I sent an email to Jackman Music of Orem shortly before going to bed one evening in February 2015. It included a cover letter, a choir arrangement and a sample audio recording of a song I had written back in 2004 titled “The Savior’s Smile.”
Early the next morning, owner Jerry Jackman called my home and asked if he could publish my song. I was in shock, having no idea things could happen so quickly. It was truly one of the most exciting events of my life — and I was 75 years old. After I accepted the publishing offer, Jackman Music professionally designed my arrangement for print. Within a few weeks, my song was on their website alongside their professional and veteran composers.
Since then, it's been thrilling to hear my song performed. My wife and I drove 400 miles to hear a stake youth choir perform the song in a Phoenix area stake youth musical fireside. It was sung in the Saturday evening session of my own stake conference by a young single adult choir.
Becoming a musician didn't happen overnight for me and it's been a nearly 70-year journey with stops and starts since I first started taking music lessons.
I took piano lessons when I was 8 years old and continued for two years before quitting. It wasn’t until my late teenage years that I discovered I had a knack for playing the piano “by ear,” which I dabbled at it for the next 10 years.
In my late 20s, I took a year’s worth of weekly lessons in piano improvisation, learning the basics of chord structure and fingering technique. My teacher mentioned he had never met anyone good at piano improvisation who was not also good at mathematics. I certainly fit that mold. I have had a lifelong love of mathematics, earning a bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from UCLA.
During my first year of marriage in the late 1960s, my wife, Laura, and I moved into the Placentia 1st Ward of the Fullerton California Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With no previous experience as a writer of dramatic productions, I was asked to write the ward roadshow script. This helped me to quickly develop a love of writing new lyrics for the popular songs of the day to fit my roadshow story line.
Shortly after submitting my script, I broke my ankle playing softball for my company team and was unable to attend any ward roadshow practices for the first several weeks of rehearsal. When I was finally able to see my show brought to life on stage for the first time, I was instantly hooked. I credit my love of writing lyrics to the many hours I spent as a teenager listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the 1940s and ’50s. To date, I have written over a dozen award-winning roadshows.
At age 46, I was called as bishop of the Placentia 1st Ward. Knowing my oldest son, Jon, would soon be leaving on a mission, I felt inspired to write a song called “The Man of Galilee.” I worked on the lyrics for a few months and eventually developed what is called a lead/fake sheet. (A lead sheet contains the lyrics, the one-note melody, and the chord signatures for the song and is similar to guitar music.) I showed my lead sheet to Donna Kleven, a ward member who was also a very talented pianist. She agreed to arrange the piece. It was first performed at Jon’s missionary farewell in early 1988, sung by the ward executive secretary and wonderful tenor, Don Cutts. Some ward members later told me they could not believe the beautiful song had been written by their bishop.
Buoyed by the positive feedback, I continued to produce a steady, albeit slow, stream of church songs. They were performed around the newly formed Placentia California Stake. In 2004, I composed “The Savior’s Smile” based on the Sermon on the Mount. The new song quickly became the song of choice on my high council speaking assignments around the stake. Many stake members often encouraged me to have the song published for a wider distribution.
In 2014, I commissioned the making of a choir arrangement. I contacted Michael Kleven, the son of Donna Kleven, the arranger of my first song, “The Man of Galilee.” Michael inherited his mother’s love of and talent for music. Although he currently lives in Phoenix, where he works as a medical doctor by day, he has also developed a reputation as a musical arranger in his spare time. Both Michael and Donna agreed to work on the project.
Michael formed a six-voice young women’s group that performed the song in several local church meetings in Arizona. After a few modifications were made after some trial choir rehearsals, I finally felt the song was ready to present.
A recording of the Arizona sextet can be heard at fhebook.com/the-saviors-smile.html
Jim McFerson is an Inglewood, California, native. He is a former UCLA basketball player coached by John Wooden, the father of five children and grandfather of 12. He has seen all 30 Major League Baseball teams play in their home stadiums.