Grand Ole Gospel History Ė
The Blackwood Brothers
The vocal foursome of Bill Shaw, James Blackwood, Cecil Blackwood, and JD Sumner remained intact from late 1954 until 1965. These gentlemen had formed a tight, solid quartet. As with most groups that remain together for this long, the blend and harmony had melded into a cohesive unit that was second to none in the gospel music industry. The changes in pianists did little to alter the sound of the Blackwood Brothers. Not only did they mesh well on stage and in the studio, they also got along great off stage.
A successful business entity such as the Blackwood Brothers often opens the doors for other interesting enterprises. Their additional ventures included the Skylite Recording Company which they founded with their friends in the Statesmen Quartet. They also delved into syndicated television with the Singing Time in Dixie program. Soon after JD Sumner joined the quartet, they realized his great potential as a songwriter and began their own publishing company aptly named "Gospel Quartet Music Company."
The Blackwood Brothers owned their own record distribution company as well as being instrumental in each aspect of the National Quartet Convention. The Blackwood Brothers had an active part and partnership in almost every aspect of the gospel music industry.
Amidst these business ventures, the Blackwood Brothers had the opportunity to purchase the Stamps Quartet Music Company. Frank Stamps was entertaining the idea of retiring from the music business, but he didnít want to turn his company over to just anyone. It was a good company, and Mr. Stamps wanted to see it continue along the same paths. Mr. Stamps had seen the excellent business skills of the Blackwood Brothers and approached them about purchasing the company. James, Cecil, and JD purchased the Stamps Music Company and in the process inherited the Stamps Quartet.
The Stamps Quartet at that time wasnít a professional group. They performed at singing conventions around the Texas area and recorded a few songs, but there is a great difference between a good convention quartet and a profitable professional quartet.
The Blackwood Brothers realized the great history associated with the Stamps Quartet, so they decided to improve the quartet and return it to the gospel music circuit. In an interesting move, they hired Joe Roper as pianist and manager for the Stamps. Joe was the first pianist for the Blackwood Brothers and was a great teacher of gospel musicians. They hired gospel music vagabond Jerry Redd to sing tenor. They then used family connections to bring Terry Blackwood on board as baritone. The other two singers were native Texans Roger McDuff and John Hall. They had recently sung together with Bob Wills and the Inspirationals. They then moved the Stamps Quartet from Texas to Memphis.
While the quartet was musically sound, financially there were some major problems. They made several changes in personnel, yet the quartet continued to operate in the red. The Blackwood Brothers were not accustomed to losing money, so something had to be done. At about the same time, the Blackwoods were funding the Junior Blackwood Brothers, and they werenít filling the coffers either.
JD Sumner had no desire to leave the Blackwood Brothers, and the Blackwood Brothers did not want to lose their star bass singer. However, in the interest of their investments, JD Sumner and John Hall switched places. JD Sumner stepped off the finest air-conditioned bus in the gospel music industry and onto the biggest rattletrap in the business. Oh the joys of quartet management!
On the surface, their situation seemed quite complex, however their arrangement was rather simple. James, Cecil, JD and Bill Shaw owned the Blackwood Brothers. James, Cecil, and JD owned the Stamps Quartet. James was in charge of managing the Blackwoods, and JD would manage the Stamps. There was no "cross quartet" interference, and the groups worked quite well together.
The sound of the Blackwood Brothers began to change with the addition of John Hall. Hall had a trained voice that could fill the largest concert hall, but he didnít have the same rhythmic skills as JD. He didnít posses the lower register of Sumner, either. For a short while, the Blackwood Brothers used some of the old arrangements they had with JD such as "How About Your Heart" and "The Old Country Church," but very soon their programs began to feature all new material.
Whitey Gleason left the Blackwood Brothers shortly thereafter and the quartet experienced a noticeable change in their musical style. Dave Weston replaced Gleason at the piano bench. Weston employed a "classical music" feel in his playing which was far removed from the traditional quartet stylings of their previous pianists. With three highly trained voices in Bill, James, and John and the dependable Cecil filling the baritone slot, the quartet moved toward a style that this writer would deem a more "inspirational" sound than typical quartet music. Songs such as "Climb Every Mountain," "How Big is God," ""Ten Thousand Angels," "The Holy City," and "His Name is Wonderful" became standards in their program replacing quartet favorites such as "Old Time Religion," "Hide Me Rock of Ages," and "I Can Tell You Now the Time." The Blackwood Brothers moved toward songs that you may expect to hear from a vocalist such as George Beverly Shea. In fact, the Blackwood Brothers performed background vocals for Mr. Shea as well as country music star Porter Wagoner on several RCA Victor albums from this era.
During this time, the Blackwoods continued to thrive, because the quartet industry was experiencing a swing toward more evangelistic music and farther away from the traditional quartet sound that was prevalent prior to this time. The Blackwood Brothers continued to sell well and in 1966 became the first gospel quartet to receive an award from RCA Victor Records symbolizing that the quartet had sold more than one million RCA records.
The Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers soon began another television endeavor called "The Glory Road." This was a thirty minute program of gospel songs, and was one of the first gospel music series filmed in color. This followed their very successful Singing Time in Dixie program. In 1967 and again in 1968, they won the Grammy award for Best Gospel Album of the Year from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
John Hall left the Blackwood Brothers in 1968 to embark upon a solo ministry. He did perform on a limited basis with his fellow Texans, the McDuff Brothers, but has spent the majority of his career outside the quartet setting in other ministerial areas.
The Blackwood Brothers moved back toward their roots of traditional quartet music with their next personnel acquisition when they hired London Parris from the Rebels Quartet. Parris spent well over a decade with the Rebels and had the low bass range necessary to balance the high harmonies of the rest of the quartet. Although he didnít have the vocal precision of his predecessors, Parris could work a crowd into a frenzy with his charisma and charm. The quartet soon brought back some old Blackwood favorites such as "Heís All That I Need" and "Keys to the Kingdom" and returned to the sound that they embraced several years earlier.
Dave Weston left the quartet soon afterwards. He was replaced by a young Canadian pianist, Peter Kaupps. The Blackwoods also hired bass player Larry Davis and veteran guitarist/songwriter Dwayne Friend to supplement their new pianist. Friend brought a new song to the quartet that became one of their best loved songs, the 1970 Dove Award Song of the Year "The Night Before Easter."
This aggregation was responsible several other awards in the music industry. Their first album together, "Fill My Cup, Lord" was awarded the 1970 Dove Award for Best Gospel Record album. The new band gave the Blackwood Brothers an updated sound while the vocalists retained the classic Blackwood qualities that had carried the quartet through the years.
The only thing that is certain in a gospel quartet is change. Again, the winds of change were blowing through the quartet as their long time leader, James, began to experience health concerns. He and his physicians felt it necessary to curb some of his quartet obligations. How would the quartet react? How would the gospel music industry react to this necessary decision?
Check back next month for the continuing saga of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. I welcome your questions and comments both on the web site or via email. Feel free to contact me here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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