Ladies and gentlemen, this is my friend. He’s a very good friend of mine. He’s bad. He’s bad, bad, bad. But I am trying to teach him the way. Now I want you to meet him—John the Revelator. Stand up John! [Applause, laughter] OK, sit down. Terrible boy...
—Ray Charles in performance, Copenhagen, 1973
There’s not much out there on John Henderson—the keyboardist and singer who created the music on this album. No website or Wikipedia page, no profile or interviews. One can find a moment on YouTube that’s special for being so rare and hidden: no where is his name mentioned, but Ray Charles, at a Fender Rhodes during his well-polished road show of the early ‘70s, calls attention to him. Henderson is in the band, seated at a piano near Charles, who teases him with obvious affection as one might a wayward youth, then gets back to the music.
There’s another recording online: same year, same tour, a live version of the classic “Wee Baby Blues”. Henderson is again uncredited. Charles calls out “Hold it John, look out now!” and he obliges with a melodic, blues-drenched solo that delivers its worldly message with a preacher’s sense of insistence, and of experience. Small wonder Brother Ray liked to call him John The Revelator—a deeply spiritual feel was unmistakable, woven deeply into his playing.
“Ray also called him John The Revelator because he acted like a leader—John was not as outgoing or rowdy as some of the other guys even though he was one of the youngest in the band,” says Mirabai Henderson, his wife of nearly 45 years. “Ray also called him ‘Deacon’ so all the guys in the band started calling him that!
“John was the most dependable [player] in the band. If there was a lobby call at two in the morning, John was there at 1:55. John started with Ray in 1966, and he toured with him four or five times, the last time in ’75. Ray loved him but John couldn’t keep up with the road life, so he decided to work on his own music in Texas.”
John Henderson was born in Palestine, Texas on December 20, 1946, and grew up loving and learning music on both sides of the blues/gospel divide, singing, and sneaking into a local church to teach himself how to play piano and organ. “He played in his church when he was young, but he wasn’t that great or anything at that time—he had no formal education,” Mirabai adds. By the close of his teen years, he enrolled at Texas Southern University as a voice and piano major, diligently studying piano as well as opera and taking advanced singing courses, becoming a star pupil in the school’s music program while playing in various local bands around town.
“It’s funny though because the more formal training John got, the more he realized he loved gospel music—vocal arrangements, writing for a choir—more than improvisational kind of things. But he was so improvisational. He would tell me that the blues and other music had such an open meaning for him, to let him tell his story. You know everybody has a story, and he was so good at telling stories—even if it was a spiritual story.”
In 1966, one of his professors —Conrad O. Johnson—recom- mended him to Charles, who used a number of music schools as farm teams for his band. When he got the call, “before they even got off the phone, John was there with his suitcase!” Mirabai says.
Henderson played intermittently with Charles from ’66 to ’75, a solid member of the band though the tours themselves were inconsistent at times and he was not on retainer. With a growing reputation, he began playing with Texas-born R&B and jazz groups like saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and a few other national acts, like trumpeter Johnny Coles and saxophonist Ronnie Laws. Locally, he pursued a more modest musical career, created jingle music for radio and television, as well as vocal arrangements for various music programs, and married the singer and radio deejay Pamela Davis—who now goes by her spiritual name Mirabai.
“John and I were singing together all over Texas, in hotels and other jazz venues, making a living. We called ourselves The Experience. By the end of the ‘70s, we had started a family.” A few years later, in 1982, one of Mirabai’s girlfriends told her that, “she was going to California to the ashram of Alice Coltrane and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to go.’ I was a radio announc- er in Houston for KPFT for about 5 or 6 years at that point. I had a show called Jazz On Tuesday and my opening music was Alice Coltrane’s music, from [her album] Transcendence. But I never thought I would have a chance to meet her.
“John helped me to get my things together, and when I got to the ashram I was just...’I got to move here.’ The girls and I were there for about a week or so, and when I got back that’s all I talked about. Then we received a phone call from one of Alice Coltrane’s assistants to say that we had been accepted, and that we could come and live on the ashram. That was so exciting—we sold all the furniture we had in our house to our neighbors so we could raise some cash, and got back on the road to California at the end of ‘82.” Alice Coltrane, the Detroit-born pianist who married jazz giant John Coltrane in 1963, had, after his death, led her own music career while pursuing progressively deeper spiritual paths. By the end of the ‘70s, she disengaged from her role as a professional musician, turning her full attention to leading the ashram based on Vedic study she had founded in 1975; her followers called her Swamini. In 1983, as her flock continued to grow, Mrs. Coltrane invested in 48 acres of rustic property in Agoura Hills, eventually growing her Sai Anantam Ashram to include a mandir (temple), buildings for living, eating, and other communal activities in- cluding, of course, devotional music that drew upon Vedic chants, black gospel, and jazz in varying modern and modal strains.
The Hendersons came to embrace their newfound locale and path. They received Sanskrit names—Panduranga (“Dispeller of Darkness”, a title by which Krishna was commonly known) and Mirabai (the singer and poet who loved Krishna). They quickly found their way into the spiritual duties of the community. They learned prayers and songs, and began to participate in the daily and weekly rituals—meditation, chanting, study of texts, group meals and discussion.
“Obviously John was ecstatic at the fact of being able to learn from, work under, play with, or whatever—with Alice Coltrane, because that was John Coltrane’s wife. But you know, it’s not like we were very religious. Neither one of us sang in the church for years at that point in our adult lives. We were always out in hotels, singing jazz and other styles. So you could say we were really seekers, and we wanted more of the whole truth. I mean it is wonderful to know about Jesus, and this is the era that Jesus is in. But before Jesus there was Rama and Krishna and Shiva and so many other manifestations of God. This was what Alice Coltrane brought us to. This was wonderful—there are so many young people out there looking for the truth, and here we were at this ashram where we were getting all of the background on this—as much as we could take. So really our transition wasn’t from the church to the ashram—it was from jazz to the ashram.”
Panduranga’s musical experience and skills were immediately appreciated by Mrs. Coltrane. “He was such a great improvisa- tionalist that right away, he became the keyboard player for the ashram.” In short order, his voice was featured in group songs, and later in various recording studios around The Valley at sessions produced by Mrs. Coltrane to record devotional music she had composed and wished to record and share with her followers. (She eventually produced four albums, from which came the music on the recent Luaka Bop Release, World Spiritual Classics, Volume 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane. Henderson’s gospel-tinged voice is featured on the track “Om Rama”, a stellar example of his contributions to Mrs. Coltrane’s music.)
Despite the communal aspect, the ashram was not a retreat from the modern world. Its members had jobs, drove cars and while some resided on the ashram, many did not. The Hendersons resided there for many years and later moved to Northridge, about a half hour away. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, while they became an important part of the ashram, Panduranga continued to push himself as a composer, teacher, and performer, playing and singing in hotel lounges and nightclubs in the Valley and, in 1996, as far away as Japan; Alexander’s supper club in Ventura was one of his more consistent local gigs. He also expanded into his role as a conveyor of devotional music, co-producing a weekly program on the Los Angeles public radio station KPFK called Divine Songs.
Panduranga’s role in the ashram developed as well. Such was his eventual stature that he was regularly asked to fill in for Mrs. Coltrane. “I’d say for most of the ‘90s, he was the one who played in the mandir when Swamini was not there. She gave him that opportunity, and that’s what really began the music that you can hear on Ocean of Love and other albums John made. It filled his heart and everything made sense.”
The music of the Sai Anantam Ashram was a particular fusion of styles that drew on the common roots of many of its African- American members—gospel, R&B, and jazz—as well as Vedic devotional music that are still common throughout India and Nepal—bhajans (songs highlighted by solo voice performance) and kirtans (a participatory group song form). Starting as early as 1981, Mrs. Coltrane had perfected her own personal blend of these musical styles, realized with the help of the recording engineer Baker Bigsby, the use of newer music technology (like the Oberheim OB8 analog synthesizer), and the voices of the ashram singers.
Panduranga may have been inspired by Mrs. Coltrane’s efforts to pursue his individual fusion of these musical ideas, yet the decision to create the music on his own, playing all the parts, was because “he got so tired of other musicians not being able to play what he really heard,” recalls Mirabai.
“Although he had played with a lot of people he found he was happiest when he produced and played his own music. So he started buying little gadgets—synthesizers, samplers, recorders. Even drum machines. If he needed an ocean sound, he would take a microphone down to the ocean and collect as much sound as he could. It was so amazing to watch him go into a room by himself, and come out with a whole CD. He had a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign that he hung on the door. There were many times I had to say, ‘well I guess you won’t be having dinner because you won’t be coming out for awhile.’”
During the ‘90s, Panduranga wrote and recorded music for three albums—Universal Prema, Compassion-Introspect, and Ocean of Love—which were released through his own DuGa Publishers label. His recordings reached very few ears. The music on Ocean Of Love is comprised of four standout selections from Panduranga’s original 1993 version of the title, his third self-produced album on which he plays all instruments, sings all vocal parts, and for which he composed all the tunes. The lyrics were taken from the prayer books at the ashram.
Against the gentle rhythm of ocean waves breaking on a shore, “Hari Namaste (Greetings)” weaves together the sounds of Indian and Western percussion, compelling guitar-like blues lines on a synthesizer, and Panduranga’s overdubbed vocal parts, at times revealing his tendency to soar to his upper range like an inspired gospel soloist on a Sunday morning. With a more urgent drive, “Hari Haraya” offers a more sophisticated structure and vocal arrangement, synthesizer washes. “Rama, Tama, Sri Bhagwan” opens with Panduranga harmonizing with bird calls, as synthesiz- er swells and a rhythm track help set a more meditative, intimate pace than before, sounding like a personal call to prayer. Finally, “Om Namah Shivaya” hits a more upbeat groove, and spins in a few details—synthesizer presets, electronic drum fills, vocal backing harmonies—that would be as home in a typical R&B track of the time, showing how on top of contemporary music Panduranga was at the time.
While it may be difficult to know exactly whom this music was intended for—a growing New Age music audience, fellow ashram members, perhaps the Hendersons alone—there is an intriguing detail that Panduranga included in his resume of the time. Calling himself a “synthesist [sic] with emphasis towards meditation, tone therapy, mood inducement, and Hathic Yogic accompaniment,” he described the idea that “through the proper use of subtle sound, one can become completely relieved of stress, anxiety and the like, and in a very short time can reach certain states of restfulness and sublimity.”
The notion of music serving a deeply spiritual and healing function has of course been around for centuries, certainly as long as man has used music to express and reach a sense of the divine. That Panduranga, originally a sideman and jingle-creator, ultimately saw his own music-making as part of this tradition, speaks to an enduring power of uplift he was able to imbue in these recordings. That this music is finally being released to a wide audience is especially meaningful to Mirabai.
“He said that between the spiritual experience on the ashram, and our marriage, he had an ocean of love, that it was overwhelming for him to get to know how it was there in all areas of his life. That’s why I’m so excited, because John was working on getting Ocean Of Love ready to bring out on CD just before he had the stroke.”
Panduranga John Henderson suffered a stroke in 2010 due to a hereditary condition. He is now confined to a wheelchair in a health care facility in Camarillo, having lost his ability to make music, or even talk. His wife Mirabai visits him daily, playing him music and watching “his eyes light up when he recognizes melodies. His fingers will start to move. The staff there don’t see this, they don’t know how to talk to him, but I do. I’ll say, ‘John are you playing the piano? Are you playing music?’ Then he’ll smile. It’s the most beautiful thing—the most beautiful thing to see. He’s my best friend.”
—Ashley Kahn, September 2017