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Chapter Two
The Original Five
June 1967 - May 1970

In November 1966 Blaine Smith was asked to lead singing for an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship retreat, held for University of Maryland students. Also attending the retreat was a UM freshman, Joan Hettenhouser. Joan sang that Saturday evening for the students, while Blaine sat stunned. “She had the voice of an angel,” Smith recalls. She sang her own original Christian songs, strongly and compellingly, accompanying herself on a baritone uke. Joan and Blaine soon became close friends.

Blaine began to sense that with Joan’s help, a professional-level band could be formed that played Christian music with a fresh and highly creative approach. The following summer, 1967, Joan joined with Blaine, Don Williamson and Robin Woodhams to form a new band. Joan advanced from ukulele to acoustic guitar. Robin, who had sung in the Pre-Sons, was also a talented acoustic player--and so she tried electric bass and took to it quickly and naturally. Christened “Sons of Thunder” (Jesus' designation of Peter and John in Mark 3:17), this four-piece group first played for the opening college meeting at Fourth Presbyterian Church in June that summer, and then at all the weekly meetings throughout the summer.
    

There was a magic from the start to the sound of Sons of Thunder, and the growing group of students at Fourth Church dearly loved the band. Joan and Robin sounded as if they had been born to sing together, and Don, as the band’s sole male singer, contributed greatly as well. And now the band had original songs. SOT performed many of Joan’s compositions, including “I Am Persuaded” and “Long, Long Ago.” And Robin soon began writing notable songs as well, including “He’s Walking With Me,” and “Spirit of Fear.” Over the next few years they each provided about an equal number of exceptional originals to SOT. Blaine also contributed a few, the best-remembered being “Limping Foot.”

That fall, SOT asked Donna Gadling, a recent college grad attending Fourth Church, to join the band. A transplant from New York City, she was working as a psychiatric nurse at the Naval Medical Center then. Donna brought a wonderful mix of talent to SOT, blending beautifully as a singer with Robin and Joan, plus playing keyboards and guitar. A gifted song-writer as well, she wrote some SOT staples, the best-loved being “He Arose.”
  
      

Sons of Thunder's Original Five

Donna Gadling, Joan Hettenhouser, Blaine Smith, Robin Woodhams, Don Williamson

     
     

Sons of Thunder were now beginning to take on a life of their own. They were asked to perform at other youth and adult functions at Fourth Church, then at other churches as well. And a phenomenon began to take place that would eventually propel the band to full time. Students at Fourth Church who went away to college invited the band to perform at their schools. These events, often sponsored by campus Christian organizations, grew more frequent and larger over the next few years.
     

       

Tedd Smith

 

Tedd Smith, pianist with the Billy Graham Crusades, also took a strong interest in Sons of Thunder. Tedd was living in Silver Spring, Maryland, and attending Fourth Presbyterian at this time. Upon hearing Sons of Thunder, he loved the band and the concept. He became a strong ally for SOT, and convinced the conservative Zondervan Records to produce an album by them. During the summer of 1968, The band spent many days at Rodel Studios in Washington, D.C. recording this album, and in November '68 Zondervan released Sons of Thunder’s “Till the Whole World Knows.” It was the first nationally distributed album of a Christian rock band in the United States.
     

In July 1968 Sons of Thunder presented a concert for the adults at Fourth Presbyterian, with Tedd Smith as special guest, who performed both solo on piano and with SOT accompanying him. Tedd also gave a memorable talk, even somewhat stern, about Christian music history, and the importance of this new approach Sons of Thunder were taking. It was a wholly different era then. Today, with the proliferation of contemporary Christian music, the endless recordings available by Christian rock artists and groups, the radio stations devoted to the genre, and the common presence of praise bands in churches, it’s difficult to appreciate how radical mixing rock music and the Christian message was in the late 60s. Many Christians--including many Fourth Presbyterian members--viewed it as wholly inappropriate, and named rock as the music of the devil. As much as anyone, especially in the eastern United States, Sons of Thunder helped change this perception. And Tedd Smith gave them a major boost in doing it.
     

In June 1969 Billy Graham held a crusade at Madison Square Garden. The Billy Graham Association also sponsored a coffeehouse for teens, in connection with this crusade, which was held in a huge room on the tenth floor of a nearby warehouse, and about 1,000 attended nightly. Sons of Thunder were featured for four evenings, along with John Guest and Mike Johnson’s Exkursions, another emerging Christian rock band, from Pittsburgh. Tedd Smith also performed numbers with SOT each evening. It was the first time rock music was featured at a Billy Graham event.
     

Performing at this coffeehouse while the bands played was a light-show genius from Philadelphia, Charlie Ruh. On a rear projection screen between the bands' stages Charlie presented a light show complimenting the music and message of the songs. Charlie and SOT developed a fast friendship, which led to his occasionally presenting his light show at SOT events, and Charlie eventually moving to D.C. and joining SOT. More on Charlie in a moment.
     

Charlie Ruh

Stan Kriz

Almost from the beginning SOT was also blessed with talented sound technicians. During their first summer 1967, Stan Kriz, a Carnegie Mellon student attending Fourth Presbyterian, joined the band as sound engineer. Stan not only mixed the sound when SOT played, but provided a highly unusual benefit: he constructed equipment for them, including microphones, speaker consoles and a mixer. He recorded many of the band’s concerts as well, giving SOT the chance to grow by listening to their performances. Stan’s talents lent greatly to SOT’s professionalism during the next 2-1/2 years.
     

In January 1969 Stan, bowing to college responsibilities, left SOT. The band was fortunate to quickly find another very talented sound technician to replace him. Doug Kay, a recent Drexel University graduate and now civilian electronics engineer at the U.S. Coast Guard Laboratory in Alexandria, Virginia, was running sound for another D.C. Christian band at the time, “The Lost and Found.” Doug agreed to also fit SOT into his agenda. For the next year and a half, till late spring 1970, Doug was at most SOT performances, running the sound and helping with technical issues.
     

Doug Kay

Sons of Thunder also benefited greatly from the counsel and encouragement of certain staff members at Fourth Presbyterian, and at different times Rev. Russ Cadle, Rev. Chuck Miller, and Mim Pain gave the band special attention. The direction these folks provided helped SOT develop an outlook that blended ministry and music effectively. The result was that Sons of Thunder concerts didn’t merely entertain but truly ministered to those who attended, strengthening the faith of Christians and encouraging others to give their life to Christ. More on this in the next chapter.
     

Joan and Steve Tinsley

SOT remained a five-piece group till the summer of 1970. Its performances grew more frequent, and by fall 1969 the band was presenting one or two concerts on most weekends. Its personnel stayed the same--Robin, Joan, Donna, Don and Blaine--until March 1970, when Joan married Steve Tinsley, a Naval Academy grad, and they moved from the D.C. area.

Shortly before Joan left, the band held a farewell concert for her. It was also SOT’s first self-sponsored, area-wide event. 1,600 attended the concert, held in the gymnasium of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland. This success propelled SOT to hold many other such area-wide events in the years ahead.
     

In the winter of 1970 SOT backed Tedd Smith on four songs on an album he recorded for Word Records, “Smash and Grab World,” including the title track for which the album is named. Joan is also the featured vocal soloist on this album, on four songs. In spring 1970 SOT released a 45 rpm record. On one side was “Psalm 100,” a spirited song written and recorded by Joan before she left. On the other was “Limping Foot,” sung by Don and written by Blaine. Leslie White sang background vocal on this one, along with Robin and Donna.
     

Leslie White

SOT was fortunate to quickly find an able replacement for Joan in Leslie, a young single woman attending Fourth Church then. Like Joan, Leslie played acoustic guitar, and she sang in a style and range similar to Joan’s. And so SOT’s style and approach stayed the same for a while.

In April 1970 SOT performed at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., for an event featuring Roy Roger’s wife Dale Evans. As wife of America’s most famous cowboy, Evans was a household name at the time. After SOT performed a set, she sang and played the piano, told stories, and shared about her faith in Christ.
     


In summer 1970, things began to change for SOT, and the band began to expand. More on that in the chapters ahead. But The Original Five set the stage for SOT forever, as a band committed to playing original songs, with grace-centered lyrics, presenting the love of Christ through contemporary music.
      

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Sons of Thunder
P.O. Box 448
Damascus, Maryland 20872
sot@nehemiahministries.com

   

Celebrating America's Pioneer Christian Rock Band

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