In the last seventies and early eighties, one could say that I was neck deep into the contemporary Christian music (“CCM”) scene. I tried to attend every Christian concert that came through the Phoenix area and was adding to my album collection if not every week, at least every pay day.
During those days, a lot of excitement was generated by some of the secular artist who “crossed over” to the CCM genre. Folks like B. J. Thomas, Bob Dylan, Barry McGuire, Ritchie Furay and others created all sorts of buzz. Another artist who made the switch was Dan Peek, founding member and co-songwriter of and for the group, America.
This second and last installment of my interview with Dan Peek focuses on his years in, and thoughts on, the CCM industry. As in part one of this interview Peek’s comments are derived from three phone conversations that took as many hours over two days. Our chats about the CCM days were interspersed throughout the calls. However, I’ve consolidated them into this final installment. Some comments may be a repeat from part one. If they are, they’re included here for the purposes of clarity and continuity.
In discussing Dan’s CCM work, I started out by asking the one question that I figured he’s been asked thousands of times but I wanted to gauge his pulse about it during our interview: Why did he leave America and why did he start focusing on Christian music?
“Well, when I was twelve years old, I ‘got saved’. My mother, who had just gotten saved herself, basically came and told the entire family the Gospel. I had never heard it. I had been to a lot of churches and I heard ‘be good, be a good boy, be nice’. But, when I heard the Gospel, it absolutely resonated with me and I got on my knees and prayed. I knew I was a sinner at twelve already and asked Christ into my heart and life and to be my savior.
“But the years drifted on (and) I got into my late teens, went away to college and just drifted away from any semblance of acting like a Christian. But when we formed the band America, we were living in London. I went into my own little room and I got on my knees and I said, ‘Lord, if you’ll make this group a success, I will use it as a platform to tell other people about you.’ I never told another soul.
“Well, within a year of praying that prayer, we had a number one album and a number one single around the world. It hit me like a ton of bricks one day. Bam! “God answered your prayer! Now you need to live up to your end of the bargain!’ I kind of – not half-heartedly – I tried to share the Gospel with Dewey and Gerry. They weren’t interested. I tried to share it with some other people – they didn’t want to know. So, I just kind of withdrew into my shell as a heathen and then just became a practicing hedonist. So, for the next seven years, I’m living Lavita Loco to the max.
“The turning point came for me – I’m living in a million dollar house in Malibu, overlooking the sea. I’ve got the fancy schmancy cars in the driveway, a beautiful wife, the hot tub, the whole nine yards. The walls covered with gold and platinum albums and a Grammy on my piano. And, yet, inside, I was so, so lost and in deep, deep despair because it was like, ‘Wait a minute! All this stuff is supposed to make me feel good! It’s not doin’ it. I’m lost!’ I knew there was darkness inside.
“I remember my mother, when I did get saved – this just kinda came back to me – she said, ‘Son, if ever at any time, you wander away from Jesus, he will always take you back. He will always take you back!’
“So, I got on my knees in my beautiful home by the sea and cried out a prayer of repentance and I said, ‘Lord, I have sinned grievously against you. I don’t need all this stuff. This stuff’s not doing it. I want you now to be my Lord as well as my savior and I want to live my life to glorify you.’
“Within about three months, our house burned in a fire and I’m out of the band. It was like going through a divorce – everything was tied up. It was probably the lowest ebb of my life on a material level which, six months earlier, I was at the absolute apogee, crescendo of life as a material person but was at the lowest ebb spiritually. And, then, suddenly, the coin flipped over and I’m just on fire, wanting to preach the gospel and I had this incredible idea.
“I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to make an album of songs about the Lord!’; modern kind of music, not the old, standard, piano thumping music. I thought I had invented contemporary Christian music! Little did I know that there was this huge industry already out there but they were so separate that I would go to places where there were people in CCM and I would be introduced, ‘This is Dan Peek and he’s from the group, America’ and one guy would go, ‘Is that the juggling act that performs in Vegas?’
“They didn’t know who I was; I didn’t know who they were but all I knew was that I wanted to fulfill my promise to the Lord. It was like when I did pray that prayer of rededication – some people will say that’s when I was really converted, I don’t want to split hairs – all I know is that I knew then that I wanted God as the central focus on my life, not the material stuff. It was like God said, ‘Okay, now you can live up to your promise.’
“So, I embarked on a series of things. God put the right people in my place to be able to make (the album) All Things Are Possible. So, suddenly, there I was. I was able to share the glory of God and explain the Gospel and explain what God had done for me and my life and save a hopeless wretch like me. It was like a huge weight was lifted off of me because I was suffering from tremendous guilt from living this double life. Deep down inside, I’m a Christian but on the outside I am just like Keith Richards, only a little bit younger!”
“So, that was the turning point. I left the band. I did the album. It was nominated for a Grammy. All Things Are Possible – the song – got huge, monstrous airplay. It was actually in the top five of the Adult Contemporary charts for two years in a row. So, it was, on some level, a ground breaking album. B.J. (Thomas) had made his - Coming Home or Going Home, whatever it was (Home Where I Belong) – but All Things Are Possible really was a breakout record and then it was time to follow up.
“Long story short, I had really butted heads with the guy who had produced it – whose name shall remain nameless – I ended up, three years later, thinking of something I heard Pat Robertson say, ‘You’ve got to bury the hatchet with somebody. If the Lord’s got something for you to do, you need to do it.’ So, I called him up and said, ‘Hey, we didn’t get along but let’s just bury the hatchet here.’
“So, the next album I made was Doer of the Word – we did that. It got some nice airplay and stuff but it wasn’t the breakout thing like All Things Are Possible that I did with him. Again, it was very, very strained - very stressed. It was a great record, really. I take a lot of pride in the record. But, after that, I was living not far from Nashville and started, basically, living in Nashville and went to the Benson Company and kept pestering people until I finally got a deal with Benson and made a couple of records for them – Electro Voice and Crossover. Then, after that, I put together bands and started touring – sometimes overseas – Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia – you name it, I was out there. I would play the America stuff. That’s what most people came to hear but I would always throw in the CCM stuff and give a short testimony and then, usually, a pastor would come out and give an altar call afterwards.
I wanted to circle back and discuss the All Things Are Possible album in a little more detail so I asked Dan for some more insight into it. Clearly, even though 32 years have passed since that album was released, Peek still had some ardently felt thoughts and opinions about that project.
“When I left America, we had self-produced a couple of albums and co-produced the first album. We had Sir George Martin produce five of the seven or eight albums we did with Warner Brothers. So, when I left, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of working with a producer. I really kind of wanted to self-produce which, probably, wasn’t a smart move but, as it turned out, the deal more or less hinged on using a producer. I met the guy, who shall remain nameless, and . . . he’s a very, very talented guy. Very talented. But, the impression I got from the guy was, ‘Who cares about your songs. Let’s get as many of my songs on the record as humanly possible.’
“I found that kind of annoying because it was me wanting to express my take on things. We butted heads constantly on everything, really. On some level it was ego – getting in the flesh and just ego. But I will say this: In the long run, it turned out, probably, to be a better album than it would have been had I self-produced.
“My experience over the years in working with producers is it kind of breaks out this way: A third of the songs will be better than probably what you could have done yourself; a third of the songs will be probably worse than if you done them yourself; and the other third will be about the same as what you had envisioned. So, to me, it’s kind of a wash in working with producers. So, it was not a happy experience for a number of reasons.
“Like I said, later I swallowed my pride and called him back up and we mended fences and we did Doer of the Word and it turned out to be a really good album. He wasn’t quite so aggressive about putting every song that he had written that morning on the record. But, also, he’s a big one for working with studio musicians. We (America) just never did. I think that, in all the records we had recorded over the years, we might have had two or three outside dudes come in and play stuff. I just figured we’d get a drummer and maybe a bass player and I’d go in there and knock these things out. For whatever reason, he had his own little list of ‘A List’ of players that he wanted to use and it was good. But, again, I felt that a third of the things came out better, a third of the things came out worse and the other third was probably about what I would have envisioned anyway.
“After that (second album) was out, I was just determined to get my own deal to self-produce and have the reins firmly in my hands for the whole project. As it turned out, the deal with Benson – part of the problem I saw with Benson and a lot of labels, too, is a lot of people would sign deals with some of these labels, they’d make one album and that would be the end of it. Their hopes and dreams are crushed. I think it created a lot of bad blood and hurt feelings.
“In secular music, a big label like Warner might have a hundred artists, maybe – tops. Probably ten or fifteen of those are the ones that really keep the company in business. Benson, they must have had a thousand artists. So, I do a record with them. Then we would do a two or three day promotion – basically phoning people – distributors, bookstores and maybe do a couple of interviews and it was like, ‘Okay, we spent two days on your project – we’re on to the next one.’ I just felt like nothing really got a chance to do anything because they were just overburdened with artists – way too big of a catalog. Way too big a stable of artists. So, ultimately, later on, when the deal was up and I was out of it, I really didn’t want to sign with a label.”
With a clear idea of what he felt was wrong with the CCM industry, I asked Peek what he would do to fix what he feels ails it if he were made czar of the CCM world.
“If I was the czar, what I would do is trim the rosters. I would just cull the herd. If they are like they were when I was out there, there was way too many artists per label for them to handle and help and nurture and guide and make a career out of them. Instead, they would just churn ‘em and burn ‘em. There was a fixed formula.
“When my record came out, they used a formula for a first time signing on an artist and that was it. I went, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not bragging here but I’ve got a huge amount of people out there who know me already. Why can’t we bump me up to like a third album release type of a guy because I already made 7 or 8 albums and some of them were historic records.’ There was just this mind set, they would just cut the legs and arms off of people so that they would fit into this slot.
“I don’t mean this meanly but I would get rid of the marginal and possible dead weight and focus only on a smaller number of acts and promote them more heavily with the revenue, say, from making 190 albums a week for bands that aren’t probably going to make another album.”
And, if he could go back in time, what would Dan do differently in his CCM career?
“Wow, that’s a toughie! As soon as I left America, I had two or three major labels courting me to sign. I put my foot down and said, ‘I’ll only do it if I can do a completely gospel album.’ There was a guy named Michael Kleffner who was with Atlantic and some other people with other labels who said, ‘Would you consider doing just one or two gospel songs?’ And I said no.
“The irony is that I go back and I listen to All Things Are Possible and it’s, basically, again, because it was so contemporary and it was so nebulous lyrically – there are only two or three songs on there that are really ‘smack you on the head’ and says, ‘this is a gospel song or Christian song’. I should have said ‘yeah’ and just done them. But, I don’t know, I also, at the same time, look back and think maybe that would’ve got me back in with a crowd of people that I couldn’t really survive. I was very, very weak and easily succumbed to temptation at that time. I think I needed to be surrounded with clean and sober people. I’m not saying that everybody that’s involved in the music business is high all the time but most of them are.
“But that’s something that I would think long and hard about. Say, ‘Okay, sure. I’ll do a record for you. I’ll do one or two gospel songs.’ It’s easy to say that now but looking back, again, had I done that, I probably would have had just as many overtly Christian songs on that type of an album as I did on All Things Are Possible. But, again, there’s that question mark of would I have been thrust into a situation where I walk into a room and somebody’s doing a line of blow or, ‘Hey, man, do you want a toke off of this reefer here?’ or, ‘the beer’s in the fridge’. It’s a sort of a maybe/maybe not thing.”
To carry further his thoughts about the virtues of casting his music in Christian stone, Peek shared a story that happened early this year.
“I’ve got my little label, Seven Mile Entertainment, and I’ve done 7 . . . 10 – I can’t remember – albums and I sent them to a manufacturer – who shall remain nameless – but they meta-tagged every one of them ‘religious’ which I didn’t figure it out until about six months ago. I never ripped or burned a song before. I went to rip it, burn it – whatever you do – and it would go ‘Dan Peek – blah, blah, blah, category: religious’ and I thought, ‘Wait a minute!’ and it really annoyed me because I wondered how many people might have looked at that and go, ‘Oh, it’s a religious album! I’m not interested.’ But, as I said, there were, quote, religious songs on them but it really, really bummed me out. In fact, I’ve almost called the owner and said, ‘What was your major malfunction there, buddy? Why did you do that?’ I’m trying to sell records here to everybody. I’m not trying to narrow-cast only to contemporary Christians because, for one thing, most of them would go, ‘Oh, this isn’t religious enough!’ But to turn people off from the git go with it only showing up under religious media just annoyed the heck out of me, I’ve got to tell you!”
My own limited personal experience within the CCM business showed me that the buying public often places the artists in no-win situations. Various factions would be critical of the style of music played – it was either too “hard” or not hard enough. What I found even more evident, though, was the expectation by the audience that the artists show themselves as hard core theologians. What kind of theologian would be the subject of yet another round of criticisms? And, if an artist were to stumble in some sort of human failure, then they were crucified on the cross of “Christian” public opinion.
Dan and I discussed this at some length and his comments were quite interesting.
“Yeah, they bury their wounded. The pressure on people like B.J. Thomas who basically flipped out, in my opinion, later on – a lot of people who are brand new Christians and people expect them to be – like you said – theologians. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on people.
“Dylan, I’ve heard some people say that he’s recanted his Christianity. I don’t know. That’s between him and God but, obviously, there was a great deal of excitement when people heard that he was a brother. He was, apparently, no holds barred. He did some tours and a lot of people freaked out because they were wanting Blowin’ In The Wind and he’s doing Slow Train Coming or You Gotta Serve Somebody.
“I remember Pat Boone, when I first signed it was actually on his label which was distributed by Word (Records) – Lamb and Lion. Pat was talking to me and at the time he was talking, I didn’t really realize that he was saying it to me but I later understood it. He goes, ‘There’s a thing where Christians can be so on fire, they’re like a blast furnace and they just frighten people and they run, screaming, because they’re so on fire. But, really, you must be like a camp fire where it’s like, ‘Oo! That looks cozy and warm! Let’s go sit by the camp fire and warm our hands and roast a weenie.’ Then I realized that he was actually talking to me! He was giving me some friendly advice without actually saying, ‘By the way, Dan, you’re a little bit over the top here.’
“Ultimately, I tried to be the camp fire guy. You know, if I’m doing the 700 Club, I let it fly. If I’m doing an interview, I usually like to find out what the target audience is, what type of show it is or if the interviewer is a believer or not. I’m not going to try to beat people over the head with a ten pound Bible. I think that B.J., Bob Dylan and, probably others came out super on fire for the Lord and maybe had some bad experiences. When you are a ‘Christian’ and in business – whether it’s Christian music business or whatever, there’s a lot of room for problems there. I found that I’m neither fish nor fowl. I’m too Christian for the secular people and I’m too secular for the Christians. I think that was part of the decision to segue into just ‘doin’ my own thang’ and let the chips fall where they may.”
At one point during one of our conversations, Dan shared a little more detail as to what led to his low-key, semi-reclusive life in the Caribbean. The story shows that, while he claimed to be typically wishy-washy in his decisions, he wasn’t at all afraid to make big, bold decisions that would radically change his life.
“As time went on, I was going to segue into a pure country career. But, all of a sudden, one day I sat down. My marriage was really on the rocks, really suffering because I had been on the road for so long. It puts such a strain – even as a Christian – it’s very stressful on a marriage. We used to do about 290 dates a year as America. If I do country, I’m looking at 322 dates a year and I thought, ‘I can’t go down that road again’. I spent the last twenty years touring and I had had enough.
“My wife and I reconciled. We decided to move. We moved to the Caribbean. We wanted a fresh start. So, I hung up the recording studio thing and everything else. But the irony was, because of the situation, I just started writing song after song after song; book after book after book. So, it was a great way – without trying and without pressure on me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to deliver an album every 6 months’ just to be able to stockpile a huge amount of material and, ultimately, put it to tape or CD or whatever you want to call it. So, that worked out pretty good.”
In transcribing this quote as I was writing this piece, I wondered if there was a lot of unreleased music that Dan had either been working on or was waiting until the appropriate time to release the music on a new CD. To get an answer to that question, I e-mailed Dan’s brother, Tom, who lives in Europe, to find out – specifically about the body of work that his brother referred to, above. Tom’s response wasn’t very encouraging.
“The body of work Dan refers to is comprised of songs he has already released on his recent CD’s and downloads. Unless some record company gets their mind right, the CD’s will no longer see the light of day.
“Dan had a wealth of un-released/un-recorded songs just waiting to get out there. He took them with him.” He closed his remarks by adding, “Dan’s download album “All America Boy” was his last release. It contained tracks that were especially close to him.” (That album can be downloaded by clicking here.)
We never want the music to end. I suppose the reason is that we associate the end of music with the end of a party or festivities. For the recording artist, it is associated with the end of their career or even of their life. In the case of Dan Peek, there, apparently, was much more music locked up in his creative cranium that he wished to unleash on this world but it wasn’t meant to be.
I’ve had quite a bit of time to reflect on the few hours I had chatted with Dan. I’ve thought about all the music that was and could have been. I’ve thought about the hearts touched by Dan’s music and by his expression of faith. I’ve thought about the bold decisions he made to withdraw from the spotlight to a Caribbean island and enjoy countless days of quality time with his lovely bride, Catherine. How many of us would love to be able to do the same thing?
I thought of his comments regarding his relationship with his former band mates. I pretty much put everything he said into these two instalments. What’s hard to convey is the feeling and tone in which he said them. While he was obviously critical of them, I really did sense that he wanted more than anything to mend fences with them and to enjoy their friendship once again. Of course, there are two sides to every story. In this case, there are likely three. I would love to give an opportunity for Gerry and Dewey to share their thoughts. The invitation will always be open for them to speak their piece.
Reflecting on the relationship between these three great musicians who have written large parts of the soundtrack of my youth has caused me to cherish my friendships even more and to want to try extra hard not to ever take them for granted. Fortunately, I don’t have any former close friends that I need to mend fences with
I usually don’t have a problem ending an interview piece but this one is different. Dan is the first person I’ve interviewed who has passed away – let alone passing away before I had the chance to craft the article. I think the best way to end it is by sharing with you his answer to my question as to whether or not America or Dan Peek fans will ever be able to have the chance to see him perform again. His answer reflects his willingness to help a friend, his own vulnerabilities and his willingness to realize when to quit while he was ahead.
“You know? The last thing I did, I did as a favor for a friend of mine who was opening a coffee shop. He asked me if I would play and I said, ‘yeah’. It nearly killed me! I gotta tell ya, I was so nervous. I had never been so nervous in my life before a show. So I’m going to have to say, ‘Probably not’ - pretty much about a 99% chance of me not doing anything live.”
And, then, in his characteristic “aw shucks” manner, he said, “Sorry about that, folks!”
If you haven't read Part One of Dan Peek's last interview, click here to read it.