THE PILGRIMS -Telling Youth, The Truth...
An Interview With Derrick Phillips by Ed Nadorozny
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Swinging London , Mods, Carnaby Street etc, On any given night you could see say The Who, The Birds or countless other groups playing all over London. One swinging scene going on , but few people know there was another scene going on all over England. A Christian beat scene. Bands sprung up all over the country groups like The Crossbeats & Witnesses from Liverpool, The Persuaders from Stockport preached the gospel to youth. One of the best of these Christian beat groups was The Pilgrims. Just for the record, the members of the group were Don Sanders-Lead Guitar (1962-66)& Bass(1966-69), Derrick Phillips -Rythym Guitar(1962-67), Ian Wilkie -Drums, John Hubbard-Bass(1962-66), Chris King -Vocals & Harmonica (1962-64) & Tony Goodman - Lead Vocals , Harmonica & Lead Guitar (1966-1971).
Where were the Pilgrims from? We lived in south east London. Specifically in Lewisham (SE13), Catford (SE6) and Lee (SE12) originally. When we got married we started moving out into north Kent (Bromley and Orpington) and, in fact, Tony originally came from Orpington.
How did you come up with the name of the group? I’m not sure which of us hit on the name. It must have been Don, Ian or me, because we were the original three members. I suspect it may have been Ian. As for why - it just seemed appropriate for a Christian group.
Before you started doing Christian songs what kind of songs were you doing? I was never in a secular band. Don had played around with a few guys doing “Shadows” numbers, but I don’t think they were very serious about it. We played Christian songs right from the start and we didn’t even ‘borrow’ secular tunes. Initially we played songs found in published Christian songbooks, but we quickly moved on to writing our own.
Where did you play your first gig? I can’t remember where we played our first gig (must have been significant, eh?) but I do remember the first practise and what led up to it. We were at a Friday night youth outreach coffee-bar event in Deptford (south east London - near the place where Christopher Marlowe was stabbed) and Don came up to me saying “Guitar in tune? Voice in tune? We’ve been thinking about forming a Christian rock group - would you like to be in it?”. The next morning I opened up the church where I normally went (I had a key) and we got together to try and play something experimentally. The first song we tried was “It is no secret” and it worked well enough for us to continue on from there.
So what was the song that you practiced that night? The song in question was “I Praise the Lord”... It was a Shadows influenced number & the distintctive feature we tried to first time on that song was to put a vocal backing to some of the instumental parts. The story is this- we were due to play at a youth club run by a church in Well Hall, just off the main Dover road leading out of the south of London. We got there early and had a time for a bit of extra practice, so finished off that new song well enough to play it that evening. The evening itself was just another performance & not particularly memorable but, when we came out some one told us the news that was just coming through about the Kennedy assassination. Of course, the events were not in any way connected but, as many people have said, everyone who was around on that day remembers where they were when they heard the news.
Tell me about the group’s development. The three periods of the group’s development were (roughly) - 1961 - 63 “Shadows” style (easy to remember, because I recall being at a particular place, rehearsing a particular song on the day JFK was shot) 1964 - 65/6 “Beatles” style 1966- 67 “Rolling Stones” style These dates are not exact, because we changed gradually as we replaced repertoire with new songs and dropped older ones. In fact, you will notice from the recordings you have heard that some songs were recycled into blues versions. Despite this approximation, you will be able to work out from that roughly when each song was recorded... it would be impossible to be exact.
So how long was the first period group together? I think it was about 2 years.
Why did Chris King leave the group? That’s a bit embarrassing. In our terms, he was not a Christian at that time and had been brought into the group to make up a particular format. Eventually, we had to face the fact that we didn’t have the same aims and had to separate. I guess I was the instigator of the break and I probably didn’t handle it very well. On the other hand, the outcome was that we were a much closer team and far more effective musically and spiritually.
Was there a bit of a panic when Chris King left? No. The previous fashion had a clear ‘lead singer’ and backup band, but by that time The Beatles and other Liverpool groups had established a fashion for harmony and for equal involvement by all group members. We were already sharing the singing and, as I recall, Chris had dropped out on several occasions - so it was pretty straight forward to complete a change that had already begun.
How long was the second phase group together? There was not such a clear division, as Tony joined the group gradually and we had a period when we were playing both types of music. Tony would sing the out-and-out R&B numbers and the rest of us would play the older songs. The shift progressed bit by bit and some songs were rearranged into R&B format. John died in 1966 and, by that time we were already in the 3rd phase apart from the guitar. After a break Tony took over the lead guitar and the change was complete. On that calculation, the second phase was a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 3. I left in October 1967, so the 3rd phase was 1-2 years (depending where you draw the line).
It must have been a shock to you when John Hubbard died. Yes. None of us had experienced a tragedy like that, and it hit us hard. John looked pretty good the last time most of the group saw him; but Kathy (my wife) and I visited him on the afternoon before he died, and he looked worn and tired - with an odd sort of yellow colouration to his skin. Us two, plus Don and Brenda, were together that evening at the home of Roger Forster (now a much respected church leader over here). Ian phoned the house during the evening to tell us the news and we were speechless. Incidentally, John was best man at my wedding (40th anniversary next May).
When did Tony Goodman join the Pilgrims? You mentioned he was already in the group when John Hubbard was still alive. I’m not sure of the date, but it was not long before John died. He joined because of his particular skills (singing and harmonica) and his ‘feel’ for blues music and he easily fitted into the group. I guess we had about 6 months with both Tony and John in the group.
How did Tony find the group? Did he go to the same church as The Pilgrims? Was he a friend of one of the group member? Tony was cousin to Ian’s wife and he was also at the church where Don & Brenda Sanders used to go when they lived in their first married home (Orpington).
What kind of clubs did you play? Well, yeah, there was a place called the Alphabet, which was a pretty notorious at the time. I’m trying to remember the names of some of these places, you know years go by and you forget. Most of them would never have been heard of now, but there was one in Waldorf Street that I ought to remember because it was...yeah, we played the 2i’s, which was quite a small coffee bar. It was famous in it’s own way because it was the place where Cliff Richard had been discovered earlier on, but in fact it was a pretty pokey place, and whilst it had a reputation because of that it was very, very small. That was in old Compton Street, one of the main parts of the Soho area. Then of course there were places elsewhere in the country.
Did you ever play at The Catacombs in Manchester? No
Do you remember any of the other Christian groups ,The Pilgrims would have played with? We played a few with The Envoys. That was Geoff Shearn’s band. He later with Pete Meadows started Musical Gospel Outreach. Which would put Christian beat concerts on & give advice on how to start Christian beat groups etc.
How about the Crossbeats, did you ever play with them? Yeah , they were a Pentacostal group from Liverpool.
Did The Pilgrims ever do any shows with The Joy Strings? We never played with them. we met them , There was an occasion when we were helping them set up for a Youth in Christ rally in our area & I remember helping one of them find his way out of London as well. So we came across them. Joy Webb is the only one i remember beacause her name was given the publicity.
Apparently The Salvation Army got tired of backing The Joy Strings & they were forced to break up. Yeah... well I think they were almost an accidental phenomenon. I got the impression that they were more of a response to the publicity than self driven. In other words a bit like Dominque... The Singing Nun. Once the press got a hold of a story they pushed it & so it was develpoed in response to that pressure whereas it did’nt have an in-built pressure. Whereas we would have carried on whatever the press thought because we wanted to do it.
How did you manage to get on Herald Records? It Was I think, the editor of what used to be a Christian newspaper, The Sunday Companion, that’s what it was, who.... i can’t remember how we linked up with him, probably through a PR piece or something like that but he linked up us with Herald & that’s how that come about.
What was it like recording at Herald’s studios? Well they had a studio in North London, Actonway & it was not the most state of the art of studios even at that time but nevertheless it was what existed & we did that particular record “Heavens the Place for Me” & there was an attempt at a latter one when we got more adventurous but they never released it.
A bit to wild for them or.... ? I think so. It was much more “gospelly” in the sense that you use gospel &singing and i think they were too uncomfortable to release such a thing.
Was the later stuff with Tony Goodman recorded at the same place? No . There was some that was done... all the later stuff privately. One session was done at a studio at Ealeem Bible College which was actually quite a good studio.And all of that was managed at the time by a chap named Roger Harrow who had been in a folk band called “Roger, Jan & Michael” at one time, sort of a Peter , Paul & Mary group. Roger had a good ear. He managed to get hold of the use of that studio down in Surrey one time. That was quite a well equiped studio as I say. And there was another set of demos we did somewhere around Putney way in London, where we just hired the studio & put together some demo stuff. None of that was ever released. You never tried having any other labels to release them? We did’nt no. Well did’nt try very hard shall we say. We did try a little bit going to the major labels , the obvious ones . Decca & EMI , at the time but they were not interested.
What about the rumor you met Princess Margaret? I hadn’t forgotten that one, but it didn’t come to mind when we were talking before. A new Anglican church building was being opened on the Old Kent Road in south London. To give you a sense of where the Old Kent Road fits in British tradition, it is the lowest priced square on British versions of the ‘Monopoly’ board game! This particular building was pretty adventurous architecture for its time (a circular design) and the vicar decided to make a special event of the opening, with an appropriately modern service and a high profile personality to pronounce the official opening. He wrote to Buckingham Palace asking for a royal representative and they agreed to send Princess Margaret and her then husband, Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The vicar also decided to seek out a rock group to accompany the music and The Pilgrims was his chosen target. We tried to turn him down, saying we were more interested in clubs and secular venues than churches... after all, we viewed our role as evangelism; but he was not the kind of guy you turn down easily, and he eventually won us over.
Of course, rock music in church was pretty controversial stuff in those days, so this became a newsworthy item. The evening papers that day splashed it over the front pages under headlines like “Princess rocks ‘em in the Old Kent Road”. In fact, the service was even debated on the popular BBC radio programme, “Women’s Hour” in the next week, with the ‘against’ argument being put by the then Countess of Dartmouth (“How terrible to bring that kind of music into a church”!). Remember, we were in different times back then, and titles still counted for something. We were never asked to appear on that program to explain our side of the story.
Did anything go wrong at the shows? You bet! However, it would be impossible to recall the little things after all this time. We broke strings, we had at least one power cut in the middle of a performance, and I remember one outdoor performance at a barbecue when our amps started picking up radio broadcasts. The two strongest memories of things ‘going wrong’ were occasions when church leaders popped up in the middle of our performance and started complaining about the music. The kids loved it, of course, but these guys didn’t want the kids to enjoy the gospel! Holiness is supposed to be boring, didn’t you know?
So how many gigs would you play a week? Generally a couple. Then sometimes we’d do a longer weekend or we’d go off during our holiday times for a pair of weeks or a complete fortnight somewhere. We did a long session up in Gateshead (that’s near Newcastle), a couple years running. We did a couple of weeks in Ireland that I referred to earlier, and that got to be pretty exciting because this was something that went completely NOT to plan. I don’t know if you’ve heard this story. Someone had organized to set up a coffee bar, a Christian coffee bar as it was supposed to be in Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dunleerey), just outside Dublin. The first night there was a riot and the police closed it down. And so there we were for two weeks and so we scratched our heads and said, “What shall we do?” and walked down to the local disco club and said, “You can have a free group if you want.” They took us in and it was a huge success. Then we went round a lot of different clubs in Dublin for the rest of the time. It was far more successful than it would be if it had gone to plan.
Do you remember any other funny stories, shows that went crazy or bad or...? Well, none spring into mind but there was a series of very successful shows. When Musical Gospel Outreach got going which was largely driven by Pete Meadows and Geoff Shearn, they staged a number of shows in which there were a series of bands. A lot of those were very effective and drew large crowds. By that time the Christian music scene was beginning to come together and it was no longer a matter of bands not knowing one another, we did know one another and so it was a bit more deliberate. Some of those were very effective. I guess that was nearly the end of our time but in a sense it was the beginning of the Christian music scene in a more coordinated fashion. And yeah, we learned to perform perhaps a little bit more professionally. You’d organize your numbers so you could get the audience reaction you wanted. But that was definitely a change by that time. Then there were a couple that were organized at the Westminster Central Hall. I don’t know if that means anything to you but it’s the Central Methodist Chapel in England, opposite Westminster Abbey. Now you’ve certainly heard of Westminster Abbey? Well the Central Hall seats about two and a half thousand and that was done a couple of times where we used it as a showcase for what Christian music was trying to do and get the Church behind us much more. So it was done just as a 2 part show, partly to play the music, but partly to show what we were aiming to do. And show us off as if we were in a normal beat club setting, and it did get a lot more support behind what was going on.
How were the crowds? Was the audience receptive or did you have any where you got a cold response? No, it was generally quite warm actually. For one thing, we’d learnt to major on the enthusiasm, you know, to really play our hearts out and people responded to that. And this was because of the...by that time we’d already had several years behind us, and got the confidence to do it. But no, generally they were appreciative. Okay, they knew we were preaching at ‘em but at least we were trying to do it in their own language.
I was just asking because you’re a Christian group and you’re playing to a secular crowd and might get a cold response. Not generally no. It wasn’t generally cold. In fact there was one session, and this was not one of my times, this was actually in Out of Darkness (successors to The Pilgrims). Ian Wilkie was telling me about this a couple of months ago - when they were playing one of the, if I can remember the name. There was quite a well-known place down the Waldorf Street – yes, it was the Marquee Club - and there was another band on that got booed off, but Out of Darkness were very much appreciated. The only thing is the other band had a major hit a couple of weeks later. You remember Mungo Jerry? In the Summertime? That’s right. They’re the ones. (laughter)
Of course the thing is, we were not relying on it for a living and we had got a few years behind us. By that time we’d actually become quite a reasonable standard, and I suppose you could say that a lot of these clubs didn’t get a reasonable standard because once people got to a reasonable standard, they were out for big money. So we were often up against groups who weren’t as good as us. Because the ones who were as good as us weren’t affordable. And you take the comparison. It’s not that we were the most brilliant people in the world, but we were playing in a context where they usually didn’t get very good people so someone who was reasonably competent was probably going to go down quite well.
So you talked about playing in Scotland, what was that like? I’m trying to remember any particular gigs. I’m sure we did go across the border but...we definitely did. But there’s nothing that stands out as being exceptional up there.
One club kind of looks the same after another...? Well, you remember things by who you met and whether anything unusual happened rather than particular...I mean occasionally I’ll be in an area and I’ll think, “Oh, we played there.” But otherwise I’ve not remembered it. Other places stand out because they were exceptional. There was one. One thing that stands out that wasn’t to do with the band directly but do you remember a chap called Nigel Goodwin? Well, Nigel used to be with us quite a lot. I remember being struck on the journey back from Bradford on one occasion when (and this was in the days when the motorways were still fairly new. There weren’t a lot of them). He was travelling back with us and it was notable because every time we went into one of these places he found someone to witness to in the motorway service station, in the toilet. (laughter) But he was so free and comfortable with his witness that he really stood out.
Did you ever meet any groups like when you’d stop and get something to eat after a show? Yeah, we met the Searchers on one occasion if you remember the Searchers? In Newport Pagnell. I mean it was just sort of a “hi guys” no deep sort of social relationships or anything like that, but we met them. And, I can’t particularly remember any others. Oh yeah, we remember the Pretty Things. There was a chap from the Pretty Things who came with us on a couple of gigs. He had been the drummer.
Viv Prince? Yeah, that’s right, yeah. He came with us on a couple of gigs back then. I think he was just on his way out of them at the time.
So it must have been about '66 or so? Yeah, that would have been the ticket. I remember him in the van several times.
How did you manage to get him? How did he find you guys? I can’t remember. I think we ran into him at a club or something like that, and got chatting as you do after we were much of an age. It wasn’t an obvious mix.
You meet strange people sometimes. Oh, we met people who were a lot stranger than that.
I’ll tell you I had an experience last year. I’ve got a website I do called RSD alert. This is to do with a chronic pain condition that I got after I broke my arm. And I had a doctor write to me because he’d got a particular patient who got this condition called RSD and he was from up North somewhere. Having asked his questions to do with the particular problem his patient had got he said, “And by the way weren’t you in the Pilgrims?” He’d remembered my name from when he was a thirteen-year-old boy and we’d been playing in his church all those years ago!
You mentioned doing a lot of gospel youth rallies, what would one be like? Gospel youth rallies tended to be run by organizations (like “Youth for Christ”) who had their own pattern for the meetings, so we would just fit in with them. In those settings we normally did one of two sets of 2-4 songs in the middle of the meeting / rally.
Would you have a speaker, then the group would play? Did you preach between songs? We varied the way we performed, depending on the venue. Sometimes we would play a club and just churn out solid music - by the end we always got the chance to speak with people individually. Other times we would play an on stage concert and introduce the songs individually. Sometimes we would take church services or church youth meetings and lead up to a sermon or epilogue. We were taken aback when we played a beat club in Ireland and came to the end of our session, only to have the proprietor ask who was going to give the epilogue! Naturally, we took the opportunity enthusiastically! When you mention being an enthusiastic group, did you jump around a lot? Even today. I can’t stand still when I’m playing! We jigged around quite a bit and sometimes we would deliberately act it up. I recall one concert on Weymouth pier where we started by jumping off a higher section of the stage as soon as they opened the curtains on us. We were conscious of the need to perform as well as to play music. On of the club proprietors once gave us a piece of good advice; he said, “You play your hearts out and the kids will give you the attention... in fact they’ll sit on the floor and listen to you once you have got their respect”
What was your typical set like? Any instrumentals? As we went along we learned to program the music more effectively and in relation to the venue. In a beat club, it was essential to grab attention as quickly as possible, so we would start with a raver. In a concert, the audience was sitting down and listened from the start, so we needed to develop a rapport - in that context, it made sense to start slow, then break out into upbeat numbers. Apart from the ‘breaks’ within songs, we never did instrumentals.
Did you have a favorite song? My favorite song? That’s hard, but I reckon the one I have messed around with most over the years has been “Don’t you think it’s time”, which is a classic 12-bar blues number and does appear on the recordings you have heard. We probably never played it the same twice, which was part of the pleasure of it; it was a tune for live jamming and each audience got a unique version of us playing it from the heart. Probably the most remembered of the Pilgrims’ songs is “Heaven’s the place for me”, partly because of the single made from version 1 of it, and partly because the revamped R&B version was so energetic and joyful. I guess you could call that my second favourite.
When you left the group was it a mutual decision or were you surprised? I was surprised, though perhaps I ought not to have been. The time was right, but the other guys faced the issue before I did and had the guts to talk about it frankly. I had moved out to a village near Dartford (Kent) and was getting more and more involved in the local church. Soon after I left the group the circumstances changed in that church and I found myself as one of the key leaders. It would not have been possible to continue in the group and do that. I was only surprised because I hadn’t spotted the signs. I regretted leaving, but it was also time to move on. The next period of my life was also very exciting as we were working in a small church in Kent and experienced something very close to what the evangelicals call “revival”. I never forget those times in The Pilgrims and they had a lasting effect on my life. I am back into the music now and making good use of that background experience.
One last thing... At the first MGO concert in the Westminster Central Hall (1966?) our dear friend Nigel Goodwin introduced The Pilgrims as “Not only the best Christian group, but also the “LOUDEST !” - For a largely forgotten band that’s a lovely memory to look back on!
THIS ARTICLE IS DEDICATED TO JOHN HUBBARD who died from lukemia on March 20, 1966.
Special Thanks: The Pilgrims, Derrick Phillips, Don Sanders, Ian Wilkie, John Hubbard, Tony Goodman, Chris King, and Eddie Boyes (1968 poster and photo).
Discography - Heaven’s The Place for Me / Think of God’s Love (Herald 2416 1964)
Unreleased - He Wants You / Do You believe in God ?/ I Praise the Lord? /Think it over #1 / Hey You !/ Think it over #2/ Wait & See/ Who’s Your Lord ?/ Anytime of The Day/ Thank You Lord/ Heard It All Before/ There’s Someone in Your Life/ What are You doing with Your Life ?/ Heaven’s the Place for Me #2/ I Did’nt Care / I Found a Special Friend/ I Know I’m Going to Heaven /I Don’t Need You/ Don’t You Think Its Time?
THE PILGRIMS - "TELLING YOUTH... THE TRUTH"
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