For years before the Jonestown Massacre made the group infamous in 1978, the California religious sect called Peoples Temple was known for three things: Their peculiar and charismatic preacher, Jim Jones; an ahead-of-its-time commitment to racial integration and social justice; and a Holy Roller roadshow that relied heavily on the talents of the church’s R&B-influenced band and choir. I first heard the music of Peoples Temple Choir performed in a production of Leigh Fondakowski’s documentary play The People’s Temple in early 2006. The songs were a catchy mix of black gospel and rudimentary funk that lodged in my head for weeks afterwards. A year later, I heard the same tunes playing hissy in the background of Stanley Nelson’s excellent PBS documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and I realized that, somewhere out there, this music was on wax.
The Temple cut their endearingly amateurish proto-soul record He’s Able in the spring of 1973, five years before 900 of its members drank cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid at the group’s agricultural compound in Jonestown, Guyana. The original record has been out-of-print since ’77, when most Temple members left California for South America. The remaining copies were sold at auction two years later, following the massacre. I nabbed mine on eBay for fifty bucks, and since then, not a month has gone by that I haven’t spun it at least once. The Temple had a fondness for heartfelt, egalitarian anthems, and the record’s standout moments include earnest renditions of Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom” and Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”
The research for my essay “Songs Primarily in the Key of Life” stretched out over a couple years and involved a week following paper trials at the California Historical Society’s Peoples Temple research archive, plus interviews with former Temple members and others associated with an historic LA recording studio called Producers Workshop. He’s Able is a peculiar artifact, but there’s some serious talent on the record as well, and I’m glad to help bring it back into the public domain. words/ brian kevin