A 30-YEAR MUSICAL JOURNEY
(Bakersfield, CA) Bakersfield’s The Lighthouse Boys celebrate three decades of gospel music By TERESA ADAMO, Special to The Californian Posted: Friday January 30th, 2004
“There are times when I feel down & troubled. There are times when my load seems heavier than before. There are times when I feel pain & sorrow. That’s when I turn & ask Him to help me once more …” – From “He Does All This For Me,” the first song by The Lighthouse Boys
As kids, best friends Mark Underwood and Steve Johnson admit they once sulked in their church pews in typical teen-age fashion. Head down, praying for – more than anything else – time to pass quickly. So one day, Mark’s mother asked him the inevitable question: “What’s your problem with church?” The young man gave his mother a rather simple explanation. “I told my mother that, for me, church was just boring,” he said. “It just wasn’t interesting.” As wise mothers tend to do, Jean Underwood offered up a piece of advice that would forever change her son’s life, that of his friends and even their future offspring. “She told us to make church interesting, that me and Steve should bring in our music and get involved in the service,” said Mark. “Mom was so right.”
Thirty years later, the gospel group born from those early days of boredom, The Lighthouse Boys are still going strong, spreading meaningful music and a meaningful message about Jesus Christ. The Bakersfield-based, seven-member group officially kicks off its special 30th Anniversary Tour of concerts on Sunday with a 10 a.m. show at Family Christian Fellowship on K Street in Bakersfield. The remainder of 2004 will include additional anniversary events by The Lighthouse Boys, known for their original, uplifting, down-home gospel music.
“We’ve been told we’re like the Bakersfield Sound with a little gospel thrown in – we like that one,” said Stephen Underwood, a second generation Lighthouse Boy since joining the band with his uncle Mark, and his father, Bill Underwood, when he was just 11. Like many fledgling bands, the beginning days of The Lighthouse Boys were rather modest. A thick, black binder scrapbook – lovingly updated by various band members over the years – documents some of the group’s 30 years’ worth of highlights in photos, notes and even a few invoices. The book’s first page shows the band’s two founding members, Mark Underwood and Steve Johnson, as carefree teenagers, arm in arm, dressed in “stylish” plaid pants and white T-shirts. The year: 1974. Underneath the fading color photo is another significant Lighthouse Boys memento – their very first set of handwritten lyrics, “He Does All This For Me.” Underwood and Johnson still recall the ruckus they started that particular Sunday morning at the Full Gospel Lighthouse Church on Butte Street when they first shared their musical talents with the congregation.
“I think everyone was just used to basic, singing in unison, so that’s what they were expecting from us,” Underwood said. “For Steve and I, it just came natural to sing harmony – the church went nuts, and suddenly, church instantly became more interesting for us.” With the encouragement and support of their fellow church members and of course, their families, Underwood and Johnson continued to perform their original works each week. “We felt like we were doing something right,” Johnson said. “Every Sunday, we had a new song ready to perform.” Once Bill Underwood joined the act, The Lighthouse Boys were officially a group. The first, complete version of the band, i.e. a full instrument lineup, came in 1978 with Candy Biagi, (the only “girl” among The Lighthouse Boys, who remains a songwriter for the group) on piano; Frank McNinch, bass singer; Gary Miller, bass player; Kenny Knight, drummer; Gaylord Dunn, lead guitar; along with the original members, the Underwood brothers and Johnson. Later forms of the band would include members: Tim Cantu; John Edwards; Ken Edwards; and Dathan Fernandez. By the winter of 1979, The Lighthouse Boys stepped up their rehearsal schedule and prepared for a bit of touring. In 1980, “things really started to take off,” Mark Underwood said. He fondly remembers the typical weekends he spent with his bandmates back in the day, so to speak. As a groundskeeper for the Bakersfield City School District, Mark Underwood would complete his shift each Friday afternoon and then await his “ride.” “I would wait in the parking lot of the city schools building at Feliz Drive and Cottonwood, leave my car there and get picked up by the guys in ‘The Big Blue Bus,’” he said. “We’d play all weekend and that bus would drop me off back at work come Monday morning.”
A photo in The Lighthouse Boys’ scrapbook depicts the large touring mobile the band used for travel to shows. Though the bus was far from the luxury models superstars are so fond of nowadays, it was a far cry from the band’s previous mode of transportation – “The Van.”
“The Van” was actually a green, 1979 Dodge Maxi Van – and despite the “Maxi” moniker, there was nothing “Maxi” about it, especially when it came time to cram in six guys, three guitars, two keyboards, an 11-piece drum set, a stage box, amps, microphones and microphone stands, band members said. “It was hilarious,” said Bill Underwood, who fondly remembers band drummer Tim Cantu perched on top of the speakers during these road trips because he was the smallest guy in the group at the time. In fact, “The Van” – and the reloading of the band and the equipment into it – actually became another entertaining element for audiences of The Lighthouse Boys. “No one could believe we fit everything we came with and ourselves into that van,” said Bill Underwood. “So loading up the van became ‘the show after the show’ with people gathering around to see us pack it all back up and head for home.”
As a group of young, single men, writing and performing the gospel music and the concert touring to other churches, mostly in California, made for a wonderful life experience. “We had a good time at what we were doing – we were 21, 22 years old, no real responsibilities yet … it was one of the best times in my life, right there,” said Underwood, though he quickly added with a smile: “Of course, besides meeting my wife.” Yet another memento pasted into the band’s scrapbook is an old invoice from Buck Owens Studios on North Chester Avenue in Oildale. That’s where The Lighthouse Boys recorded their first, self-titled album at a studio rental rate of $30 per hour.
The famed Buckaroos played on five of the album’s songs with Owens’ right-hand man Jim Shaw as the producer. Though it was once common for the Buckaroos to lend their musical talents to back up other groups, working with these hometown musicians was particularly enjoyable, according to Shaw. “They were fun sessions,” said the longtime administrator of Buck Owens Productions and band leader of the Buckaroos. “I just remember they had a nice, gospel-flavored country sound and that we enjoyed working with The Lighthouse Boys.”
Another career highlight for the Boys was their October 1997 appearance at the Suwanee River Jubilee, a bi-annual gospel event held in Florida. “The Lighthouse Boys were the first-ever California group invited to perform at the Jubilee,” said Stephen Underwood. “It was a great event for us.” With three decades of experience and good memories, The Lighthouse Boys continue to perform their ministry through their music. The members said they believe The Lighthouse Boys to be the longest running local (Christian) band from Kern County.
Today, the band lineup is slightly different, giving way to new members and new generations as others moved on to different musical endeavors. The group still includes the Underwood brothers – Mark on piano and tenor singer; Bill, lead guitar and vocals; and their best friend, Johnson (who is on temporary hiatus while he starts up a business). Rounding out the group are Roger Pierce, bass vocals; Mike Smith, piano and vocals; Jeff Edwards (Ken’s son and the grandson of KHIS radio station founder Coy Edwards), drums; Joseph Underwood (Mark’s son), bass guitar; and Stephen Underwood (Bill’s son), lead baritone singer. The Lighthouse Boys still practice their original songs every Saturday afternoon at the Full Gospel Lighthouse Church in central Bakersfield, and yes, they still ride to gigs aboard a big bus, albeit a slightly newer version ol’ Blue.
The band’s 7th album, a “Best Of” CD, featuring The Lighthouse Boys’ top songs from 1980-2000, is expected for release.
January 30, 2004 – The Bakersfield Californian