GOGR Music History –
The world of gospel music began to get a more contemporary edge in the 1970s. The Statesmen Quartet attempted to move toward a more youthful sound with the addition of tenor Sherrill Nielsen and bass guitarist Tim Baty. Instead of the conservative wool suits normally associated with the Statesmen, the quartet began to dress in polyester suits with open collars. Gary Timbs joined the Statesmen first traveling with the group as organist and later replacing Jim Hill as lead singer for the quartet. Jim realized the need to get in a better financial situation than the world of gospel music had to offer, so Gary stepped into the lead position with the quartet. Prior to joining the group as lead singer, Timbs would leave the organ bench to join with Nielsen and Baty to do a few numbers on the Statesmen programs. That exciting trio of young men appeared to be a glimmer of things to come.
Gary brought a newfound excitement to the stage with the Statesmen. His version of "That's Enough" became a great hit for the group. His boogie-woogie piano style and repartee with Hovie always brought the crowd to their feet! The crowd loved the energy that Timbs brought to the quartet. Nielsen, Timbs, Ott, Wetherington, Baty and Lister did a marvelous job exciting the crowds.
Sherrill Nielsen and Tim Baty both left the Statesmen at the same time, joining forces with Donnie Sumner in a group that finally dubbed itself "Voice." They had difficulty settling on a name first considering "Angel Band" and then "The Rangers." Voice did a few gospel dates, and soon joined the Elvis Presley show.
Rosie Rozell and the Searchers had faced some hardships and disbanded. After their demise, Rosie rejoined the Statesmen replacing Sherrill Nielsen. This aggregation was a throwback to the earlier years of the Statesmen, as they brought back several Rosie Rozell classics to the stage including "Oh What a Savior" and "You Gotta Walk that Lonesome Road." Unfortunately, this group never made any commercial recordings, but this writer owns a few of their rare performances. This classic quartet was a fine representation of the Statesmen Quartet sound of the past.
Big Chief Wetherington had developed a few medical problems in the early 70s which required him to miss several months of touring. However, the Chief never complained. He was the quintessential quartet man. There was no finer quartet man in the history of gospel music. He may not have been pleased that the Statesmen had lost some of the luster of their glory days, but he always had a wonderful attitude and never gave less than his best to the quartet or their audiences. The Chief always carried himself with style and dignity both on and off the stage. There has been no man in gospel music like the Big Chief.
Rosie Rozell, Gary Timbs, Doy Ott, Big Chief Wetherington, and Hovie Lister hit the stage on Tuesday night, October 2 in Nashville at the National Quartet Convention. It just happened to be "Old Timers Night." Hovie quipped that his quartet had outlived all the old timers. This was obviously foreshadowing of the events to follow later in the week. The crowd reacted much like they did in the late 50s as they did songs such as "Roll Back River Jordan," "The Lighthouse," "Why Me Lord," and "Higher Than the Moon." They ended their set with the classic "Oh What a Savior." Big Chief was featured on "Why Me Lord" as well as a recitation on "The Lighthouse." Nobody could do a recitation like the Big Chief! Some that were there that evening say that to this day, they can hear the Big Chief singing "Why Me Lord" in the walls of the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville. On October 3, 1973, one of the greatest voices in gospel music was stilled due to a massive heart attack. The Chief could have found no more appropriate place to breathe his last breath than at the National Quartet Convention.
As the mid 1970s approached, many felt that the Statesmen Quartet had gradually declined from their pinnacle as the greatest group in gospel music. The death of Denver Crumper was devastating, yet the quartet quickly rebounded with Cat Freeman and Rosie Rozell. The departure of Jake Hess took a toll on the group, yet Jack Toney and Jim Hill provided great music under the Statesmen Quartet banner. Sherrill Nielsen added youthful excitement to the group when Rosie left in the late 60s. However, the death of Big Chief Jim Wetherington was a devastating blow to the quartet from which they never truly recovered. According to noted gospel music columnist Roy Pauley, "The world's greatest quartet lost the one man, the one ingredient that could not be replaced, for Chief WAS the Statesmen image. Chief was bigger than life. No one performers’ passing has ever devastated his group nearly to the proportions that Chief's death devastated the Statesmen."
Very soon after Chief passed away, Rosie Rozell left the Statesmen Quartet for the second time. This time, he became a full-time choir director at the Huffman Assembly of God Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Hovie was faced with replacing two vital cogs in the Statesmen machine.
Willie Wynn of the Oak Ridge Boys was hired to replace Rosie Rozell, and Ray Burdette joined the group as bass singer. This group did some interesting music, but the sound was not truly that of the Statesmen. Wynn wasn't really a "Statesmen style" tenor, and the group formed their sound around him rather than he around the quartet. Ray Burdette was a formidable bass singer that filled in quite admirably, but those were big shoes to fill. Kenny Hicks, formerly of the Stamps and Rebels, joined the group as bass guitarist. They also employed a drummer, a lead guitarist, and a steel guitarist in hopes of updating their sound.
Noted songwriter Elmer Cole joined the group for a few months as did Wayne Hilton and David Will. With all the changes in personnel and musical styles, after nearly thirty years on the gospel music circuit, Hovie Lister made the decision to disband the Statesmen Quartet. This was a sad day in the world of gospel music. Doy Ott went back to school to become a chiropractor and the other members of the group went their separate ways.
Personnel taking the stage with the legendary Statesmen for the last time included Sherrill Nielsen, Jake Hess, Doy Ott, Ray Burdette, and Hovie Lister. They performed many Statesmen classics from years gone by. As the audience clamored for "Get Away Jordan," Hovie stepped to the microphone and sang the song for which he had been associated in later years, "Thanks to Calvary." It seemed that this song selection was an indication that the glory years from the Statesmen were gone. The excitement of "Get Away Jordan" had been replaced by the pensive words of "Thanks to Calvary." The retirement of the Statesmen Quartet closed the book on a wonderful chapter in the history of gospel music.
Next month will be the conclusion of this series about the Statesmen Quartet. Please come again as we explore the Statesmen after their early retirement. The story isn't over yet!
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