The Hemphills – In Action! (1973)
1973 was a bit of a transitional year for the Hemphills, as they had left Canaan Records and remained independent for a few months before signing with Heartwarming Records, which was under the umbrella of the Benson Music Group. While they were between labels, they released this wonderful double live album that was recorded in concert at West Monroe High School in West Monroe, Louisiana sometime in late 1972 (Joel references the year being 1972 during the recording) but was released in early 1973. Eventually, after signing with Heartwarming, the label would pick up this recording and would subsequently re-release it. Also, by this time, Dixie had left the group as she was pregnant with her and Tim’s daughter, Angelina, but Joel mentions her from the stage, as she sat on the front row during this live recording. This change essentially made the Hemphills a trio, with just Joel, LaBreeska, and Tim.
This was a very sentimental evening and live recording for Joel, as it was recorded live at his old high school with many of his family and friends in the audience. Joel was also able to honor his dad in a very special way during the concert, but more on that later. While no producer is credited, the album was recorded by Goodman Sound Studios and they captured a magical evening of raw emotion and talent, showcasing the Hemphills “in action”! You can feel the spirit and genuine emotion the Hemphills sang with, and their band did an outstanding job backing the group on stage. The Hemphills’ band at the time consisted of Jack Vandiver on piano (who later joined the Rambos), Jerry McGuire playing bass (whose brother, Dony was a member of the Downings at the time), Joey Hemphill on drums, David Robbins playing steel guitar along with Joel and Tim assisting on guitars. As a fan of the steel guitar, I have to say David Robbins did a phenomenal job on this recording, as did the rest of the band, as they created some exciting music together.
The album begins with a very brief introduction, and as Joel, LaBreeska, and Tim take centerstage, we are treated to a nice musical vamp by the Hemphills’ band. Once they were finished, in an unusual move, rather than jumping into their first song, Joel first takes a moment to welcome everyone before he introduces the lead-off song, “I Found a Better Way”, much to the delight of those in attendance. Keeping the momentum going, Tim gives a spirited performance on the song, “That Day Is Almost Here”. Tim does a great job and it’s an exciting performance that is one of my favorite renditions of this LaVerne Tripp-penned classic.
After a brief introduction by Joel, LaBreeska steps into the spotlight as she delivers a commanding performance on her testimony song, “An Unfinished Task”, which is my all-time favorite performance of the song. Before encoring the last verse and chorus, LaBreeska fervently shares her testimony of being raised in a broken home and her salvation experience (a wonderful testimony that was put into song on their next studio album). You can feel the intense raw emotion in LaBreeska’s penetrating performance and testimony, as it’s the crowning jewel of this live recording and one of my all-time favorite live performances ever.
Side 2 starts out with a wonderful medley of Joel’s early popular songs which includes “He Filled a Longing”, “Crying in the Garden”, “The Eyes of Jesus”, “Pity the Man” and “Not in a Million Years”, and as they move along from song to song, the crowd applauds their approval. Most medleys like this tend to be very disjointed because the songs don’t always mesh well together musically, but this is a really nice medley and very well done by the Hemphills, before Joel takes a few moments to introduce Tim McKeithen, before Tim masterfully and emotionally tackles the Billy Dale Sexton penned, “I Want to See Jesus”. Afterward, Tim gets into “preacher mode” as he testifies for a bit, and the crowd is right there with him before he encores the second verse and chorus. It’s a powerfully emotional moment and a highlight of the recording.
Side 3 kicks off with the rollicking, “I’m Traveling On”, and it’s an exciting performance…I just wish there was an encore! I love the dynamics of the song and how they playfully take their time when they slow the tempo way down toward the end of each chorus. It’s a fun song and one of my favorite moments on the recording. My hunch is this was the end of the first half of the program, as it appears some editing is done as the applause fades out and back in before we come to the next portion of the album.
Next up is a very sentimental moment for Joel as he proudly brings up his dad to the platform and sits him in a rocking chair on stage (you can hear the squeak of the rocking chair as Joel’s dad rocks back and forth) and Joel shares stories of growing up as a “PK” (preacher’s kid) along with 13 other siblings (yes, you read that right…there were 14 kids in all!). In talking to Joel as I prepared for these articles, you could hear the sparkle in his voice when I brought up this album to him and he immediately recalled bringing his dad on stage that night and getting to sing “A Preacher’s Boy” to him. Joel’s obvious admiration for his dad, the stories, and him singing “A Preacher’s Boy” was truly a wonderful, heartfelt moment that is compounded by another deeply sentimental song entitled, “Gentle Hands”, which was the only new song on the recording. Joel tells the story that his dad had recently had an accident, and they didn’t think that he would make it due to complications. On his bunk on the bus, not knowing if his dad would make it through the night, Joel was inspired to write the song “Gentle Hands”, and it’s a highlight of the recording.
As we move to side 4 of this double live recording, we come to the Hemphills biggest hit at this point, “I’ll Soon Be Gone”. Even with the encore, the song clocks in at less than 5 minutes and that’s the only song on this side. As wonderful as this live recording is, I think with some re-sequencing of the songs and maybe a little editing, this could have all fit on one album…or better yet, I would have loved to have heard a few more live performances of such songs like “Thank God I’m Free”, “God’s Gonna Shake this World Again” or “Hallelujah Anyhow”…but I digress.
Outside of the pacing of the album, this truly is a wonderful live recording. Of the 3 live albums the group made during their time on the road, I am conflicted as to which live recording is my favorite, as it’s a toss-up between this one and their “Louisiana Live” recording from 1983. I love the emotion and energy of this live recording, as well as the wonderful singing by the group and the excellent work by the band. Everything came together to create a very real and genuine live recording, showcasing a young Hemphills “in action”.
This was the last vinyl by the group that I added to my collection sometime probably around the turn of the century (I love saying that!). At the time, I didn’t know the album existed, but I stumbled upon it and was absolutely thrilled to add it to my collection. It’s an excellent representation of the Hemphills music at that time and made me wish I was old enough to see them and enjoy their music back in the day. When this album was released, I was only a year old, so even if I was there, I wouldn’t have remembered it! HA! Nonetheless, even though I missed out on the Hemphills from this era, I did get to see them “in action” during the 80s, and I am so glad I was able to do so!
As I have already mentioned, this recording was originally released independently, but eventually, after they signed with Heartwarming Records, the label picked up the album and re-released it on their label, and thus began a very fruitful 14-year relationship with the Benson Company via Heartwarming Records and later, Riversong Records. During the forthcoming years with the Benson Company, the Hemphills would enjoy many Top 10 hits, four #1 songs, and 4 Dove Awards! This alliance between the Hemphills and Benson Music would further solidify a vast legacy that continues to be ever so vibrant!
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