Jesus rock pioneers the Wilson McKinley are a fascinating footnote in the annals of psychedelia -- minor legends in their native Pacific Northwest, they are generally considered the first secular band to forsake the ample pleasures of the flesh in favor of forging lives and music devoted to spreading the Christian gospel. The Wilson McKinley formed in Spokane, WA, in 1968, originally comprised of singer/guitarist Mike Messer, singer/bassist Don Larson, guitarist Randy Wilcox, and drummer Tom Slipp; at its inception the group played secular psychedelia very much in the spirit of its times, earning a regional following on the strength of its layered harmonies and folk-inspired arrangements. Through circumstances unknown, they earned the notice of record exec Al Sherman, whose Alshire label made its living via budget-priced copycat LPs of '60s pop hits, all recorded by prefab studio groups. Virtually all of the bands in question -- Fats & the Chessmen, Los Norte Americanos, and the Bakersfield Five among them -- were helmed by producer and songwriter Gary Paxton, best known for composing the novelty smash "The Monster Mash." At Sherman's request, Paxton put together a group dubbed the California Poppy Pickers to capitalize on the growing country-rock trend; there were four Poppy Pickers LPs in all, each made up of covers and thinly veiled rewrites, and for reasons unknown, the fourth and final album, Honky Tonk Women, was recorded without Paxton's involvement, with the studio musicians populating the previous three replaced by the members of the Wilson McKinley.
Although Honky Tonk Women generated minimal sales upon its 1969 release, the Wilson McKinley earned enough money for their efforts to self-release a three-song single featuring Messer's "Blues Go Home." They also worked on a rock opera, provisionally titled Bread and Butter, that never progressed beyond the rehearsal stage. In the summer of 1970 the members of the Wilson McKinley chanced upon a meeting of the Voice of Elijah Ministry's Jesus People sect -- Messer, Wilcox, and Slipp soon adopted the faith as their own, but when Larson refused to join them, the band dissolved. Soon after, the core trio began performing rock arrangements of traditional spirituals, and from there Messer and Wilcox began writing Christian-themed originals -- with the addition of singer/bassist Jimmy Bartlett, the Wilson McKinley aegis was revived, and the new lineup mounted a Canadian tour. A date at Vancouver's Pender Auditorium yielded their 1970 debut, On Stage (Jesus People's Army), a highly collectible live LP originally released in sleeves hand-stenciled by fellow Jesus People members -- though little known outside of the faith, the record was a landmark in the evolution of the nascent Christian rock genre. Although at least one major secular label expressed interest in signing the Wilson McKinley, they declined, preferring instead to simply perform live at Jesus People street meetings while other members of the church counseled and ministered. In addition, the Wilson McKinley often headlined a Voice of Elijah-owned Spokane coffeehouse called the I Am, testing out new material in front of their most fervent fans. They also played the occasional secular rock festival, albeit usually in the hopes of attracting new members to the flock.
Spirit of Elijah, appeared in the summer of 1971. Recorded during a single overnight session sans editing or overdubs, the album suggested secular antecedents like Moby Grape and the Moody Blues (whose "It's Up to You" appears in modified form). Sold exclusively through advertisements in the Voice of Elijah's free newspaper The TRUTH, it recouped enough of its production costs to fund a third LP, Heaven's Gonna Be a Blast, issued in early 1972. Although cut in an authentic recording studio, the album nevertheless suffered from the band's inexperience behind the mixing board, yet is in many respects the Wilson McKinley's most adventurous effort, boasting entirely original tunes (not spiritually charged rewrites of secular rock hits) and complex, heavy arrangements at times reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. The group nevertheless abandoned rock soon after, releasing the Nashville-influenced Country in the Sky in 1973, followed a year later by Yesterday/Forever, an instrumental collection of traditional hymns. With the Jesus People beginning to splinter, the Wilson McKinley returned to touring, and upon circling back to Spokane in 1976 agreed to participate in a student recording project at a local community college -- these two songs, "Ain't That Good News" and "You Don't Knock," returned the group to its rock roots and mark the studio swan song of the classic lineup. The group dissolved in 1979 -- two decades later, Messer issued a solo LP, Good Ol' Days, and in 2001 he and Wilcox reunited with fellow founder Don Larson to begin work on a new Wilson McKinley release timed to coincide with the CD reissue of the band's original LPs.