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Interview with Randy Hill of Liberation Suite
One-Way: Tell me a little about the beginnings of Liberation Suite.
Randy Hill: I met Barry Bynum (lead guitarist for Liberation Suite) during the summer of 1969, in a little grocery store in San Marcos, Texas. A mutual musician friend of ours by the name of Craig Connally, who eventually became the first bass player for Liberation Suite, introduced us at the store. I was fourteen years old and playing drums for a dance band called "The Experience" (no, not Jimi Hendrix), and Barry (also fourteen) had just moved to San Marcos from Lubbock, Texas. We hit it off, and the three of us put together a rock band called "Rock Reconstruction"; and we played school dances and frat parties around the central Texas area. Barry’s brother David (later sax player for Liberation Suite) was our "manager." Barry and Craig went to school in San Marcos, and I went to school in a little farming community about ten miles from there. It was much more "hip" to hang out in San Marcos, so that’s where I spent most of my free time.
Through my friendship with Barry and Craig, I met Howard Lyon (trombone) and his brother Paul (trumpet). During the summer of 1971, each of us had our own unique salvation experience, which eventually led to the formation of Liberation Suite. There was a gentleman, there in San Marcos, named Terry Stephens who formed a sort of "Up With People" style choral group called "Sound 70." He was in need of a rhythm and brass section, so we ended up being the backup band for the choir. We would perform hits by bands like "Chicago," as well as some of our own Christian songs. We eventually left the choir and started performing on our own around central Texas.
One-Way: How about your backgrounds and early musical influences?
Randy Hill: Some of the first records I ever had were hand-me-down ‘78’s from my mother - artists like B.B. King and Smiley Lewis. We lived on a farm just outside of San Marcos, near the farming community of Uhland, Texas. There was an old dance hall there, and I can remember going there with my parents on a Saturday night and watching all these farmers and their wives doing the Texas Two-Step around the dance floor. So I guess blues and country music were my biggest influences. Then when the Beatles hit the scene I went nuts. Barry and David Bynum were influenced pretty heavily by the Beatles. Howard and Paul were sons of a high school band director, so that’s where their brass influence came from. They were also crazy about the band Chicago.
One-Way: Did any of you have any musical training growing up?
Randy Hill: All of us were members of a school band. I played bass drum throughout school. Howard of course, played trombone, and his brother Paul played trumpet, while David played sax, and Barry played trumpet in school. I got my first drum kit when I was thirteen from a Sears catalog...a blue sparkle set. It came with a little 45 vinyl single that explained how to play them. I spent hours banging along to various records until I got the hang of it.
One-Way: Have you had a chance to visit the Jesus Music website?
Randy Hill: Yeah, I love it. It’s great to see all the artists on there...some of whom we have had the opportunity to perform with through the years.
One-Way: What do you think about the Internet?
Randy Hill: It is fantastic to be able to have a website up, so that anyone in the world can access information about your music 24 hours a day. It has and will continue to have an incredible influence on the way we work as a band.
One-Way: What was it like in the 70's as you played your music and traveled around?
Randy Hill: Well, first off, we thought we were the only Christian band in the world for the longest time! Then we heard about groups like "Love Song" and "J.C. Power Outlet," and we were thrilled to find we weren’t alone. In the beginning we played a lot of school dances and mixed our own original Christian tunes with secular hits of the day. People liked our original music, and we drifted away from the dances and started doing more strictly evangelical outreaches. We played a lot of open airs in parks. We also did a lot of acoustic type gigs with guitars and congas, which allowed us to get into a lot of places we wouldn’t normally have been able to get into.
In 1973, a traveling tent revival called "Christ Is The Answer" came through Austin. It consisted of about 200 "Jesus Freaks" of all ages, who traveled from city to city with a huge circus tent, and put on "rallies" each night. The rally would start at about 7:00 in the evening, when a rock band called "Joyful Noise" would kick off the evening. Their lead guitarist, Joe Greer, was one of the founders of the famed Christian rock group, "E." Then "Christ Is the Answer" founder Bill Lowry would get up and preach a hellfire and brimstone sermon. We played one of the rallies in Austin, and then when the tent moved on to San Antonio we got invited back a second time. A couple of the elders eventually asked us to join the ministry, which, after much prayer and thought, we did. Half the band members were seniors in high school, and the other half had already graduated. All the guys who were still in high school graduated early except for me. I quit smack dab in the middle of my senior year, because I knew playing music for the Lord was all I really wanted to do anyway. From San Antonio we went to Phoenix, Arizona for two months.
An open air concert in the center of Belfast, Northern Ireland
during the height of the troubles (1974).
Very few bands would play in Northern Ireland at the time...
we did and a lot of folks showed up
Our days consisted of street witnessing during most of the day, then rehearsal, then playing at the rally at night. From Phoenix the tent went to San Bernardino, California for a month, where my future wife, Dawn, became a Christian at one of the rallies. Then it was on to Las Vegas, Nevada. What an experience that was! During the day we would go out street witnessing in front of the casinos, and at night we would play. One evening a popular local musician by the name of Benny Hester came to one of the rallies and got saved. Of course he went on to do quite well in Christian music. In fact, he was instrumental in helping us get one of our first demos made at a pretty nice studio in Vegas. Anyway, the city of Las Vegas eventually got tired of the tent, and had us "moved" to a piece of land out in the desert on the outskirts of town. From there the tent moved on to Denver, Colorado, and after about a month there, we decided as a band to return to San Marcos, Texas. So ended an extremely interesting (and hard) six-month stint on the road. We played almost every night during the entire six months that we were with "Christ Is The Answer." Needless to say, we were pretty tight musically and spiritually. My future wife Dawn, stayed on with the tent for another seven or eight months, but we stayed in contact by mail and were married in San Marcos, in April of 1974.
One-Way: I know the band spent a lot of time living in Europe. How did a Texas band end up there?
After we left "Christ Is The Answer," we returned to San Marcos. We continued playing coffeehouses and open airs. A fellow by the name of Ray Barnett had an organization called "Friends In The West," that worked with Christians behind, what was then known as, the "Iron Curtain." Ray spoke at our church one Sunday evening, and we opened up the service with a couple of songs. After the service, we went to a local coffee shop with Ray. During our conversation over coffee, Ray said that he thought our music would go over well overseas, and more particularly, Ireland. He was originally from a suburb of Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and still had a house there that another ministry was staying in. He said that if we could make it over there, we could use the house for our base. Well, we had always felt that we would be ministering overseas at some point, and we told him we would definitely pray about it. Over the next few weeks, crazy things started happening.
Money started coming in from odd places. Someone bought us a Dodge Maxi Van. Things started clicking together, and it became apparent through the counsel of people in the church that we were supposed to go to Northern Ireland. I knew almost nothing about Ireland, except that it was really green and that it had a lot of sheep! As far as the war between the Catholics and the Protestants… we had no idea what was going on there. My wife Dawn and I had been married for only a month when we left in May of 1974, for Northern Ireland. We packed all of our musical equipment and our bodies into the van, and drove straight through to Montreal, Canada, from San Marcos, Texas, because Aer Lingus airlines offered a low price "youth fare" in Canada. We arrived in Montreal just in time to find out that the shipping lines, that we were going to use to ship the van to Ireland on, had closed for the coming weekend. Miraculously, we found a shipping company who stayed past their regular closing time to help us get the van on a boat bound for Manchester, England.
After the van was taken care of we made our way to the airport and flew to Dublin. While on the plane, one of the band members just happened to be sitting behind someone reading an Irish newspaper with a headline on the front page that read, "Bloody Friday." That was our first clue as to what we were getting ourselves into.
When we arrived at Dublin, we were detained by airport officials who wanted to know why a bunch of Christians from Texas were moving to Northern Ireland during one of the worst times in the history of the "war." By the time they were done interrogating us, we had missed the last flight out to Belfast. The trains were detained as well, because of what was going on up north, and we were forced to find a place to stay in Dublin for a few days until the trains started running again. Two or three days later, we found ourselves standing in a bombed out train station in Belfast. We stood outside the station in the rain, waiting for our ride to show up, and watched as truck loads of British soldiers drove by, guns poised and ready to shoot. It was totally surreal, and all I could think was, "What am I doing here?"
The lady who was to come and pick us up was delayed because she was stopped by one of the local terrorist groups along the way. They were going to take her car and burn it until they found out she was a nurse; God was looking after us. We finally made it to our new home just outside Belfast, in a little village called Mallusk. Two weeks later, our van arrived in Manchester, England. We sent a couple of the band members over to pick it up, and when they opened the crate that the van was shipped over in, they found that it had been broken into. The back windows of the van were broken out, and a large amount of music equipment was gone. Nothing was insured, and the insurance guy at the dock said we could just kiss it goodbye. We knew God had other plans and told him that we would go back to Mallusk and pray, and that God was going to take care of it. Sure enough, the guy called us a week or so later and told us that a couple of guys were stopped for a traffic violation, and when the police opened up their trunk they found our equipment! He wanted us to come over and "tell him about our God." I think God was just using that situation to let us know we were right in the middle of His plans for us.
Over the next six months that we stayed in Northern Ireland, we probably played in just about every town in the province. Most of the concerts were open-airs, and staged in the middle of the downtown areas that were blocked off due to the amount of car bombings that were going on. We would get permission from the city councils to set up our equipment and play. People came out of the woodwork when we started playing, and many, many folks came to know the Lord during that time. It was quite an experience.
In August of 1974, we performed at the first Greenbelt Festival in England. Ian Hamilton and Norman Miller of Word Records approached us after our performance and offered us a record deal on the new (at that time) Myrrh label. We moved from Northern Ireland to London, in the fall of 1974, to begin recording the album. Liberation Suite (MYR 1027) was released in the British Isles and Europe in early 1975, and then in the U.S. later on that year. We based ourselves in the little town of Claygate, just southwest of London. We played concerts throughout the British Isles and Europe for the next two years. Toward the end of our stay in England, Terry Clark (keyboards), his brother Duane (bass), and keyboardist Stephen Houston (of Fruupp fame) joined the band.
At R.G. Jones Studio outside of London on
the completion of our first LP, Liberation Suite
One-Way: Were your albums well received back then and did you ever encounter friction when playing a rock style of music?
Randy Hill: Yes, and yes. Our first album, Liberation Suite (Myrrh) sold pretty well in both the United States and Europe - probably more so in Europe. Although our music was well received in most places that we played, we did get a lot of friction back at our home church in San Marcos.
One-Way: So glad to see the very first album being released this fall on CD. How about Stride for Stride?
Randy Hill: Yeah, it was really unbelievable that Word Records UK located our masters, and then were kind enough to release them to us. That doesn’t happen very often. The CD is available through our web site. We are currently trying to locate the masters to Stride for Stride, and if all goes well, we’ll release it next year. Stride for Stride was marketed pretty well overseas, but unfortunately got pretty lousy distribution by Star Song here in the states. It arrived here in the U.S. as part of a package deal from Chapel Lane records in England, along with Sheila Walsh and the Mark Williamson Band (Chris Eaton was their keyboardist). It must have gotten some distribution somewhere, because I have heard from folks who say it’s their favorite album.
One-Way: Tell us a little about your 1990 album - Water & Blood.
Randy Hill: Water and Blood was recorded in 1990, here in Austin, and was distributed in Europe by GMI. We recorded it over a period of about three years. Unfortunately, the album was mastered in California and sent directly to GMI without our hearing the mastering job. Someone must have fallen asleep at the board, because it sounded horrible. Of course, we didn’t find out about the botched job until they were printed overseas and sent back to us. By that time, the album had already been distributed throughout Europe and the UK. We went into our own studio that same year, and remastered it ourselves, and that is the version that we have available through our website. We learned quite a lesson, believe me! The music itself is a little more rock than our first two albums. It is the first album that James Yager, our keyboardist, appears on.
One-Way: Any particular song from those days a favorite of yours?
Randy Hill: I guess "Hearken," from the first album, would be my favorite. I like the overall sound of the recording, especially the vocal harmonies. The message of the song is as vital today as it was 25 years ago.
One-Way: How often do you guys play together? Any album in the works now?
Randy Hill: We rehearse on a weekly basis, and are in the process of recording a new album. We hope to release it independently next year.
One-Way: Did any of you have any religious backgrounds?
Randy Hill: Yes. Most of us were raised in various denominational churches. I was raised in the Lutheran church, but I didn’t really get to know the Lord until I was around 16 years old.
One-Way: How about a brief summary of how you guys got saved?
Randy Hill: It happened during the summer of 1971. It’s odd, but we all became Christians independent of each other. It was a unique move of the Lord through our area. One weekend, Craig Connally and I were invited to a coffeehouse called "The Well," in Austin, Texas. We went with a group of friends on a Saturday night, and by the end of the evening, we had made the commitment to follow Christ. It was in much of a similar fashion that the other band members became Christians that summer.
One-Way: Many lives and hearts were touched during the early years of the Jesus Movement; what's different today?
Randy Hill: Christian music started as a natural extension of our early commitment to Christ. We were already musicians, but our vision changed from wanting to be rock stars, into a desire to share the "Good News" with others through our musical talents. The movement was quickly poisoned by Christian record labels, Christian music magazines, and media hype in general. Being a musician and being thrust into the limelight, is a difficult position to be in anyway. Humans have this weird tendency to worship celebrity of any kind, and if you don’t have your head screwed on, you can get caught up in all the hoopla and hype. There really doesn’t seem to be much in the way of music evangelism anymore. It’s either a bunch of preaching to the choir, so to speak, or bands are crossing over to the secular arena, and end up not saying much of anything at all. But, please, don’t get me wrong…there is nothing wrong with Christian entertainment…nothing wrong with Christians crossing over and having secular hit songs. But there seems to be a real lack of good old fashioned musical evangelism out there.
One-Way: This website deals with what some would call "oldies" Christian music -do you listen to any of the older stuff any more? Do you listen to any current Christian or secular music?
Randy Hill: Yes, I still listen to the "classic" music. My faves are the first Love Song album, Jamie Owens, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Larry Norman. As far as current music, I love PFR (Please…get back together!), Big Tent Revival, and the W’s. It seems the musicianship and writing has vastly improved since the early days.
One-Way: As we enter the new century, what are your feelings on the whole CCM industry as we know it today?
Randy Hill: My hope is that we will all get serious about why we are really doing this music in the first place. It can’t be for the glory of it…that’s directly opposed to what a new life in Jesus really means. It’s a huge fight for me personally. On the one hand you try to keep the message of Jesus in the forefront, and get yourself out of the way. At the same time, in order to get gigs, it seems you have to endlessly hype and promote yourself. That seems wrong to me.
One-Way: What is a Liberation Suite concert like? How has it changed over the years?
Randy Hill: We have a high standard on how well we perform the music. The message is still the same, and still as important as it was in 1971. We avoid musical fads…but our music continues to evolve with the times. We each listen to a tremendous amount of music, and, of course, are influenced to some extent by what we listen to. But it’s basically good rock and roll.
One-Way: Does your music reach young people these days or is it mostly the older generation of the 60's/70's?
Randy Hill: I think it reaches all ages…anyone who appreciates good music. Good music should be just that, good music, and it should appeal to anyone, regardless of age. I can remember growing up and listening to artists three times my age, but it was great music and I dug it.
One-Way: Randy, thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. Any parting words?
Randy Hill: Go to church. Evangelize. Rehearse. Play live. Record. Have fun.