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VINYL RECORD REVIEW: The Kingsmen – Ring the Bells of Freedom (1980)

The Kingsmen – Ring the Bells of Freedom (1980)

The year leading up to the release of the Kingsmen’s 1980 album, “Ring the Bells of Freedom”, was marked with quite a bit of change within the group.  With Squire’s departure from the Kingsmen in 1979, Eldridge Fox stepped in to take over the baritone position until a replacement could be found.  Mark Trammell, who had joined in early 1979 to replace Jim McCauley on bass guitar, would also step in and pull double duty playing bass and singing baritone at times as well.  It didn’t take long for the Kingsmen to locate a gem of a singer in a gentleman from Greensboro, North Carolina named Wayne Maynard, who joined the Kingsmen by late summer/early fall 1979.  Wayne had previously sung with the Singing Americans and Telestials, and he brought a unique spark to the Kingsmen that lit up audiences everywhere.  Between Wayne and Mark, this also gave the Kingsmen some unique versatility, as the two men would switch up playing bass guitar when the other would sing.  Also, sometimes Hamill would step aside and have Wayne and Mark handle the lead/baritone parts, depending on the song and the whims of Hamill at that point in time on stage!

Recorded in late 1979 and released during the first half of 1980, “Ring the Bells of Freedom” is the first album with Eldridge Fox listed as the sole producer, though Joe Huffman is listed as Executive Producer, which essentially means that Huffman had the final say in the final product.  Ultimately, Eldridge Fox and Jim Hamill (and eventually Anthony Burger), would maintain creative control over the Kingsmen’s music during the ensuing years, as they knew the music they wanted to put out and the record label usually allowed it, along with some of their own creative input along the way.  Unlike “From Out of the Past”, this latest album was a bit more laid back with its musical arrangements and reverted to a more traditional quartet feel.  The horn arrangements were gone for this album, but Nick Bruno continued assisting with string arrangements, and as usual they were tastefully done.

Featuring a really nice shot of the group on the cover, there are actually 2 covers to this album.  The original cover art was the more plain, red and white cover, but after the title song became popular, the record company issued future pressings with the more patriotic cover with the red background and stars.

With its simple harmonica intro (featuring harmonica virtuoso, Charlie McCoy), Jim Hamill, with his unpretentious delivery, kicks the album off with the patriotic title song, “Ring the Bells of Freedom”, which was written by Roger Bowling and Billy Edd Wheeler.  In fact, it was Billy Edd Wheeler who pitched the song to the Kingsmen by showing up at the Kingsmen’s office and pitching it to Foxie.  Wheeler is probably best known for writing such country hits as “Jackson” and “Coward of the County”, and in fact, Wheeler originally recorded and released “Ring the Bells of Freedom” as a single to Country radio in 1979, but it saw very little chart action.  The Kingsmen always had a penchant for patriotic type tunes, and this song was right down their alley, as it did extremely well for the group, peaking at #6 in January 1981.  Great story about the song…one time they sang at an outdoor concert around July 4th (presumably in 1980).  Prior to showtime, Hamill worked up a plan that when they got to the tag at the end of the song (“From the mountains to the prairies…”), the spotlight would shine on the American flag, and they would shoot off the fireworks as well.  Things went according to plan and the crowd went wild.  Needless to say, they rang the bells that night!

Slowing the pace down, newest member, Wayne Maynard, takes the lead on one of my personal favorites, “At Sunrise I’m Going Home”, which was written by Conrad Cook.  Delicately accented with strings and featuring some nice piano and steel guitar work, this song still remains one of my personal favorites from this album.  This was a big concert favorite for the Kingsmen during this time, and it showcased Wayne exceptionally well.

Next, Squire Parsons penned one of my all-time favorite Hamill features, “Covered by the Blood”.  Giving us a bit of a black gospel feel, it was something a little different for the Kingsmen.  I love Hamill’s delivery of the song as he throws some color into it, especially going into the second verse, as he says…“oh it’s gonna get good now…” and when he gets towards the end of the second verse, Hamill throws in some extra inflections with, “mmmm” and “woah” and later in the chorus, we get a “hoah” and a “great goodness” thrown in.  You just don’t normally get that kind of delivery on a studio album, but Hamill totally owns the song and it’s the triumph of the recording!

With its iconic dobro intro giving it a distinct country/western feel, Ray takes the lead on one of his sugar sticks, “Shake Hands with a Poor Boy”.  Written by a lady who lived in the Asheville, NC area named Lee Penland, the song was never a single or chart song for the Kingsmen, and despite that fact, the song ended up becoming the crowing jewel of the recording as it instantly became a huge concert favorite during the early 80’s, as evidenced on their forthcoming live album, “Live…Naturally”.  I actually bought this album after I had heard “Live…Naturally”, and heard the live cut, and was very disappointed in the studio version of the song (much like “We Do Not Die” from a few years ago).  This just shows how the Kingsmen would improvise their arrangements when singing these songs live on stage, so when you saw them in concert, it wasn’t just a carbon copy of the record, and thereby seeing them in concert was always a royal treat!

Another song with a strong dobro track (along with some nice acoustic guitar work) Eldridge Fox closes out this side as he takes the lead on the campmeeting feel of, “I’ve Been Redeemed”, which was written by Larry Stallings.  The song was also recorded by the Rex Nelon Singers on their album, “Expressions of Love”, which was released the same year.

Featuring a nice steel guitar intro and nicely accented with strings, the second side begins with the comforting, “The Final Teardrop”.  Another tune featuring Eldridge Fox, this wonderful song was written by Douglas Huffman and George Zoller and published through Land of the Sky Publishing, which was a joint publishing venture between Eldridge Fox and Rex Nelon.  As a kid, I was always drawn to this song, and it still remains one of my personal favorites from this album.

During the latter part of the 70’s and into 1980, the country was involved in some troubling economic problems affecting everything from gasoline prices to food prices, and the Kingsmen’s answer to those problems was found in the Kyla Rowland penned novelty tune, “Energy Crisis”.  Featuring Ray on the verses and Hamill on the chorus, the song was a reminder to everyone that…“energy and worldly problems are in His hands, I can’t solve them…I need just two wings to fly me and a Savior beside me, for I fueled up with fuel at an altar long ago!”.  Les Butler and his Real Southern Gospel Quartet brought this song back when they recorded it on their 2022 recording, “Taking a Stand” and they did a tremendous job with it.

Featuring some really cool guitar work, Hamill, Ray, and Ernie all have their turn taking the lead on the Squire Parsons penned, “Jesus is the One”.  With its light jazz undertones, I love Ray’s build-up going into the chorus after each verse and the overall feel of the song just has a very cool vibe.  It’s not one of the Kingsmen’s best remembered chart songs, but it did chart for a couple of months, peaking at #31 in December 1980.  I always thought this was such a groovy song that was something a little different for the Kingsmen and I think it would be a cool song for the Kingsmen to bring back today.

With a nice easy country feel, Ernie steps up to sing his big feature on this album, “I’ll Take Jesus (And You Can Have the Rest)”, which was an anthem for the world that they can have all their fame and fortune, but I’ll take Jesus and they can have everything else.  Featuring a nice harmonica intro and accented by steel guitar throughout, this unassuming testimonial song remains one of my favorite Ernie features.

By 1980, a young songwriter named Jeff Gibson was emerging on the scene and his song, “Canaanland is Just in Sight” by HeavenBound was just taking off.  To finish off the album, the Kingsmen recorded his song entitled, “Just to Know”, and it was the perfect, driving quartet number to close out the album, featuring step out lines by Hamill, as well as Ray and Ernie.  HeavenBound, who were from Kinston, NC, had originally recorded the song a couple of years earlier on their “Oh What a City” album, and both groups became fast friends and worked a lot together during the 80’s and 90’s.  The Kingsmen would go on to record several other songs written by Jeff, which also include a future #1 song for the Kingsmen!

I fell in love with several songs from this album, but I must admit that “Ring the Bells of Freedom” didn’t exactly ring my bell at first.  When I got this album sometime around late 1981/early 1982, I already had their “From Out of the Past” and “Live…Naturally” albums, and this album was almost anticlimactic for me, compared to those 2 albums.  It wasn’t until many years later that I truly began to appreciate this album and what it had to offer.  It has that traditional Kingsmen feel and pretty much what you heard on this album was what you would hear in a Kingsmen concert at the time.  Still, in my mind, it doesn’t quite compare to the energy of those two aforementioned albums, but “Ring the Bells of Freedom” is still a great record that proved why the Kingsmen were the hottest quartet on the circuit at that time.

Speaking of which, the Kingsmen were riding a big wave of success by this time…their 1979 album, “From Out of the Past”, won the Dove Award for “Southern Gospel Album of the Year” at the 1980 Dove Awards, and during the 1980 Singing News Fan Awards, the Kingsmen walked away with 3 awards…“Favorite Group”,  “Favorite Tenor” (Ernie Phillips) and Anthony Burger took home his first of 10 consecutive “Favorite Musician” awards.  The Kingsmen were at the top of their game and no other male quartet was garnering the excitement and success that the Kingsmen were experiencing during this time.  In looking at the traditional male quartets who had top 10 songs between 1979 and 1980, the Kingsmen out charted the Florida Boys, Cathedrals, and Inspirations, and they were the only group who consistently kept songs in the top 10 during that 2-year span.  Every few years a group emerges as the top in their field…at one point it was the Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen, later it was the Happy Goodman Family and the Inspirations, but this time it was the Mighty Kingsmen’s turn at the top, as they were ringing the bells of fans everywhere!!!

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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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