After Russ Taff's Depature From The Imperials, Came Paul Smith; Read All About It: By Philip Mayabb

I often wonder how different things would have been in the 70s and 80s if the internet would have been around.  It is so easy to have access to music and information of all kinds now, which we simply did not have back then.  Sure there are some things that I miss about the good old days, but there are many ways in which the internet has enriched our lives.  Sometimes though, I wonder how CCM fans would have processed certain events and stories in CCM history had the world wide web been available, and one of the stories I wonder about the most is the departure of Russ Taff from the Imperials in 1981.  After two monumental collaborations between the Imperials and Grammy award winning producer Michael Omartian, the group was at the top of the heap in the emerging world of Contemporary Christian music.  No artist was bigger, plain and simple...their success with Russ Taff at the helm had made the Imperials bigger than they had ever been in their existence, and that would include the years they spent working with Elvis Presley.  Then not long after the release of the album Priority, the group was turned upside down, when Russ announced he was leaving the group to pursue a solo career.

I can only begin to imagine how the internet would have handled a story like that, with the impact it had not only on CCM's biggest act, but on the industry itself.  After working to gain acceptance with the younger generation of believers, the biggest name in the genre was facing a change...let me rephrase that - a HUGE change.  Now of course we all know what happened to Russ Taff, two years later, he would release Walls Of Glass, and he never looked back.  The Imperials however, still had to go on with the knowledge that when they hit the road in support of Russ' final album with the group, it would be another man singing the songs on Priority.  In an attempt to move on from their extremely popular former lead singer, the Imperials decided to hire someone with a voice that was nothing like Taff's, and when the dust settled, it was a young man named Paul Smith who was hired to lead CCM's biggest group.  The tall Texan had some very serious shoes to step into to, and it could not have been an easy job, after all he was not only replacing one of the most popular singers in Christian music, Paul's vocal range was much different from that of his predecessor.  While Russ Taff's baritone voice had become so familiar to fans through songs such as Praise The Lord, Oh Buddha, I'm Forgiven, and The Trumpet Of Jesus, Paul Smith was a tenor, with a much higher range than Russ had.  I had the pleasure of seeing The Imperials' first visit to my hometown of St. Louis in 1981 on the Priority tour, and I have to say that while I was deeply disappointed to have missed the group with Russ (I became a fan of the group in 1980, shortly before Russ left), I was quite impressed with Paul Smith, and thought the group still sounded pretty doggone good.

After the Priority tour ended, it was time for The Imperials to rebuild their sound with their new found lead singer, and that is exactly what they did.  From 1982 to 1985, The Imperials would release four studio albums and a live longform video project with Paul Smith at the helm.  Somewhat surprisingly, their 1983 album Side By Side actually won the Dove Award for Contemporary/Pop Album Of The Year, an honor which many expected would have gone to Walls Of Glass, the debut solo album from Russ Taff.  In 1985, after Let The Wind Blow was released to amazing success, both critical and commercial, both Paul Smith and 20 year member Jim Murray left the Imperials, much to the surprise of the fans once again.  The Imperials were no longer the biggest or most popular act in CCM )that honor had been secured by Amy Grant), but they were just starting to regain a lot of the notoriety they had lost when Russ left, before they were hit with the double whammy of two departures.  Now history tells us that he Imperials did just fine...Ron Hemby replaced Paul, and Jimmie Lee Sloas was brought in to sing tenor, and the group never missed a beat. 

Paul Smith followed in the exact same footsteps of the man he had replaced in 1981, by starting a solo career after his departure from The Imperials, and in the summer of 1986, he released his own debut solo project called Live And Learn, which just happens to be our featured album on CCM Classic's Vinyl Revival this week.  The album contains nine songs, four of which were released as radio singles, landing on the CCM Magazine Adult Contemporary chart, and it was viewed largely as a successful debut solo effort.  DaySpring Records, the label that housed The Imperials from 1977 to 1984 had signed Smith as part of a huge rebuilding process, one that saw them sign acts such as Dallas Holm & Praise, First Call, Teri DeSario, and several other artists.  To get him started off on the right foot, the label brought in producer Keith Thomas to produce Live And Learn, which turned out to be a very good call.  Smith and Thomas were no strangers to each other, in fact it was Thomas who had produced Smith's contribution to the album Side By Side with The Imperials just three years prior.  Coming off of producing Carman's landmark album The Champion, Thomas was ready to bring that same production expertise to Paul Smith's first solo album, which is exactly what he did.

The album starts with a track called Everlasting Joy, which is not only one of my personal favorites on this album, it is an EXCELLENT song to put on in the car, and turn it up as loud as you can stand it.  A rousing, upbeat number, Joy is one of those songs that just makes you feel good every time you hear it, in fact I remember the night I purchased my first copy of the album (a cassette), and took it on a 200 mile roadtrip...I can't tell you how many times I replayed this track before I finally moved on to the title song which follows on the album.  High energy synths are front and center on not only Everlasting Joy, but this entire album (think about it, 1986 release date, the producer is a keyboardist, you get the picture), and the leadoff song on Live And Learn sets a positive mood to start the album.  As I said, the album's title track follows, and while it slows the pace just a little, you still find yourself be-bopping to it.  In my personal experience, I remember my head bouncing around with the beat of the song, as I was totally into the keyboard bass (I play the bass), and then I probably rewound the tape back to the beginning again.  Anyway, I still enjoy listening to the title song even now, and I think a lot of fans did as well, because the song went to number 26 on the CCM Magazine chart.  The third track on side one was Paul's debut solo single to radio, called Never Be Another, and it is a ballad, but that did not stop it from being the album's biggest single, going all the way to number 2 on the chart.  The song was one of the few songs on the album that was not written by Paul and Keith Thomas, instead this track was penned by David Martin, the man who had written the title track of Paul's final album with The Imperials, Let The Wind Blow.  It is a beautiful song, and I'm fairly certain that most, if not all, of our listeners have heard it at one time or other on the radio - it will bring back a lot of memories.

Moving on from there, we hit the mid tempo song Keep The Light On, which continues the upbeat lyrical theme of the album, reminding listeners that someone is looking for a light to guide them home.  This song was not released as a single, but it would have been a good choice for single number five.  To close out side one, we go slow once more with So Good To Know, which is my personal favorite song on the album.  It finishes off a great side of music, drawing attention to the fact that Jesus always has His children on his mind, and even that when things are not going so well, He is still on our side.  We open the album's second side with another radio single called Let Love Happen To You, which was the album's least successful chart hit, reaching only number 36, but in my opinion, the song is much better than it's chart position would indicate.  A true adult contemporary pop number, this song is one of the album's better songs, and Paul's vocal performance on it is simply outstanding.  The final of the four singles is side two's second track, called A Holy Nation, which is yet another slow number, but contains some of the most powerful lyrical content on Live And Learn.  Reaching number 20 on the CCM Magazine chart, this song contains lyrics that Christians can base their existence on, one of my favorite lines from the song says Our time now has come, to face the final challenge, to show a doubting world that He is all we say, and all we claim...  We are meant to be a holy nation, and this song is a powerful reminder of that fact, it is very timely even for today's world.  We pick up the beat for Praisemaker, the following song, with keyboards blaring and drums pounding.  This is another one of those songs that will make your head bounce back and forth with the beat, and you will have a great time listening to it.  Closing out the album is Beautiful The Dreamer, another ballad that has the mid 80s sound pouring out of it, with shades of David Foster, the Grammy Award winning producer of Chicago, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and many others in Keith Thomas' keyboard work.  Nobody can do the keyboard bass quite like Foster, but Keith Thomas is about as close as you will get, so it adds a nice touch to the final track on the record.

In closing, this is still a very good record, and it has held up pretty well, which cannot be said of very many CCM albums from the same time period.  Yes, the music is definitely dated, you can tell quickly that this is the mid 80s, but the vocal work on Live And Learn still sounds makes the listener remember just how good of a singer Paul Smith really is.  He certainly did not hurt The Imperials during his time with them, and his voice made a great statement on his solo debut recording, and I believe you will hear that as you listen to the album this week.  One other thing here...I submit that I would much rather listen to an album like this, with dated instrumentation, than I would most current recordings, and here's why - even though this album has a lot of heavy synth overtones, it is worth mentioning that back in those days, the musical tracks on an album like this were actually played by real, talented musicians, and not merely programmed like they are today, and professional singers back then did not rely on auto tune technology, because they simply did not need to...they actually had the talent to sing their own parts.  That's one of the reasons why I enjoy listening to this album, because Paul Smith is a talented vocalist who sings his own parts, and does not need voice enhancement or augmentation technology to make him sound good, and that is what real music is all about, regardless of genre.  It makes me happy to be part of a program like Vinyl Revival, presenting real music with a real message, performed by real artists.  We are happy to present Live And Learn on CCM Classic this week, and I hope you enjoy listening to it, because it was, and still is, a very good recording, by a very talented singer.


Side 1 - 

1. Everlasting Joy

2. Live And Learn

3. Never Be Another

4. Keep The Light On

5. So Good To Know

Side 2 - 

1. Let Love Happen To You

2. A Holy Nation

3. Praisemaker

4. Beautiful The Dreamer

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