Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Gardener - Finding A Lost Treasure

Easter Tuesday

Today's Word:
Acts 2:36-41 (Peter: "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation")
Psalm 33:4-5, 18-22 (The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord)
John 20:11-18 (Mary Magdalene: "If you carried him away, tell me where you laid him and I will take him")

On Easter Sunday I posted the lyrics to an obscure song from 1971, from memory. This was for all practical purposes before the CCM or 'Jesus music' became buzzwords, let alone its own multimillion dollar industry. Today I want to tell you where that song came from.

I'm not well versed on how it all started - maybe the evolution of popular music simply inspired people at just the right time. Musical theater was apparently moving away from the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein, and the 'concept' record album was coming into popularity. But even at the level of the hit single, as we entered the 1970s, something unusual was taking place. Judy Collins made it into the top five with an a capella rendering of the hymn Amazing Grace. By 1973, Sister Janet Mead made a one-hit wonder for herself with a contemporary setting of the Lord's Prayer. Elvis Presley had recorded How Great Thou Art - with an entire album of hymns - in 1966; he had recorded a similar project in 1960.

There were three blockbuster recordings that were first heard in the early 1970s. First was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar (lyrics by Tim Rice), which I've quoted from frequently in this series. On its heels was the musical Godspell, loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew, written by Stephen Schwartz. And the third was a little-known project that had been in the works for three years - Truth of Truths, an ambitious project putting key stories from the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) in a then-contemporary setting.

Truth of Truths went the one place where the others did not. Where Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell end with the death of Jesus, TOT covers the Resurrection and its finale deals with the Book of Revelation.

It was released in the spring of 1971, and was billed as a road-show rock opera (an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Who's Tommy and JCS). It was first performed live at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday 1971 before an audience of over 3,000 people. TOT's producer and co-writer, Ray Ruff, was looking to take this as far as he possibly could. However, financial backing for something like this was almost unheard of in 1971. Still, Ruff managed to get TOT performed in six cities that year, and thousands of albums sold. Among the people who helped promote the album was a man named Jon Rivers, who was until only a few weeks ago the morning drive host on K-LOVE radio stations across the country. At that time he was hosting a syndicated program called Powerline, that evangelized using lyrics from popular songs of the day.

I was one of those who happened to hear excerpts from TOT on Rivers' show. I was impressed by just about anything musically that managed to incorporate religious themes, and had my own copy of both Godspell and JCS, even as controversial as the latter was at the time it was released. I likewise bought a copy of TOT when I had the chance. I had the album for many years, until the development of CDs made the old vinyl LPs obsolete. Then, because I had to free up space, I parted with all the LPs I could no longer play. If I'd only knew then where this recording was destined, I would have kept it.

Ray Ruff had plans of getting Truth of Truths performed in more cities, and was prepared to make another pressing of the album - all of which took time to bankroll, and he was doing this on his own as no major record label thought it would sell. Still, there were always people interested as the word got out. Then, one fateful day in 1973, all the master recording tapes and files to TOT were destroyed in a fire set, reports say, by a person on the staff of Ruff's recording company who had declared himself a devil worshipper. Ruff had no backup. TOT was lost, save those fortunate people who had purchased the original vinyl recordings. (Some cassette recordings were also sold from the original masters, but the quality of cassette tape was quite inferior in those days.)

It would have seemed that TOT was lost forever - but upon reaching the 30th anniversary of its first performance, Ruff began considering the possibility of remastering the recording from vinyl in order to release it on CD. Computer technology had reached the point where this was possible and reasonable quality could be achieved. Re-recording with a fresh cast was considered but rejected, again due to cost. Some of the people involved with the original release had died over the years. Ray himself passed away in September 2005, his dream unfulfilled.

But this story has a hopeful ending. Ruff's widow and one of his business partners owned the copyright on the original recording and have continued working on the project since Ray's death. As of March 12 of this year announcements at several websites where TOT has been discussed at length indicate that the CD release of the original recording will finally happen later in 2009. I will be watching for it.

God will have mercy
He'll forgive us of all our sins
He'll guide us to the Promised Land
If we turn to Him
If we turn to Him
Let My people go
Let My people go

--Let My People Go

Awake, awake O Israel
God is sending you a Messiah
Help is coming
Help is coming
This man will arise from the dead
And ascend into heaven

--Prophecies of the Coming Messiah
(excerpt) from Truth of Truths (1971)
words and music by Ray Ruff (1938-2005) and Val Stoecklein

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