The Hidden History Of LA County's Official Anthem

The Colwell Brothers, from left, Paul, Steve and Ralph, perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965. (Photo courtesy Pace Magazine)

Fifty-three years ago, a peppy batch of singers came to Los Angeles on the heels of one of the city's darkest chapters: the Watts Riots. Their name was Sing-Out '65 and they brought a repertoire of bouncy tunes promoting peace and unity. One of these songs would become L.A. County's official anthem.

God made the world and then He looked around
To find Him a county and this is what He found.
A land of sea and mountain and desert wilderness;
And he made an earthly paradise He called Los Angeles

The ode, titled "Seventy-Six Cities," would spend the next five decades in relative obscurity. The story behind the song, along with the sheet music, can be found on L.A. County's website. But what you won't easily find are its ties to an evangelical organization that saw itself on the front lines of an ideological war — and one which some former members has called out as a cult.

The brothers who wrote the tune performed it for KPCC's Take Two earlier this year. When it was written, there were 76 cities in L.A. County (we've added a dozen more since then).

This is the story of our anthem.

Religious roots

Three decades before Sing-Out sang out for L.A. County's Board of Supervisors, an evangelist named Frank Buchman was making a name for himself with an organization known as the Oxford Group.

Buchman's group saw the tensions that preceded WWII a direct result of sin in the world. They would work to bring their Christian revolution to Europe, earning them a spot on a Nazi watch list. But it was in 1938 that Buchman founded the group that would ultimately help birth L.A. County's song: the Moral Re-Armament, or MRA.

Much like the Oxford Group, the MRA took a keen interest in public culture and politics.

"It was concerned that the West was in an ideological struggle with fascism and communism and that people in the west were losing that battle," said Daniel Sack, author of the book "The Reinventions of an American Religious Movement."

Sack said the MRA believed it could arm the world to battle these foes by building "ideological knowledge" like absolute love and purity. They would put on Broadway-influenced plays to get their message out, but, as post-war America evolved, Sack said Buchman recognized a growing need to change their tune — literally. That change would come with the help of three brothers from the San Gabriel Valley city of San Marino, who formed a trio dubbed The Colwell Brothers.

The clean-cut brothers toured the world with the MRA, eventually creating, leading and writing songs for the group of musical campaigners.

Up With People

Sing-Out would eventually take on a name that some might find more familiar: Up With People. The rebranding was based on one of their most popular songs, written by the Colwell Brothers. The group became internationally famous, going on to perform four Super Bowl halftime shows.

Up With People cast members perform on the field during the Super Bowl XIV halftime show in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on January 20, 1980. (Photo from Up with People Archive [MS 49], courtesy of University of Arizona Libraries, Special Collections)

Despite that fame, Up With People has faced criticism from former members. In the 2009 documentary, "Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story," director Lee Storey details a "groupthink" mentality in the organization and details allegations of arranged marriages and questionable sexual politics.

Actress Glenn Close is a former member and has publicly referred to the group as a "cult" on several occasions. Earlier this month, she told NPR's Peter Sagal that her experience as an early member of Up With People was "incredibly traumatic."

(Courtesy Amazon Music)

"It was very controlled. It was the offshoot of what basically was a cult group," she said in the interview. "(The goal of) any cult is to make the world better, but their way."

In an interview with Us Weekly, Close said she "wouldn't trust any of my instincts because [my beliefs] had all been dictated to me."

But other former members who spoke with LAist disagreed.

"It really was not at all — from my perspective and for many others — cultish in any way," said former Sing-Out '65 member Cyddia Rodrigo. "(It) was one of the crowning experiences of my life. I went into it a shy, young girl, and came out of it a woman."

Up With People continues to tour and recruit today. MRA ceased operations in 1970.

A Trip To L.A.

It was September 1965. Los Angeles was recovering from the Watts Riots — a catastrophic race riot in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Watts that left 34 dead and caused at least $40 million dollars in damages.

As the community recovered, Sing-Out was slated to perform at the Hollywood Bowl and Jordan High School in Watts. The Colwell Brothers knew what they were walking into.

Sing-Out '65 performs in front of a train. (Photo courtesy Pace Magazine)

"We were certainly aware of what was going on in L.A. at the time," Paul Colwell said in an interview with Take Two. "The riots in Watts, the discrimination in housing and all the underlying causes of that situation."

"We (wanted) to lift them up and give a vision of what they could be," Steve Colwell added. "It's a hope. We need to always give people hope that there is a better way."

After weeks of emailing, LAist tracked down two of the three Colwell brothers. Steve is 85 and Paul is 83. Together, they composed "Seventy-Six Cities" on the train ride from Chicago to L.A.

Students at Jordan High School in Watts watch Sing-Out '65 perform during a visit in 1965. (Photo courtesy Pace Magazine)

Historian Dan Sack says it was likely no coincidence that Sing-Out was in town. The group (soon-to-be Up With People) had a history of showing up in places where tensions were high.

"Whenever there were anti-American protests somewhere like in Japan, when the students there were protesting against American influence, all of the sudden the Up With People [Sing-Out] kids would appear and the Japanese students would say 'Oh, I love America, this is great.'" Sack said the group's performance in Watts had a similar effect.

On this goodwill trip, Sing-Out would be invited to sing for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. There, they would perform our soon-to-be county song. The Board was so impressed with Sing-Out's performance that they unanimously adopted a motion to declare it L.A. County's official song.

The Colwell Brothers hoped Los Angeles would find a way out of racial strife. Let's check back on that in another 53 years.


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