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Of all the unlikely rock hits in the genre’s first five years, this one might be at the top of the list.

In the Nineteen Fifties just one pure gospel record hit the R&B Charts and while that style still sold very well overall, its sales were accumulated over time, not dependent on quick turnaround right out of the box to earn the label money like all other forms of music in the singles market.

Though this isn’t a gospel record in any way, it is ostensibly about the same broad subject which its title makes clear. If the mainstream acceptance of religion was more of a matter-of-fact everyday sight in 1952 than it is now, it still was skirting the edge of what was usually seen in a more commercial field, especially one with the reputation for raising hell like rock ‘n’ roll.

In other words, this was a record that had to walk a very fine line not to offend everybody, saints and sinners alike.


No Matter Where Or When He Is Bound
If you’re someone who believes in God and I tell you that the Bible is nothing but the best selling fiction book of all-time culled from a wide variety of unrelated fables and shaped into a doctrine meant to empower those who claimed divinity for their own self-centered purposes (money, influence and respect with a lifetime a job requiring no manual labor at a time when that was much harder to come by than it is today), I have a feeling you might get a wee bit upset.

It doesn’t matter that I have a much better chance of actually proving this than any of you do of disproving it since one of the primary tricks of religion is to promise life everlasting as a reward for your obedient belief…. AFTER your life on earth has ended naturally.

In other words, they don’t offer a money back guarantee with their promises and there’s nobody coming back from the other side to say it was all a sham.

Conversely, the person who thinks all religion is nothing but hucksterism has every right to be offended when people claim that anyone who disagrees with that view needs to be labeled an “atheist”, thereby keeping the status quo intact when it comes to ensuring the acceptance of religion in society by insisting that belief in a higher power is the norm and anything else requires labeling to separate them from the “enlightened” masses.

But this isn’t about choosing sides in that debate, it’s about showing how when it comes to these weighty topics there is bound to be some who are going to protest anything that cuts too close to the bone one way or another which is why this task was so difficult for Edna McGriff to pull off.

The latter contingent are going to be queasy about accepting Heavenly Father because it has all of the trappings of something you’d hear in church, right down to an organ and a humble plea to a divine being as the solution to someone’s problems.

On the other hand the church goer could very easily find fault with what might be called a selfish, or at least purely personal, secular need as the reason for McGriff’s request, questioning whether she expects a quid pro quo arrangement as a prerequisite for her devotion.

But both sides though, if they’d just put aside their larger worldviews, should – and apparently did in this case – find common ground in that this is just a really heartfelt and touching record that stands out in a sea of earthly (and musical) decadence.

The Kind Of Girl He Wants Me To Be
If you were to take the individual components of this record you might not slot them in the gospel field per say, title and message aside, but you would be more inclined to see it as a pop record.

For one thing, pop music of this era did sometimes blur the line between church and state as it were, being sure to keep it vague enough – and yet respectful enough – not to ruffle any feathers.

With its churchy organ opening, a recent instrumental addition to a lot of Jubilee sessions for all of their artists, this definitely wants to put you in a pew… or at least put you in that frame of mind. The organ sort of fades into the background once McGriff comes in and as a result the rest of the instrumental track is pop in nature – very subdued, classy with light guitar accents and vibes to give it a delicate mood.

You could easily have Patti Page sing over this track and be none the wiser.

But where Heavenly Father stakes its claim in rock is in Edna McGriff’s reading of it.

The fact that she actually wrote the song herself helps enormously in this regard as she knows exactly the sentiments she had in mind from the start and isn’t trying to read something into it based on her record label’s goals or her own interpretive instincts as she would’ve if it came from an outside source.

To that end she comes across as utterly sincere in her hopes, yet not quite devout in her faith. I’m not saying she wasn’t in real life, or that she’s asking God for a favor without putting her money in the collection basket, but all of that is being downplayed a bit here as she leans more into the thoughts of her boyfriend who is (fairly obviously, though unstated) fighting in the Korean War which was still ongoing at this time.

Because of this it’s safe to say she’s got split loyalties and the song is all the better for it because it’s much truer to life… at least the lives of those of us who prefer dancing with the devil to rock ‘n’ roll.

But it’s not ALL just perception, if that’s what you were thinking. McGriff’s voice, though sweet and tender, carries with it a hint of rhythm in how she’s singing this which gives it a subversive bounce in its step and helps to make this much more than merely a solemn musical performance devoid of the attributes rock thrived on. That last melismatic line alone even could be said to make it sound slightly erotic as her thoughts drift to having this prayer answered and getting her boyfriend back in her arms again.

What stands out once you parse all of these side issues, is just how lovely the melody is, how pure her vocal sounds and above all else, how people’s beliefs or desires, no matter what those may be, tend to correspond to what they want most.

For some that’s the supposed peace of mind of eternal life, for others it’s taking advantage of the life you have in front of you. Whichever the case, as long as the listener is satisfied with their choice, we’ll call it a draw.


Bring Him Home To Me
We’ve already seen some of the most influential rock acts to date (Roy Brown and Clyde McPhatter) use their church training to permanently alter secular vocal deliveries. We’ve also had a number of gospel acts make the switch to rock ‘n’ roll, whether for one brilliant performance like Marilyn Scott before returning to the bosom of the Lord, or some, like The Larks and The “5” Royales, who will attain stardom in rock without ever looking back.

Over the next few decades we’ll meet even more legendary acts – Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin (who cut a version of this song in the early 1970’s that went unreleased for decades) and The Staple Singers – make the transition from actually singing gospel professionally – and successfully in a commercial sense – to defining rock with hit after hit.

Edna McGriff though was obviously something else altogether, which makes Heavenly Father more genuine in a way. The sixteen year old likely hadn’t yet come to a decision on her beliefs in real life and so the two divergent viewpoints pulled at her without causing any rupture.

Like many kids she may have been raised to say their prayers each night and so, to her way of thinking, all she was doing was earnestly praying for something she desperately wanted that seemed important enough to say it aloud which was to have her slightly older boyfriend make it back home from war in one piece to be able to live out his life, hopefully with her.

But maybe some higher power felt that asking for it in such a commercial way devalued the prayer, for while we don’t know what happened to the boy in question, we do know that Edna McGriff died at the tragically young age of 44 in 1980, perhaps the price she paid for scoring a hit in this fashion.

Then again, I’m sure some would say that rather than earning the wrath of a vengeful God for blurring the line between the sacred and secular, she was simply blessed by being granted entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven earlier than most.

The eternal debate rages on.


(Visit the Artist page of Edna McGriff for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)