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VINYL RECORD REVIEW: The Kingsmen – The Game of Life (1984)

 

The Kingsmen – The Game of Life (1984)

We’ve reached a milestone this week, as we’ve come to the halfway mark on our journey through the Kingsmen’s discography.  Including this article, we’ve covered all their mainline recordings from 1972-1984, and we’ll spend the next several weeks plunging into the next 16 albums, before wrapping it up with their 2001 release, “I Will”.   

The year of 1984 was a bit of a transitional year for the Kingsmen, so before we dive into “The Game of Life”, let’s talk through some of the changes that were occurring…

As 1983 came to an end, so did an era for the Kingsmen…as during the 1983 National Quartet Convention, it was announced that Ernie Phillips was leaving the Kingsmen.  He later joined forces with Squire Parsons and traveled with him and former Kingsmen bass guitarist, Jim McCauley as Squire Parsons & Redeemed.  The group did not maintain as heavy of a schedule as the Kingsmen did and this allowed Ernie to be home more with his family.  Ernie also recorded a solo album in 1983 called, “Just Ernie” and continued to record a handful of solo recordings through the years.  In later years, Ernie also traveled some with a group called the Land of the Sky Boys, which was comprised of former Kingsmen members from the 60’s.  Ernie would fill in with the Kingsmen from time to time over the years, but sadly he would succumb to cancer, and he passed away on November 29, 2018.  Ernie’s son, Eric, also became an exceptional tenor singer in his own right, singing with former Kingsmen alumn, Mark Trammell in the Mark Trammell Trio from 2002-2009 and later with the Mark Trammell Quartet from 2012-2013.

With Ernie’s departure, a new tenor needed to be found, and that search ended in a little town called Oats, Missouri, with a gentleman named Garry Sheppard.  Just prior to joining the Kingsmen in November 1983, Garry had been singing in a group called the Praisemen.  While Garry had a different sound than Ernie Phillips, his style fit in very well with the Kingsmen and he quickly became a fan favorite, including myself!

Almost immediately after Garry joined, work began on a new recording and in early 1984, the Kingsmen released “Silver”, which featured previously recorded songs by the Kingsmen during their years with Heartwarming from the 70’s and 80’s, and it also included a song they had recorded during their brief time with the label during the 60’s.  Also, the album included 2 newly recorded songs, “My Heart is Already Home”, which was an awesome song that featured Garry, and “Gonna Be Movin’”, which charted for the Kingsmen, peaking at #9 in November 1984.  This was a great “Kangsmen” type song, which was actually a popular bluegrass favorite that the Lewis Family originally recorded in 1977 on their “Country Faith” album.  The Kingsmen actually heard it from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, which had recorded the song on their 1983 album, “Heavenly Treasures”.  It was a popular concert favorite for the Kingsmen during the mid-80’s and I truly wish they had included the song on their 1985 live album, “Better in Person”.

Shortly after “Silver” was released, Wayne Maynard decided to come off the road as well.  The Kingsmen didn’t have to look far for a replacement, as they found what they needed in Ray Reece’s 2nd cousin, Arthur Rice, who joined them to play bass guitar and sing.

“The Game of Life” was released by late summer of 1984 and was produced by Eldridge Fox and Jim Hamill, with Wayne Hilton acting as Executive Producer.  For years Nick Bruno handled all string arrangements for the Kingsmen, but for this album, Don Hart handled string arrangements.  Don’s work goes far beyond gospel as you can hear his outstanding orchestral arrangements on many pop, country, and rock recordings, as well as via many of the finest symphonic organizations across the country.  Also, you will hear Anthony Burger playing piano and Gary Dillard playing the dobro on this recording along with several outstanding studio musicians including Gary Prim, Terry McMillan, Bruce Watkins, Sonny Garrish, Jerry Kroon, Brent Rowan, and Larry Paxton.

The up-tempo, “Are You Ready for the Rapture”, which was written by Conrad Cook kicks the album off.  With nice electric and steel guitar accents along with the fiddle and harmonica, this enjoyable tune features the boss, Eldridge Fox, with Arthur Rice kicking it up a notch on the final chorus.  This was a fantastic lead off song and ranks as one of my personal favorite tunes from this recording.

Nicely accented by strings, Garry Sheppard slows the pace down as he steps up to sing the beautifully penned ballad, “Wedding Reception”, which was written by Felicia Shiflett.  Felicia was a wonderful writer from Georgia who sang in a group called Liberty (not to be confused with another Georgia based male quartet also named Liberty), who recorded for the Windchime label during this time.  The Kingsmen heard her songs when they sang with her group at various concerts, and this is one of two songs that they recorded of hers for this album.  Along with the Kingsmen, several other groups have gone on to record quite a few of her songs including the Freemans, Anchormen, Gold City, Karen Peck, Wendy Bagwell & the Sunliters, Nelons and others.  I love the imagery this song paints, and while it’s not one of her best-known songs, it still remains one of my personal favorites and one of my absolute favorite Garry features, as he really shows what a tremendous singer he is with this song.

Featuring a cool intro on the electric guitar, the Squire Parsons penned, “You Don’t Have to Wait”, picks up the tempo.  With its country/rockabilly feel, this song had a slightly different sound for the Kingsmen, but I loved it and always thought this could have made a great radio song.  In fact, the Inspirations recorded the song on their 1984 album, “Twentieth Anniversary”, and it became a big hit for them, peaking at #7 in June 1985.  I always preferred the Kingsmen’s version over the Inspirations’, and I love Hamill’s “yeah!” on the final chorus!  Great stuff!

Newest member, Arthur Rice, steps up to sing the easy feel of “Empty Vessel”, which was another song written by Felicia Shiflett.  Tastefully accented with strings and featuring the steel guitar, this country sounding tune was the second single from this album, peaking at #8 in June and July of 1985 during its near 12 month run in the charts, before the tempo picks up for the folksy tune, “Country Boy”, which features Ray on the verses and Hamill taking the lead on the chorus.  This song fit both Ray and Hamill perfectly and finished out the first side on a happy note.

One of the most unusual “songs” the Kingsmen ever recorded is “The Game of Life”, and as Ray Reece puts it, what started out as a great novelty idea, quickly fell back into the dugout!  During my interview with Executive Producer, Wayne Hilton some months back, he very quickly (and rather humorously) took all the blame for the Kingsmen recording this dramatization.  The premise of “The Game of Life” is a make-believe baseball game between good and evil, and with the bases all loaded, Grace hit’s the home run that brought everybody home.  Jim Hamill is the star of the drama, as he plays the part of the commentator for the game, but the crowning moment of the piece is the ending, where the Kingsmen sing, “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before…”.  This was the first single from this album and a lot of effort went into promoting it to radio, as the Kingsmen signed 1500 baseballs that went out to the radio stations.  To the best recollections of those involved, this was only staged once, and it did not go well, as it was so hard to try to stage something like this.  Nonetheless, “The Game of Life” did chart for a few months, peaking at #16 in January and February of 1985.

Featuring Hamill along with some step-out lines by Ray and Garry, we come to the medium tempo, “A Land Called Heaven”, which was written by Mark Wheeler, of the bluegrass group the Marksmen.  Published through Kingsmen Publishing, this song was tailor made for Hamill, and was such a fun song fusing Blues, Jazz, Dixieland, and Country stylings and was a perfect song for the Kingsmen.

With Foxie singing the verses and Hamill taking the lead on the chorus, “Roll Out the Red Carpet” still remains one of my personal favorites from this album and one of my all-time favorite Foxie features.  I love the picture this songs paints in your mind…“roll out the red carpet, a Kings’ child is coming home!”.  The song was written by a gentleman named Charles Jeffries who sang with a group called the Royalmen out of Charleston, West Virginia.  A few other groups have recorded his songs over the years including Gold City, Singing Echoes, and the Freemans.

The tempo picks up for the electric guitar and harmonica driven track of the bouncy, “I’m Gonna Move Up to Heaven”.  Written by Gerald Sweatman and published by the Kingsmen, this enjoyable tune has Hamill taking the lead throughout the song, along with step out lines by Ray on the chorus.  This song has that classic Kingsmen feel and is a highlight of the recording before Ed steps up to sing, “When Zion Sails in Port”.  This medium tempo tune was a perfect fit for Ed and was a nice song to finish off the album.

Funny personal story about this album…I was 12 years old when “The Game of Life” came out and was struggling with my grades in school at the time.  I saw the album at our local Record Bar, and was allowed to buy it, but I couldn’t listen to it until I got my grades up by report card time.  So, this album sat unopened on top of my record player until my report card came a few weeks later.  Thankfully, I got my grades up and was FINALLY able to listen to this album!  That was the longest 3-4 weeks of my life!

As I mentioned at the beginning, this was sort of a transitional album for the Kingsmen, but it was a great sounding album and ranks as one of my personal favorite studio recordings by the group.  While I appreciate the uniqueness of the title track, I do kind of wish they had left “The Game of Life” in the dug-out and found another great song to take its place, but I digress!  Despite that, it’s a wonderful album and the Kingsmen really sounded great with Garry and Arthur as part of the team.

The Kingsmen were still the reigning kings on the quartet circuit, in fact during the 1984 Singing News Fan Awards, the Kingsmen took home “Favorite Band”, Jim Hamill won “Favorite Male Singer” and Anthony Burger took home “Favorite Musician”.  Speaking of Anthony, a few months prior to “The Game of Life” coming out, he released his second instrumental album titled, “Anthony Burger Plays the Greatest Hits of the Kingsmen”.  It’s a unique album and I really enjoyed listening to it when I was a kid, and I loved his take on the Kingsmen classic, “Beautiful Home”!

“The Game of Life” would be the last label studio album the Kingsmen would record for the next 4 years, as they began focusing on live albums, which is where they excelled at!  In fact, at one point the Kingsmen even considered recording only live albums going forward!  So, for the next few weeks, we’ll be diving into 3 very different and remarkable live recordings that spawned some of their most prolific and exciting tunes in their recording career…so be on the lookout!

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James Hales

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