In the fall of 1982, the Scottish born singer Sheila Walsh was set to headline her own cross America tour. As it turned out it was more like a crisscross of America.
Sheila had something in common with my Father. Not only were they both born in Scotland but they had each attended London Bible College (LBC) in England, now known as London School of Theology. Sheila is a wonderful person and was nothing but a gracious, first class lady the entire tour.
Believe me when I say that this was quite possibly one of the worst tours in modern history. The booking agent had us starting in Oklahoma City and then quite literally going from one coast to the other and back again in an extremely random pattern. We traveled on roads that I don't think were even on the map. An example of how crazy the routing was; I remember one night after a show in Houston, TX, loading out the equipment, getting into the truck and driving the entire night and the next morning and early afternoon to arrive in Panama City, Florida with barely enough time to load in, set up and have another show.
Being newly married, I had been promised by the production company that they would fly me home for a wee break halfway through the ten week tour. Never happened. Probably not the best way to start a marriage, but bless my wife, she never complained. To add insult to injury I was only paid for half the tour in a case of "management blamed the promoter who blamed management" and round and round it went. For this "tour from hell" as it became known, I had enlisted a friend and fellow Canadian, David Brown, to make the journey with me. Dave and I had some great times on that tour and played a good number of creative practical jokes. For reasons that will go unmentioned in this story we chose to do all the driving of the equipment truck on that tour. By placing my briefcase and toolkit in the footwell of the passenger side and adding a pillow or two, one person could actually grab a few winks if you were able to curl up like a cat. We had some great visits as we trundled down the road trying to stay awake. We talked music, politics, travel and religion and listened to a ton of music through the crappy Rollins truck system.
They say that behind every cloud is a ray of sunshine and my ray of sunshine occurred in Chicago on a day off. We were all staying at the house of promoter Paul Emory when I received a phone call from Mark Hollingsworth, Petra's manager. Mark was calling to see if I would be interested in working for Petra on a small tour they had coming up that December in Florida. For a Canadian kid whose normal winter existence was snow and ice I thought this sounded great. I said a thankful yes and joined Petra for the "Not Of This World Tour".
Sheila had an incredibly gifted backing band on that tour. Perhaps the hallmark was a British born guitar player by the name of Norman Barratt. Norman had played in a band called Gravy Train and was considered by many to be in the tight circle of guitar greats. This would include the holy trinity of British guitar gods, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The man could make a geetar sing! The tour was very spotty in attendance from a handful of people at some venues to a few thousand at others. Even though Sheila had been in America as part of other tours, performing as the opening act for Phil Keaggy and others, everything rested on her shoulders as the headliner on this tour. She was promoting her War Of Love album. Sheila's handlers at the time were trying to position her as a sort of Christian version of Sheena Easton, another Scottish pop singer. The band could really pull off the sound and Sheila delighted her fans and won over many more.
On that tour we had a pyro show to go along with the lights and smoke. Dave became chief pyro tech and there just may have been a time or two when we "accidently" loaded up the pyro with a little extra shot of powder, leaving black circles on the roof of some church and quite possibly singeing the hair on Sheila's head and scaring the liver out of the band.
Unlike myself, pound for pound Dave Brown is as strong as an ox. Dave is a git 'r done type dude. Many was the time some of the crew and volunteers would be standing around hemming and hawing on how to lift something, and Dave would just say "get out of the way" and lift it himself. We figured out a pretty good working method and by the end of the tour we were humming right along.
To start the second set, Sheila and the band would enter a darkened stage and the song would kick off with the thunder of tympani. The mighty kettle drums were played by guitar player Norman Barratt. After about 8 bars he would switch over to his guitar for the rest of the song. These tympani were stored in large wooden crates that alone weighed a ton. Put the tympani into them and they became a literal pain in the backside. Today this intro would probably be sampled or triggered by the drummer, but I suppose it did have a visual effect and kicked off the set with a sense of drama. To say that Dave and I became a tad resentful of those crazy tympani would be an understatement. To our minds they were a complete waste of our time and space. Every show we had to unload the crates, take the drums out, set them up, pack them back in and then reload them into the truck. All this for 8 bars! In addition to the tympani we would also set up a Yamaha CP 80 electric grand piano every night. This piano, in its case, was very heavy and needed to be tuned every show by a qualified piano tuner.
Somewhere toward the end of the tour, the concert was being held in a very large church, that would now be referred to as a mega church. This church had a complete daycare facility, pre and elementary school and covered a huge area. That day, after sound check, Dave and I went on a small exploratory trip of the mega plex. For some reason we stumbled into the nursery department and discovered, to our delight, several giant containers of baby powder.
That night at intermission we snuck out on the darkened stage and gave the tops of those dreaded tympani a generous coating of baby powder. In the dark the powder blended perfectly with the white skins of the drums. Intermission came to a close and the band took their positions on the dimly lit stage. The idea was that the band would start with a big roll on the tympani and as the lights came up, out of the fog would walk Sheila. This time we had a little surprise in store. As Norman took his place behind the timps, guitar slung over his shoulder to one side, he took the mallets in hand and BA . . . BOOM he hit the drums. Up from these large kettles rose a white cloud of smoke shimmering in the light. He struck them again; BA . . . BOOM . . . RRRRRRRRRRROLL. The crowd, thinking this mighty cloud was a special effect, roared their approval. By now Norman was sputtering and squinting as he glowered and looked around for the culprits of this hi-jinx. He carried on through the eight bars, powder rising the entire time, grabbed his guitar and played with a vengeance not heard before on that tour. That night as we loaded the drums a small smirk of satisfaction spread across our faces . . . sorry Norman!
© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.