GOGR Music History
Consistency, class, dignity, stability, and reliability. Mention these five words in the gospel singing realm, and the Florida Boys immediately come to mind. No quartet in the history of gospel music has better represented these adjectives. There is no other professional group in the history of gospel music that has spent more consecutive years on the road without a hiatus than the Florida Boys. The Florida Boys have exemplified the best in gospel music for more than fifty years, and they have never presented a better group than the one that currently takes the stage in 2006.
Jessie Gillis (JG) Whitfield loved to sing gospel music. He had sung gospel music prior to his service in the Air Force during World War II. When he returned from the service, he joined with Roy Howard, Edward Singletary, "Tiny" Merrill, and Guy Dodd to form the Gospel Melody Quartet. Whitfield was able to financially undergird the quartet due to his success in the retail market. The popularity of the quartet kept growing through the south until the voice of lead singer, Roy Howard, was stilled when he had a fatal heart attack. The quartet continued to sing with several vocalists filling the various positions in the quartet. Doyle Wiggins finally settled in as lead singer for the quartet and Whitfield hired Glen Allred as baritone and guitarist. Glen had just left the Oak Ridge Quartet and was an invaluable addition to the Gospel Melody Quartet. Soon, the military called Doyle Wiggins and Les Beasley was offered the position as lead singer for the quartet. Les had just left the military service himself. The group with Buddy Mears (tenor), Les Beasley (lead), Glen Allred (baritone), JG Whitfield (bass), and Livy Freeman (pianist) began to appear quite frequently on the major quartet concerts in the southern United States.
Wally Fowler was one of the top gospel music promoters of the day, and he used the Gospel Melody Quartet quite frequently. Whenever the Gospel Melody Quartet would perform on one of Fowler’s programs, he introduced them as "The boys from Florida with sand in their shoes and a song in their heart!" It quickly became apparent that the group was better known by this moniker instead of the rather nondescript sounding name of the "Gospel Melody Quartet." At Fowler’s suggestion, Whitfield abruptly changed their name to "The Florida Boys" in the mid 1950s. With the support of Wally Fowler and the promotional prowess of JG Whitfield, the Florida Boys continued upon a career that would surpass almost every group in the gospel music industry. Several popular gospel artists were in the group in the 50s including George Younce and Tommy Fairchild as bass singer and baritone singer respectively. Derrell Stewart joined the group as pianist in 1956 and remains on their piano bench some fifty years later. Although his hairstyle has changed periodically, his red socks have been his trademark throughout his hall of fame career.
JG Whitfield had experienced grief in his life in the early 1950s with the tragic death of his wife, Ruth. He married the former Hazel Sturgis in 1958 and it soon became apparent that family life was more important to Whitfield than the life of a road warrior. He resigned his position as bass singer in the quartet, yet remained a vital part of the group both as promoter and friend.
After Whit’s retirement from the road, Les Beasley took over the helm as manager of the quartet . . . a position he still holds nearly fifty years later. Les is known throughout gospel music as the finest quartet manager in the business. The Florida Boys thrived under Les and his watchful eye.
Billy Todd replaced JG Whitfield as bass singer in the Florida Boys. Todd was another service veteran, and had also been a winner on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. His talent wasn’t his singing but rather his instrumental imitations . . . a talent he also brought to the stage with the Florida Boys.
The Florida Boys became well known through their regional television program, "The Gospel Song Shop" which was produced by JG Whitfield. Whitfield also was the emcee for the program and spokesman for the sponsor, Black Draught Laxative and Solstice Rub. How appropriate that a gospel program would be sponsored by a laxative! They were included as headliners on the first gospel music concert held in Carnegie Hall. The Florida Boys were advertised on this program as the most televised gospel quartet in the nation. This exposure led the Florida Boys to their role as headliner for the new gospel music television program, "The Gospel Singing Jubilee."
Les Beasley was the producer of the Gospel Singing Jubilee. The Gospel Singing Jubilee became the best known and longest running television program in the history of gospel music. The popularity of the Florida Boys increased exponentially as they appeared in the living rooms of gospel music fans throughout the country each Sunday morning. Many of us remember getting ready for church as we listened to the musical strains of "Jubilee, Jubilee . . . you’re invited to this happy jubilee!" The original Jubilee crew consisted of the Florida Boys, the Couriers, the Happy Goodman Family, and the Dixie Echoes. Les was responsible for bringing some of the biggest names in gospel music onto the set of the Jubilee. It was always a thrill awaiting the guest groups as they would come over the hill singing "JUBILEE!"
Each program would begin with the Florida Boys singing their latest songs to a national audience. The popularity of the Florida Boys continued to grow as did the viewers of the Gospel Singing Jubilee. During this time, the Florida Boys often appeared in concert with "Little" Steve Sanders. This pairing helped to expand the audience of the quartet to a younger genre.
The quartet released several records on the "WHIT" label prior to their first recording on the Skylite record label. The quartet did several recordings on the Songs of Faith label in the early 1960s.
The Florida Boys was the first group signed to the Canaan record label. Canaan Records was a subsidiary of the Word record company designed to spotlight traditional gospel quartets. "The Florida Boys in Nashville" was one of the first albums released on this label in 1965. Their affiliation with Canaan Records lasted for well over a decade and a half.
The personnel of the Florida Boys remained unchanged for several years. Coy Cook left the Florida Boys in 1967 to join JG Whitfield and his Dixie Echoes. The Florida Boys hired Tommy Atwood to replace Cook. Atwood was quite a different singer than Cook, for he had a background in bluegrass music. He was also quite proficient on the fiddle (otherwise known as the violin for you classical music folks!) With Atwood singing tenor, the quartet embraced a more "country" sound than in previous years. Bluegrass inspired instrumentals featuring Atwood on the fiddle and Allred on guitar became a highlight of a Florida Boys concert.
Tommy Atwood remained with the Florida Boys for several years and became quite beloved by the fans of the quartet. In the early 1970s, Tommy left the group to explore other ministry opportunities. Billy Todd retired from the quartet soon thereafter. However, the nucleus of Beasley, Allred, and Stewart remained intact as did the sound of the Florida Boys.
Laddie Cain, a former member of the Plainsmen, assumed the tenor position for several years. In keeping with the consistency of the quartet, Buddy Liles replaced Billy Todd and remained with the quartet for more than two decades. Buddy was also a quartet veteran having sung with groups including the Orrell Quartet, Rhythm Masters, Landmark Quartet, and Rebels Quartet.
The quartet continued to have many successful songs during the ensuing years. Songs such as "Standing on the Solid Rock," and "When He Was on the Cross, I Was on His Mind"continued to keep the Florida Boys at the top of the gospel music charts.
Four of the quartet positions remained intact for many years, yet the tenor position was a virtual revolving door. As many quartet managers will lament, the tenor spot is tough to retain. After Laddie Cain left the Florida Boys, Jerry Trammell (brother of Mark Trammell) joined the quartet for several years. Through the years, quite a few others have filled the tenor slot for the Florida Boys including in no particular order Paul Adkins, Johnny Cook, Mark Flaker, Don Thomas, Terry Davis, Rick Busby, Greg Cook, and Billy Hodges. Must be something about the surname "Cook" and Florida Boys tenors!
The Florida Boys finally settled on a young music major, Allen Cox to fill the tenor position. Allen occupied that spot with the quartet for several years. Shortly after Allen joined the quartet, Buddy Liles retired after many years of service to the Florida Boys. Gene McDonald was hired to sing bass with the quartet. This infusion of youth into the quartet seemed to revitalize the Florida Boys. Gene and Allen brought wonderful musical ideas to the quartet. Allen’s background in musical theater and Gene’s gospel music experiences opened new doors for the quartet.
Les Beasley has always been known as an innovator in gospel music. In addition to his work with the Florida Boys, he’s also well known as a television producer and a fixture with the National Quartet Convention. He’s responsible for naming the "Dove Awards." There is little that has happened in gospel music in the last 40 years that hasn’t had Mr. Beasley’s stamp of approval. With all these accolades, the one that stands out in my mind is his unselfishness. He understood that the Florida Boys had great potential, but in order for this potential to be fully realized, a change was inevitable. Several years ago, Les relinquished his longstanding position as lead singer with the Florida Boys to newcomer Josh Garner. This unselfish act of humility has propelled the Florida Boys into the upper echelon of traditional quartets of today. The quality of the music the quartet has since tackled has been second to none in gospel music today. Their recent acapella project has demonstrated a prowess that few in the gospel music industry could even attempt to recreate.
The latest personnel change for the quartet again involves the tenor position. Allen Cox recently resigned from the quartet in order to spend more time with his wife and new child. The quartet couldn’t have made a better choice to fill their tenor position. Harold Reed, formerly of the Dixie Melody Boys, now sings tenor with the Florida Boys. His voice and stage presence fits the Florida Boys perfectly.
The current group of Florida Boys has it all. They can sing an old convention song with the same confidence as they do an acapella number. Josh Garner is one of the finest up and coming lead singers in gospel music today. His effortless techniques and endless range add credibility to that assessment. Gene McDonald has one of the most pleasing bass voices in gospel music, yet his range far surpasses that of the normal bass singer. Harold Reed continues to impress both old and new fans of the quartet with his wonderful tenor voice. Little can be said about the three SGMA Hall of Fame members of the Florida Boys that hasn’t been said before. Derrell Stewart, Glen Allred, and Les Beasley are three of the most influential artists ever to take the gospel music stage.
Time has been kind to the members of the Florida Boys. Tommy Atwood and Billy Todd continue to perform with the other members at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. Coy Cook passed away several years ago, but I’m not aware of any other former Florida Boys taking their place in the Heavenly choir.
Many have made humorous comments about the Florida Boys and their "loud" stage outfits. I must say that there are few active quartets that I admire or respect more than the Florida Boys. Any group that boasts three SGMA Hall of Famers has my utmost respect. It has been my pleasure to enjoy this great quartet for more than 40 years, and I hope to continue to do so for many more years. Les, Glen, Derrell, Gene, Josh, and Harold, you have my respect both as friends and as artists. May you have another 50 great years in gospel music!
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