New voice from the pulpit

12/18/2012

Longtime singer Valens new Syracuse pastor.

Longtime singer Valens new Syracuse pastor.

BY ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

SYRACUSE — Former pop singer Frankie Valens has a new gig, but not one he's accustomed to.

He recently became the pastor of First Christian Church in Syracuse.

"I have never preached a sermon. I mean, we've been on the road and ministered in concert and I've told my testimony and stuff like that, but never in the pulpit, you know. I mean, people come to hear me sing, so I'm thinking, 'Maybe I could sing my sermon,'" Valens said. "All of a sudden, this shows up, and at age 70, I'm starting a new career."

Known for singing renditions of such songs as, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "This Magic Moment," and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," Valens' music career took off in the late 1960s, after he was discovered by the manager of the band Eminent Domain, who heard him humming a tune and then asked him to audition for the band. For his audition, Valens sang "Unchained Melody," and practically was signed on the spot.

Born Frank Piper, he changed his name to Valens after being discovered.

After about five years of touring and being in the limelight, he grew weary of the lifestyle, opting instead for some sense of normalcy. Nowadays, he refers to himself as an "everyday Joe."

"I will probably always have a stigma to my name, probably always have a celebrity status attached to my name, but I'm just everyday blow Joe," he said, adding that he now uses his talent for the Lord.

When he met Phyllis, his wife of 27 years, he had been using his birth name of Piper again, so she didn't know who he was.

"When I married him, I didn't know he was Frankie Valens. I truly didn't because when I came into the church, he was just Frank Piper. That was his birth name, and I just knew he was Frank Piper with this beautiful voice, ya know," Phyllis said. "And he asked me to sing. Well I didn't usually sing. I directed choirs and played (piano) and did more of that kind of stuff, but he asked me to sing one time, and I thought, 'Whoa. He's got this beautiful voice, and he wants me to sing with him?' and that's kind of how it started."

Phyllis is a concert pianist, songwriter, singer, music director and spent 20 years writing songs for vacation Bible school curricula.

Combining their talents, the couple began touring the country, performing gospel songs and humor-filled skits together, shortly after they got married.

"We traveled all over the United States doing radio, television, churches, dinner theaters, oldies concerts, class reunions," Valens said.

They made their home in Clearwater for several years, prior to making the move to Syracuse about four weeks ago — after a woman approached Valens following a concert the couple performed in Hutchinson.

"Afterwards, here comes this little old lady, and she said, 'Frankie, you may not remember me, but I'm best friends with your mother,' and she said, 'I attend First Christian Church in Syracuse where your dad preached,'" Valens recalls the woman, Pauline Fecht, saying.

Both of them are what Phyllis refers to as PKs — pastors' kids. Frankie said that his father, Bernie Piper, pastored the same Syracuse church in 1978 and 1979.

"Dad only stayed here two years, but people here loved them. He always wanted me and my brother to be preachers. My brother was for awhile, and that was the furthest thing from my mind. I went to Bible college for two semesters and that was all I could take," he said, adding that he opted instead to become an accountant, prior to being discovered as a singer.

Fecht told Valens that the church had been without a pastor for the past two and a half years and asked if he would consider the job.

"I said, 'Well, I don't know. It's something to think about,'" Valens said.

After pondering it further, he told his wife that he was thought he was ready for a change.

"I said, 'I'm getting tired of doing concerts, and I want to do something else.' And she said, 'Maybe it's something we ought to pray about and think about.' So, it was a short prayer, and I thought, 'Well, let's do this,'" he said.

Now that he is following in his father's footsteps, Frankie said he relies on the Lord — and at times, the Internet — for sermon ideas.

"The Lord just gives me ideas on sermons. I'll go online. I never use someone's sermon. I use the ideas from it and go from there and check the Bible and make sure I have the right Bible verses, and then I add myself and the experiences I've had over the years," he said. "We're trying not to do too much music ourselves, at the church. We don't want it to be a Frank and Phyllis Valens concert every Sunday, but they keep asking. They say, 'We're inviting friends, and they want to hear you,' so I sang again and I shared the title song of this new album, 'Just Give Me Jesus.'"

The gospel album, which was in the works prior to Valens being offered the position at First Christian Church, contains 17 songs and is set to be released this week.

Despite the fact that the couple possess the talent to do other things, both have committed themselves to serving their parishioners and the community of Syracuse.

"We told them when we moved here, 'We don't want to move again. We're going to make this work,'" Frankie said.

"I'm not moving until Jesus comes," Phyllis added, and then laughed.

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