After signing with Heartwarming Records in the latter half of 1973, the group immediately began work on a new studio album, and in early 1974, “Ready to Leave” was released. Actually, it appears the album was likely released right around the new year, as on my personal copy of the album, the cover states 1974, but the label on the vinyl states 1973. For this newest album, the group was joined by the legendary Bob MacKenzie as producer. All their previous albums had been produced by LaBreeska’s uncle, Rusty Goodman, so this would be unchartered territory for the Hemphills working with a different producer. Under the careful watch of MacKenzie, the Hemphills released an outstanding album that had a meatier and richer sound overall. MacKenzie was a unique character who came from a very different background than the Hemphills, and he was filled with lots of energy and ideas. He was a very authoritative individual and was a hands-on type of producer that helped the Hemphills grow musically and creatively.
I love the feel of the rustic cover shot and it’s the first cover shot for a studio album that only shows the 3 singers…Joel, LaBreeska, and Tim. The 3 are pictured on the back cover with the band members…Harold Timmons, David Robbins, Jerry McGuire, and Joey Hemphill. Also, this is the first album that lists the credits as to who played, and we find such notable names as Jimmy Capps, Pete Wade, Jerry Shook, Weldon Myrick, Farrell Morris, Buddy Harmon, Bill Harris, and Bill Pursell who all worked together creating a tasty musical feast for the Hemphills to add their vocals to.
From a personal perspective, I fell in love with this album the first time I heard it. I saw Joel and LaBreeska at a church here in Durham sometime around 1995/1996 and bought a cassette with 20 Hemphill “favorites” on it and the song “Ready to Leave” was on there. At the time, the album “Ready to Leave” was one of 2 albums by the group that I did not have in my collection. I fell in love with their version of the song, and I just had to get myself a copy of that album. So, I immediately began my hunt and quickly found a copy and bought it sight unseen (this was before the internet became what it is today, so there was no picture for me to see the cover) from Harold Timmons, who happened to be the Hemphills piano player at the time this album was released. When the album arrived and I saw the cover, I immediately remembered seeing it in our local Record Bar when I was a kid, but for whatever reason, I never bought it at that time. This would have been during the early to mid-80s probably, and I wasn’t into collecting vintage records by this time and since it wasn’t the current group that I was most familiar with at the time, I passed on buying it. At that time, the only groups I was interested in obtaining all their records were the Happy Goodmans and the Kingsmen. But when I finally obtained the album and put it on my turntable, it was love at first sound!
The recording kicks off with the bright feel of the title song, “Ready to Leave”. I love the excited feel of expectancy with the song with its message to the believer and unbeliever to be “ready to leave in the twinkling of an eye…making preparations not a reason to grieve…”. The song charted for the Hemphills for a few months in 1974, peaking at #19 in March of that year. Though it wasn’t a monster hit, it was a very popular song and was recorded by several artists. In fact, by the time this album was released in 1974, the Happy Goodmans had already recorded the song on their 1973 album, “The Legendary Goodmans”, and subsequently charted their version of the song in the Top 40 in early 1974, and the Kingsmen also recorded it as the lead-off song for their milestone live album, “Big and Live”, which came out in 1973 (which was the first version of the song I heard as a kid). The Hemphills version featured wonderful steel guitar, dobro, and piano elements and is a delightful song that is one of my favorites from this album. In fact, the song still resonates with people as the Hoppers recorded a spectacular version of the song on their 2008 live recording, “North America Live” as well as the Down East Boys, who recorded it on their 2022 recording, “The Stories We Tell” and took the song all the way to #2 in the Singing News chart in January 2023!
Starting off slow before picking up the tempo to a nice ¾ tempo, I love the acoustic feel of “Thank God for the Old Rugged Cross”, which features both LaBreeska and Joel. As a continuation of thought to Joel’s “Make Calvary Real to Me” which they recorded in 1972, the song is an earnest plea, “Sing me a song about Calvary, show me its suffering and loss, tell it ‘til each part of my soul shall cry, thank God for the old rugged cross!” JD Sumner & the Stamps did a phenomenal job on the song when they recorded it on their 1975 live recording, “Live at Murray State University” and it’s a song I’d love to hear someone bring back today.
The tempo picks up as Joel sings the peppy, “I Really Do Believe in the Lord”, before the tempo slows down for the reflective and dreamy feel of, “A Happy Forever”, which features some beautiful steel guitar accents. I always thought the song had a nice “Rambos” feel to it, and that it would have been an excellent song to close out this album out with. I remember when I first heard the song, I didn’t think much of it, but the song has grown on me over the years, and it’s become one of my personal favorites from this album.
Side 1 finishes out with the upbeat ¾ time of “It’ll Be Worth Every Mile of the Trip”, with Joel taking the lead on the chorus and Tim taking the second verse. The song is a joyous declaration for the saint who may be nearing the Heavenly shore…“like a happy pilgrim who’s arrived on the shore and forgot how the waves tossed his ship if I can see Jesus smile, hear him say well-done child, it’ll be worth every mile of the trip!”. The Cumberland Quartet brought this song back in 2002 on their “Worth Every Mile” recording and did a fantastic job reviving this great song.
With heavy dobro and steel guitar accents, LaBreeska starts off the second side with the medium tempo, “Jesus Held on to my Hand”. Inspired by LaBreeska’s testimony (which she shares on their “In Action” live album), Joel penned the words and LaBreeska triumphantly sings “Jesus held on to my hand, giving me comfort that only He can, more than a father, brother or friend, Jesus held on to my hand”. I love the intensity of this particular recording of the song, as it’s one of my personal favorites from the album and one of my all-time favorite LaBreeska features. The song obviously rang true with other groups as the Blackwood Brothers, Dixie Echoes and others recorded the song as well, but LaBreeska’s stirring performance on this record is my personal favorite!
On just about every album the Hemphills recorded during the 70’s and early ’80s, they would revive some old standard from days gone by, and for this album, they picked up the camp-meeting favorite, “Jesus Opened Up the Way”. With LaBreeska taking the lead, the song became the opening tune in their concerts for a couple of years, and was a pretty popular song for the group, charting briefly in the Top 40 in 1974. The Perrys revived this classic a few years ago on their 2004 recording, “Life of Love” and did a splendid job with it.
Filled with nice steel guitar accents, Tim steps up next as he sings his signature song, “We’ll Shake Hands”, and does an outstanding job on it. Though it wasn’t a chart song, this was such an impactful song for the Hemphills, and it held a prominent place in their live performances for the duration of Tim’s time with the group. The Wilburns (one of my favorite groups) brought this song back several years ago on their 1993 recording, “Win the Lost”, and Jackie Wilburn did a marvelous job with his interpretation of the song, and it became one of Jackie’s signature songs as well.
With its bluesy feel along with dobro and steel guitar highlights, LaBreeska takes the verses while Joel takes the lead on the chorus for the classic, “One Day I Will”. Many groups recorded this Walt Mills/John Stallings penned tune including the Sego Brothers & Naomi, JD Sumner & the Stamps, Inspirations, Jimmie Davis, and others, but the Hemphills’ version is my personal favorite, and LaBreeska does a fabulous job on the song.
The recording closes out with an updated version of the James McFall penned classic, “Thank God I’m Free”, which the Hemphills originally recorded on their first album as a group 5 years prior. This new rendition of the song doesn’t stray too far from the original, but it does have a bit more “oomph” to it than the original, and they changed up the ending just a bit, but it’s a very good version of the song and nice way to round out the recording. Since the song was still a popular favorite and could still sell records, plus the fact that the Hemphills were on a new record label, it was smart for the record company to have them re-record the song and add it to this new album!
“Ready to Leave” featured 7 songs written by Joel, and they were some of his best offerings to date. While producer Bob MacKenzie was a catapult for infusing contemporary sounds within Southern Gospel music (ie-Bill Gaither Trio, Downings, Speers, etc.), he took the country style of the Hemphills and enhanced their sound and produced an outstanding album that was their best recording to date. One thing I picked up on with this album was that although Tim and LaBreeska had a few solos, Joel handled the melody on most of the songs. While I do not claim to be an expert, my thinking is that MacKenzie may have been trying to capitalize on the unique sound the Hemphills had with Joel singing lead. Though the Hemphill’s sound and style didn’t really change with this album, MacKenzie managed to capture something quite distinctive with “Ready to Leave”, as well as their follow-up album, “Sing the Glory Down”, which was released later on in 1974. Both were extremely special recordings and were some of my all-time favorite albums by the group.
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