'He's Able': Inside the Jonestown Cult's Forgotten Gospel Album (2023)

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Serial killers’ personal effects, morticians’ instruments, human and animal skulls, autopsy photos of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, an electric chair, gruesome crime scene images — L.A.’s Museum of Death houses it all.

One particular gallery, dubbed the Suicide Hall, displays memorabilia related to the American cult groups the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate. In addition to an actual bunk bed where the bodies of Heaven’s Gate members were found covered in sheets, the room features a glass-encased mini exhibit about the Jonestown tragedy, in which more than 900 people, followers of the California-based religious group Peoples Temple led by the Rev. Jim Jones, died in a mass murder-suicide in Guyana on November 18th, 1978. Inside are news clippings, paperback books published shortly after the tragedy and even a business card that once belonged to Jones when he was the San Francisco Housing Authority commissioner.

The most curious piece of Jonestown-related memorabilia, though, is located just underneath the case: a framed copy of He’s Able, a 1973 gospel-pop-funk record by the Peoples Temple Choir, autographed by a former member of the church’s band. The cover photograph features Temple choir members dressed in blue uniforms standing over a pond in Golden Gate Park — a peaceful scene that contrasts starkly with the horrific images of dead bodies in Jonestown the world saw in the aftermath of the 1978 tragedy. The sleeve features black-and-white photos of Jim Jones and his followers, and an inscription on the back cover reads: “Our choir consists of people from all walks of life. We are dedicated to one common cause — making the humanistic teachings of Jesus Christ part of our daily lives. Our inspiration is a lifestyle demonstrated by our pastor, James W. Jones.”

There’s a bizarre coincidence associated with the Jonestown display at the Museum of Death. The building where the museum is located was formerly home to the Producer’s Workshop, a recording studio where work on such classic albums as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Steely Dan’s Aja and Pink Floyd’s The Wall took place. It was also at this same facility thatHe’s Able was produced over the span of a couple of weekends in 1972. As Brian Kevin, who published a master’s thesis about the record in 2010, wrote about the album: “It’s a 12-song collection, a mix of old spirituals, gospel-inspired originals, and a couple of late-’60s Top 40 hits, all performed by a full choir and an eight-piece blue-eyed soul outfit with a hot brass section.”

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Long out of print, He’s Able isn’t some second-rate, amateurish-sounding private-press gospel LP. The production values and arrangements are surprisingly top notch, the music is infectiously catchy, and the performances, especially by the lead singers, are vibrant. In hindsight, it’s impossible to hear any obvious clues in the lyrics that would foreshadow the deaths of nearly all of the record’s participants. “You don’t hear a group of religious fanatics whose zealotry will culminate in the Jonestown Massacre,” Kevin wrote. “You don’t hear a cult at all — just a great gospel-rock band and choir who sound like they’re having a hell of a time.”

In a way, the Temple choir and the band were a microcosm of the church: a group of performers of different races, age groups and social backgrounds who came together to advance progressive and social causes, such as helping the underprivileged. “These are voices that no longer are here,” says Leslie Wagner-Wilson, a former Temple choir member, of the album. “And they were singing because they had hope. They had a hope for a better world.”

The driving force behind He’s Able was Jack Arnold Beam. While as a kid growing up in Indianapolis, Beam was exposed to rock & roll, gospel and R&B; he took up piano lessons at the age of nine and later learned guitar while in high school. His parents, Jack and Rhevenia Beam, were among the early followers of an iconoclastic young minister named Jim Jones, who founded the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s. “My grandmother was the one who went to one of his meetings,” Beam, now in his mid-seventies, tells Rolling Stone, “and then she told my folks about it. That’s how they ended up meeting up with him. I was too young for the choir, but I would sing.”

In his youth, Beam harbored rock & roll dreams, even as his parents were devout members of Jones’ church. After graduating high school, Beam opted to stay behind in Indianapolis while the rest of his family traveled with Jones to perform missionary work in Brazil. Left on his own, Beam went to nightclubs where he watched bands play. “I got totally buried in it,” he says about his interest in music at the time. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

Following their return from Brazil in 1962, Beam’s family later relocated with Jones and other Temple members from Indianapolis to the Redwood Valley–Ukiah area of Northern California. Shortly afterward, Beam and his high school friend also moved to California, to work in the music business. There, Beam joined a series of rock groups, including one called Stark Naked and the Car Thieves. He regularly played at nightclubs, hotels and casinos along the West Coast, but he wanted to get more involved in the production side of music. “I just got tired of playing clubs and casinos,” he explains. “I really wanted get into the creation of the music. I had plenty of experience playing live and knowing what music’s about. But I wanted to learn the technical part of it just for my own purposes, and writing something and putting productions together that would be competitive with the market.”

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Beam considered attending school to study music. While on the road, he got a phone call from his mother, who told him that the Peoples Temple would pay for his college tuition. In 1969, he moved to Ukiah, where the Temple was based, and attended Santa Rosa Junior College. In an essay he wrote years later, Beam recalled attending his first Temple meeting with his long hair, sideburns, mustache and leather jacket, surrounded by the more buttoned-down members of the church. “He was kind of a heroic figure: the badass rock star doing all the great things that I wished I could do,” recalls former Temple band member Bryce Wood (who preferred not to use his real name for this story) of Beam.

One day Jones approached Beam to help Loretta Cordell, the church’s bookkeeper and keyboardist, reorganize the choir and band. What Beam had in front of him was a large group of about 40 to 50 people of different ages and levels of musical talent that he had to mold into a cohesive unit. “The lead singers had plenty [of] experience,” he says, “but a lot of the people in the choir really didn’t. You couldn’t throw them out. You had to suffer through it until they got it.”

As Temple choir leader, Beam, who alternated playing guitar and bass in the band, expanded the song repertoire and introduced new material. He took his role seriously enough that the band and choir members — most of whom had other commitments for and outside of the Temple — would rehearse late into the wee hours. “Jack was a real martinet,” says Wood. “We were there [at rehearsals] for almost four or five hours. He had a really great way of teaching us the songs. He would go through each part and kind of hum or strum it until you got it. And then we put it all together.”

“Jack Arnold was a great band and choir leader,” says Don Beck, who oversaw the Temple’s children’s choir. “He was a perfectionist and demanded the same — the Temple band and the record are examples of what he produced. To get the choir in shape, they worked late many nights. But people saw what was emerging and were very proud.”

Aside from Jim Jones’ oratory skills and charisma, music played a vital role at the Temple services. “The very first thing that got started would be the music as people were getting seated,” recalls Laura Johnston Kohl, a former Temple choir member “We sang a few songs and had solos. During Jim’s sermons, he would stop and have people sing and perform. Whether he needed a break or felt he needed people to sing and stand up, he would have the choir or the band participate again.” Wagner-Wilson, who was in her teens when she joined the Temple choir, saw how the music at the Temple services lifted and electrified the congregants. “The choir was a powerful piece,” she remembers. “It was an amazing experience. The choir could move people, and it did.”

'He's Able': Inside the Jonestown Cult's Forgotten Gospel Album (1)

The music performed at the servicesgenerally consisted of hymns, although there was some contemporary pop-song material thrown in as well, albeit with the lyrics revised to reflect Temple’s own ideals and messages. “We would perform things like ‘Something Got a Hold of Me’ — songs that were really popular in black churches and white churches,” Kohl says. “All the songs that were sung in the Temple, whether it was ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’ or the Negro spirituals, were wonderful and full of life and messages.”

Under Beam’s direction, the Temple choir turned into a professional musical outfit that included talented singers such as Shirley Smith, Deanna Wilkinson, and sisters Shirley and Marthea Hicks. “They really raised the caliber of everything,” says Kohl. “We had a lot of people doing solos who were just awesome. It upped the ante.”

“We were so good,” adds Wood, “that we were invited around the state to perform. We went all over the place to perform, but Jim always conditioned it on his ability to give his own message after we sang.”

Beam later had the idea of recording an album that would not only showcase the Temple choir, but would also generate revenue for the church. “I went to Jones and those guys,“ he says. “I told him, ‘Man, we got enough material here. Let’s do an album and we could sell them for 10 bucks at the meetings to raise money.’ And so they said, ‘Yeah, a good idea.’”

The Temple choir leader booked studio time at the Producer’s Workshop in Hollywood, which he first heard about during his time in Stark Naked and the Car Thieves. (By this time, the Peoples Temple had expanded into San Francisco and Los Angeles; it’s estimated that membership numbered around 7,500 during this period.) One night in late 1972, following a meeting at the Los Angeles Temple, the musicians rode on buses and arrived at the Workshop for their first-ever recording session. “None of the players and the lead singers had ever done any recording,” says Beam. “And so for them, it was a real high.”

The sessions at the Workshop occurred over several weekend evenings. Wood describes his time in the studio as a phenomenal experience as well as an escape from the demanding aspects of Temple life. “This was real low-budget stuff,” he says of the studio. “There were not a lot of creature comforts in that old place. But the equipment was right up-to-date. It was like walking on the Starship Enterprise — ‘Holy shit, this is just freakin’ awesome.’”

Beam organized the recording in separate parts, starting with the band for the instrumental tracks, followed by the choir — only about 30 members participated, given the limited studio space — then the junior choir and finally the lead singers. “We would wait in one room while they were doing the recording in another room,” says Kohl. “We filled the place like little ants, wherever you could find a place to sit or relax, everybody sort of plopped down. We hung out and we spent time waiting. It took a long time. It was a really positive experience and fun knowing that we were recording the music.”

Like the music from the Temple services, the track selection for the He’s Able album was a mix of traditional and contemporary songs. Beam picked songs that were not only the strongest in the repertoire but also had commercial appeal, like Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” which was covered by Elvis Presley. “I was looking at the message, aside from the variety musically,” says Beam. “The reason why something like ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’ would be [chosen was] because it was popular. Young people could identify more with it and also the message of the song.”

A couple of Beam’s original compositions were recorded for the album, including the gentle ballads “Set Them Free” (with lead vocals by his sister Joyce) and “Because of Him,” the soulful “Hold on Brother” and the ebullient “Will You.” They complemented traditional works such as the title song and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” Jones’ wife, Marceline, sang lead on the lullaby “Black Baby,” a remake of “Brown Baby,” previously performed by Nina Simone. The record showcased some strong performances by Deanna Wilkinson, generally considered the Temple’s best singer. “Deanna Wilkinson’s voice had such a range and deepness,” says Kohl. “In person, she’s just even more fantastic than the album. I just loved her voice, and I love Shirley Smith on ‘He’s Able.’ All the songs really touched home.”

One of the memorable tracks recorded for the album was the cheerful, old-timey-sounding “Welcome!” performed by the Temple children’s choir. “We worked late and many kids were falling asleep,” Beck says of that recording. “We’d wake them up when we sang. Lots of yawning, which you probably can’t hear on the record.”

Jim Jones himself appeared on the record, singing lead on the hymnal “Down From His Glory,” a reworking of the Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio.” “He came in with a couple of his guards that were with him,” Beam recalls of that particular session with Jones. “Everybody in the recording studio that worked there looked at this guy and went, ‘Whoa, what’s going on with this?’ He had his sunglasses on at 12 at night. Loretta played live with him [on the organ] while he did it. It was kind of a strange thing for the people that worked there.” Wood says there was a hidden subtext to why Jones recorded that particular song. “If you listen to that carefully, Jim is really saying, ‘I’m God and I came down from my glory.’”

Wagner-Wilson looks back with fondness about participating on He’s Able. “We took it to a whole professional level,” she says. “It was exciting. You got your headphones on, you’re hearing the other parts of the choir, and then you’re singing your part. I felt honored to be a part of it. There was such a sense of camaraderie, and that we were really doing something that was going to benefit Father, as we called [Jones] in the Temple.”

Under the Brothers Records moniker, the self-distributed He’s Able was released in 1973. (The group name printed on the cover was “People’s Temple Choir,” differing from the sans-apostrophe style favored by the Peoples Temple at large.) “I thought by and large it came out good,” says Beam, “on what we planned, what we had to work with and everything. There was a lot of effort put into it. I’ve still got my original copy.” He estimates that about 40,000 copies of the album were pressed and that thousands of those copies were sold at the services — alongside other items such as pictures of Jim Jones, key chains and holy oil apparently anointed by the minister himself. “There were very few things that the church did that didn’t make a shitload of money,” says Wood.

“It was awesome and I still find it awesome,” Beck says about the album, “especially ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes” and Marcie’s song [“Black Baby”], just to hear her beautiful voice. Each song had a message, but also each singer had one, too.”

How much further beyond He’s Able the Temple choir could have gone under Beam’s leadership will never be truly known. That’s because in 1976Beam defected from the Temple. While known locally in San Francisco for its philanthropic and progressive deeds, the church also came under scrutiny by former members and the media. In turn, Jones viewed critics of the Temple as enemies and church defectors as traitors.

“I saw years of paranoid tyrannical personality behavior building up in Jim and decided I wasn’t going to be associated with it anymore,” says Beam about his reasons for leaving. “Through the years I saw what had started out as a great humanitarian effort turn into a living nightmare.” Beam didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his parents, who stayed with the church to the very end. “I’m sure it upset them,” he says of his decision. “I couldn’t stay in touch because when I called, [the Temple] wouldn’t let me speak to them.”

After his departure, the choir continued on through the efforts of members like Loretta Cordell, Deanna Wilkinson and Anita Ijames. But it wasn’t the same, according to Wood. “I’m not putting Anita down here,” he says. “She just wasn’t Jack. She didn’t have the dynamism that Jack had. She could kind of carry it on a little bit, but she did not have the creative insight or the charisma to really pull it off. There was no more real creativity.”

In the summer of 1977, a magazine feature about the Temple was published, containing allegations from former church members about fake healings, financial improprieties and physical beatings. Shortly after the article’s publication, Jones and his followers relocated to an outpost in Guyana called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project (commonly referred to as Jonestown), which was built a few years earlier. Amid the grueling work and repressive conditions for the Jonestown settlers — not to mention Jones’ increasingly bizarre and erratic behavior — there was still music, courtesy of the Temple house band called the Jonestown Express. As later documented, the band performed pop songs by such acts as the Beatles, the O’Jays, the Jackson 5, George Benson and the Stylistics.

Music provided a respite from the difficulties of living in Jonestown, according to Wagner-Wilson, who was there at the time. “You can only play so many dominoes and cards,” she says. “So they let us have a party. We always had music in the form of cassettes. I think it helped keep the sanity. I remember we would sing Brothers Johnson walking back to the camp. We we would sing while we were walking or working.”

The Jonestown Express played on the night of November 17th, 1978, when California Congressman Leo Ryan and several reporters arrived at Jonestown to investigate claims by concerned relatives of Temple members that their loved ones were being held by Jones against their will. Archival news footage recorded that particular evening shows Deanna Wilkinson performing a stirring rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World.” The next day, more than 900 Temple followers died, most of them by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch upon the orders of Jones. Hours before the suicides, Ryan and four other people were killed by Peoples Temple gunmen at an airstrip In Port Kaituma, after Ryan had earlier left Jonestown with a group of defectors. Jim Jones was later found dead with a gunshot wound to the head.

Some of those who were in the Temple choir and appeared on the He’s Able album — including Deanna Wilkinson, Ruth Coleman, Shirley Smith and Loretta Cordell — also died in the tragedy. “There were so many talented people in Peoples Temple,” says Wagner-Wilson, who escaped from Jonestown with her child and several other people the morning prior to the suicides. “Deanna definitely could have made an album. They sounded good.”

Beam lost his parents and younger sister Ellie in Jonestown. He says it took him a couple of years to get over the tragedy. “I had come to the understanding that we as individuals and human beings pick our own situations,” he explains. “You are really the God of you, because it’s based on the decisions that you make as to what you get out of it or not. I had to come to peace with that. Those were choices that they had the right to make for their own life. But it wasn’t working for me. That wasn’t what I wanted. That’s pretty much what happened.”

Following his defection from the church, Beam moved to Ventura, California, and became a property field adjuster for AllState Insurance; he was also building his recording studio and working on music at that time. He relocated to Florida in 1990 and worked in automobile sales for the next 27 years. In 1993, a major weather event, dubbed the “No Name Storm,” damaged his home. Among the many possessions that were lost in the storm were the original masters of He’s Able. “It ruined all of that stuff,” Beam recalls. “It came up in the middle of the night — we didn’t even know what was coming. I live right on a big wide river. We got wiped out on that one.”

In that same year of the No Name Storm, an underground British record label called Grey Matter issued He’s Able on CD. There were two major differences between the CD version and the original vinyl LP. First, instead of using the photograph of the choir members, the front cover on the Grey Matter reissue used a black-and-white image of dead bodies found at Jonestown, and the back cover featured a photograph of a vat containing the poison; in addition, the CD’s inner sleeve contained reprints of news articles about the event and an illustration of Jones’ face inside a Kool-Aid–shaped pitcher. Second, a 40-minute track was tacked on after the album’s original 12 songs. Titled “Mass Suicide,” the track is a disturbing recording (commonly known as the “death tape”) made on November 18th, 1978, in which Jones can be heard exhorting his followers to commit suicide. As Brian Kevin later wrote: “With the addition of the ‘death tape’ as a 13th track, the bootlegged CD takes everything worth admiring about He’s Able and turns it on its head, smashing through the barrier of innocence to let in time, irony and grief.”

Beam explains he was never contacted by Grey Matter about putting out a reissue of the record. “I had heard about it,” he says of that unauthorized bootlegged release. “All they had to do was get a copy of it from somebody that had bought one, make a copy of it, and reproduce it. It wouldn’t be as crisp as the original pressing, because you lose a sound generation on it. That’s probably what happened.”

The original vinyl version of He’s Able is very scarce, though an occasional copy on the secondary market can fetch more than $100. Yet, the songs can be found on YouTube and are available as free downloads online. Some of the surviving Temple members interviewed for this story acknowledge they haven’t listened to the record that much, due in part to the tragedy. Kohl says she can’t separate those two things. “Knowing that these talented people died, it affects me too much,” she says. “If they had survived, I might have a different point of view. But to hear somebody sing or perform like that, and to know that they died this useless death, it’s just heartbreaking. I knew them all.”

“It’s really hard to listen to ‘Welcome’ because all those kids were dead five years later,” says Wood, who lost several family members in Jonestown. “I was really happy when I was doing it. It does have very pleasant memories. Sometimes when I listen to it, I get a big kick out of it. But that’s just about it. I’ve never been someone who lived in the past.”

The desire to move on is a similar sentiment shared by Beam. “It’s part of the going-through and you’re on to the next thing,” he says. “They’re all different aspects of different parts of the same thing. At the time, it was very gratifying and it was a great experience. And then I moved past it.”

Meanwhile, Beam continues to make music. He currently works out of his home in Florida and collaborates with a Nashville-based artist named Daryl Keith Norman. At the moment, the new country sound piques his interest. “The only thing I’m working for now is trying to put something together that can be a hit song,” Beam says. “In the music business, it’s who you know. The challenge of writing and creating competitively is very gratifying to me. I’m doing it for the enjoyment of doing it. I know that if you know something well long enough, somebody will notice it.”

Still, Beam does feel a sense of pride on what he had accomplished with He’s Able, an audio snapshot of an unforgettable time in his life and others who were a part of the Temple a few years before the tragedy of 1978. “It was a milestone for me in terms of being part of my whole experience with music in this lifetime,” he says. “I was extremely proud of it and it fulfilled what needed to happen at that time. Nowadays, I still appreciate it.

“And every time I do listen to it, which is maybe every 20 years,” he continues, “I can remember the people, the experiences and all of those things, which to me almost mean more than the album.”

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