Raymond R. Repp, 77, of Ferrisburgh, Vt., and Palm Springs, Calif.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Ray Repp, the celebrated singer-songwriter considered “the father of the guitar mass,” whose “Mass for Young Americans” sold millions of copies in the 1960s and ‘70s, died April 26, 2020, after battling both lymphoma and metastatic melanoma, the latter the cause of his death. He was 77.
His twelve albums of Christian folk music and concerts worldwide through the ‘70s and ‘80s gave rise to a following in the millions, primarily youth re-energized in their faith and commitment to promote social justice.
Raymond Robert Repp was born in St. Louis Sept. 17, 1942, to Walter and Rita Kempf Repp, the eldest of their nine children. Ray was educated early on in Catholic schools: Seven Holy Founders Elementary School, the St. Louis Preparatory Seminary, Cardinal Glennon College, and Kendrick Seminary. His graduate studies continued at St. Paul’s Seminary, Ottawa, Canada. He became an Extension Volunteer in Salt Lake City followed by an assignment as Campus Minister at Oklahoma State University.
For three years Ray studied music and languages in Vienna, Austria. While there he was invited by Cornell University to be a resident artist, working with various faith communities. Composing music, recording and performing it had been simultaneously taking place over these years, gradually but steadily. After Cornell, Ray became the Director of the Head Start Program in Ithaca, N.Y., where he oversaw five Head Start Centers. Soon after, he started his own music publishing and recording company, which included the works of several other musicians.
According to the historical theologian David Haas, “Ray Repp was the very first to employ the influence of popular folk music of the 1960s. His hugely popular ‘Mass for Young Americans’ is now translated into 28 languages. Most American bishops initially banned the guitar from the liturgy. This only fanned the spread and inclusion of his recordings, which have been re-issued in a “Best of Ray Repp” series.
Ray is quoted as saying in the Haas profile, “Latin philosophy and theology textbooks could hardly hold my attention from the books of my new heroes — Deikmann, Davis, Jungman. I was writing music at the same time, usually secretly in my small seminary room. But liturgical music? The thought never crossed my mind. If my music hadn’t been officially banned in dozens of U.S. dioceses, it probably would never have caught on. My songs were written out of my frustrations then at seeing little concern for the neglected Hispanics and Blacks in Utah, not only by Mormons but my own affluent Catholics.”
He witnessed both unity and hatred in Selma, urging him further to make music of relevance. His recordings, beginning in 1965, include “Allelu,” “Hear the Cryin’,” “By Love Are We All Bound” and “Ever Bless.” Sadly, in 1997 Ray was entangled in a ten-year, bitter lawsuit with Andrew Lloyd Webber over the purported, highly publicized plagiarism of Ray’s “Till You” for the theme song of “Phantom of the Opera.”
Adds Hass, “It’s impossible to deny Ray his tremendous contributions to the beginning of church music in the vernacular … catchy not churchy, he got us singing!” And he quotes Ray:, “If our music is to praise god, it can only do so by helping to change us and our communities into more sensitive, loving, and just human beings.”
Ray Repp is survived by his devoted husband of 20 years, the novelist and painter Richard Alther. They made their homes on Lake Champlain, Ferrisburgh, Vt., and Palm Springs. Ray and Richard have two grandsons, Zachary Richard Bostwick and Oliver Reed Bostwick, along with their parents Sara Alther Bostwick and Brett Bostwick of South Burlington, Vt.
Ray’s surviving siblings are Larry Repp and James Repp of St. Louis; Donald Repp of San Antonio, Texas;, Cindy Repp Toler of Chicago, Ill.; and Lynn Repp Derrick, Stephen Repp and Kenneth Repp, also of St. Louis. Ray was pre-deceased by his youngest brother Terry Repp. Included in Ray’s large and loving Repp family are numerous brothers- and sisters-in-law, plus nieces and nephews and cousins, with all of whom Ray kept in contact.
Throughout their marriage, Ray and Richard were active supporters of several charitable and cultural organizations. If donations are desired, consider in Vermont: Vermont Cares, 187 Saint Paul Street, Burlington, VT 05401; The Gay and Lesbian Fund of Vermont, PO Box 42, Randolph, VT 05060; and Women of Wisdom, 151 Main Street, Vergennes, VT 05491. In Palm Springs: The Center, 1301 North Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262; Desert AIDS Project, 1695 North Sunrise Way, Palm Springs, CA 92262; and AIDS Assistance Program, 1276 North Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 108, Palm Springs, CA 92262.
In 2018, Ray published “Table Tales: Do Ahead Dinner Party Menus That Whet Appetites, Loosen Tongues, and Make Memories.” Richard provided the tales and desserts, but the book, apart from sharing Ray’s imaginative skills as a chef, is a capstone of his forever reaching out to others, with joy, festivity, compassion, and love.◊
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