I was sitting on a beach in New Jersey when Mike, a friend of mine who was running the snack shop, walked toward me said,
“Your mom’s on the phone.”
Now in those days, this wasn’t unusual, especially since there was no other way to connect. Find a community pay phone, park by it and give your mom the phone number. That’s what the Salem County Sportsmen’s Club Snack Shop/Beach phone had become: A community. Everybody used it to find their kids.
My mom said that Sammy Hall called and was offering both Jeff Duffield (my then boyfriend) and me a job. I gathered my stuff and jumped in my ’73 Plymouth Gold Duster and headed home. I’m thinking during the drive, “Who in the world is Sammy Hall?”
Jeff had a prior knowledge of Sammy after hearing him perform in Atlanta around 1971. I forgot I recorded one of Sammy’s songs, “Jesus Is the Man For the Hour”. Wow. That song was from one of my favorite Oak Ridge Boys albums, “Light”. But still, I knew nothing about Sammy. We said yes.
This was a huge step for these two yankee kids who just graduated from high school. We soon make the trek to Sevierville, Tennessee and join a group of rock ‘n roll ruffians who learned to play gospel music! What an eclectic group. Lenny Stadler, on bass, came from a hard rock music background. Mike Cain, drums, was playing clubs when he got the call. Row Jennings was a young Church of God girl. And together with Sammy, Jeff on keyboards and me on vocals, we rounded out a whirlwind of over 400+concerts in a year. Sometimes we’d sound like ‘The Mamas & The Papas” and other times we’d sound like a cross between contemporary Christian and southern gospel.
Sammy recently went home to be with the Lord and Lenny passed away also from cancer. But the legacy of these two will live on. Weekly, if not daily, I receive messages either on Facebook or by email from people who found God at a Sammy Hall Crusade. Our music at the time was years ahead of most. It was also hard to pigeon-hole Sammy into a venue. One week we’d do a series of Orrell concerts in the mid-west, then the next week, sing in High Schools all over the south, doing more of a British rock flare.
I had the privilege to sing for Sammy’s home-going service. I sang Elmer Cole’s classic, “Ten Thousand Years”. This was a signature song for us in the ‘70s and one that Sammy graciously gave me the lead.
I’ve just spent ten minutes of your time telling you facts. Some you may have known. But now, let me just share a piece of emotion that I’ve probably never shared before.
We left the group the next year. We didn’t leave because we didn’t agree with the philosophy of Sammy’s ministry. If anything, that alone could have kept us there for decades. We also didn’t leave because we weren’t getting the industry “looks” and accolades. We got plenty. And many top record labels were offering Sammy and his “new” group a chance at doing some great things. Gary S. Paxton, for one, grasped the concept and talent of this band. Jeff and I didn’t even leave because we thought our specific talents weren’t focused enough. No. Truthfully, I always thought that we had way TOO much focus. Jeff was the first American gospel keyboardist to play a Mellotron, a Clavinet and a Wurlitzer electric piano - all at the same time on stage. And I was featured way too much vocally. We also didn’t leave because we had difficulty with getting along with band members. No way. Rick Sandidge, who drove the bus for us, still remains to be one of our closest friends. And the connection piece has always been there with all the band members. We really had no clue how much we had.
The reason Jeff and I moved back to New Jersey was to start our own ministry. We could barely make it on $99 a week back then. So, soon after we were married, we began a music ministry in the northeast. Forty-plus years later, we are still in that ministry. It has taken on all kinds of dimension and changes, but I have to say, if it wasn’t for Sammy Hall and the gift he gave us, I doubt we would have taken such risk. Ironically, we moved back to Tennessee four years ago..
It’s a different world now. Groups come and go and change personnel like dirty socks. But for one very brief moment in time, Sammy Hall’s group, the one that turned heads, still continues to be discussed and written about. We saw this energy at his funeral. It was a surreal moment for me, because back in the day, I didn’t really think anyone paid attention. And maybe that was a good thing. God was protecting all of us from letting it go to our heads.
Sammy later traveled internationally doing huge business events and other outreach venues. But still, as far as I’m concerned, he was at his best when we all shared one cause, one voice, one band, one hope, one mission: To reach young people for Christ. And to do it well - musically.