert 1972

(Complete) Heaven’s Gonna Be a Blast  — a chance to hear live instruments in full stereo (but off-mic vocals) in this solo-heavy track.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada 1974

(Complete) Even the Birds Up In the Sky  — a very different arrangement from the track on the Now I’m a Jesus Freak album.

(Sample) Did You Know That ManJimmy Bartlett in his most soulful vocal, retelling the story of the Woman at the Well.

Fort Wayne, Indiana 1975

(Sample) We See Jesus Coming (plus band intro)

Final Recorded Concert, “The Ranch,” Spokane Valley, May, 1979 (Barney Dasovich on drums)

(Sample) I Know He Saved Me

(Sample) Spirit of Elijahpossibly the wildest version

Above: An assembly concert at a Spokane high school, 1971

Above: The Wilson McKinley at a minimum-security prison in 1971

Above: The Wilson McKinley at Highbridge Park in Spokane, 1972 (with a fan club of kids!)

Above: The Wilson McKinley at an outdoor rally, Palo Alto, California (date unknown)

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The audio songs and samples on are copyright their respective owners and are used with permission. All Wilson McKinley tracks are administered by Tanignak Productions unless otherwise noted. Tanignak Productions uses proceeds from CD sales for royalties or for production of future albums, according to the band’s direction.

Information from this site can be used for non-commercial purposes with attribution. The text of all the articles on and are copyright 2022 by Timothy L. Smith (see the “About” link).

Right: the latest release, Rolled Away The Stone! Two complete CD’s, one in full stereo and one in mono.

A few of the tracks were previously released. The On Stage tracks are from the 1970 mono LP, and my mix of two short sets of stereo tracks recorded by James Zehm in Idaho were released as part of a whole CD on his label. But two thirds of the tracks are first issues, including 46 minutes from the “I AM” and almost 40 minutes from their last recorded concert at “The Ranch” in 1979.

A Ten-Year Ministry Draws to a Close

The photo Below Left was taken shortly after the band moved to “The Ranch” in 1972 and the spirit of revival was still the driving force of the ministry they were part of. It is to their great credit that they kept to their calling for as long as they did, ending up spending ten years in dynamic music ministry.

Below Right: a photo of the band in 1977, the last photo I have of the original Jesus People lineup. All are smiling to a point, but no grins anywhere – there were dangerous trends and damaging decisions being made in their ministry, of which they had no control. Within a couple of years, the entire ministry collapsed.

Below: Part of a poster promoting the Wilson McKinley’s last concert, in 1979, from the collection of Barney Dasovich.  Left to Right: Barney Dasovich, Jimmy Bartlett, Mike Messer, and Randy Wilcox.

Check Below for a Musical Overview, 1970 — 1979

Besides being faithful brothers in Christ and servants to Him and their ministry for a decade, the members of the Wilson McKinley were excellent musicians and songwriters, helping to define an entire new genre of music: Jesus Rock. The examples below share the group’s faith through song, and trace their styles as well. Each track expresses their faith and their witness, from their first six months in ministry to their final recorded concert. This makes a fitting tribute to a band whose music has blessed people for fifty years!

The tracks below show variations in style, development in arrangements and songwriting, and especially, the band’s unwavering faith in Jesus and tireless work to witness for Him.

(Complete) I Just Love My Jesus one of the first songs they wrote, sung here at an outdoor concert at Gonzaga University, November, 1970. (Intermittent stereo from a flawed tape)

(Sample) Ship Adrifta 1973 Country Gospel number (author unknown) that shows the band’s ability to sing beautifully harmonious music after years of performing what their contemporaries called first class “hippie rock” and “psych-rock”. (From the 4-channel master)

(Complete) There’ll Come a Timethis 1973 practice tape illustrates their amazing songwriting talent; they sang this lovely song and then basically forgot about it. But their maturing faith in Christ is in evidence in the thoughtful lyrics. (Mono)

(Two-song medley, complete) I’m So Glad I’m Saved / One In The Spiritfrom James Zehm’s 1971 recording of a concert in the small town of Kellogg, Idaho (the Silver Valley). Witness with a punch! (Live stereo from open reel tape)

Go to the Wilson McKinley “Sound Samples Page” for a downloadable album of unreleased tracks and samples of a possible new album of radically remixed WM songs!  

For any of their CD albums, at the best price on the web, go to “Music Products Page” (Links Below)