A lot can change in 25 years.
Countless fashion trends have come and gone. The Soviet Union ceased to exist. MTV stopped playing music videos. People began to explore a whole new universe called "the internet", and a forgotten album by a group called China Sky became a cult classic. Things were looking up in September 1988 for a group of young, idealistic rock musicians in Jacksonville, Florida, who had been relentlessly pursuing the dream of becoming the next arena rock powerhouse. This was the moment they had been waiting for. They had come together from all over the eastern United States with one purpose: to make the greatest rock album of the decade. After years spent in a sweat-soaked rehearsal hall writing, recording, submitting demos; being critiqued and rejected; rehearsing eight hours a day, five days a week; they had finally landed that big record deal. The culmination of all their efforts, the fruit of all the years of sweat and toil, the self-titled album, China Sky, was about to be released, on a major label.
With its soaring melodies, lush harmonies and flawless production, China Sky seemed destined to be a rock classic from the get-go. Grammy winning Bee Gees producer Karl Richardson headed up a production team that also featured celebrated composer Frank Wildhorn, and a young Bob Marlette, who later went on to work with Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, Seether, Shinedown, and dozens of others. How could it go wrong? All of the pieces appeared to be in place: the players, the producers, the music, the management, the record label… Upon release, the album's first single, "The Glory," immediately began to receive radio airplay all over the US and Canada. Records were flying off the shelves in Europe and Japan. Derek Oliver raved in Kerrang Magazine. When the second single, "Some Kind Of Miracle," was released, more and more radio stations began to add China Sky. "Some Kind Of Miracle" was beginning to move into heavy rotation in key markets. The band played one-off gigs in preparation for the coming tour. Success was just around the corner!
Six weeks later, the band China Sky was no more.
Just what happened was never completely clear to anyone. Constant pressure from the record label left everyone feeling that the band had been hijacked by men in suits, who then refused to properly promote the album. Superstars Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen were sucking up most of the label's promotional resources, and there was very little left for unproven new bands. Major blunders by management threw the band into turmoil, and tentative tour dates with major acts started to fall through. When the suits caught wind of what was happening, China Sky was relegated to the back burner. After years of struggling to get to this point, the wheels had come completely off in just a few short weeks. With no tour to support the airplay they were receiving, insufficient promotion, poor management, and simmering disagreements between band members, the situation had become so broken that continuing was futile. The members of China Sky decided to cut their losses and bail out, leaving the promise of everything for which they had worked so hard unfulfilled.
Guitarist Bobby Ingram went on to join Jacksonville southern rock outfit Molly Hatchet. Singer Ron Perry spent fifteen years recording and touring with his band, The Ron Perry Connection. Bassist Richard Smith did studio work and played with several popular regional bands in the southeast. No one looked back. China Sky became a distant, painful memory marked with the scars of what might have been… until sometime in the late 2000s, when Perry began to receive strange emails. Requests for China Sky pictures, CDs, and memorabilia started to become an increasingly regular occurrence. Collectors started to inquire about unreleased China Sky material. "I thought it was a friend pulling pranks," said Perry, about the renewed interest in a band that had been all but forgotten by its original members, “But the messages kept coming in from all over the world.” People started posting China Sky songs on the internet and they were racking up tens of thousands of hits. "The ball just started rolling on its own," chuckles bassist Richard Smith, "and there was no getting out of the way." With the resurgence in popularity of what is now called "Melodic Rock" in Europe, Japan, and South America, Perry and Smith began to sense an opportunity to finally bring the early promise of China Sky to full fruition. The pair decided the time was right to take what they had started a quarter century earlier and make it right. That haunting feeling of having important unfinished business needed to be addressed. China Sky would be re-born.
With Bobby Ingram's full time commitment to Molly Hatchet, the reconstituted China Sky would need a new guitarist who would fit seamlessly into the band. Someone who had the chops, the passion, and the personality to help the band reach its full potential. They found just such a player in Steve Wheeler. Wheeler, a go-to studio musician and respected "shredder for hire" in Jacksonville, had actually played with Ingram as a member of "The Danny Joe Brown Band," the former Molly Hatchet lead singer's solo project. He had also written the song “Nobody Walks On Me” on their self-titled release on Epic Records in 1981, produced by legendary Led Zeppelin producer Glyn Johns. Wheeler was a natural choice for China Sky.
The pieces were starting to come together, but things were not yet complete. Ron Perry recalls, "In the 80s, China Sky ended up just being the three of us. The rest of the musicians were hired guns. We wanted the new incarnation to be an actual band so we were going to need to find people that could lock in with us musically and personally." Enter drummer Bruce Crump. A seasoned veteran with numerous gold and platinum records to his credit, Crump spent 15 years pounding the skins in southern rock band Molly Hatchet, with whom China Sky shared management in the 80’s. By 1988, Hatchet’s original members had pretty much had enough, and with the end of that situation looming, Crump actually did a few rehearsals with China Sky amid talk of joining the band. Management, however, wanting to squeeze every last dime out of Molly Hatchet, talked him out of it. Now, with the re-birth of China Sky, it seemed the next logical step would be for the boys to put in a call to their old friend Bruce, who, as it turned out, was itching to get involved in a serious project, and was quick to come on board. It was a perfect fit, but there was still one piece of the puzzle missing.
"Keyboards were an essential part of the China Sky sound in the 80s. They provided the atmosphere and the ambience that made for such a rich sonic landscape," says Richard Smith. "We couldn't trust just anyone with such an important component of our music." The search was on for a keyboardist who could tie the whole package together. After much networking, scouting, and a couple of disastrous auditions, guitarist Steve Wheeler remembered a Scottish piano player with whom he had played a few pickup gigs. Tim McGowan was a crack keyboardist and an actual China Sky fan. "From the very first time we played with him, we knew he was the guy," said Wheeler. McGowan had played with several popular bands all over Europe, and had etched out a respectable solo career in the world of New Age instrumental music, having released no less than twelve albums of original material. It seemed he was, indeed "the guy."
With all of the pieces firmly in place, China Sky has entered the studio to begin production of their second album. Ron Perry sums it up: "Being back in China Sky feels as comfortable as putting on an old pair of sneakers. We're incredibly lucky to have an opportunity to go back and set things right. We feel the new material is better than anything on the first album, and we're incredibly excited about taking the band in the direction we had originally intended. We are in control of everything this time, and that makes all the difference".
A lot can change in 25 years.