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VINYL RECORD REVIEW : The Kingsmen – Live…Naturally (1981)

The Kingsmen – Live…Naturally (1981)

Every time the Kingsmen stepped on stage to record a live album, it was historic and iconic.  In what was supposed to be just a single album release, “Live…Naturally” took on a life of its own, ultimately becoming a 2-record set and the biggest-selling album that the Kingsmen had ever released!

Produced by Nick Bruno, with Eldridge Fox and Jim Hamill acting as Executive Producers, “Live…Naturally” was recorded before an excited Kingsmen crowd in Mount Vernon, Illinois in October 1980.  What a unique and befitting title “Live…Naturally” was, as this was truly the Kingsmen’s natural environment!  Like their previous 2 live albums, this was a perfect culmination of great songs, exciting performances, and a crowd that knew how to act up and have a good time!

No need to dilly-dally, so let’s dive right into the album…

After a short and enthusiastic introduction by local pastor, DJ, and concert promotor, Merle Fullerton, the Kingsmen kick things off with the jazz infused, “God’s in the Business”, which features Ray and some nice piano licks by Anthony Burger, before Ernie steps into the spotlight as he does some fabulous falsetto singing on the Vep Ellis penned classic, “Over the Moon”, which caused the ladies in the audience to swoon!  It always cracks me up that every time Ernie got to the line “and sail the Milky Way”, the crowd just fawned over his part.  Previously recorded by such classic groups as the Blackwood Brothers, Rangers Quartet, Weatherford Quartet, and Rebels, this song became a Kingsmen concert staple for several years and showcased Ernie’s voice perfectly, and the steel guitar work by Sam Crowe is impeccable as well!

Kicking the tempo back up, the Kingsmen tear into the rousing, “Beautiful Home”, which was written by Morris Stancil.  Featuring Sam on the banjo, it’s an exciting convention song that charted for several months in late 1981 and throughout 1982, peaking at #12 in April 1982.  I have always gotten a kick out of listening to Hamill on this song, as he seems to be enjoying himself immensely.  The song has remained a huge concert favorite and has gone on to become a bona fide Kingsmen classic.  In fact, it’s still performed today by the current group, and honestly, I don’t think this song ever truly left their set list in 40+ years!

Hamill then takes a moment to slow the pace down as he brings out Eldridge Fox to sing the Jeanette Cooke-penned, “My God Knows What I Need”.  The Singing Cookes had recorded the song a couple of years earlier, but with a few tweaks in the melody and featuring a classic Hamill arrangement with a nice modulation midways into the final chorus with Little Ernie going up for the dramatic high note and the grand finish, the song takes on a new life!  As Foxie slows it down for the encore, the audience is drinking in each moment as they shout, clap, and holler, and the song contains all the excitement of an old-fashioned campmeeting.  Though the song was never singled, it could have been…but this performance lives in infamy as one of the most exciting Kingsmen performances on record and became one of their many popular concert favorites.

Before the first side ends, Hamill takes a moment to introduce the band, which had experienced a bit of change since their last album.  Mark Trammell had left and joined the Cathedrals earlier in the year, and Jim McCauley was back once again playing bass.  Also, Gary Dillard had left as well and the Kingsmen hired the ultra-talented, Sam Crowe to play steel guitar along with the dobro, guitar, and banjo.  Completing the band is Anthony Burger on piano and Greg Fox playing drums.  Speaking of Greg, during Hamill’s introduction, he mentioned that Greg was playing football for the high school football team the previous night and that somebody “got him”…story goes that as Greg was playing Friday night football (Greg was still just 17 years old at the time), he got tackled and had hyper-extended his knee, but still showed up to play drums for the Kingsmen on Saturday night!

Kicking off the second side, the Kingsmen dive into the novelty song, “Excuses”, which went on to become the Kingsmen’s very first #1 song, which stayed there for 9 months in a row between August 1981 and April 1982, and then again for June 1982, totaling 10 months at the #1 position.  Little known fact…the song was written in 1965 by Evangelist Harold Leake, who originally recorded the song and charted it in the Singing News chart for one month in February 1974 at #37, and then was recorded a few years later by the Singing Ledbetters.  The Kingsmen first heard the song through a local group in the Asheville area called the Seekers and with Hamill’s arrangement allowing Ray and Ernie to play their respective roles in the song, “Excuses” became a smash hit.  Eldridge Fox has been quoted as saying that though the song was a huge blessing to the Kingsmen, it nearly ruined them, because no one would take them seriously after the fact, and every songwriter in the country was sending them funny, novelty songs for them to record.  At the time they recorded the album, they weren’t quite sold on which song would be the single because there were several strong contenders, but after the performance that night and the audience’s reaction, it was determined that “Excuses” would be the first single.  I don’t think the SG industry saw this song coming and it was an instant hit!

Next, Hamill takes a moment to introduce the rest of the Kingsmen before he spins another classic Ernie Phillips story.  As Hamill shares the time that Ernie hid himself in Hamill’s closet on the bus and waited until he had his britches down to his knees to jump out and scare him…it’s a classic story and a highlight of the album before Ernie steps up to sing the Kyla Rowland penned, “I’ll Drop My Anchor”, which is one of my all-time favorite Ernie features, as well as one of my all-time favorite Kyla penned tunes.  Previously recorded by the Blackwood Brothers on their 1977 album, “Jesus, Let Me Write You a Song”, it’s a laid-back song, but fits perfectly amongst all the high-energy tunes on this album.

After a brief intro, Wayne Maynard steps up to sing the Squire Parsons-penned, “Nearing the Shore”, and the place just comes alive!  When Wayne takes a solo, it’s like a fire hits the stage, and as Wayne takes his time delivering a passionate performance on the encore, and the crowd is right there with him each step of the way.  Additionally, the song is capped off with an exciting, classic Kingsmen ending, sending the crowd to their feet with a standing ovation!  This was such a great song and I think it could have been a strong contender for radio as well.

Jim Hamill then shifts gears and proceeds to “shuck the corn” for a couple of minutes, and honestly, Hamill could have been a preacher/evangelist.  He got the preaching gene honestly, as his dad, James Hamill, pastored the First Assembly of God church in Memphis, Tennessee for many years (the same church the Blackwood Brothers and Elvis attended), and for a brief time, the younger Hamill even went to Bible College in Springfield, Missouri (Hamill mentions briefly attending Bible college there on a forthcoming live album).  Hamill was a natural for stirring a crowd with his fiery one-to-two-minute sermonettes, and this moment goes down as one of his classic preaching moments before the Kingsmen jump into an exciting performance of “Shake Hands with a Poor Boy”.  Though it was never a single or chart song for the Kingsmen, it had become a sugar stick for the group at the time, never failing to bring the crowd to their feet.  This particular performance features a slightly different arrangement from the studio cut on their “Ring the Bells of Freedom” album, as Ernie provides the descants (aka-call-back lines) on the chorus after the last verse.  At some point after they started staging the song, Hamill re-arranged it slightly, and had Ernie jump in with those call-backs on the final chorus, which really added to the excitement to the song.

Now, here’s where things take a unique twist with this live recording…originally, this was to be the end of the live album.  The plan was to release one record, but luckily, Sam’s Tape Truck brought an extra reel of tape and just kept it rolling for the second half.  As exciting and exhilarating as the first half was, the second half is where the magic is!  Thankfully, Eldridge Fox found gold and pushed hard for the record company to release “Live…Naturally” as a 2-album set!

As mentioned, side 3 is pure gold, and gospel music would be a little less magical without these 4 songs!  After a quick intro, the Kingsmen hit the stage running with a 1-2-3-4 punch of exciting and energetic performances of legendary songs in the Kingsmen’s repertoire.  Wayne kicks it off with an outstanding performance of the Conrad Cook penned, “When My Feet Touch the Streets of Gold”, before Ernie delivers the goods with one of the early Kingsmen sugar sticks, “I’d Rather Be an Old-Time Christian”.  Next, the Kingsmen knock it out of the ballpark with one of my all-time favorite live performances with “I’ve Made a Covenant with my Lord”.  Using a trick from the Hamill playbook, he brings it down a few notches for the second verse and chorus, but then kicks it into over-drive on the final choruses before the classic Kingsmen ending.  It’s a perfect performance of a classic convention song, before Hamill slows it down as he tackles his own sugar stick, “Love Lifted Me”, which features Ernie’s historic high note at the end that doesn’t just blow the roof off, but literally goes into outer space…and then he does it again on the encore!  I remember hearing it for the first time as a 9-year-old boy and literally coming unglued…I still get excited every time I listen to it!  Hamill gives an amazing performance on the song and that encore of the second verse…Hamill delivers the goods and proves why he is one of the greatest lead singers and communicators to ever sing a song!  Those 4 songs, back-to-back…created one of the most magical, iconic, and exciting moments ever caught on a live album…and to think it wasn’t even planned!

As we come to the final side, the mood shifts and takes on a very laid-back and worshipful feel.  As Hamill brings up Eldridge Fox, he originally was going to have him sing his song, “Gone”, but changed his mind and has him sing the Squire Parsons penned classic, “Sweet Beulah Land” instead, which the Kingsmen had been staging.  Squire actually began writing this song in the early 70’s, before he even joined the Kingsmen, but finished it in 1979 while on a west coast tour with the Kingsmen.  The Inspirations were the first group to record the song on their 1979 album, “Songs of Love”, and of course, Squire recorded it later in 1979 on his first solo album.  Squire charted his version of the song, peaking at #13 in 1980, but the Rex Nelon Singers recorded it on their 1980 album, “Expressions of Love”, and their version peaked at #6 in February 1981.  Ironically, the Kingsmen’s version (which was never singled or charted) won the Singing News Fan Award for “Song of the Year” during the 1981 Fan Awards.  And to think, it almost didn’t make the record!  Personally, I love the Kingsmen’s performance of the song, especially when they pull the musicians back and sing the first part of the final chorus acapella, before lightly playing on the last half of the chorus…and Anthony’s arpeggio’s (aka-“rolling chords”) at the end is simply beautiful!

As Hamill begins to close things out, the Kingsmen run through a few classic hymns that include Hamill singing, “What a Day That Will Be”, “Someone to Care” featuring Foxie, Ernie soloing on, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and Hamill delivering a powerful performance on the song, “I’d Rather Have Jesus”.  Hamill then takes a few moments to thank those in attendance for coming and to keep the Kingsmen in their prayers, and as the crowd gives their final applause, the album comes to an unassuming and anti-climactic close.  While I love it when a live album ends on an emotional high with the audience throwing babies from the balcony, the ending here is perfect because the Kingsmen couldn’t take you any higher than they’d already taken you, and it was the perfect way to close out a beautiful and exciting evening with the Kingsmen!

What started out as an approximately 38-minute live album, eventually became an hour and twenty minutes of pure Kingsmen powerhouse excitement!  And there’s even more from the second half that we’ll likely never get to hear as the Kingsmen tore through more classic tunes that night including “Look for Me at Jesus Feet”, “So High”, “Won’t We Have a Wonderful Time” and “Walking and Talking with Jesus”.  Oh my…if only…but I digress…

I remember seeing this album in our local Kings Department Store and begged my parents to get it for me.  Instead of going to my room to listen to it, my dad wanted to hear it, so we listened to it together as a family that evening in the living room, and we all enjoyed an exciting Kingsmen concert that night!  Since that evening, I have listened to “Live…Naturally” hundreds of times and I would spend hours just scouring over the plenteous pictures inside.  It’s one of those recordings that is truly engrained into every fiber of my heart, soul, and mind.

1981 was a huge year for the Kingsmen and “Live…Naturally” just added fuel to the fire and height to the Kingsmen’s massive wave of success, along with taking home “Song of the Year” honors for “Sweet Beulah Land” at the 1981 Singing News Fan Awards, the Kingsmen also won “Favorite Traditional Male Quartet” and the band won “Favorite Band”.  Individually, Jim Hamill walked away with “Favorite Male Singer” and “Favorite Lead Singer”, Anthony Burger received his second “Favorite Musician” award and Ernie Phillips took home his second “Favorite Tenor” award.  It truly was a season of rewards and awards, and the Kingsmen were on top of the world.  One thing I truly appreciated about the Kingsmen during this era is that they strove to stay true to who they were.  Many times, as groups hit the top, they start trying new things to expand their horizons, but the Kingsmen continued to do what only came “naturally”, and they knew how to please their fans and they were always ready, willing, and able to give the fans exactly what they wanted!

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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