By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
It would be a bit of a stretch to say Russ Taff shaped my musical tastes. By the time I heard his debut on The Imperials’ “Sail On” album, I was already a fan of the group, had several of their albums and had seen them a few times around central Kentucky.
But there’s little doubt that Russ redefined The Imperials, taking them from a soft-rock and pop sound to something much more driving and cutting edge. His lead on “Water Grave,” was as radically different from anything heard in Christian music as the message it presented.
So, even though I was already following the group by the time Russ burst on the scene as a 22-year-old lead singer, I loved the direction he took the group. The raw power and emotion in his voice gave an unmistakable honesty to those songs he delivered.
Little did I know. Little did anyone know about the demons he was battling.
Taff’s story, “I Still Believe,” was shown in movie theaters across the nation Tuesday night. It was a one-night event, one that gripped my family with the emotion he displayed in overcoming the alcoholism that nearly cost his career, his family and his life.
But “I Still Believe” is more than the story of one overcoming the throes of addiction. It is a story of love from family and friends. And it’s the story of the transforming power of the Christ that Russ has sung about for over four decades.
It takes remarkable courage to admit one’s own failures and finally make the changes necessary to overcome them. To talk publicly in the hope of helping someone who might be facing the same struggles is extraordinary.
Taff and his wife, Tori, told their jaw-dropping story to director Rick Altizer. Also featured in the story are The Taffs’ daughters and Christian music heavyweights Bill Gaither, Amy Grant, Bart Millard, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael Tait along with comedians Mark Lowry and Chonda Pierce.
Jim Murray, another Hall of Famer who sang tenor with The Imperials during Taff’s tenure, is also featured prominently.
An abusive father who struggled with alcohol despite being a Pentecostal preacher left an indelible mark on Taff. So did a mother who once backhanded a young Russ when he said he wished his father would leave. (A touching moment comes at the end of the movie when a note says the film is dedicated to their memory.)
Eventually, Taff joined The Imperials, where he ascended to the top of the Christian music world singing lead on such hits as “Praise the Lord” and “I’m Forgiven.” After five years with the group, he went on his own and stayed at the top. He has won numerous Dove and Grammy awards and has been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame as a member of the Imperials, as an individual and as a member of the Gaither Vocal Band, where he sang from 2001-2004.
Inside, Russ was heading to the bottom, dealing with depression and turning to alcohol. At first he hid vodka in his car, and kept his secret from everyone. But the addiction spiraled downward to the point that he showed up drunk for the taping of a Christian music television event. Pierce, who was on the program when Russ appeared on stage, said she could smell him as he arrived.
He almost lost his family and his career. He could have lost his life.
While Russ overcoming his battle — he spent more than two months in a rehab facility — is a compelling story in its own right, two other angles to the story stand out.
One is Tori Taff’s unfailing love for her husband. She could have left, and admits thinking she would be doing so during Russ’s final trip to a rehab center. Instead, she chose to continue loving her husband and helping him overcome. Their marriage is strong again.
The other is the reaction of the Christian musicians who appeared on stage with Taff that night he was drunk. Instead of scolding or disowning Taff, they prayed earnest prayers for his healing.
They obviously were answered.
Russ Taff is no longer at the top of Christian music, but he’s at peace. He has a family and a ministry through the film.
Before the movie began, a message on the screen said to be sure and hang around for a special performance from Russ and some friends. As the film ended, Russ is joined by superstars Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant. They talk and Chapman and Grant both sing.
But the bonus feature ends with all three singing and asking the audience to join in.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
THAT is Russ Taff’s story.
**The movie was billed as one-night showing. If it does hit the screens again or becomes available on DVD or Blu-Ray, make every effort to see it!