The Tommy Coomes Interview Part One
By: Bob Gersztyn
Tommy Coomes is a founding member of Love Song, a pioneer Jesus rock band whose nucleus formed in 1970. By 1975 they broke up, but Coomes was also co-owner of Maranatha Records along with Chuck Smith’s nephew, Chuck Fromm. He helped produce albums and had his own projects over the years, along with an occasional Love Song reunion. I did this interview on March 18, 2010, 4 months before I photographed a stop on the band’s West Coast reunion tour at a Calvary Chapel in Vancouver, Washington. I got to know the band in the early 1970’s when they performed at my church in Los Angeles a few times. I was the emcee of the coffee house ministry and introduced groups and delivered a short message and alter call at the end. When Love Song went on a world tour to the Philippines, my senior pastor Laverne Campbell accompanied them as part of the team. My first assignment as a freelance photographer was to shoot Love Song at a Coffee House in Alhambra, to use in promoting their trip to the Philippines. I included a couple of the shots from 1973, that weren’t used.
Tommy also became the music director for the Billy Graham organization, as well as Promise Keepers and has his own band, the Tommy Coomes Band. The purpose of this interview, as I told Tommy, was to get firsthand information about how CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), then known as Jesus Music, first began, for my book. “Jesus Rocks The World: The Definitive History of Contemporary Christian Music, vol 1&2.” The book was published by Praeger in 2012. After talking with Tommy for a few minutes about my involvement in the Jesus movement and some of the people that we both knew the interview began.
Bob Gersztyn: I appreciate you taking the time to from your busy schedule to talk to me. I’m glad to be able to reminisce about some really good times and friends that we both had in that era.
Tommy Coomes: Well that’s very helpful and what a fascinating background you have. Laverne Campbell is one of my favorite all time people. I never knew him really well but the last time that I saw him was probably 20-25 years ago in Atlanta I spent a day and a half with him and stayed in his house and thought that he was a wonderful guy. He really cared about people a lot. Is he still alive?
Bob: No, he tragically died from a horrible cancer, along with his wife. There is some speculation about the school that they transformed into a church had radiation or something that even affected some of the elders who also died of cancer, but it’s never been confirmed. It was a very sad thing. He was a great guy and was one of the kindest and caring persons that I knew. He was my pastor for 2 ½ years and my prototype for what a follower of Jesus was. Nobody else compared.
Tommy: I would agree. One of the things we did with him when we were bopping around and I was just doing whatever he was doing and he had a very busy schedule, but God put this young kid in his heart who was a homosexual that worked at a clothing store in Atlanta, where it was a hotbed for that lifestyle. He stopped in just to say hi to him. It wasn’t like he came to put him in a head lock and say, hey I know that you’re gay, but he just wanted to say, hey, how are you doing? I just thought that was very pioneering, back in those days. I just thought, this guy knows something that most people I know, just don’t know. How to be gracious to people and not try to put them in a head lock and preaching to them. Let’s get going with the interview.
Bob: The first question is how many Maranatha! compilation albums were there all together. I have 5 myself.
Tommy: There were 7. I’m not sure that I can tell you what year it was, but it was around 1978 that it was released. The first 4 were the most powerful and most widespread and they also had some really good songs on it. It was a way to not send a group into the studio to do a whole album. It was a way to capture one song and get them out there quickly.
Bob: How and when did Maranatha! Begin? And talk about your involvement with it.
Tommy: I love what God did in that era. I think it’s part of why Chuck Smith Sr.’s philosophy of ministry has developed the way it has. God was already doing something, he wasn’t attempting to start something to see if God would bless it. The work of all these young people coming to Christ was already going on. It was something that God nourished. Nobody can take credit for that. It’s a work of God. It wasn’t just at Calvary Chapel (Costa Mesa, California) obviously. It was El Paso, Texas, Seattle, London, a little bit, Kansas City, Dallas, Ft. Worth. I’ve heard Dr. Edwin Orr, who is considered the world’s foremost authority on revival history. He would say that the Jesus movement wasn’t really a revival, it was really in another category that was literally a people movement, where it didn’t affect all of our society, per se, but hundreds of thousands, between half a million and several million people, you might know better than me. Mostly young people, but then their whole family was pulled into the kingdom. So that was already going on, in the context of the Jesus movement.
I came to Christ in March of 1970 and all the guys in Love Song came to Christ at the same time. Shortly after that it was like an explosion and they kept expanding the church. Chuck Smith is from a full gospel background. He’s not unaware of when God is moving and what it looks like. One of the things that I love about pastor Chuck is that he just wasn’t into kind of artificially propping that up or help God. Something special was happening down here because TIME magazine was coming down because it was getting a lot of news media.
The church was small, when I first went there I thought that there were about 200 people, although might say that it was 350, but it was a small, little tiny church. All of a sudden you had all these people were coming into the church to check out what was going on and all these groups start getting born. Groups like Love Song, The Way, Children of the Day, Daniel Amos and then you had Debbie Kerner, Ernie Rettino and you had all these groups start showing up with the songs they sang. It was very natural that within weeks literally, somebody would come up to us afterwards and say I’m the chaplain over at juvenile hall in the Orange County jail system and I’m wondering can you come and play for the prison system. In another case someone say’s hey I’m at this Presbyterian church out here in Orange and we’ve got this church youth group and I believe it needs what you’ve got, can you come and do our church on Sunday morning. Those things began to happen and pretty soon it’s can you come and do Northern California and things like that. The guys in the group didn’t have any money, we were lucky to have a car and some equipment. We were all about ministering day and night and responding to those requests. So pastor Smith said I need to get these kids some gas money to get from place to place. We’ve got all these songs. I literally got a call one night saying all you guys are going to be involved in an album at a little studio that has 4 track recording called Buddy King’s and you’re all going down there to record your songs. That’s how I found out about it.
So all of a sudden that was Maranatha One. Chuck Girard was involved in taking over production once mastering started and he wound up finishing the album. If I remember right there was supposed to be no more than $4,000.00 but wound up being $44 or $48,000.00, when it was done in 1970 and it came out in 1971. I didn’t find out until 20 years later, that Chuck Smith started it as a practical thing. You know, let’s put out an album and then the kids can sell them when they go places and they’ll have money to pay for the gas, because a lot of the time these churches are giving them nothing, but in the places that they’re going, there is nothing to be given. So what happened with that album when it first showed up, the first boxes of albums, we put them in Sunday school rooms at Calvary Chapel. By that time we may have been across the street I not quite sure. I remember seeing the album on the bigger lot across the way there, but it came out in 1971. Then somebody said that we need to incorporate this saying that it’s non-profit and that turned into, well hey, we’ll get some money coming back from these albums and let’s send another group in like Children of the Day. Let’s have them record their album. So it was a very humble beginning. It was not designed to be a record company. It was designed to just be a practical way to fund some of the ministry that was already happening.
Bob: So how did you end up in Love Song at Calvary Chapel, personally?
Tommy: I came back from being in the army. See I went in the army in 1967 and got out in March of 1969. Before I’d gone into the army, I was playing music with Fred Fields, one of the original members of Love Song and another man named Chuck Butler, who was a great singer. We played in bands together in high school and going into college and we all got drafted about the same time. The very night that I got home from Germany, I got a call from Chuck Butler or Fred Field saying, hey, you have to come with us down to this club and hear this guy and I think that the band was probably called Love Song, playing in a bar on 19th Street. A little bar called the happening on 19th Street in Costa Mesa, California. I went down there and they told me about some of the musicians that were in the band that were friends of mine that I’d taken guitar lessons from, like Jesse Johnson or Larry Britton and Denny Corral, a long time friend, who was playing bass in there.
There’s this guy, Chuck Girard, I’d never heard of before. In context you have to remember, it’s like when you were a kid growing up playing, you’re going to go see other players. You’re going to go see the hot bands. So that was the context before I went into the army. I’d go see Denny Corral playing with this band called 5th Cavalry, he was definitely in with them and another band called the Vibrant’s that was playing at a place called the Cinnamon Cinder, in Long Beach, where I used to see Larry Britton and Jesse Johnson play, so these were people I knew. So I went to see this band. I’ve been gone for 2 years overseas and I come home and the first night I see this band and here’s Chuck Girard and 2 of my friends playing that I know and I’m going, wow what a great band wow what a great singer, wow, great songs.
That’s how I first met Chuck Girard. Now over the course of a year there’s a lot of movement between Southern California and Salt Lake City, where John Mehler lived and Jay Truax was living. They were in another band called Spirit of Creation. It was a great power trio with another guy Jeff Frarrer, I think it was F-R-A-R-R-E-R, I’m not positive on that one. Truax is T-R-U-A-X. John Mehler, M-E-H-L-E-R. They had this incredible band, it was the best band in Salt Lake City and somehow they came out for a visit and Jay and Chuck Girard had known each other before I knew either one of them.
It’s interesting that Chuck Butler, Fred Field and Jay Truax all grew up in Downey, California, playing in local bands. So we’re just a bunch of kids. You try to be great musicians, going to see other bands and everybody is trying to make hit records. We’re all just trying to be good musicians. Somehow I run into Jay Truax when he comes into Costa Mesa. I think that I met him at Chuck Girard’s little house on Bay Street, I think that’s probably what it was on Bay Street in Costa Mesa. So I’m coming to see these bands and I remember meeting Jay at Chucks house one time and someone said that they were from Salt Lake. Next thing I know, Fred Field, one of my best friends, he takes off and he goes to Salt Lake City and I get a call from him saying, “dude you got to get up here, we’re opening for “Three Dog Night” and we just opened for the “Grateful Dead” last night. So I’m going, holy cow what is going on? So I literally hitchhiked out to Salt Lake City.
Now this is a long story, but I don’t think that anyone’s ever told it before. So I hitch hiked out to Salt Lake City and ended up living with Fred and the drummer John Mehler from the “Spirit of Creation.” So there is a lot of back and forth movement between Salt Lake City and Southern California, where most of the guys were originally from.
Moving forward a little bit, a lot of these bands started breaking up or going through hard times. Really, what happened was several of us had drug busts. I was busted along with Chuck Butler and Fred Field and a new discharge from the army in Newport Beach, for marijuana possession, late one night in Corona Del Mar. We wound up all living together in this house on the top of Baker Street in South Laguna, California and it’s like the remains of 2 groups. So all of a sudden, I’m living with Jay, Chuck, Fred and a drummer named Bobby Gadoti and a great organ player, Dave, I can’t remember his last name all of a sudden. There were 8 of us living in this house in South Laguna.
Then Chuck Girard and another guy who was living with us was going off to Salt Lake City and they got busted in Las Vegas. So all of a sudden life was caving in on us. We’re all living together, playing together and by now we’re called the Laguna family band. We’re playing at the Hotel Laguna just to make ends meet. We were continuing to write songs, but things were on a downward spiral, but the interesting thing is, everyone is on a spiritual search. That was a good thing.
You remember Timothy Leary and his clan, people who lived right up the canyon and were involved in that kind of artistic, we thought forward thinking, enlightened groups of people or trying to be enlightened. There were people reading everything there is to read about spiritual things, Eastern religions and meditation. We were all vegetarians. We really in our own way, in the natural were trying to pursue finding what’s true? What’s truly spiritual? It really wasn’t all drug related things. There really was a lot of good things with people trying to find out. We weren’t complete druggies or something like that, but we were musicians trying to pick up any clues about where to make a dot connection and how to be a good person and these kind of things. They are very strong natural drives, I think for a lot of people. It was not uncommon at all. It was very common for that era, for that time. It was going on all over. The whole world was in an upheaval about that there’s gotta be something more kind of quest.
So while we’re living in South Laguna around Christmas time, before Christmas, a girl that we’d known in Salt Lake City named Sandy Love, spelled just like it sounds. She came to visit and brought us a book. She told us very, very briefly that her life was different now, every day since she met Jesus Christ. She had a pretty desperate situation beforehand. Then she said that there were some people, like us, who were living in this kind of Christian commune up in Newport Beach, some place called the Blue Top and it was a 14 room, if I remember right, old motel. It was 2 story and got destroyed in a flood and a Christian realtor named Ed Riddell, I believe, owned.
As young people would get saved and had no family connections to make a transition into a clean environment where you could study the Bible, work and go to church and you’d kind of change your entire life, leaving the past behind, you could move in there and be a productive part of it. It wasn’t a commune like a hippie commune, but was highly organized and was based around living the life of Christ. Lonnie (Frisbee) and Connie were the elders of the little commune and lived in the back. My future wife, Shelley was living down there as well. She was one of the elder women there, watching out for some of the younger girls.
So Sandy Love drives several of us. Me and Fred and somebody else I think whose house it was and she drives us over. She tells us about this person and about Calvary Chapel. This little church where wonderful things were happening. It’s got this hippie preacher and they teach the word of God. This was all completely foreign to me. Completely! My father was a Catholic and my mother was a Protestant and it was against the rules, the family house rules to ever to talk about religion or politics in our house, because these are the 2 things that send people into controversial discussions. Plus they couldn’t agree about that, so I knew nothing about the Bible and knew nothing about church.
The only church’s that I went to were a little strange. As far as my first church experiences they were either deader than a door nail, going through a ritual that I couldn’t understand or wild and crazy and I’ve got to get out of here. So I didn’t have much to go on. I had no Biblical information, no positive church background, but in fairness to this gal, she had kind of an intriguing story.
We went to this commune late one night and found out that it was too late, but we found out where it was and she told us about Calvary Chapel. And about a month later, if I remember right, we were in this house in Laguna Beach. Fred Field has come to Christ because he read a 4 Spiritual Laws or a Chick tract. Something like that. He accepted Christ, and the other part of the story is that reading this book that Sandy Love left. This book by John Sherrill perhaps. About 1969, late 69, that would be at Christmastime. He’s reading this book called they speak in other tongues and it was about the Baptism with the Holy Spirit and the cost. Since I had come from a Catholic background and had never read the Bible either. To Be Continued….