ONE HIT WONDERS – Sister Janet Mead

Janet Mead

The Lord’s Prayer (Traditional/A Strals) – Sister Janet Mead 1973

Janet Mead (1938) was a Catholic nun who belonged to the Order pf the Sisters of Mercy, she entered holy orders at the age of seventeen and was subsequently employed as a teacher at Adelaide’s St. Aloysius College, were she specialized in drama, English, singing and religious instruction.

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Mead came from an Adelaide family imbued with the values of Christian charity and humanitarianism, she was classically trained and graduated from the Elder Conservatorium (Adel). Janet also possessed highly developed performing skills, a three-octave range with perfect pitch, vocal abilities not normally associated with members of religious orders. Below Sister Janet with the St. Aloysius school band 1973.

She had formed her first rock group at 17 which was named The Rock Band, clearly catchy titles and slick promotion were not their strengths, but Mead cleverly initiated the first rock masses at the Adelaide Cathedral and built a devoted following, using popular music to communicate with young worshippers who were disenchanted with the more conservative services conducted in Latin. The timing was perfect, the live theatre music scene had been ignited by three recent shows that blended rock music with religious themes – Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1969), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell (1971); and nuns had featured prominently in several movies in the 1950’s and 60’s including Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (’57),The Nun’s Story (59), and the biopic of Jeanine Deckers, in The Singing Nun (’66) .

In 1973 Janet was 36 years old and her life was about to change, when a member of her Adelaide congregation, Arnold Strals presented her with a contemporary musical arrangement he had composed for the most famous prayer in the Bible, which she would perform at her rock masses in Adelaide (SA).

Attendance at these rock masses had swelled to over 2,500 and spilled out of the cathedral and onto the street, her performances had become an event, the media swirled around her, and soon she was approached by Sydney music producer Martin Erdman to come to Sydney and record an up-tempo disco-pop treatment of a 2,000-year-old prayer lifted from the King James Bible, at Matthew 6, verses 9-13, better known as the Lord’s Prayer. This would be the first time that the lyrics of a pop song would be attributed to the Bible, and more specifically attributed to Jesus Christ. Below – Martin Erdman and Sister Janet.

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Erdman was an experienced producer who had founded his own label, Du Monde in 1970 and recorded many of Sydney’s early progressive rock acts including, Flake, King Fox, Harry Young and Sabbath, and Galadriel. Incredibly the Lord’s Prayer was intended to be the B-side of the record, with the proposed A-side to be a cover of Donovan’s Brother Son Sister Moon, the theme song from the soundtrack of the Franco Zeffirelli film. Below Abigail Rogan.

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Erdman’s biggest previous local hit had been recorded by TV soap opera No. 96’s resident sex-bomb Abigail (real name Abigail Rogan), and was a predictably steamy cover of the Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg soft porn erotofest Je T’Aime, which hit #10 in July 1973.

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It seemed that some divine intervention would be necessary here for the shy retiring Mead and the more worldly music-man Erdman to make a hit record together given their respective backgrounds, but they clicked.

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Sister Janet was a gifted singer and adapted quickly to the Festival recording studio, Erdman was a very competent and sympathetic producer, and his musical arranger Les Sands blended strings, percussion, and orchestral flourishes with wah-wah pedal guitar to produce a catchy, toe-tapping hit, Kerrie Biddell provided backing vocals, and they cut both sides of the record in eight hours (above Biddell)

God Rock was in the air in the early 70’s- Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkal), My Sweet Lord (George Harrison), Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum), Jesus Is Alright (Doobie Bros), etc.

Mead was not the first nun to record contemporary music, another Catholic nun had blazed a trail for her back in 1963 when Sister Luc-Gabrielle (Jeanine Deckers), aka Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile), had taken her French language folk song Dominique to #1 in the USA and #3 in Australia, as The Singing Nun. Below- The Singing Nun, Jeanine Deckers.

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But Mead and Erdman could never know how this humble B-side would be so transformational for them, and that it would sell 3 million copies worldwide and become the first Australian-produced record to sell one million copies in the USA. Selflessly Mead donated her share of the record royalties to charity, and although she swapped her plain beige cotton dress and brown veil of the order for casual clothes in 1975, she continued to support charitable causes via her collective known as the Romero Community.

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Sister Janet Mead may have been the classic ecclesiastical one-hit wonder who crashed into the decidedly secular and raunchy world of rock as a novelty nun, but she never lost her moral compass, always humble, media shy, and personally conflicted about her celebrity status. “I simply sang a prayer I use daily, to a new tempo. It was traumatic. It wasn’t meant to happen at all. Some reporter came to the cathedral one afternoon and he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw thousands of people there, singing mass very enthusiastically. He wrote an article…I went on national TV to explain a few things… three weeks later they rang (from Sydney) and asked me “Would you record?” I said OK. The following two years were very traumatic, letters poured in from overseas, there was TV and radio all the time, it was terrible pressure for me…I finally became ill”. (Glad all Over – The Countdown Years 1974-1987- Peter Wilmoth 1993). Janet recovered and continued to pursue the various charitable causes about which she was passionate, but for Jeanine Deckers, The Singing Nun, the transition from ecclesiastical life via pop star notoriety to a normal existence in the lay world, proved impossible, and in 1985 Jeanine and her partner Annie Pecher took their lives in a joint suicide pact.  Below L-R- Jeanine Deckers, newspaper report of the deaths.

Janet Mead was only edged out by no less a performer than Elvis Presley (How Great Thou Art), for the 1973 Grammy Award for the Best Inspirational Performance, she became the first Australian to have a locally-produced record achieve one million sales in the USA, and the first and only nun to be inducted into the South Australian Music Hall of Fame, along with such rock heavyweights as Jimmy Barnes, Doc Neeson, and Jim Keays. She is also one of only three women from South Australia who have sold more than a million records, along with Orianthi and Sia Furler.

The Lord’s Prayer hit #4 in the USA, #3 locally and was a top ten hit in Canada, Brazil, Japan, and Germany, and remains an enduring tribute to a quiet achiever of the Australian music industry; Janet followed up in 1974 with the single Take My Hand and the album With You I Am (#19), and on the 25th anniversary of the release of The Lord’s Prayer she released the album A Time To Sing, which was warmly received.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE- 4TR will be on vacation for several weeks from November 16 – 25, returning on Tuesday November 30th, in the meantime keep in touch, stay well, and listen to the music.

Graeme Davy

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