Back in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, The Orrells were one of the most exciting groups to grace a Southern Gospel stage and were ahead of their time. Their sound was mix of Southern Gospel with folk and rock. Consisting of Larry Orrell, Wayne Hilton and Gordon Jensen, they introduced some of the biggest songs ever written in Southern Gospel music such as “Redemption Draweth Nigh”, “Tears are a Language”, “I Should Have Been Crucified” and “Jesus will Outshine them All”, all penned by master songwriter, Gordon Jensen. You can read more about the Orrells here, which is an article I wrote about the group about 11 years ago.
On July 29th in Nashville, Tennessee, the Orrells reunited for a special “Legends” night. In preparation for that event, I was given the tremendous opportunity to talk with Larry Orrell and Wayne Hilton about the group, their accomplishments and contributions and what’s going on now…
James: The Orrells came off the road around 1973 and did very limited dates. The group came back and recorded an album in 1975 as the Orrells and then later became Gordon Jensen & Sunrise around 1976. That incarnation eventually ceased traveling around 1978 or so. Let’s catch everyone up what you’ve been up to and where you’ve been for the last 38 years!
Wayne: By 1973, we had already been discussing singing in a different way and knew something was going to change. I had the opportunity to move to Nashville and work with Duane Allen and Superior Sound Studios. He wanted me to come up and produce records and I snatched up the opportunity. For several months, we had stopped singing, but there was so much in us to continue to be together, we continued to do some dates off and on, but never went back to traveling full-time again.
I worked at Superior Sound for 5 years or so and during that time, the Orrells still did a lot of stuff off and on, but never having to depend on it for our livelihood. It was more for the enjoyment of singing and being able to touch people with whatever we were doing, without having the pressure of having to be somewhere the next night. We went by invitation only and it took a lot of pressure off of us and allowed us to do things we wanted to do individually.
Also, during the same time period, I was doing back-up vocals for the Grand Ole Opry for about 5-6 years. I also had my own employment agency and did a lot of head-hunting for mechanical engineers, etc. Then I got a call from Bob McKenzie around 1982 to come to work for the Benson Company and I was so happy to be there and work with some really talented people. Then Benson went through one of their turnovers in ownership and some of their A&R people, which is what I was doing, were cut loose. I took a couple of artists with me, one of those being was Squire Parsons, and was delighted to start a new label with him. For my product distribution, I worked awhile with Lexicon and they eventually went belly-up and I was like, “Okay God…I get it. There is something else for me to do!” I always had a love for construction work and got my State of Tennessee general contractors license around 1988 and other than ministry overseas mostly in the Hispanic world teaching them how to lead worship and play music; that is what I have been doing for the last 15-18 years with both of my sons, JR and Sean.
Larry: James, I gotta tell you that everything Wayne has ever done whether it’s construction, music or painting his house, he did it excellently. I am so glad to be hooked up with Wayne in this endeavor and bring back what has been lost for a while. The whole journey has been a learning process of where God wants us. All the things that Wayne went through, I went through a process as well.
I was involved with Paul Olsen and Good News Crusades for 7 years. I was busy with Wayne and Gordon in Sunrise and then along came a situation where I pastored for a couple years at Temple Church here in Nashville, which was a multi-cultural church. Then for 5 years I was involved in my own creation of Friends 4. That was an incredible group and the foundation there was Lari Goss. I along with Big John Hall, Terry Blackwood and Chuck Sullivan, we put it all together and were able to sing in some of the most incredible venues like David Jerimiah’s church, First Baptist Dallas, Corral Ridge with James Kennedy and so on. The Southern Baptist Convention adopted us, so that kind of put in a lot of the large Southern Baptist churches. But it all came to an end, and that’s when I really started to search my life and God brought me into the ministry in an incredible way.
One thing you have to understand, the Orrells…Wayne, Gordon and I…have always been international. Gordon was from Canada, Wayne has built 35 churches in Argentina, Peru and Mexico. And my assignment is Italy and Switzerland and I do a lot in the Caribbean. The Orrells were the first group to go to Switzerland and places like Holland and Sweden.
I am an only child and I always count Wayne and Gordon as my brothers. When we were together as Sunrise with Ronnie (Fairchild), Steven (Speer) and Billy (Blackwood) it so much fun…it was more than music. We had a great time together. We thought we were the Eagles of gospel music! (laughing)
Wayne: Back at that time, we had a lot of trouble trying to figure out who we were. We look back on it and say maybe it was just for a time and season. And now, we aren’t necessarily looking to rekindle the fire because the fire is already there!
Larry: Back in the beginning of the Orrells, the stage had been set because of my father (Lloyd Orrell) who promoted great concerts in Detroit and other areas. It was this platform that we launched the Orrells. Because of that, we were able to work Texas and down south with JG Whitfield and sing on platforms we would have never got on…especially the fact that we were Yankees! (laughing)
James: When you guys were traveling during the late 60s and into the 70s, did you ever stop and realize the impact the Orrells were making?
Wayne: Billy Blackwood reminds people when we came on (before he joined us), he was always in the wings watching and that was pretty universal. But it was really intimidating to us and we didn’t take it lightly either. It was important to us that they were stopping to listen to what we were singing and saying.
Larry: One of those guys always standing in the wings was Eldridge Fox. I will never forget one time he came up to me and said, “Larry, every time you guys sing I always find myself in the back curtain listening to everything you guys do because you always say something that is important and you say it like nobody else says it.”
Wayne: I can’t say that was by design either. It’s not us! It was something that we didn’t really know we had in our hands. If we knew, it would probably had gone to our heads. Looking back now, we realize it, but at the time, we couldn’t target the people we were doing this for. Southern Gospel is where we started and we will always be attracted to that. But we just found ourselves influenced by other musicians, secular and gospel, and we felt they had something to say musically that we wanted to interject our heart into their musical format and it was a tough thing to do. It became our goal and our passion, because we really wanted to be multi-genre.
Larry: I’ve got to go back to Detroit, Michigan…in the midst of Southern Gospel and my dad, who was a very successful promotor…I was there when Stevie Wonder was cooking…Motown was cooking…the Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips…there was another realm of music that was happening and we were inundated with that and influenced by a lot of different styles of music. We always wanted to be different. Some people thought we were trying to do something strange, and we were! (laughing)
James: You guys were backed by a record company (Benson) who was willing to experiment musically and do somethings a little different and outside of the box.
Wayne: They saw the future! And Bob McKenzie was the guy doing the thinking! Bob was there and made it happen. When Bob McKenzie left Benson to work with Bill Gaither, Benson was like “what do we do now?” So we went and started doing our own stuff and producing our own music. After Bob left, there wasn’t anyone in our camp at the Benson Company and there wasn’t a lot of options to take our music to.
Larry: Our first meeting with Bob McKenzie at Benson…it was Wayne, Gordon and me, and he turns to us and says, “Sing me the hit”. We started, just the three of us singing, “Redemption Draweth Nigh”. That was pressure! He was the Quincy Jones of gospel music back then! (laughing)
Wayne: He had a great mind and left this world way too soon. He was a funny guy and he was intense and he was RIGHT! (laughing) He brought gospel music to a whole new level of perfection.
James: What would you consider to be the Orrells greatest accomplishment and what do you want people to remember the most about the Orrells?
Wayne: The message. And who we were…was Gordon’s songs. We were Gordon Jensen’s sound board and we sang his heart. We sang some great songs and heard some plunkers too! (laughing) But Gordon was way ahead of his time and he was way ahead of his years in his thought process as well. The privilege of being able to introduce some really great songs was awesome! Bob McKenzie used to say it was all about the song…not the singer…not the arrangement…but it was about the song.
James: Do you have a particular favorite song that the Orrells sang?
Wayne: For me, it’s a song called, “God Has Not Changed”. Another song would be, “The Things God Cannot Do”.
Larry: I am in trouble every time Wayne sings, “Whisper Jesus”. There is an anointing on that song!
James: The Orrells are reuniting again for a special concert in Nashville on July 29th. What will people expect to hear and see at this event?
Larry: It’ll be us going back in time. Everyone will hear “We’re Together Again”, “Bigger than Any Mountain”, “I Should Have Been Crucified” and we have a special medley we’ll be doing as well. It’s going to be a magical night.
Now, Gordon will not be there, he is out on the west coast doing ministry, but Wayne’s son is helping out. JR (Wayne Hilton, Jr) is doing a great job helping out singing Gordon’s part and he makes us look good too! (laughing)
Wayne: And we really need that! (laughing) Also, through this event, we want to honor Gordon because his songs define us.
Larry: His songs are still relevant to today’s times…I Should Have Been Crucified, Whisper Jesus, Tears are a Language, Jesus will Outshine them All…these are all songs that are relevant to today. It’s hard for me to get through some of them.
James: Is this a new beginning for an “Orrell Revival”? Any chance of you guys hitting the road again, albeit maybe on a limited basis?
Larry: We don’t know. Dave Compton in Greensboro, North Carolina has already expressed an interest about doing a concert in Greensboro next year. It’s all in God’s hands.
Wayne: I know myself, Larry and Gordon want to minister to people in a very real way. If it is through music, holding people, loving people, that is what we want to do, whether it’s the Orrells or individually.
You can connect with the Orrells via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theorrellsgospelband