Jonathan David Brown: His Time With Petra

When did you first become aware of Petra?

I saw Bob Hartman play live at Knott's Berry Farm in Orange County California in about 1979. I think Rob Frazier was singing, but I could be wrong. Of course, I'd heard of them through their Myrrh recordings earlier in the Jesus Movement. Darrell Harris and Wayne Donowho, who co-owned and operated Star Song Records, first introduced me to Bob and Greg X. Volz when they asked me to record Never Say Die .

Were they successful at the time, or just a no-name band?

Prior to the record before Never Say Die (Washes Whiter Than) they had what I would consider "underground" fame among the newly converted rockers listening to Jesus Music. Washes Whiter Than delivered them up to mainstream Christian Radio for the first time with "Why Should the Father Bother?" The first thing Darrell and Wayne played me after that record's nonimal success was a song demo by Dave Eden of "The Coloring Song." They knew it was a smash, and I affirmed. Greg X. added the "juice" necessary to catapult the band into the 100,000 sales club, which they had not come near. We just concentrated on what was obvious - PETRA was being born-again.

What did you like or not like?

I liked the idea of a Christian Rock band making smash hit records on mainstream - at that time ‘conservative/inspirational' Christian Radio. "Why Should the Father Bother" cracked open the door. "Coloring Song" blew the wall down.

Did they hire you for a specific reason?

Because I understood Christian Radio and how to work with bands. I'd already done Daniel Amos (first L.P. and Shotgun Angel), Sweet Comfort Band with Bryan Duncan (first L.P.), Mustard Seed Faith (with Oden Fong and Lewis McVey), Parable (with Chuck Butler), etc. etc. And I'd had quite a number of top singles on the air.

Was Petra fun or difficult to work with?

FUN, until the fun was over. I enjoyed working with Hartman's tunes very much. Then there were special writers such as the author of "Road to Zion" which made the career have interesting turns.

Were there any Petra songs you rescued from being thrown away?

Nope. There were a few I'd like to have thrown away though. No I'm not going to say which ones.

Did you ever offer opinions on lyrics or melodies? How much influence did you have over those kinds of things?

On most recordings, I helped Greg with melodic interpretation and phrasing. I could argue with Bob occasionally about lyrics, but even less about melody. Bob just let Greg and me do what we needed to get Greg's best performance, except choose the right key. We were stuck with "guitar" oriented keys, which sometimes made Greg, in spite of his range, have to pull up his shorts. I didn't like the dog whistle frequencies. They probably wore Greg out, and me trying to get them on tape. But, nobody ‘had' to use a capo.

The song "Judas' Kiss" begins with some backward-masking. Whose idea was that?

Mine. John Slick did the voice. I wrote the line. "What are you lookin' for the devil for when you ought to be lookin' for the LORD."

What was the purpose?

To mock a couple of morons who were going around saying most rock records included ‘backward masking.' This theory had bled over to the Christian Rock stuff, so I was compelled to prophesy. They asked for it.

Whose idea was it for Mark Kelly to sing lead on "Disciple"?

(NOTE: Mark sings the first part of each verse and pre-chorus, alternating with Greg, then sings the melody on the Chorus)

I really don't remember whose idea it was. It was a good break for Greg though.

Whose idea was it to branch out from mostly organ on older albums to synths on Not Of This World?

John Slick as keyboardist was perhaps equally as talented as John Lawry. He could make a musical silk purse out of a sow's ear, speaking of synth limitations. Slick just sort of began emerging as an all-around keyboardist, which included the metamorphosis from Hammond B-3 to synth and both together. His arrangement and performance on both "Doxologies" is wondermous.

Beat The System... what a departure! Where did that concept come from?

Some things were done out of necessity. The record took on an "other-worldly" character because I decided to not use Mark Kelly or Louie Weaver on it. This has a can of worms attached to it, so we won't open it completely, just a little. Louie was not in the group when we did Never Say Die. I used Keith Edwards (who toured for six years with Amy, played also in bands for Tanya Tucker, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Ricky Skaggs, Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, etc. etc.) Keith was drummer in my Jesus Music group SETH. I knew he could handle the job and act like he was really in the band. This is what we needed. As far as I'm concerned, he, John Slick and Greg "made" Never Say Die happen. Not to take anything away from Bob, Mark, or me. I just could not have made the same record without them. The ‘new' New-Improved PETRA was off and running.

Louie joined the group right after we made Die. He learned all of Keith's parts well, and added his own touch. I was excited to then have a self-contained band for the next one, More Power to Ya. We went to Uvalde, Texas and made perhaps the most fun record I've ever made. We lived in the studio on an 18,000 ranch in the West Texas desert owned by Marty Manry. He had received an early inheritance and built the studio out where the scorpions roam out of creek bedrock from the property. Awesome looking place. Anyway, Louie did GREAT, especially under the kind of pressure I was accustomed to doling out to those who could not play in time. Somewhere in there, though, we had a few tense moments which set the stage for me having to ask him during a subsequent rehearsal to sit out for Not of This World, when I hired Keith to come back. I really regretted having to do this to the band. I really loved Louie. I just was not able to get what I thought PETRA had to have. I don't know, maybe I had tunnel vision... I brought Louie in at the end and add some finishing cymbal touches. This sorta smoothed things out to where we weren't fighting a cold war.

So when Beat the System came around, I was not in the mood for another round of confrontational stuff. I suggested to the Darrell and Wayne and the Band that we go with a Fairlight programmer for bass and drums - Carl Marsh. I pre-programmed drum patterns on a cheap drum machine, which Carl then copied and embellished upon. He did all the keyboard orchestration from bass guitar synth to full-blown pipe organ and strings. John Lawry joined the group toward the end of the process, so I asked him to do a couple of keyboard overdubs on "Beat the System" (the song) and "Adonai." Also Rhett Lawrence (Fairlight programmer in L.A.) added the bizarre stuff on "Clean" and "Hollow Eyes." And of course, Bob did his solid guitar parts which, being the songwriter, molded the tunes' arrangements to begin with on the preparation demos we did. Louie and Mark of course played the live "Beat the System" Tour. They added the needed human touch, but Carl's parts gave them the structure needed for clarity. That tour is where Louie really began to excel and get past our conflict.

The last record I did with them, Captured In Time And Space, made a way for Louie and me to be reconciled. I was able to really encourage him in the live performances. When the results were good, it fuelled his confidence like nothing before. I think he really had a blast. The reason I focused on Louie in this story, besides to explain the Beat the System question, is because he is the longest standing member of the group. He became what I'd consider to be one of the best and most consistent drummers in the business, and made lemonade out of the lemons he bought.

Whose idea was it to record "God Gave Rock and Roll To You" again?

I think it was either Darrell Harris or Wayne Donowho who suggested that.

Tell me about the altar-call song "The Great I Am" on Captured in Time & Space. My understanding was that it was improvised on the spot?

Greg was in the habit of prophesying on the spot under the great anointing upon him. That tune never happened that way before, or ever again.

Why did they switch to the Elefante brothers after Beat the System? Did it have to do with the departure of Greg X. Volz?

When Greg left the group after the Captured tour, I had a decision to make. Greg and I were very close. I recognized the anointing on him, in spite of himself, and decided to support him, which made it difficult to see working with the band any longer. Others may say that they were thinking of moving on anyway, but I believe I had the option of still working with the band. I told Darrell and Wayne that I would move on with Greg. They procured Dino and John to work with the band from then on. I offered to "counsel" with Dino prior to their agreeing to do so, to give him the "ins and outs" of working with the group members. I guess this sort of helped convince him to do it, and passed the torch.

What do you think of the direction the Elefante brothers took the band?

I refuse to answer the question upon the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me. {:~)

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