Vocal Harmonies That Will Make You Pay Attention; First Call's Undivided Rewind by Philip Mayaab
Throughout the history of Contemporary Christian music, there have been numerous vocal groups who have taken the art tight harmony to another level. When you hear them sing, you instantly recognize the work that they have put in to perfecting their vocal blend, and if you're like me, the more sophisticated the harmony is, the more you like it. The group on this week's Vinyl Revival feature LP has perfected their airtight, three part harmonies in a manner that few can even come close to, and it is a huge part of what they have built their reputation on, because when you hear the name First Call, you instantly know what they are all about.
On their own, the three members that comprise First Call have very impressive credentials...Bonnie Keen started singing professionally at age 17, and one of her first jobs was singing backups for another young female singer named Amy Grant. Melodie Tunney once sang in the vocal supergroup Truth, which is where she met her husband, keyboardist and producer Dick Tunney. Marty McCall had already had a great professional life prior to First Call, as the lead singer of Fireworks, a very impressive west coast Christian rock band in the late 70s and early 80s, and also brought a resume of L.A. studio work to the table with him (including singing background vocals on both One More Song For You and Priority by the Imperials). When these three young veterans would sing together in the studios of Nashville, it was magical, to the extent that they cornered the market when it came to singing commercial jingles, and while that might have been a long way from recording an album, or playing live as a group, the jingle business got the three singers a foot in the door. They became the first choice of many music producers who had the task of putting an advertising pitch to music, and over a period of just two years, built themselves a stellar reputation in the studios of Music City.
The idea to form a singing group came from Melodie, although she might not have done such a great job of selling her idea to Marty and Bonnie. After some convincing, the trio began taking some singing jobs as a unit, instead of just individually, which is important because they caught the ears and attention of some folks at Word Records. In 1985, First Call recorded what has become one of the most definitive Christmas albums ever recorded, called An Evening In December, which features some of the most intricate, a capella vocals you will ever hear. The album is a yearly staple for many people, as they celebrate the Christmas season, and even though there were some guest vocalists who performed on the album, Bonnie, Melodie, and Marty had left an indelible impression on the execs at Word, who were so impressed with the album, they signed the group to a contract with the rebooted DaySpring Records. Due to the overwhelming success of Evening, First Call also made a conscious decision to go full time as a group, and in early 1986, they hit the same Nashville studios where they built their reputation to record this week's Vinyl Revival featured LP, called Undivided.
Make no mistake about it, Undivided is an A-class CCM album...it hits all the points on the checklist. Great songs, great vocals (DUH), great musical performances, and great production, all make this album one that any fan of 80s CCM should have. The group worked with four different producers on Undivided, and they were Greg Nelson (Steve Green, Sandi Patti), Keith Thomas (Carman, The Gaither Vocal Band), along with Melodie and Bonnie's husbands, Dick Tunney and Dan Keen. While working with that many different producers might present challenges for some artists, each of First Call's members knew what to expect from each of the four, primarily because they had already spent many hours in the recording studio with each one. As far as the songs are concerned, there is something for everybody on Undivided. Pop songs such as Messiah, One Step At A Time, and The Future give the album some punch musically, while the ballads such as Bless Ye The Lord, God Is Greater, Just As True For You, and the anthemic title song (which was the group's first radio single, and a major hit in the summer of '86), showcase the trio's ability to put the power to slower numbers. However, one of my favorite things about this album are what I call the three fun songs...Campmeetin' Tonight, Step Of Faith, and the a capella number Snap To It, which bring the REAL talent of these three incredible vocalists to the listener's ears. First Call is often described as the Christian equivalent to the Manhattan Transfer, and when you hear these songs, you will know why. Just an amazing blend of harmonies were arranged into these three songs, and Bonnie, Melodie, and Marty execute it to perfection. It truly is the kind of harmony that few vocal groups can pull off, and it sounds so sweet when it is done right.
The musical performances fit the frame perfectly behind the vocals on this album, although admittedly the music is dated (it was the mid 80s, after all). However, the music does absolutely no harm to the finished product, because it's the vocal arrangements and execution of them that take center stage on this album. As great as the music sounds, it's the singing that catches your attention first and foremost, which is exactly what it should do, when the vocalists are this good. The final product is a work of art, one that Bonnie told me they are very proud of, even after all this time. The group is still alive and well, and still perform from time to time, and even though they have hit some bumps in the road along the way, First Call has persevered, and because of albums like Undivided, they have carved their names onto the tree of Contemporary Christian Music. For those of us who enjoy classy, sophisticated vocal work, this group has been a breath of fresh air for over 30 years, and this week we are pleased to present First Call on CCM Classic's Vinyl Revival.
SIDE 1 -
1. Messiah (Mark Baldwin & John Elliott)
2. Undivided (Melodie Tunney)
3. Campmeetin' Tonight (Randall Dennis)
4. Bless Ye The Lord (Dan Keen & Justin Peters)
5. God Is Greater (Greg Fisher & Greg Davis)
SIDE 2 -
1. One Step At A Time (Mark Gersmehl & Billy Smiley)
2. Step Of Faith (Melodie Tunney, Dick Tunney, & Niles Borop)
3. The Future (Becky & Geoff Thurman)
4. Snap To It (Marty & Vicki McCall & James Ward)
5. Just As True For You (Billy Simon & Justin Peters)
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