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VINYL RECORD REVIEW: The Kingsmen – The Upper Window (1978)

Much like how the Kingsmen’s 1974 album, “1686 Pounds of Gospel”, lived in the shadow of “Big & Live”, I always felt “The Upper Window” lived in the long shadow of “Chattanooga Live”.  I never realized the album even existed until the summer of 1984, when I came across an advertisement for it in the 1979 Gospel Music Association Annual Directory & Yearbook.  I remember the year because that was when I started taking piano lessons and my piano teacher showed me the book, knowing I loved Southern Gospel Music.  I was 12 years old, and I purposed in my heart to find this album, but to no avail.  To my wonderful surprise, when I became a DJ in the Spring of 1988, the radio station I worked for had the album and I frequently took it home to listen to, until I was able to finally add it to my collection a couple of years later.

“The Upper Window” was produced by Joe Huffman and Eldridge Fox, along with Nick Bruno playing piano and handling string arrangements.  Also, Gary Dillard plays steel guitar on this album, his first time playing on a mainline studio album.  The Kingsmen always boasted an extremely talented band, and throughout their history have had several of their band members play on their studio albums, which is a testament to their level of professionalism as musicians.  In fact, the Kingsmen band (aka-The Men of Music) won their first of 17 “Favorite Band” awards during the 1978 Singing News Fan Awards!  One aspect I have always admired about the Kingsmen is they were truly a team, and they always included the entire group on the front cover of their recordings.  The Kingsmen weren’t just the 4 front-line singers…they were a package deal!

Speaking of the Kingsmen band, around the time of this recording, Nick Bruno left the group to focus on studio work, and for a short time, Eldridge Fox began playing the piano, until Anthony Burger joined in late 1978/early 1979.  While still working with the Kingsmen off and on through the forthcoming years, Nick would go on to become a much sought-after producer and studio musician, playing a huge role in the success of the Booth Brothers, Quinton Mills, Squire Parsons, LaVerne Tripp, and many others.  Nick still remains very active today producing and playing piano and also giving sage advice to many young singers and musicians through his monthly articles in the Singing News and through his Facebook page.  Though he isn’t pictured on the cover, this would be his last album as a member of the Kingsmen.

The album kicks off with the Buford Abner penned, “Say a Prayer for Me”, which features Jim Hamill along with Ernie Phillips and Ray Reece.  Much like they did with Abner’s “I Went to an Old Campmeeting with the Devil” a year earlier, the song has a distinct Swanee River Boys vibe until they take things up a few notches for the final lines of the chorus as the band kicks in for the big ending.  Though the song was never a chart song for the Kingsmen, it was a popular concert favorite and is a gem of a song.  The Kingsmen started staging the song again sometime during the mid-’90s and they did a fantastic job with it then as well.

With dancing fiddles, the tempo kicks into high gear for the Conrad Cook penned, “I’m So Happy”, which has Ernie taking the lead on the chorus and is one of my favorite songs from the album, before the tempo slows down as Hamill gives us a stellar performance on the testimonial, “That’s How I’d Be Without Jesus”, which was written by Morris Stancil.  One of my favorite Hamill performances, the song is nicely enhanced by strings, as well as some nice steel guitar accents by Gary Dillard.  Using imagery, the song paints a picture of a ship tossed at sea with no anchor or sail, a night with no daybreak, a land that is barren and dry, and a life with no meaning…before the chorus declares, “That’s how I’d be…life wouldn’t have any meaning for me, like a mighty vessel that’s been wrecked at sea, that’s how I’d be without Jesus!”.  It’s a great song and truly a highlight of the album.

With its lilting piano and harmonica intro, Squire and Hamill both share lead duties on Squire’s self-penned tune, “Won’t We Have a Wonderful Time”.  This song has that exciting Kingsmen feel to it and is another one of my favorites from this album.  The Kingsmen revived this tune on their “Not Quite as Big, But Just as Live” recording that was released in 1999, which paid homage to their very first live album, “Big & Live”.

Outside of Leonard Hollifield (who played guitar for the Kingsmen in the early ’70s), Gary Dillard is the only other Kingsmen band member to sing on a major recording at this point, as he takes the lead on the Joan Ewing penned classic, “It’ll Be Different the Next Time”, which finishes out the first side.  The song was a hit for the Sego Brothers & Naomi a year or so earlier and was a song that several groups sang and recorded during the mid to late 70’s.  Gary has a strong bluegrass hue to his singing, and while this version doesn’t have quite the same punch as the Sego’s rendition, Gary does a really great job on the song.  We’ll get a chance to hear Gary sing again in about 7 years when the Kingsmen band sing on a future live album!

Kicking off the second side is another one of my favorite songs from this album entitled, “That’s What I’m Living For”.  Written by Billy Adams and published by the Kingsmen, this wonderful song of affirmation features an outstanding performance by Ernie on the second verse, as well as a heartfelt recitation by Ray.  Filled with nice piano fills and tastefully accented with strings, I love the dynamics of the song as it builds, gets soft and then builds again to Ray’s climactic, declaratory last line…”and that’s what I’m living for!” (which is my favorite part of the song).  It’s a genuine performance that has always resonated strongly with me and is a highlight of the album.  Interestingly, I first heard the song on a record by the Watchman Quartet, a local group here in North Carolina, and loved their version of the song and was thrilled when I got this album and saw that the Kingsmen had originally recorded a couple of years earlier.

With its bluesy harmonica intro, Ray takes the lead on the Squire Parsons penned classic, “I’ve Got a Reservation”.  This song has “Kingsmen” written all over it, and it was the only song from this album that charted, peaking for 2 months at the #5 position in the Singing News chart for May and June 1979 during its 13-month run in the charts, before Ernie slows the tempo down as he does an outstanding job on the comforting ballad, “Only Jesus”, which was another tune written by Squire.  Filled with strings and the warm sounds of the electric piano, the song showcased Ernie on a very different type of song, before the tempo picks back up as Eldridge Fox steps up to sing the fiddle-infested tune, “Precious Hands”.  As Hamill kicks things up a notch on the final chorus, it’s an exciting song that has a similar feel to the song “Hungry for the Meal” from their “Just a Little Closer Home” album.

Starting off slow and with just piano accompaniment, Squire closes out the album as he sings the title song, “The Upper Window”.  By the time he gets to the chorus, the tempo picks up and he’s joined by the rest of the group, and this song remains one of my favorite songs from this album.  Prior to hearing this album in 1988, this was the only song I had heard from the album, which I had taped off the radio back a couple of years earlier (those my age will remember creating your own mix tapes from the radio!).  Written many years ago by a gentleman named John C. Bieri, Squire originally recorded the song in 1971 while with the Calvarymen (on the same album where they originally recorded the classics, “The Glory Road” and “Look for Me at Jesus’ Feet”).  Other groups have recorded this song over the years including the Singing Cookes and Wendy Bagwell & the Sunliters, and it’s also become a popular tune on the bluegrass circuit as well.  Funny story about the song, for years I never could figure out some of the words Squire was singing, and kind of made up my own words until I figured it out many years later (thanks Google!), but I still can’t get those original (incorrect) words out of my head!

Around the same time as “The Upper Window” came out, Canaan Records released a compilation of hits and favorites of the Kingsmen from their Canaan catalog entitled, “The Best of the Kingsmen”.  This was one of the first albums I ever bought by the Kingsmen, and growing up, this album was an important part of my musical insight into the group during the mid-70’s, as I did not acquire those Canaan studio albums until I started collecting records in the early 90’s.  Also, sometime in late 1978/early 1979, the Kingsmen recorded a unique 4 album set that was released independently, which featured the Kingsmen in various musical themes…one album was bluegrass gospel, another contained favorite hymns, the third album featured songs written by Squire (a few of these songs eventually made it onto mainline releases by the Kingsmen a few years later) and the final album featured Ernie Phillips singing solo on the first half, and the other half featured the Kingsmen band playing instrumentals.  It’s a very rare find, as they probably only sold the set on their table for about a year.  Also worth mentioning, this 4 LP set would be first recording with piano prodigy, Anthony Burger, who had joined the Kingsmen a few months after Nick Bruno had left.

Though “The Upper Window” may be a bit of a forgotten gem in the Kingsmen’s discography, it’s a wonderful record that captured the excitement of the Kingsmen, despite being recorded in the confines of a recording studio.  I think a lot of that is due in large part to Hamill’s vocal arranging, as well as his own unique way of delivery.  Though the Kingsmen strove for a certain level of professionalism and perfection, it was never to the point of sterilization, with no color or personality.  Listening to “The Upper Window” perfectly exemplified how the Kingsmen could skillfully sing in a way that personified professionalism, while also capturing the excitement of the song and uniqueness of each vocalist.  It’s those resounding elements that is what makes this album such a delightful gem, and uniquely “Kingsmen”!

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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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