History of London, Ontario, Canada’s Christian Country band, the New Covenant Children (1972-1977)
It all began with Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry
Like a lot of good musical stories in North America, the history of London, Ontario’s, Christian Country band, the New Covenant Children’s story began in Nashville, Tennessee. Young Neil Degraw, a 17-year-old resident of London, Ontario would listen at night to AM radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, Tennessee, as well as the Jamboree out of Wheeling, West Virginia. He was inspired to play steel guitar, and at the age of 19, obtained a rare Fender 400 pedal steel guitar.
Somehow he befriended Gary Spicer, a player from Nashville who taught Degraw how to replicate that unique Nashville sound on the pedal steel. Degraw began playing in local country bands and would often travel to Nashville where he would attend Evangel Temple. The church was pastored by Rev. Jimmy Snow, the son of the legendary Hank Snow. Johnny Cash and Kris Kristopherson also attended the same church.
Soon, Degraw was feeling the call to use his special talent for the Lord back in his hometown of London, Ontario.
The formation of the New Covenant Children in London, Ontario
While attending Faith Tabernacle, his home church in London, Ontario, Degraw would sometimes accompany three female vocalists singing harmony on gospel songs like “The King is Coming”. Degraw was still performing with a traveling country band when he decided he needed to use his talent exclusively for the Lord.
The New Covenant Children were formed with Neil on pedal steel and Darlene St. Pierre on piano. The harmonies of the three singers, Donna Harris, Elaine Weurch, and Julie Sholtanuk made for the sweetest sounds this side of heaven!
In an effort to expand the musical appeal of the group, Degraw added his brother Don Degraw on bass and Dan Mailer on rhythm guitar. The group was dedicated to spreading the gospel and performing meaningful inspirational gospel songs that touched the lives of many. The popularity of the band continued to increase and it was time to record an album.
In early 1973, the group was headed to Nashville to a recording studio owned by Opry lead guitar player, Joe Edwards, where the band recorded “Reaching Out.” This album featured some of their most popular and well-liked tunes such as “The Lighthouse.” The album only helped increase the band’s popularity back in Ontario and surrounding areas. A drummer, Ron Mills was added and over time, lead singers Nancy and Sharon Degraw replaced departing singers. Every member of the band volunteered their time and effort and tirelessly practiced their music and instruments to polish their presentation. By 1974, the band was traveling almost every weekend and some weekdays, performing at churches, coffeehouses, picnics, parades, sings, concerts, as well as on radio and TV.
In November 1974, they were back in the studio, this time at the Masters’ Workshop in Toronto, recording their second album “That’s Just Like Jesus,” which soon sold 2000 copies on vinyl, cassette, and 8 track tapes (remember those?). The band performed some of those songs on Cam Shillington’s nationally syndicated television program “Gospel Singing Time,” which reached as many as 10 million viewers at times. The Lord was using the band in a powerful way to touch thousands of lives. For a while, the band also had a monthly newsletter that they sent to keep in touch with their fans.
In April 1975, it was time to record another album titled, “I’ll See You in the Rapture.” This was the band’s final and most popular album. All 2000 copies sold out quickly. In late 1975, the band underwent a few line up changes but continued to travel. Cam Shillington invited the band to perform at the Summer World Olympics held in Montreal and Kingston, in August 1976.
The band disbanded in 1977 but all members continued to perform gospel music in one form or
another together or on their own.
Formation of the CGMA and awards
In November 1974, Neil Degraw, working with Cam Shillington and the Hisey family, formed the Canadian Gospel Music Association known as the “CGMA.“ The stated purpose of the CGMA was to promote unity among Canadian gospel music groups and to provide an incentive to groups to improve musically and spiritually.
The first CGMA convention was held in Waterloo, Ontario, during a weekend in May 1975, and the New Covenant Children and numerous other high quality Canadian gospel bands performed. Rev. Jimmy Snow traveled from Nashville to give the inaugural address at the banquet. A trophy was awarded to the Hisey Family as Group of the Year, and the New Covenant Children also received industry recognition. Their album “That’s Just Like Jesus “ was voted Album of the Year in 1975, and “I’ll See You in the Rapture,” album of the year in 1976.
I think that the band would all agree that these awards pale in comparison to the blessings that each member received as a result of sharing the gospel and inspirational music to so many in Ontario and the surrounding areas of the United States. Each member volunteered their time and effort free of charge to do what they strongly believed was the Lord’s work. It was a very precious honor to be part of something so special that touched the lives of so many. And now you know the story!
By Dan Mailer, with assistance from Torrey Antone
In memory of Cam Shillington, May 17, 1946 – January 12, 2016
Note by Lorraine Walker, editor of SGNScoops Magazine: If it weren’t for the singers who have gone before us, many of us whose lives have been touched and shaped by gospel music would not be the same people we are today. Having just started to listen and learn about gospel music in Ontario in the ’80s, I missed the heyday of the NCC, but I do remember others who were traveling the Ontario backroads every weekend…there were few fulltime gospel singers in Ontario. I could start to name the groups I remember but I would leave out half, so please just accept this shout-out from a former member of the CGMA and one who enjoyed several CGMA Conventions. I would love to hear from other members of groups and of the CGMA from that time period. Please write to me at email@example.com