Emory Atkins, Musician, Singer-songwriter and music producer.

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

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Danny Hollis and Ronny Ricks

I grew up in deep East Texas in the sixties and seventies. In my youth, I traveled across the state to watch musical groups and bands perform. My brother and I started a small family gospel group, enjoying a minimal success in our teenage years, but a lifetime of performing was not in the cards for us. In 1975, I met the Journeymen, a musical group from Tyler, Texas. This is the story of two of their members who would help transform the vocal and musical sound of Gospel music.

Danny Hollis was the best vocalist I’ve ever heard sing. His voice reminded me of Marty Robbins; it was uncanny how much he sounded like the famous country balladeer. He played both a Gibson electric guitar and a Martin acoustic. His musical skill kept him in demand in the local recording studios and he became a regular guitarist for Wally Fowler’s ”Top Ten Nashville Band.”

In 1975, Ronny Ricks was the drummer for the Journeymen. He was only 16, but already an accomplished musician with a reputation as a great percussionist. What I didn’t know, and would not discover until 1980, was that Ronny Ricks was one hell of a country singer. A cross between Kenny Rogers and Randy Owen of Alabama. It is very rare to find a drummer with a voice that smooth. In time, Danny and Ronny would become a great one-two punch in four different bands, and both would end up in the Texas Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

In 1977, both Danny and Ronny would leave the Journeymen to perform with another successful Southern Gospel group from East Texas, The Singing Christians. After recording two albums, the Singing Christians rebranded themselves as The Mercy River Boys to kick-start a new musical genre known today as Christian Country Music. Both men would become lead vocalists in the organization, scoring hits on secular country and gospel radio stations. After the breakup of the Mercy River Boys, both Danny and Ronny would combine their efforts with another MRB band member to form Paradise (I have written about all three of these bands in previous blogs).

Danny Hollis would continue to play and perform for the next forty years. In 2014, he released a new album with his new group, The Danny Hollis Band. Ronny would tour with several groups over the same period of time, most notably, White River, and the Penny Gilley Band. Both men were inducted with the eight original members of the Mercy River Boys into the Texas Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in November of 2015.

These two men, from the piney woods of East Texas, led a musical revolution with the Mercy River Boys that placed them in very rare company. I have written about this revolution before and how it created a new stylistic genre. Christian Country Music is a mix of traditional and progressive country with a positive, moral message. Danny and Ronny’s voices and their musical talent helped to lead in the formulation of the new genre. Others would follow in their footsteps, but they were the forebearers and musical pathfinders.

I’ve lost track of both performers for decades but I have fond memories watching them perform with the Journeymen, the Singing Christians, the Mercy River Boys, and Paradise. I wish they could have continued to work together in those early years but they performed together for over a decade.

The Music of Paradise

I became aware of the original members of Paradise when they performed as the The Singing Christians band (Canaan Records, 1976-79) and the Mercy River Boys (Canaan Records, 1979-1984). I knew there was something very special about these musicians because I saw them perform in several different venues for a decade. I literally watched them grow as professional musicians and outstanding Christian men. I didn’t see them perform live after 1986 but I have listened to three of the four Paradise albums.

The original members of Paradise included Danny Hollis (guitar and vocals), Emory Atkins (bass guitar, vocals, and keyboards), and Ronny Ricks (drums and vocals). Danny and Ronny shared the role of lead singer and all three men contributed to the background vocals. The first album, God Bless The U.S.A., was clearly a revisiting of their favorite Mercy River Boys performances. They included their MRB hits: Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport, Antioch Choir, Put Something Back, Diamonds, and The Arms of My Best Friend. These MRB songs became transitional music, connecting the Mercy River Boys fans with the newly branded Paradise. My favorite song from the first album is the song: Last Train to Glory.

In 1986, Danny took a two-year sabbatical. He was replaced by guitarist and eclectic songwriter, Larry Hardgrave. Ronny moved into the role of lead vocalist with Larry being featured on several of his songs including: Aliens, and the title track, Hired Guns. Emory moved from bass guitar to keyboards to provide the band with a solid eighties CCM sound. Anyone comparing the first two Paradise albums would struggle to believe they were essentially the same band. The old genre was dropped and a new sound had evolved from their Christian country and Southern Gospel roots.

The Hired Guns album (Englewood Records, 1987) is one of the best CCM recordings of the decade. The basic tracks were tracked at Greg Hunt’s Rosewood Studio in Tyler, Texas. Emory Atkins had produced and recorded their first album at his twenty-four track analog studio in Texas but this project is the band members first journey into the digital format. Emory and Larry Hardgrave wrote most of the songs for the album. Atkins contracted Gary Leach to work with him in arranging and sequencing all of the tracts. Atkins plays keyboard bass for the first time and the project takes on a dark, eclectic mix, like a painter using dark blending contrasts on the canvas.

Atkins wrote Where Have All The Righteous Men Gone, Breakaway, Dream, and co-wrote several of the other songs. Larry Hardgrave penned Hired Guns, Don’t Avoid The Truth and Aliens. Ronny Ricks co-wrote the single worship song on the project, Praise to the Lamb. The project was well received in a limited release but became overshadowed by the departure of Ronny Ricks and the return of Danny Hollis. Jon Hodge was added to the lineup as a vocalist and Jimmy Lavon Watson was hired to play drums. The band immediately began writing songs and preparing for the next album.

Invade the Darkness was released in 1989, the band’s third album on Englewood Records. It was produced by Emory Atkins and Gary Boren. The album was nominated for a Grammy but was not a finalist for the award. Paradise became a solid Contemporary Christian band, featuring an 80’s pop/rock sound with hard driving electric guitars and layered keyboards. Danny’s return added several praise songs into the mix for well balanced live performances.

Emory moved to Nashville in 1990, establishing a twenty-four track digital recording studio in the United Artists Tower on Music Row. The band recorded their final album, releasing The First Six Years as a final tribute to the music of Parsdise. Atkins became an independent studio bassist, playing and touring with various country acts. He also toured with singer-songwriters Margaret Becker, Jerry Williams (Harvest), and Ben Ketting from The Netherlands. He retired from music in 1995 and lives with his wife in Texas.

I became a lifelong fan of these musicians, following them for more than a decade. Danny Hollis still performs in Texas with his country band. Ronny Ricks plays drums for Penny Gilley. Larry Hardgrave past away after an auto accident. The Legacy of these men reaches back to the mid 1970’s when they first met while performing with the Singing Christians.

Written by Charles Harris (Musical Historian)