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Chapter Four
SOT’s Full Time Years
(1) June 1972 - May 1973

By June 1972 Sons of Thunder had been together for five years. It had grown since its inception in June 1967 from a four-piece folk-rock style group to an eight-member band with a heavier rock style and more creative arrangements. But its priorities had stayed the same: it remained devoted to sharing the love of Christ through engaging music, as much of it original as possible, and committed to ministry through it all. SOT’s opportunities to perform grew steadily throughout this period, and numerous churches, campus ministries and Christian organizations throughout the mid-Atlantic region had engaged the band for concerts. Now the time seemed right to launch the band full-time, and in June ’72 SOT took this step. But with two personnel changes.

In spring 1972 Robin, long-time member, original bass player, and major composer for the band, moved permanently from the Washington area. Since Phyllis Wade, who remained with SOT, best filled the void left by Joan Hettenhouser, the search was on for a Robin replacement. Bunny Newell, a college student at Fourth Presbyterian, mentioned to Blaine that her sister, Becky, had a strong vocal talent, but known only to family members who’d heard her sing in the shower. Bunny, though, was insistent that Becky, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, could fill Robin’s spot. With that recommendation, the band auditioned Becky in May, and within about ten minutes knew they’d found their match. Since Becky was willing to put college on hold to travel with the band, SOT invited her to join. Though lacking any previous performing experience, Becky fit in amazingly well with SOT and for the next two years was a dynamic presence at its concerts.

Becky Newell

Tom Willett

Also in May Blaine found that Tom Willett, a Christian musician he’d met several years before, was about to graduate from Wake Forest University but wasn’t yet committed to a job. A Springfield, Virginia resident, Tom was a strong talent on bass, an entertaining singer and gifted song writer. Steve, who’d been handling bass well for SOT, liked the idea of letting Tom take it over, so he could focus more on singing, guitar and percussion. Though already a large band, SOT followed their gut on this one, for Tom simply seemed like someone who would fit well. Tom joined in June ’72 and quickly proved an ideal match for SOT, eventually assuming its musical leadership when Ed left in early ’73 (more on that in a moment).

SOT was now nine members, and this is how it looked at the start of its full-time period: Phyllis Wade, Becky Newell, and Hendricks Davis, singing on the frontline; Steve Halverson singing, playing occasional guitar, congas and alt. percussion; Ed Weaver, lead keyboard and vocals; Donna Gadling, keyboard and vocals; Blaine Smith, lead guitar; Tom Willett, bass and vocals; Don Williamson, drums and vocals. And Charlie Ruh stayed with the band throughout its full-time era with his ever more creative light show.

SOT was also joined at this time by Duane Self, a talented technician from West Virginia. With a band this large, and dependent on so much electronic gear, something always needed attention. Duane maintained the band’s equipment, helped with setting up and tearing down, and in summer ’73 produced a live album for the band.

Duane Self

Temple Hills Baptist Church,
Bethesda, Maryland, 1974

Dan Hurkett’s home had served SOT well till now, but the band needed a larger headquarters for its full-time operation, and a place all its own. A Bethesda church offered the band the parsonage on its property for this purpose: Temple Hills Baptist, at 9400 Wisconsin Avenue. Today, the same church, renamed Bethesda Meeting House (its original name, from which Bethesda was named), and the same house, both possibly ante-bellum, still sit on three acres atop a hill, adjoining a cemetery, and looking like ancient ghostly images in ultra-modern Bethesda.

Temple Hill's parsonage, which SOT used as headquarters from June '72 to
December '74. Photo 9/10/74

The huge three-story home with a wrap-around porch had been the church's parsonage and then a monastery, but had been unoccupied for some time when SOT took it over, and was in need of much repair. SOT was granted its use in exchange for giving it some TLC, plus cutting the grass on the church’s property. With eight bedrooms, most male members of the band took up residence there. The band convened and rehearsed there, stored its gear there, and had it office there. And over the next two years SOT members painted much of the home’s exterior and interior, and repaired lots of ancient plaster.
The church itself, mostly unused during the week, was also available to the band for meetings and an occasional special event. The use of this property was a Godsend to SOT at this time, and it’s hard to imagine its full-time period taking place without it.

Fourth Presbyterian Church
Bethesda, Maryland

SOT continued its close association with Fourth Presbyterian Church, about ten minutes away, throughout this time, performing for weekly college meetings during the summer, and for many other youth and adult events. And the band continued its routine of presenting concerts wherever it could travel, at churches and Christian events and on campuses, only now more frequently. Band members were paid a weekly salary, generated by concert honorariums and freewill offerings, record sales, and some donations. SOT came to own both a van and a box truck as well, plus substantial audio gear.

A typical day for the band during its full time period included a morning meeting for prayer, personal sharing and Bible study, time for personal and group practice, domestic chores, plus whatever could be done toward renovating their house. Blaine often lead the morning meeting, though others sometimes did too, and they took place most days, whether the group was home or on the road. SOT tried to plan their schedule to allow at least one day off a week as well.

SOT had not produced a new album since “Till the Whole World Knows,” by its Original Five in 1968. And so one of its first goals full time was to produce a new album with its present lineup. Recording time was expensive, though, and time-consuming. Track Recorders, a state-of-the-art facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, offered the band a bargain rate, if it would record between 8:00 a.m. and noon. SOT accepted, and on many mornings in July ’72 members awoke at 4:00 a.m., to warm up and prepare for the studio at 8:00 a.m. The effort paid off well, and by mid-August the band had in hand a new album, “Day Follows Night.” (This of course was a vinyl album; it was still some years till the advent of modern digital technology.) The album proved a huge asset for SOT -- something to put in people's hands at concerts representing the current group, and to provide potential concert sponsors. It helped financially as well. Today “Day Follows Night” sits among the classics of early “Jesus Rock.”

Sons of Thunder's 1972 album
"Day Follows Night"

Bob Eagan

By the end of that summer, SOT’s drummer Don Williamson felt the need to move on, to focus fully on a masters program in which he was enrolled. Don, with Blaine, had been a founding member of SOT, had logged more than five years with the band, and had also been part of the “Pre-Sons.” He’d not only been a terrific drummer, but SOT’s sole male singer for its first three years. The band soon found an able replacement in Bob Eagan, a Baltimore native with a Youth for Christ background, who agreed to leave a family foundry business for a while to supply SOT’s drumming needs. Bob learned the band’s material quickly, and was soon handling full concerts adeptly. He moved into the SOT house as well, and his Corvette lent some sparkle to the mostly dreary assortment of member’s cars in the lot outside.

In September 1972 John Wesley White, one of Billy Graham's associate evangelists, held a crusade in Loudon County, Virginia. Sons of Thunder provided the music for the nightly meetings, where many gave their lives to Christ. White loved the band, and re-christened the crusade’s location in honor of them, welcoming folks each night in a booming voice to “LOUD-, LOUD-, LOUDon County”!

Sons of Thunder continued their concert trek through the fall, winter, and spring of 1972-73, which included many college campuses. Colleges where the band performed included William and Mary, The Naval Academy, George Madison College, Averett College, Frostburg College, Virginia Polytechnical Institute, Delaware Technical and Community College, Lehigh University, Montreat-Anderson College, Princeton University, Lynchburg College, Wesley College, Manchester College, Defiance College, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Gallaudet College. (Yes, we realize many of these are now universities; we’re listing the schools as they were titled then.) A concert at Virginia Tech in September, sponsored by multiple Christian organizations on campus, drew about 2,000. Sons of Thunder’s interracial mix almost sparked an incident (long story), which Hendricks and Blaine managed to head off from the stage.

On October 6, 1972 SOT's keyboardist Ed Weaver and Linda Long married at a beautiful service held in the historic church next to SOT's house. Ed continued with SOT as a married man until April 1973, when the demands of the road became too great for family life.

Blaine had graduated from seminary just before SOT became full time. In November ’72 the National Capital Presbytery agreed to ordain Blaine. Under Presbyterian rules, one must have a “calling” to be ordained, which is normally considered a church pastoral position. The Presbytery, however, agreed to regard Sons of Thunder as Blaine’s calling, and he was ordained to that ministry. It was the first time this Presbytery ordained someone to a non-church position.

The Rock Gospel for the Deaf
signing team: Rudy Gawlik, Pam
Minger, Dan Pokorny, Dennis

In the winter of 1973, while Ed was still with the band, SOT joined forces with four instructors from Gallaudet College for the Deaf (now Gallaudet University) and Kendall Demonstration School, in Washington, D.C., who wanted to try a bold experiment. Their idea was for SOT to present a full-length concert for Gallaudet students, which they would interpret with signs, choreography, and signed dialogue. SOT and this team presented this concert in March to a huge audience of deaf students, who received it jubilantly. “Rock Gospel for the Deaf” (often shortened to “Rock Gospel”) was now fully in motion, and this troupe presented the same concert to a hearing-impaired audience in Williamsburg later that month. The Gallaudet and Kendall signers included Dan Pokorny, Catholic priest Fr. Rudy Gawlik, Pam Minger, and Dennis Cokley. SOT performed about 25 Rock Gospel Concerts over the next year and a half, in 19 different cities, and in late fall 1974 recorded an album and a TV documentary with them. More on all that in the next chapter, and on our Rock Gospel page.

Wedding bells sounded again for an SOT member in February. Charlie Ruh married Diane Batchelor at a ceremony in Philadelphia which all SOT attended. Diane became the band’s secretary after that, and was a welcome addition to SOT’s growing staff.

Dorian Lester

In April 1973 Ed left the band, to become organist at Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore (and from there, to become Assistant Director of Admissions at Peabody Conservatory, also in Baltimore). Ed had contributed greatly to SOT’s musical direction for more than two years, and done much to educate the band musically. Since no one was available to replace him, the band decided to take a new direction, at least for the moment, and fill the void Ed left with a second lead guitar. Dorian Lester, a guitarist from Springfield, Virginia with a background in gospel music, expressed interest in playing with SOT, and he was invited to join. Dorian played a Gibson ES-335 with a mellower sound than Blaine’s Telecaster, and with it he filled the keyboard space well. He also sang like B.J. Thomas, and added a wonderful new personality to SOT’s musical mix.

Diane Ruh

Tom Willett became the band’s general music director upon Ed’s departure, and proved highly effective in the role. Blaine continued as the band’s general leader, and Donna as vocal director.

That same month (April 1973) SOT hired a full-time accountant and financial manager, Steve Belknap. Steve had been comptroller for Bethesda’s Holiday Inn, and left that position to join SOT. He had been helping the band with accounting in his spare time, and it was a natural step to ask him to join full time. Steve stayed in this position with SOT for about a year.

Steve Belknap

In May 1973 SOT made their longest journey yet -- a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska. There they performed for the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, becoming the first Christian rock band to play at this national conference. SOT also performed a handful of outdoor concerts in Omaha on this trip. At one of these they met a talented young Christian drummer, Tom Paustian, who took a liking to the band. The meeting was fortuitous, for in June, Tom filled the spot left when Bob Eagan had to leave.

By the end of May, SOT had completed their first year as a full-time band. Members felt the experience had been hugely successful, and most were eager to commit to another year. Several, though, felt the need to move on, and so in June SOT regrouped for a second full-time year. More on that transition in the next chapter.

Everyone but Phyllis Wade is shown in this photo of SOT in late spring 1973 (L to R, B to F): Dorian Lester, Blaine Smith, Bob Eagan, Steve Halverson, Tom Willett, Becky Newell, Hendricks Davis,
Donna Gadling

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Sons of Thunder
P.O. Box 448
Damascus, Maryland 20872


Celebrating America's Pioneer Christian Rock Band

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