They came from two different eras at Calvin, but gospel music has been a consistent inspiration for both of them.
For Debra Perry ’91, born and raised in Grand Rapids, gospel music was always a part of her life. Her mother was an excellent vocalist who sang in churches all over west Michigan. Perry played “Trust and Obey” on the piano in her church at the age of 6, and she took lessons from a Calvin music student when she was 8.
“I started recording music when I was very young, with two boom boxes and a tape recorder,” she said. “I’d play the piano on one and record another instrument on the other and then play them together.”
For Glenn Bulthuis ’77, born and raised in Inglewood, Calif., it was seeing The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that got his musical juices flowing—and that grew to include the gospel music tradition.
He developed a 35-year ritual of playing concerts at Calvin with songs from all over the musical map, covers and his own originals—punctuated by tunes such as “Calvin Girl” and “Cruisin’ Down the Beltline.”
Perry and Bulthuis knew of each other but had performed together only once, at Calvin for one of the annual Bulthuis concerts when the song list for the evening called for a couple of songs from the soundtrack to the film The Preacher’s Wife.
Each musician has developed a strong reputation in their own circles: Perry as a high school music teacher, church music director, and music composer, arranger and producer; Bulthuis as Calvin’s “unofficial troubadour” with a quiver-full of songs about the college, and also a church music director and contract musician and composer.
This time around, Bulthuis was considering his next musical project. After decades of Calvin-themed concerts, he and his band, The Tonedeafs, had been presenting elaborate musical events based on the work of one artist/group—first, The Beatles, and next, James Taylor. But a trip to Israel changed his thinking.
“My visit to the Holy Land marked me in many ways,” said Bulthuis, “spiritually, of course, but also emotionally and musically. I saw many instances of heartfelt praises being sung, and many of the songs had gospel roots.”
At first, Bulthuis was thinking of a Motown-themed concert, noting that the Motown hits of the ’60s and ’70s had their genesis in gospel rhythms and harmonies.
“I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t pull off a Motown show and what I felt clearly called to do was to work on a purely gospel approach,” he said.
Bulthuis wrote four or five songs and had sketches of others when he called Perry and asked if they might work on these compositions together. Perry had opened her own music recording venture, Joint Heir Music Studios, down Burton Street to the west of Calvin, and the two Calvin alumni began putting their heads together on a set of gospel songs.
“I’d come in to the studio with some guitar lines and lyrics,” said Bulthuis, “and Debra would listen and say, ‘Well, that’s a start,’ and we’d be off on a musical transformation of the song. She is simply an amazing musical arranger and composer.”
Perry brought in her vocal ensemble, Majestic Praise, as well as other musicians with whom she had previously worked. Bulthuis brought in some of his Tonedeafs and other musical acquaintances. Thus began the journey to complete Gloryland, the 13-track record that the two grads premiered on Calvin’s Covenant Fine Arts Center stage in February.
It took 53 individual sessions at the Joint Heir studios to complete the record. At times, there were 20 singers and musicians crowded together for a recording.
“Every verse should add an element to the song,” said Perry. “The instrumentation ought to enhance the message, and the song should grow and evolve into a statement of praise.”
The Gloryland concert featured Bulthuis, Perry and Majestic Praise, and 20 other musicians on the Calvin stage. The evening was filmed, and a DVD is being produced to complement the compact disc, which is available through the alumni association and the Calvin Campus Store (release date still pending). Local churches have contacted Bulthuis and Perry to consider performing the music again.
“I have been so blessed by this project,” said Bulthuis. “I am getting near the end of my recording career and wanted the next recording to be about praise and pointing to Christ. With Debra’s help, that happened.”
He continues as the music director at Oakhill Church on the northeast side of Grand Rapids.
Perry is working on a new recording for Majestic Praise and has 10 to 15 clients that she is working with at Joint Heir studios. That’s in addition to teaching at three schools, directing music at two churches (including her own, Mt. Zion Baptist) and getting her second master’s degree.
She was also recently honored with the MaLinda P. Sapp Legacy Award at the annual “Celebration of Soul” concert by the Grand Rapids Symphony for her ongoing diversity efforts and accomplishments.
Bulthuis wrote in the Gloryland liner notes, “I just tried to be obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, I had a ton of fun making music with Debra, one of the finest musicians with whom I have ever worked.”