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VINYL RECORD REVIEW:The Kingsmen – Better in Person (1985)

The Kingsmen – Better in Person (1985)

I’ve always felt that “Better in Person” was a unique live album for the Kingsmen.  When compared to their other live recordings, this was a very laid-back, and slower paced live album.  While it’s not my favorite live recording by the Kingsmen, it’s a very special live album to me, as I bought this album when I FINALLY got to see them for the first time in July 1985 at the Civic Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.  There was a unique set of circumstances surrounding this particular booking, as this concert was booked in the middle of the Kingsmen’s summer vacation, and with their bus broken down at the time, everyone had to pause their summer vacation plans and meet up in Raleigh for the concert.  Garry Sheppard was commissioned with grabbing everyone’s suits, and in all the confusion he forgot Arthur Rice’s suit!  So, between the Hoppers, DMB Band and the Paynes (who were on the program that night), Arthur managed to put an ensemble together for the concert that night, thanks to Dean Hopper, Allen O’Neal and Mike Payne.

By the time “Better in Person” was released, the Benson Company was getting out of the Southern Gospel business and was closing the Heartwarming label, hence “Better in Person” was released on the white “Benson” label, rather than Heartwarming.  At the time, the only artists left with Heartwarming were the Kingsmen, Hemphills and Squire Parsons.  By 1986, Benson bought the RiverSong label and the Kingsmen and Hemphills moved over to RiverSong, with Squire Parsons departing Benson altogether and starting his own label, Passage Records, along with the assistance of former Benson executive, Wayne Hilton.  During that time of upheaval, an idea was birthed within Eldridge Fox to start his own recording studio and record company, and within a couple of years, Hear Here recording studios was born.  By 1993, the Kingsmen would create their own major label, Horizon Records, and became its flagship artist, along with the McKameys!

Recorded in February 1985 at the Central High School Auditorium in Springfield, Missouri, “Better in Person” was produced by Eldridge Fox and Jim Hamill, with Wayne Hilton again being listed as Executive Producer.  The Kingsmen sang there 2 nights (February 8 & 9), and the album was recorded on their second night there.  The event was promoted by Bill Muench and Gary Longstaff, who also introduced the Kingsmen on the album.  Special mention must be given for the album’s title and cover shot, which was genius.  Given the Kingsmen’s penchant for recording exciting live albums, “Better in Person” was the perfect title for the album, and the cover shot was taken at the same high school auditorium the album was recorded at.

Every Kingsmen live album has kicked off with a rousing, up-tempo number, and in keeping with the low-key approach for this live album, the sweet sounds of “I Have a New Song to Sing” kicks things off.  Featuring some nice falsetto singing by Garry Sheppard, along with some step-out lines by Ray on the chorus, it’s a great opening song, that truly set the tone for the whole album.  The song was written a few years prior by Christine Starling and was originally recorded by the Statesmen on their 1980 album, “He is Here”.

The classic JD Sumner penned, “God Made a Way”, picks up the tempo and features Ray, and became a big concert favorite for the Kingsmen during the mid-80’s.  In fact, they recorded it a year earlier on an independent recording, but the song went over so well in concert, they decided to include it on this live album.  Slowing down the tempo to allow Ray to shine, Anthony Burger steals the show with some of his antics, which was always a highlight of any Kingsmen concert back in the day.  The Kingsmen had a lot of fun with this song and it’s one of those performances that you truly had to experience live and see all the visuals to truly appreciate it.  I don’t remember a lot of the songs the Kingsmen sang that July evening when I saw them in Raleigh, but I do remember them staging this song and it was a riot!

Slowing the tempo down, Eldridge Fox turns in an emotional performance on the Gerald Sweatman penned tune, “Look What’s Waiting For Me”.  I fell in love with this song from the very first listen and it’s one of my all-time favorite features by Foxie.  The song’s message, Foxie’s genuine delivery, the audience reaction to the song…all came together to make this such an outstanding moment on this recording, before the tempo picks up ever so slightly as we come to what is probably my favorite song on this album, “That Will Be A Happy Morning”.  Featuring Hamill on the first verse and Ray on the second, this song was also written by Gerald Sweatman, and has an exciting campmeeting feel to it.  Both of these songs paired exceptionally well together and are very well received by the crowd as well.

Hamill then takes a second to introduce the song “Called Out”, which features an outstanding performance by Garry.  Written by Felicia Shiflett, this was the first single from the album, peaking at #8 in March 1986.  In fact, Felicia’s group, Liberty, recorded and charted the song as well, peaking at #9 the very same month.  While in previous versions of the Kingsmen, it wasn’t unusual for Jim Hamill to sit a song out and have Mark Trammell or Wayne Maynard step up and sing his part, but Hamill was always off to the side of the stage cheering the group on.  By the time Arthur Rice joined the Kingsmen, Hamill began to step back a little more, and this is one of the songs with Arthur singing Jim’s part.  It’s a fantastic performance and the song is met with enthusiastic applause, begging for an encore, which the Kingsmen deliver, but unfortunately it did not make the final cut for the album.  Garry then takes a moment to give a very heartfelt testimony before singing his own composition, “Mary’s Little Lamb”.  Garry had been writing songs for several years, and he wrote this song on a dare, a few years prior while singing with the Praisemen.  During the course of conversation, Garry stated that if a song is anointed by God, you could sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and people would love it.  The guys in the group challenged Garry to write a “Mary Had a Little Lamb” song, and a week later he had written the song.  The Kingsmen recorded the song a year earlier on the same budget recording they recorded “God Made a Way” on, and it seemed to fit in perfectly on this live album.  It’s a fantastically raw and emotionally driven performance that sets the stage for the next song, “Jesus is Sweet”, which was written by Conrad Cook.  By this time, a strong spirit of worship had taken hold and while it wasn’t a highly emotionally charged moment, it was a very quiet and sweet spirit of worship.  As Garry sings the verse, you can’t help but be taken in by the moment and sing along, “Jesus is sweet, Jesus is sweet, Jesus is sweet to my soul, grace is secure, hope will endure, Jesus is sweet to my soul”, and it was a wonderful way to cap off the first side.

The second side kicks off with the exciting, “Rest Assured”, which features Ed, along with Garry kicking things into high gear on the final choruses.  Written by Bruce Thornhill and published by the Kingsmen, this song has that exciting “get on your mule and ride” feel that the Kingsmen were known for, and it features an exciting banjo break by Gary Dillard.  The crowd is definitely getting their belly full on this song and demand an encore, which the Kingsmen gladly oblige!  This was originally planned to be the first single for the album, but the record company ended up releasing “Called Out” instead.

Next, Hamill takes a few minutes to introduce everyone in the Kingsmen, but not without sharing a few zingers on each man, before he turns the band lose on a fun, bluegrass version of the classic hymn, “Amazing Grace”.  Featuring Greg Fox, Gary Dillard, and Anthony Burger on vocals (along with Arthur) and featuring Gary’s skillful musicianship on the dobro, harmonica, and banjo, it was a fun moment and a highlight of the album, that wasn’t entirely planned for the live album.

Hamill then takes a few minutes to share the story of Arthur trying out with the Kingsmen, and it’s quite a tale, before Arthur delivers a powerhouse performance on the Aileene Hanks penned tune, “A Place Where the Hungry Are Fed”.  Though previously recorded by Naomi & The Segos on their 1984 album, “A Living Legend”, the song ended up being the second single from this album, peaking at #9 in July and September 1986.  During his time with the Kingsmen, Arthur became legendary for hitting those high notes and holding them for an eternity, and this is the song that best exemplified that feat!  Side note…when I saw the Kingsmen in Raleigh back in July 1985, the Kingsmen staged “Whiter Than Snow” with Arthur that night, and he tore it up on that song, as he held his note for what seemed like forever!

Rounding out the recording is the Elizabeth Catron penned classic, “Jubilee in Heaven”, which features some outstanding piano work from Anthony.  For many years, this was a sugar stick for the Singing Echoes who had originally recorded the song on their 1978 album, “Move Up to Gloryland”, and then re-recorded it on their exciting live album, “Live at Blue Springs Valley” which came out in the fall of 1985.  Using a trick from the Hamill playbook, as the Kingsmen come out of the second verse, they quietly sing through the chorus before ramping up the energy level for the grand finish!  The song fit the Kingsmen like a glove and when they finish the song, Hamill jumps into “preacher mode” before he tackles the second verse solo and the Kingsmen churn out an exciting encore.

Of all their live albums, “Better in Person” really stands out from the rest because it was so different for the Kingsmen and had such a different vibe compared to all the others.  While it wasn’t intentional, “Better in Person” was a bit slower paced overall and had a more intimate feel than their previous live albums.  In fact, Hamill drove the record company crazy because he did not follow the set list.  The album was supposed to close out with “Called Out”, “Mary’s Little Lamb” and “Jesus is Sweet”, finishing out with a few old hymns, but somewhere around “That Will Be a Happy Morning”, Hamill changed up the program…proving that every performance by the Kingsmen was a guaranteed unique experience, as they truly were “Better in Person”!  I will add though, that I would have loved it if they included a performance of “Gonna Be Movin’” on this album to give it an extra up-tempo song, as that song was always a great “live” song.

The Kingsmen capped off 1985 with a big win at the National Quartet Convention, as they took home the coveted “Favorite Group” award during the Singing News Fan Awards.  Individually, Jim Hamill took home both “Favorite Male Singer” and “Favorite Lead Singer” awards, Ray Reece won “Favorite Bass” and Anthony Burger walked away with “Favorite Musician” for the 6th year in a row!  It truly was a banner year for the Kingsmen, proving they were still the reigning kings of the stage, which they would prove again with their forthcoming live albums in 1986 and 1987!

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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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