‘Brother’ John Rydgren

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On my new EP, The Shape Of Things That Hum, there’s a track called ‘Brother John’, a tribute of sorts to a remarkable man with a remarkable voice. He appears in the form of samples taken from records, air check recordings and station idents for his LOVE radio show. Most will never have heard of him but I’ve been collecting his recordings for many years now and thought this would be the ideal time to write up a proper introduction for those wanting to know about the man behind the voice.

I’m not sure how I first found the work of John Rydgren, it may have been via Otis Fodder and his 365 days project or maybe the single vinyl bootleg of his ‘Silhouette Segments’ album that began circulating around 2003. I can’t remember what drew me to it, it may have been the psychedelic cover (I’m a big advocate of judging a record by it’s cover).

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Anyway, as soon as I heard that baritone voice, the hip but sometimes dark delivery and the selection of music he chose to recite over, I was hooked. Many compare Rydgren to Ken Nordine and they certainly do have a lot in common. The crucial difference is that Rydgren was a man with a message and that message was spreading the word of the Lord. “Oh, he was a preacher”, I hear you cry, well yes – he was a Pastor and the American Lutheran Church‘s Director of Radio/TV and Film – but not in the clichéd fire and brimstone sense that we picture when one thinks of such things.

Rydgren – who also went by the moniker Brother John – was much subtler than that and chose to integrate God’s word into his radio shows, intertwined with subjects that the youth of the day could relate to. Sex, drugs, rock music, fashion, cars, it all went in with a Lord’s eye view on each and every one. The creation of the world was turned into a psychedelic trip with allusions to heavy rock and growing weed, a girl with thigh length boots he was checking out suddenly gets him thinking about who had made the girl – “quite a design”.

As well as weekly radio shows Rydgren was broadcast to Vietnam for the troops, intermingling his playlists of rock and pop of the day (Stones, Beatles, Byrds) with short segments he’d written and narrated. Over easy listening backing tracks he planted seeds for the listener to think about the relevance of god within their everyday lives. It was never heavy-handed or overblown and certainly never preachy. His messages were usually slipped in after setting a scene a teenager could relate to, bringing the church into the present day as opposed to the stuffy idea of it being something your parents foisted upon you. One of his often used motifs was, ‘they say…” before going off to quote an example of a commonly held belief before turning it on it’s head.

He was always playful but deadly serious, especially when talking about the Lord, almost to the point of morbidity on occasion as his voice dropped lower and lower in register. He was also very anti-drugs, regularly interviewing musicians of the day and quizzing them on the need for weed or LSD to gain enlightenment. As a Pastor for the Lutheran church he tirelessly spread the word in the form of spoken word radio plays and stories ranging from Moses to Elijah to Xmas tales of Theodore and the Angel, most of which he wrote and co-narrated.

All of his records are promo only radio station issues or were sold at church meetings and, as a result, are incredibly hard to come by. Originals, if you can find them, fetch a high price. Ridiculously rare interview 7″s for radio shows occasionally turn up, flexi discs, religious tales, Xmas stories and sampler records of radio inserts are among the unknown quantity of recordings he made over the years. The best of these is the double album ‘Silhouette Segments’ – literally segments from his radio show ‘Silhouette’. This includes the ‘Dark Side of the Flower – a meditation on the decline of the hippy movement over what sounds like a lost David Axelrod track.

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‘Worlds of Youth’ and ‘Contata Of New Life’ are two similar releases and it’s this last one that Rydgren is ironically best known for, although it’s by default and not actually for any of his vocal work. An internet debate has raged for years over where DJ Premier sampled the main hook from for Nas‘Nas Is Like’ and it appears that crate diggers have honed in on the backing track to one of Brother John’s pieces on the aforementioned album. The track is question, ‘What Child Is This?’, has John reciting over a version of ‘Greensleeves’ and Premier himself has said that the label of the record he sampled was pink with a fish on it, the same as the Lutheran church record label. (side note: my copy of Contata has plain black labels with silver lettering and is 12″ sized, i’ve never seen a Lutheran 10″ record but I’m sure they exist). Where John took this version of Greensleeves from is still open to debate but it’s a shame that most internet searches of his name will bring this up rather than any detailed information of his life and work.

Sadly John suffered a stroke whilst on air in 1982. Over time, with therapy, he was able to recover somewhat but had to relearn to read and speak from third grade level. He returned to work in the 80’s for a few years but died in 1988 aged 56. I was lucky enough to track down John’s son, Shane, and obtain his permission to use the voice of his father and am very excited to be able to release such a song knowing it has the blessing of a family member.

You can hear the track Brother John, as well as the rest of the EP, here:

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27 thoughts on “‘Brother’ John Rydgren

  1. Hi, I just found this site via the new release on Australia’s awesome OMNI label and it looks great, so I thought people who’ve posted here might want to know that the Brother John recordings are available (albeit hard to find, as are most OMNI releases, but I imagine they’re a lot easier to find than the vinyl!).

  2. Hi Gene, that’s fascinating, thanks for sharing that info, would you have the tapes you made at all? I’m helping prepare a major reissue of John’s key albums for release this winter, it would be amazing to hear something lost all these years.

  3. Around 76′ or so while he was laid off from radio he was able to get a tv interview gig. Sorry I cannot rememer who he interviewed, although I recall we all had watched it on tv.

  4. Sorry , two years old. He and Shanes mother and her close friend my fiance at the time went out to my fathers desert property and used to target practice with a 45 he owned. I remember when he was laid off and and was doing anything to provide for his family. Which included doing janitorial work. He was a man of honor and conviction. I shall miss his voice and friendship.

  5. I have to agree, he was a great guy with a great voice. He and I were playing with a reel to reel at my apartment and made some recordings. I was playing my classical guitar while he ad-libed. Great memories. I didn’t know he had passed. It’s been years since I’ve seen him. We hung out when Shane was about 1 1/2 to years old.

  6. Tad and Kevin,

    If you happen to check in, I would certain be interested in your CDs if still available as well as other material related to Brother John.

    It was nice to see comments from Shane, his son, and Jared, his grandson.

    John Rydgren was a great influence on many of us. Someone who worked with him at KRLA in Los Angeles said to me that Brother John “had a aura about him when he walked into a room”. That great “otherworldly” voice of his is instantly recognizable — truly a gift from God.

    Great to hear from everyone.

    Peace and love,
    Tony
    Tony Lyndell Williams

  7. Hey very nice web site. Brother John was my grandpa and died when i was only 2 so i learned a lot about him from you and i thank you for that. Nancy his (first wife) Janel )his daughter my mom) and John JR. (my uncle) all had the best things to say about him and thank you again for keeping the memory alive.

  8. Hey Kev,

    I transferred all my reel to reel tapes a long time ago from that era to cd. I just recently pulled all of the John Reydgren material from my three cd collection and put it on my hard drive. All I have to do is burn it to CD and we’re good to go!

    Tad

  9. Hi Tad
    Always interested in stuff I may not have heard or know, do you have all this stuff transferred from tape?
    Kev

  10. Fantastic site you have here Kev. I used to listen to Brother John (as well as The Rabbit) on KABC FM (the new rock in L.A.) in 1969 and 1970. I recorded some of the stuff I listened to in addition to the records they played. This includes catchy commercial segments as well as John’s brief comments at the end of songs he played. I also taped a three minute interview with Woodstock photographer, Michael Wadleigh and Howard Smith on the challenges of filming the festival. In this day and age I am so happy I captured some of this stuff for my own posterity. Most of what I’ve heard recently of John sounds like top 40s radio but KABC back then was more laid back underground. Funny, I never imagined John would have been so clean cut looking. All these years I envisioned him as a long hair with beard etc. In his own way John Rydgren was the Lord Buckley of the new age!!

    If you’re interested in my stuff, let me know!

  11. Thanks for the introduction to JR. Just one small point: his album for the 450th anniversary of the Lutherian church is called “Cantata of New Life” to be precise.
    Btw, my copy came directly from the hands of Sam Spence, the conductor of the cantata, who lives in my hometown Munich, Germany.

  12. You are right about Brother John and Ken Nordine. I also hear the influence of both, especially Ken, on Nick Michaels.

  13. Hi G
    Glad you found me :) As you can see, Otis has already been here. Thanks for posting that link, I didn’t know that blog, some good stuff there. I have a few aircheck shows too, feel free to share, any way you please.

  14. Hiya, got inspired to try web searches on Rydgren after being reminded of him on Otis’ DFM radio show. Been a fan for YEARS and have BOTH the single and double versions of Silhouette Segments! I don’t have a lot more material than that, BUT somewhere in my holdings stored back in Ohio are a couple cassettes, air checks of some of this radio shows that I traded with an old fan of his. I hope I can find those sometime; if so I’m glad to share, or maybe I should just post to Dinosaur Gardens (www.DinosaurGardens.com).

    cheers,

    – TradeMark G. (The Evolution Control Committee)

  15. Thanks Otis, that’s a big compliment coming from you :) There’s more out there too, a compilation of Silhouette Segments with a different sleeve, The Elijah and Moses LPs both have two volumes to the story and those interview 7″s are like hens teeth it seems. Let’s not even get into the tapes of radio shows and airchecks floating around either.

    If anyone is reading this and finds John Rydgren material not featured here then I’m always interested. I still have tons of material that I want to use as well…

  16. Oh my god Kev! I didn’t realize your collection was this large. I didn’t even know there was this much material out there. Wow.

    I’ll bet you heard about John from the bootleg SS LP as that was my first introduction and I picked it up prior to posting to 365. I sourced the cut for 365 from the bootleg. I think the bootleg was limited to 500 copies, but who knows. Shame all this stuff is not reissued currently for those of us who appreciate the unique sounds of Brother John.

    Congrats on the second EP!

  17. Kevin, Impressive Collection! I had no idea many of these existed. Brother John was with his first wife when these works were done, many years before I was born so seeing these has been totally inspiring! Thank you for publishing Brother Johns profile so completely.
    ~Shane

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