I met Emory Atkins in the winter of 1974. In Nacogdoches, Texas. He was playing bass guitar in a local rock (cover) band, White August. A few years later, I saw him again, this time he was playing for a Christian group, the Texas Ambassadors. He was joined by a young Paul Hartfield (retired Metropolitan Opera singer today), and two sets of brothers, Ted and David Stewart, Charlie and Chester Harris. The group had a good stage presence and their four part harmony was flawless.
Paul, Ted, and the Harris brothers sang, Emory played bass guitar, Dave played piano, and Keith Lewing played drums. They performed at churches (large and small) and were one of several opening acts for the famous, Wally Fowler, a singer-songwriter and Southern Gospel pioneer. Fowler produced late night gospel concerts, known affectionately as, ‘All night sings.’ Several other groups also performed on the popular shows including: The Singing Christians, The Journeymen, The Stamps, and a man billed simply as: ‘The Singing Sheriff.‘ Local groups would join the performance to draw in a larger crowd. Wally Fowler would close the show with the best musicians on stage performing as his backup band. Looking back, it looked like a three ring circus, masquerading as a Christian concert, but in reality, it was a very entertaining evening of music and clean family fun.
Emory seemed to quickly outgrow his band, a pattern that would follow him for years to come. The Singing Christians needed a bass player in November of 1976, so he jumped ship and joined their band. The Singing Christians had a major recording contract with Canaan Records and Emory wanted to perform on bigger and grander stages. He was just seventeen and had worked on at least two recording sessions, when he joined the band that would propel his career into overdrive.
Oddly enough, Emory’s father never wanted him to be a musician. He thought it was a waste of his time and money. He wanted Emory to be a businessman, an entrepreneur, a pilot, or an engineer. Oddly enough, by the end of his musical career in 1995, he had become all four.
He owned six recording studios over a period of fourteen years. In his final years living in Nashville, Atkins owned a music publishing company and managed several solo artists, acting as road manager or serving directly in artist representation. His first major in college was Aviation Science and he piloted small planes from 1978-1991. Finally, he was a successful audio recording engineer, producing hundreds of albums for groups small and large. All in all, his father would have been proud if he had lived long enough to witness where music took young Emory.
Emory helped to shape the Singing Christians by suggesting they hire two musicians they already knew from performing with Wally Fowler. Danny Hollis and Ronny Ricks played for The Journeymen, a good gospel group out of Tyler, Texas. The three men would become lifelong friends, performing in three bands together.
One could rightfully argue, these three men, Emory Atkins, Danny Hollis and Ronny Ricks, became the musical glue that held things together. Three Grammy nominations, one GMA Dove Award nomination, and inductees into the Texas Gospel Music Hall Of Fame in November of 2015 would provide all the accolades these three men and their bandmates would require for a lifetime of work.
In the winter of 1977, Ronny and Emory recorded their first album with the Singing Christians, Something for Everyone at Bradley’s Barn (a famous studio outside of Nashville, owned by the late, Owen Bradley). The following year, Danny joined the band and they recorded another album on Music Row, Refresh Our Spirit. Little did they know, it would be the last Singing Christians album.
In the Spring of 1978, or so the story goes, Wayne Christian (the leader of the Singing Christians) flew in Emory’s Piper Cherokee (a four seat airplane) to Nashville, Tennessee to meet with with Canaan Record executives to discuss an idea that Wayne, Emory and their bandmates had been debating. They wanted to expand their musical horizons to perform in larger venues but that would require rebranding themselves into a new band.
The idea was not original, the Oak Ridge Boys had already released a country music album but the Singing Christians wanted to appeal to both their Southern Gospel roots while evolving into something new, a Country band with four part harmony, and a moral message. The record executives loved the idea, but insisted they change their name because country radio stations might not play songs by a band known as the Singing Christians. After much debate, Wayne rebranded the group, The Mercy River Boys (MRB), named after the Larry Gatlin song, Mercy River.
The eight original members of the new MRB band were Wayne Christian (Lead vocals), Danny Hollis (acoustic guitar and lead vocalist), Danny Bob Smith (tenor vocals), Rusty Oxford (bass vocals), Emory Atkins (bass guitar), Ronny Ricks (drums), Gary Goss (keyboards), and Kevin Bailey (electric guitar). The MRB personnel would come and go but in five years, the core of the three (Emory, Ronny and Danny) would remain Mercy River Boys.
In late 1979, the Mercy River Boys would release their first album, Breakout. It would be marketed to both Christian radio and country music markets alike. The album was an overwhelming success, receiving accolades from country and gospel music fans. The band was a finalist for the NARAS’ Grammy Award and the Gospel Music Association’s DOVE Award. The record executives and marketing efforts had created a new genre, Christian Country Music. The MRB were not the first to crossover but they were among the pioneers who established the new genre.
The next album, In The Arms Of My Best Friend, would feature Ronny as lead vocalist. Danny and Emory took a hiatus from the road for a year after Emory got married. Gary moved to vocals and two new musicians were hired, including Chuck Long (electric guitar). By the summer of 1983, Emory and Danny returned and the final lineup of the band was Danny, Ronny, Emory and Chuck. The final concert of the MRB was held in Oklahoma City. It was recorded by a local video production company and remains the only known video recording of the band.
Danny, Ronny, and Emory would form a new band in 1985, PARADISE. They would record four albums in just under six years. Just like the MRB, membership in the band would come and go. Danny would record on the first and third albums, God Bless the U.S.A. and Invade the Darkness. Ronny would leave after the second album, Hired Guns, and Danny would not make the move to Nashville with the rest of the band in 1989.
The final Paradise album, The First Six Years, would be a ‘best of Paradise’ style release, including five new recordings written by Atkins. In fact, most of the later songs of Paradise were written or co-written by Atkins. The music of Paradise evolved from the Christian Country stylings of the MRB into a much more CCM (contemporary Christian) sound. Beginning with the Hired Guns album, Emory moved from bass to keyboardist. They started using complex sequences and layers of synth pads to create a much bigger sound. It was very different and the production credentials of Atkins grew in notoriety.
I lost track of Emory after his move to Tennessee. Larry Hardgrave, Jimmy Watson, and John Hodge were added to the band in the late eighties. I don’t know why Paradise split up, but the sound was never the same without Danny and Ronny. Atkins managed several artists, touring with Margaret Becker on the Immigrants Daughter tour, 1991-92, and with the band Harvest in 1993. He is also rumored to have filled in for several country music performers, playing bass guitar in the final years of his musical career.
The one thing I can say about Emory Atkins is that he dared to dream of being a musician. He lived that dream and made it a reality for himself and his friends. Today, I believe he is retired and living somewhere in Texas. He is a living member of the Texas Gospel Music Hall Of Fame for his work with the Singing Christians and the Mercy River Boys.
Written and published by Charles