When most people remember the CCM vocal trio First Call, they probably think about their enormous success in Christian music during the 1980s, or personal problems of a former group member that after becoming public, nearly destroyed the group’s career in the early 1990s. But in the aftermath of the media blitz, First Call continued making music as a duo, including a widely overlooked Christmas album called Beyond December.
Released in November 1995, Beyond December peaked at number 25 on the Top Contemporary Christian charts of the time, according to allmusic.com. Though the album is now out of print, the recording is so much more than a once charted position in the Christian music marketplace, but a testament to true artistry and creativity declaring the firm foundation in their faith for both group members, Marty McCall and Bonnie Keen.
“Whenever something painful and difficult happens, it’s an open door to embrace the miracle of Jesus in our lives,” Keen said in a recent interview. “We wanted to make a positive statement with ‘Beyond December’ and make clear our faith in Christ had never changed.”
Though the project isn’t one of the group’s best known, it is one of Keen’s favorites.
“A lot of people seem to have missed this project,” Keen said. “This CD has a very special element of involving many other artists singing with us in trio and duo formats. It will always have a highly golden place in my heart.”
The CDs liner notes said that the “record was made to encourage all of us to embrace the celebration of the Eternal – Emmanuel, our Lord Jesus, God with us.” The notes also spoke of a renewal of vision for the group, though it hinted a slight uncertainty of step.
“Marty and I had no idea what would happen,” Keen said of the process. “Marketing wasn’t much of an issue. Quite frankly we were most concerned with producing another piece of art that would celebrate the birth of God into this messy world – the true miracle of God coming to earth as a baby. It was a full circle healing process.”
With the reformation of First Call from a trio to a duo, the decision was made to make this a duets album with other artists.
“When the trio became a duo, Marty and I wanted to do something new,” Keen said. “Warner Alliance had a number of tracks ready for production, never used. There were several major artists (Larnelle Harris, Wayne Watson) who were joined by Amy Grant, Russ Taff and Ashley Cleveland to make this a wildly diverse project…We found four tracks to record as a duo, the others with guest artists and a sweet moment recording ‘Born A Sacrifice’ with Melodie Tunney and David Maddux with the original ‘Evening in December’ sound.”
“Evening in December” was one of First Call’s first entrances into the marketplace as a wildly popular acapella Christmas album in the early 1980s.
“To sum up ‘Evening in December,’ all I can say is, ‘Grace, Grace Grace,’” Keen recounted. “What a gift! I do believe I was awake enough at the time to realize I was part of something magical, brilliant (David Maddux’s arrangements) and extremely overwhelmed by the complexity and challenge of the charts. However, the process was pure joy. I hope I never get over the grace of these projects.”
Most of the songs on Beyond December were originals, but a few seasonal gems such as “What Child is This” and a remake of “Silent Night” made their way to the track list.
“’In the Quiet of a Silent Night’ was a playful experiment with the traditional song mixed together with the awesome track produced by Phil Naish,” Keen recounted. “None of us were in the same room when it happened. I heard the track and had a vision for the arrangement which Darrell Brown and Marty took to the finish line.”
Keen co-wrote two of the original songs on the record.
“’After December Slips Away’ was co-written with Lowell Alexander,” Keen said. “He is stinking brilliant. Amazing. I am so very lucky and blessed that he caught the vision for the duo sound. This song is one my favorites, ever…always will be.”
“’Born A Sacrifice,’ Lowell and I co-wrote again,” Keen continued. “It came together in a way that is rare and profound. Having Mel and David sing this with David’s arrangement brought me to tears.
Because “Beyond December” was the first project First Call made as a duo, there was a responsibility of re-packaging the group’s look and sound for the marketplace, but after the intense problems the group had faced, a lot of backs were turned away from the group. However, friendships with other artists in the industry won out, and the album became a who’s who of Christian artists, singing along with Keen and McCall in a show of support for the duo’s ministry.
Two of those artists were Gary Chapman and Amy Grant. The track they appeared on was a peaceful lullaby called “Child In a Manger” sung to the tune of the hymn “Morning Has Broken.” Their recording is incredibly unique not only because those voices will probably never be recorded together again considering Grant and Chapman have been divorced since 1999, but also because neither Chapman or Grant were group artists, but soloists. Keen fondly remembers working with the couple.
“Amy was on tour,” Keen said. “She knew Marty and I were in a horrible situation trying to pull together a new sound, to continue our ministry and we needed credibility. I’ll never forget how hard she and Gary worked on that track. She was tired, but never let us know. The two of them offered their studio and time for no fee. Marty and I were extremely moved by their generosity. It told me that the best artists are truly the most generous.”
“We were so broken and vulnerable at the time, we just needed some help,” McCall reportedly said in a CCM Magazine review in 1995. “[The support] was symbolic of what the Lord was teaching us – the importance of being about eternal tings, being true to our faith and the principles of our faith in the way we do business and in our creativity.”
Keen and McCall continued First Call’s ministry throughout 90s, but eventually began to focus more heavily on their solo careers as time marched on, but in 2006, the original First Call trio reunited, rejuvenating their ministry.
“The three of us looked around and asked ourselves why we weren’t still singing together, recording, telling our stories now,” Keen said. “Tours are being set up. We have already been out there singing again. It is a vision we never imagined.”
First Call still sings some of the songs from Beyond December when they can, and Keen is hopeful that the group will do more Christmas concerts in the future.
“Music lasts past the recording and writing and arranging,” Keen said. “Knowing that people are moved by these projects and hearing from them every year is a humbling, deeply gratifying gift.”
Ultimately, First Call is still what they always have been – a group who sets high standards for vocal excellency, and whose “first call” is to the One who is forever “far beyond December.”
“God came to earth as a tiny, helpless baby,” Keen said. “The only response I can have and wish for everyone is the recognition of this staggering miracle. Emmanuel. God with us. In Him, the best of Holy Days to all.”
Clips from Beyond December may be heard here.
For more information about First Call or their current members visit www.BonnieKeen.com, or www.TunneyMusic.com. For information about First Call products available for purchase, visit their Amazon store or their iTunes store.