The Hemphills – Without a Doubt (1976)
1976 was a transitional year for the Hemphills. Candy was now a part of the group and Joey was transitioning from playing drums to the front lines as well, and both Joey and Tim are singing on this album. Sometime after “Without a Doubt” was released, Tim would leave the group to start a new family group with his wife Dixie called the McKeithens. The McKeithens would go on to enjoy their own season of success with such songs as “I Am Going Away”, “Something Better Than Gold”, “What Would I Do Without Him”, “Let the Hallelujahs Roll” and “Don’t Face Tomorrow Without Jesus”. As Tim was transitioning out of the group, he doesn’t really have any major features on this album, but I do hear him in the mix on a few songs. With Joey and Candy now joining their mom and dad on the front lines, it was truly a family affair, and this would be the iteration of the group most folks would remember when they think of the Hemphills.
“Without a Doubt” was produced by Phil Johnson, and it was decidedly more country than their previous few albums had been. The album primarily features Joel on many of the songs, with LaBreeska taking the lead on a few, and with Joey and Candy each having one song (though Candy does have a couple of other songs where she takes a solo or takes the lead). Joey and Candy were still teenagers (I think Joey was about 18 years old and Candy was around 15 years old) and they were still finding themselves vocally, and the group was still gelling into the powerhouse group they would eventually become.
As I already mentioned, this album has a more country feel to it and also the steel guitar is not as prominently heard as on their previous albums. As mentioned in my last article, Bruce Watkins played acoustic and electric guitars along with the fiddle and banjo, so a lot of the songs here have a more rustic, acoustical feel to them, reflecting more of the sound you would hear if you saw the group live during this time period. Also, this album is a bit slower-paced than most of their previous albums, as there are only 2-3 true up-tempo songs found here.
The album starts off with one of my all-time favorite songs, “He Wrote My Name”, which features nice piano and banjo highlights. I initially grew up hearing the Morton Family (a local group in our area back in the mid-80s) sing this song and it was one of my favorite songs of theirs. I never realized it was a “Hemphills” song until I obtained this album in the mid-’90s, so imagine my excitement when this song kicked off the album. It’s a wonderful camp-meeting song that did extremely well for the group in the charts, spending over a year there (and spending about half that time sitting in the Top 10). The song topped out at #8 in June 1978, which was 2 years after the album came out. This song featured a common vocal arrangement the Hemphills utilized often which has Joel taking the melody on the verses and LaBreeska handling the lead on the chorus.
Slowing the tempo down, Joel sings the song, “Lord, To Know That I Have You”. In a personal prayer of thankfulness and reliance, Joel writes and sings…“holding my hand as You only can hold it, whispering peace like no other can do, I won’t worry for fame or fortune if I only know that I have You.” It’s an unassuming song, but you can tell it came from somewhere deep within Joel and is a highlight of the album.
Next, the Hemphills revived Joel’s song, “On the Way Up”, which the group originally recorded 6 years prior on their 1970 album, “Old Brush Arbor Days”. This updated arrangement isn’t quite as invigorating as the original and it has more of an acoustic feel to it. With Joel tackling the first verse, Candy steps up and shines as she sings the second verse. This would be a common arrangement for several songs over the ensuing years, as their voices offered a nice contrasting dynamic…Joel’s country tones matched Candy’s uptown vibe; plus, since Candy would take the lead an octave above Joel, there wasn’t always the need to change keys. As I mentioned in my article on “Old Brush Arbor Days”, I was initially introduced to this song via the McKameys, and it appears the McKameys adapted this newer version of the song when they recorded it back in the 70s. In fact, during the ’70s, the McKameys recorded quite a few of Joel’s songs.
With nice steel guitar and fiddle accents, LaBreeska sings the verses of, “There’ll Be Someone Looking for Me”, with Tim taking the lead on the chorus. It’s a nice deviation from the norm of having LaBreeska and Tim sharing the lead vocals on a song. Hearing LaBreeska singing in her lower register for this song makes me wonder if Tim was originally set to sing the verses, but with him leaving the group, LaBreeska took over the verses, leaving Tim taking the melody on the chorus. I have to admit, it was not until I started working on this article that I really started paying attention to this song, and it has become one of my personal favorites from this album.
Next, we come to the up-tempo camp meeting favorite from the old Redback Hymnal entitled, “Press Along to Gloryland”. With Joel taking the lead before Candy belts out the lead strains on the final chorus, it’s a highly enjoyable song and was a great way to close out the first side.
With its medium ¾ time tempo, Joel is featured on the testimonial title song, “Without a Doubt, I’m Saved”, which kicks off the second side with its simple piano intro before the band kicks in by the first chorus. Though not a chart song, it was a popular concert favorite for the group, before the tempo slows down as Joel is featured once again on a great song of faith and consecration entitled, “Make the Lord a Good Solider”. This was another song I was initially introduced via the McKameys back in the late 80s from a cassette of their 1977 album, “Lord, I Know How Much You Love Me”. It’s a unique song with a very authentic message…“my steps may not always be right in time, and when I hear the battle I fear the front lines, but if He gives me strength to bear the cross on my shoulder, I’ll do my best to make the Lord a good soldier”.
Keeping the tempo is slow mode, Joey steps up to sing his first feature as a front-line vocalist on the prayerful song, “Lord, Show Me Your Hands”, and it was a commendable effort by Joey. Subsequently, like father-like son, Joey throws his pen in the rink and offers us the song, “Never a Man Spake Like This Man”. Featuring LaBreeska and an excellent steel guitar track, this bouncy medium-tempo tune, depicting the deity of Christ, was a big hit for the group, peaking at #5 in March 1977. For his first known effort at songwriting, Joey wrote a really great song, and it’s one of my all-time favorite LaBreeska features as well. The Freemans did an excellent jazzed-up arrangement of the song several years later on their 1997 recording, “Standing Out”.
Not to be outdone, Candy closes out the recording with her own contemporary-sounding tune that she wrote entitled, “Open My Eyes”. Building off the success from “I Came on Business for the King” from their previous recording, this was the first single release from this album, and it also did very well for the group, peaking at #6 in December 1976. Though she had only been singing professionally for about a year, you can definitely hear the growth in Candy’s voice, as she was developing into the unique stylist that she would become.
As I had already mentioned, “Without a Doubt” was sort of a transitional album for the Hemphills. With the changes occurring in their vocal line-up, the group was still trying to gel with a cohesive sound. Of all their albums, this is probably the one that I have listened to the least. It’s a good album, it just has never been one I’ve gravitated to. Also, I’ve noticed that when people start naming their favorite albums by the Hemphills, this one usually isn’t one of the first ones that come to mind. Yet, despite the changes that were occurring in the group, this record produced 3 Top 10 hits for the Hemphills, and it was a big album for the group. No previous recording by the group garnered this many chart songs, so it was obvious they were heading in the right direction and the fans were enjoying what they were hearing.
Also, by this point, Joel & LaBreeska had been married for almost 20 years, and about half of that time was spent singing, and to commemorate the accomplishment, LaBreeska wrote a book simply titled, “LaBreeska”, which chronicled her young life being raised in a broken home, singing during the very early days of the Happy Goodman Family, meeting and marrying Joel, their pastorship, and the early years of the Hemphills. Since the Hemphills became a group in 1969, it has been a busy and dizzy 7 years leading up to this point, and now they were becoming a true family affair. Without a doubt, with Joel, LaBreeska, Candy, and Joey on the frontlines along with Trent supporting in the band, the Hemphills would become a force within the industry.
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