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Interview With Frank McGee, Author of “A Song for the World”

Interview With Frank McGee, Author of “A Song for the World”

Frank McGee has built a distinguished career as a writer and journalist over half a century. In the tumultuous 1960s he covered stories as far afield as Brazil, Indonesia, and Viet Nam. As managing editor of “Pace” magazine, a contemporary of “Life, Look, and Holiday,” he worked with thought leaders from around the world.

During the 1970s, McGee launched and edited “New Worlds,” the signature magazine of California’s Orange Coast. The University of California at Irvine tapped him to write the coffee table book commemorating the school’s first twenty-five years. In the ’80s and ’90s, he authored and edited books on a variety of topics that were published in a dozen languages. Today, he lives with his wife in Tucson, Arizona.

Tyler: Thank you, Frank, for joining me. You’re here today to tell us about your new book “A Song for the World” which tells the story of how the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen used music to bring peace and diplomacy to the world, particularly through the group, Up with People. To begin, will you tell our readers a little bit about how it began?

Frank: Glad to, Tyler. Up with People started in a way that surprised everyone at the time. It was born during the 1960s to give a voice to youth eager to have a say in building the future. There’s a chapter in the book about that. The Up with People show was launched in embryo in 1965 at a conference for young leadership on an island in the Great Lakes. It evolved that summer in performances from a showboat touring local harbors, and within weeks, literally, it was in orbit around the world. No one expected that to happen, least of all the Colwell Brothers and Herb Allen, who initially just wanted to provide a platform for the idealism and creativity of the young people attending the conference. You might say that Up with People was born through a passion for change.

Domestic and global audiences came to know the Colwells and Allen in the following decades through Up with People’s four Super Bowl Halftime Shows. Multiple casts had toured on every continent and across the U.S. and Canada. In America’s Bicentennial Year, 1976, they played in 771 U.S. cities to live audiences totaling 3.9 million. That year they literally invented the modern Super Bowl halftime format when the NFL invited them to perform. The first chapter of “A Song for the World” opens with that event. I have to say (speaking modestly as the author!) that it’s a pretty dramatic story. In 1980 I had the privilege of being a field photographer during their performance at Super Bowl XIV in the Rose Bowl.

Tyler: Frank, I understand you have been friends with the Colwells and Allen for fifty years. Would you tell us a little bit about that friendship and how it developed?

Frank: That’s half a century, Tyler! I first met them in their teens. I hadn’t advanced much beyond that myself. Allen was recognized as a musical genius from his youth, a child prodigy. In his hometown of Seattle he was famous as a wizard on the xylophone. He trained under the best classical piano instructors in the Northwest and was enrolled to enter the Oberlin School of Music, but his passion in his teens was his dance band, Herbie Allen and His Orchestra. Herb was a junior in high school when we met. I was then working with Moral Re-Armament (MRA), an international volunteer group focused on developing accountable leaders across a broad spectrum of society. Herb instantly responded to the objective. More and more I’ve come to realize the implications of the readiness of young artists like Herb and the Colwells to engage in a purpose that gave relevance and meaning to their talents.

The Colwell Brothers were already country music stars when our paths crossed in Southern California. They were regulars on NBC’s Tex Williams television show, broadcasting weekly from Orange County’s Knott’s Berry Farm, which was America’s first theme park (Disneyland opened later just up the road). The Brothers, aged 19, 17, and 15, were the youngest group under contract with a major label, Columbia Records.

I was in the cast of a Western musical show then, and someone got them tickets for the Hollywood premiere. Ironically, the show was about brothers who were feuding over water rights. “A Song for the World” tells the pretty amazing story of what happened during the next few months; I say amazing because in little more than a year they were giving their first performance in a language other than their own. It was in Switzerland, when they sang in French for Robert Schumann, the former foreign minister of France and a founder of the European Union. During the next decades they would write and sing in 37 languages and dialects, with help from the locals, of course. They all speak Italian. Herb Allen, who worked for years in Italy, speaks it like a native. There’s an incident in the book about Allen finding a machine gun under his bed when he was staying with the family of Bruno, a young communist he had come to know: “What’s worrying you?’ Bruno asked Herb when he “happened” to mention his discovery. “We all have machine guns here. There’s one in every apartment in the block.”

Tyler: Frank, why did you decide to write “A Song for the World?”

Frank: I don’t want to sound strange about this, but I think writing the book was decided for me. In the spring of 2003 I was in a gathering of long time associates who met from time to time to renew friendships and talk about what was happening in our worlds. A probation attorney from Oakland said that young people in her city were being confronted with unimaginable situations every day, and desperately needed hope. “There should to be a book about the Colwells and Herb,” she declared.

I’m not kidding when I say the thought hit me with an almost electric jolt that I was meant to write it. My wife, Helen, who has been my partner in creative ventures for half a century, felt the same impulse. And so did my friend John Ruffin, who was moderating our discussion that day. John’s company, Many Roads Publishing, would eventually produce the book, with startup financial support from more than a hundred people from across the world who believed this story had to be told.

Tyler: That’s a wonderful story, Frank. Obviously, musicians have the power to be a big influence on young people, both positive and negative. Do you think Up With People is able to reach young people today and what is their message to youth?

Frank: At the end of Up with People shows, there are always young people in the audience who apply to travel with the cast. Sometimes they’re too young to qualify, sometimes too old, but the element that reaches people most, I think, is a purpose that’s important. Of course the show alone is a big attraction, but in the setting of “Bringing the World Together,” it seems to offer an answer to that ubiquitous question, “What can one person do?”

Tyler: I understand these artists traveled a great deal and witnessed history in the making in several countries. Would you give us an example of one of the most interesting events they witnessed or participated in?

Frank: How about two? Seriously, there are many remarkable occasions described in the book, for instance, being the first international musical performers in China after the demise of the infamous “Gang of Four;” or taking the first show to Russia after the Cold War, even before the Berlin Wall came down. But here are two:

In 1957, Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was about to embark on a grueling tour of Southeast Asia in which he would apologize to Pacific nations for atrocities Japan had committed during World War II. The Colwells and those they worked with, some of whom were parliamentarians, had been dialoguing with Kishi for months, and at his official residence on the night of the departure, they were invited to present the entire send off program for the prime minister, his cabinet ministers, and high government officials. Their friends spoke and the Colwells sang, with special songs written in Japanese for the occasion. The last sound Kishi heard that evening as he left for the airport was the music of three young Americans, in western costume, singing to him in his own language.

Two years later the Colwell Brothers were in the Congo, today called Zaire, where they sang at the official celebration events when the country gained its independence. The Congo is the size of Western Europe! During an intense and turbulent year they remained working in the country, living through rebellion, revolution, and a re-invasion by troops of the Congo’s former Belgian occupiers, and then U.N. intervention. President Lumumba was assassinated during that year. With an international team the Colwells visited every province in the country, meeting with tribal chiefs in the villages, singing to crowds in stadiums, to Congolese military and peacekeeping U.N. forces in open-air concerts, and performing for national leaders from all parties in the country’s capital of Leopoldville. In the rainy season they crossed swollen rivers with their van perched atop ferries built of planks laid over dugout canoes fastened side to side. The afternoon the army seized control of the country in a coup, the Congo was entirely without phone or telegraph communication with the outside world. An hour after midnight that night the brothers led journalists to a remote village they had visited months earlier on the Congo River, where the reporters could hire villagers and noiselessly slip out into the current in dugout canoes to get the news out to the world. During that year, with their international teammates, the Colwells made more than 400 broadcasts on Radio Congo, the country’s sole means of communication, programs the auxiliary bishop of Leopoldville called “a voice of sanity to the nation.”

Tyler: Wow, that is determination. What do you think really motivates the Colwells and Herb Allen to take these kinds of risks?

Frank: That’s hard to answer, for me at least, without seeming to quote from a press release. I’ve seen the grit, sweat, and sacrifice involved. They could have turned away a thousand times from the path they’d chosen. But they believed something lasting could be achieved, and that they were meant to give their time and talents to it. I don’t think they had the slightest idea when they set out on this journey where it would take them, or ask of them.

Tyler: Frank, when other groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were making huge hits and probably tons of money in the 1960s and beyond, why did Up with People focus instead on touring the globe and visiting countries in crisis?

Frank: I think that boils down to “reason for being.” I’ve little doubt that the 20,000 young people who’ve taken part in Up with People during its first forty years would appreciate tons of money! And I know Herb and the Brothers wouldn’t object!

But to get the answer to your question you have to look at the choices they made more than a dozen years before Up with People was even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Look at the back cover of the book, which has some paragraphs under the heading, “The Power of Music.” There’s a line there that says, “They literally walked away from their childhoods, comfort, careers, and loved ones, putting everything on the line for something they believed. They believed they could change the world.”

Tyler: Why do you think “Up with People” has been so successful?

Frank: Even more than the entertainment of the Up with People show, I think it strikes a chord in the consciousness of people. We all want to know there is hope for the future. We’d all like to participate somehow in creating it. To see young people dedicating themselves to that purpose is both a challenge and an inspiration. The show itself is really a show window. What is inside the store is the encouragement, the gentle persuasion, and possibly even a little provocation to get involved in the life of your community, to volunteer with others who work to make a difference.

Tyler: For readers unfamiliar with the group, what are some of the songs they might recognize?

Frank: People may know “Where the Roads Come Together,” by Paul Colwell. It’s a poignant and moving ballad about who we are:

None of us is born the same,

We don’t know why

It’s the way we came,

Every heart beats a little differently,

Each soul is free to find its way,

Like a river that winds it way to the sea.

There are many roads to go,

And they go by many names,

They don’t all go the same way,

But they get there all the same.

And I have a feelin’

That we’ll meet some day

Where the roads come together

Up the way.

If you lived in the Congo, you’d doubtless be familiar with the Colwell Brothers’ “Vive le Congo,” which became something like a second national anthem and was played on Radio Congo for years.

And of course, “Up with People” is a song known around the world. CDs of the Words and Music of Paul Colwell will soon be available at http://www.asongfortheworld.com.

Tyler: Would you tell us a little bit about the song-writing aspect of the group? Who writes the music and who writes the lyrics? Where do they get their ideas, and how does it all come together so the music can be performed?

Frank: Paul Colwell, as I mentioned, wrote many of the songs performed in early shows. He often had collaborators, frequently Herb Allen, who was listed as coauthor. There’s a chapter in the book titled, “Birth of a Phenomenon,” about the songwriters, arrangers, and producers from several countries who have worked with Up with People either long term or on specific events.

Several Up with People albums have been produced in Britain, with top technicians and arrangers brought together by David Mackay, a long time collaborator. Mackay has an impressive collection of gold and platinum albums to his credit, including production of the New Seekers’ international hit, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” One writer Mackay brought in was John Parr, co-writer of “St. Elmo’s Fire, and also David Mallory, one of France’s most successful pop/rock songwriters who created most of the hits of megastar Johnny Hallyday, sometimes called the French Elvis Presley.

Tyler: You mentioned the Colwells have written many songs in different languages and dialects? How do they go about providing this kind of international taste to their music?

Frank: When they’ve written songs in other languages it’s almost always been with people from the area. There are a number of stories in the book about this. For instance, once they were traveling with Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, to the south of India to join in the land reform efforts of Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s disciple and the man regarded as his spiritual successor. At a train station in Bombay they chanced to meet a senator friend of Rajmohan who helped them write a song in Marathi, the mother tongue of Maharashtra state where they were heading the next day. After a dusty 12-hour road trip in 117-degree heat in a 20-year old seven-passenger Plymouth they had mastered the song. Arriving to meet Vinoba Bhave, they hauled Ralph’s acoustic bass and their other instruments out of the old car, and performed in the Marathi language for the saint and thousands of his followers. Vinoba Bhave used the words of their song as the theme of his address to the crowd.

Tyler: Musically, what do you feel makes “Up With People” stand out from other groups?

Frank: I think it’s been the content of the songs, plus their intent. They talk of taking down walls of misunderstanding, of excelling, of moving toward new frontiers. The songs are drawn from life. One, “The Last Embrace,” was inspired by a PBS special about a bridge that spanned the no man’s land between war zones in Kosovo, and a Christian boy and Moslem girl who had fallen in love, and died from gunfire on the bridge trying to cross it together. Many songs have been written for special occasions, for special people. A reflection by Captain Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, that he had looked back at the earth and seen “a world without borders,” inspired the visionary lyrics of “MoonRider.” Paul Colwell and Herb Allen’s “Song for China” opened hearts and doors in China when an Up with People cast went there in 1978 before diplomatic relations were established between China and the U.S.

Tyler: Frank, what do you feel is Herb Allen and the Colwell Brothers’ greatest contribution?

Frank: May I answer that in two parts? The first would be a personal response. These four have enriched the lives of many. They are fun to be with, never take themselves too seriously, and never, never get carried away with the PR about them. They’re quick to deflect credit and give it to others, and I have never heard them claim to have caused positive things to happen because of their work. Of course I know otherwise, but they would hit the “delete” button on any “spin” I might have tried to slip into the book. Okay, now to part two:

To me their greatest contribution would be the demonstration of the power of music to generate change. They typically wrote and performed not just any music, but music that touched lives, was drawn from what was important to people, and from what they saw around them. They never set out to tell others what they should think or do. On the contrary, they went everywhere to listen, to learn, and to understand. As a result, doors and hearts seemed to open to them everywhere. You might say that Up with People is their legacy. I think to them it is much more than a show or organization; it is proof to young and old of what the great English educator Edward Thring declared 150 years ago, that music “sooner or later is the great world bond.”

Tyler: Thank you, Frank, for joining me today. Before we go, would you tell our readers your website where they can buy a copy of the book and also what other kind of information they might find there about “A Song for the World?”

Frank: Go to http://www.asongfortheworld.com. You can order the book there, read reviews, learn which cities are scheduled to be visited for concerts and book signings, and see many of the photos from the book. Thanks very much for having me today, Tyler.

Tyler: Thank you, Frank. I wish you lots of luck with “A Song for the World” and I hope it introduces the Colwells and Allen to a whole new generation of fans.