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Boyer croons for Christ

Putting the swing into hymns is the unique style of Dave Boyer, who started his singing career partying with the Rat Pack before falling into alcoholism, a failed marriage and a near-suicide.

Putting the swing into hymns is the unique style of Dave Boyer, who started his singing career partying with the Rat Pack before falling into alcoholism, a failed marriage and a near-suicide.

Lifted up by a dramatic conversion back to his boyhood faith, Boyer began his decades-spanning career as the crooner of Christian music.

Long a classic among Christian musical artists, Boyer's background in Big Band music, when mixed with his message of faith, is unusual.

Driving along with his wife, June, at his side, Boyer pulled his BMW 3 Series auto off the busy road in metro Atlanta, where he lives, to take a phone call this week from a reporter.

"It's been a long time, 40 years singing for the Lord, and then the show business years before that. We won't get into age, though. I don't feel like it's been that long."


500 Club

He still has the smooth baritone croon that was the thing back in the early 1950s, before rock and roll changed the face of popular music.

"It was an exciting time and I was very young when I started in show business. I was 19 when I began working at the old Atlantic City's 500 Club. That was the club that just a few months before had put Martin and Lewis together as an act, so it had that prestige to it."

His manager had convinced him to change his name to Joey Stephens. In about 1953, Boyer auditioned for the club owner, Skinny D'Amato, just 10 days after Frank Sinatra had played the club. He soon found himself performing and partying with Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack, as one of the young ones on the edge of the group.

He appeared with Milton Berle, and with Martin and Jerry Lewis on the "Today" show when it originated from Atlantic City.

His highlight, or lowlight in some respects, was emceeing and opening a 10-day gig including Sinatra and other major stars, including the final blast of the Rat Pack in 1963. "It was quite a time. They were wild and woolly days," Boyer recalled with a laugh.

But two years later, after 13 years in the business, the luster was gone and his life was empty. He doesn't blame anyone but himself. "When I found myself messed up, it wasn't that entertainment part, it was what I had decided to do with my life. Nightclubs aren't environments for Sunday school teachers. Being there, I got myself involved with alcohol and the rest. By 1964, my dear wife, June, had left me."

The next year, his father, the Rev. Ralph Boyer, died. Boyer, or Joey Stephens, decided to end his own life. Driving to some railroad tracks where he intended to wait for a fast freight to hit him, he passed a small church, triggering memories of his happier childhood. He began to pray, then found a telephone and called his brother, who met him that night. After hours of praying together with his brother, Boyer experienced God touching his soul, he says in his biography. He dropped the Joey Stephens moniker. His wife, June, and their daughter soon came back into his life and he started a new career, singing as a Christian entertainer.


Christian crooner

At the beginning, lots of church people thought he was too worldly. "Mostly it was the sound of my voice," he said. "Very honestly, my first album, Christian distributors in some places sent it back, and there was some opposition. They said 'he sounds like a nightclub singer.' That all has disappeared, of course, and now I'm milque-toast.

"I still sing with the same style. What changes is the arrangements behind me might be a little different feel, more contemporary. I'm still singing about the same way.

"The biggest change I've seen in the music field? It changes, I think, to positive ways. Each different generation grows up with different sounds. In contemporary Christian music, there's such a broad spectrum now, from southern Gospel to the swing that I do, the big ballads I love to do, to even Christian rap. When it glorifies the Lord, it's really what's important."

Boyer also is enjoying the fact that it's cool to be cool again, music-wise.

There has been a big resurgence in interest in the swing and Big Band sounds of a half-century ago and more. Rod Stewart, made famous by his oft-panned disco "Hot Legs," period, has made a killing in recent years reprising old standards, many of them of the big band era, in his four Great American Songbook albums.

"Tony Bennett just came out with his standards," Boyer said. "I thank God for a broad appreciation of music."

"We've had some good young singers, like Michael Buble from Canada, and Harry Connick Jr. They are carrying the torch," he said. "And what I love to do is take that style and sing the message I love to sing."


Preacher's son

Boyer grew up the son of a preacher man. His father started a gospel broadcast on the WORK radio station in York, Pa., in 1934, the year Boyer was born. Within several years, it led to his father starting an independent gospel church in York, involving all six children in music in the church and on the radio.

"That's how I started singing, in my Dad's church."

His mother, Anna, died just five years ago, at the age of 100.

"She taught me the songs. I take some of those songs I learned in those days and I put them to Big Band arrangements. I'm happy to have a guy like Ralph Carmichael writing the arrangements for me."

He and Carmichael, who is well-known in the secular music business as well as a legend of popular Christian music, have collaborated on several albums and projects.

"We did three nights in New York this past July with a great New York Big Band. It was a great experience. I find myself doing live music, with a band, 70 percent of the time."

Last weekend, for example, he sang at Cedarville University, a Christian school in Iowa. "I had their swing band blowing behind me. I loved it."


No such luck in Grand Forks, he said.

Pastor Chris Dawes of Valley Christian Center, himself a practiced musician and composer, said Boyer still has the pipes, man. "His voice is amazing, so smooth."

Boyer said he works hard at maintaining it. "I thank God my mother sent me to a voice coach years ago. I practice what I learned then, and I've had other voice coaches over the years. It's the only way I could keep this up."

Living in a suburb of Atlanta, Boyer attends, of all things, a Lutheran church when he's home on weekends.

He performs about 70 dates a year.

"I still love to entertain. However, I do believe that God ministers through what I do. The Apostle Paul says, 'Whatever you do, do it unto the glory of God.' Whatever I'm singing, whether "God Bless the USA" or musical theater songs, one of the great American classics like "Climb Every Mountain" or "Swinging on a Star," or the great hymns I love to sing with a swing style, it's all to the glory of God. I love to make people happy. I hope what I do never comes across as negative, but shows the joy I have living with God. It's really from the heart."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237, or (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; e-mail him at slee@gfherald.com .

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