GOGR Music History -
The Statesmen Quartet
The Statesmen Quartet spent countless hours perfecting their craft and molding the sound that would take them to the top of the gospel singing world. In the process, Hovie and the Statesmen went through numerous personnel changes until the right mix finally was in place. Recently an artist that was very active in the 1950s told me that you could never be sure who might show up on stage with Hovie Lister and the Statesmen during their formative years. Soon, that was to change as Hovie put the finishing touches on his dream quartet.
The personnel of the Statesmen Quartet finally stabilized with Cat Freeman, Jake Hess, Doy Ott, Big Chief Wetherington, and Hovie Lister. The Statesmen had formed a very strong alliance with the Blackwood Brothers. This quartet team was drawing huge crowds wherever they performed. The Statesmen had grown together as a unit, and their stage presentation and song selection placed them as one of the top quartets in the gospel music industry. Their recording contract with Capitol was coming to an end, but they continued to produce great recordings on the Statesmen Quartet label. The Statesmen continued to record transcribed radio programs which were played all across the South. They also had a Saturday night program on 50,000 watt WSB radio that spread their gospel melodies through the South and Midwest. Television was the next step for the Statesmen Quartet.
Amidst the growing popularity of the Statesmen, Cat Freeman decided that he no longer wanted to be a member of the quartet. He didn't care for the extensive hours of rehearsal required by a quartet of this standing, so he decided to leave the group. The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) extended a national sponsorship offer to the Statesmen Quartet for their television program. As this offer loomed over the horizon, Cat and the Statesmen realized that the endless hours of rehearsal would be necessary in order to be at their best for the national audience. These prospects didnít appeal to Cat in the least. Cat never stayed with any group for a long period of time, so this was no surprise to the other members of the quartet when Cat decided to leave the Statesmen Quartet.
Hovie had always dreamed of having the great Irish tenor, Denver Crumpler, in the ranks of the Statesmen Quartet. Hovie and Doy had both worked with Denver in the Rangers Quartet and respected him both as a musician and as a Christian gentleman. Denver had spent many years in the Rangers Quartet during the time that they were considered to be the finest quartet in gospel music. A tragic automobile accident in 1951 took the life of Ranger Erman Slater and it kept their bass singer Arnold Hyles off the road for many months. During this time, the Rangers Quartet slipped a bit, so they weren't the strong force in the industry that they had been in the 1940s. (It is also interesting to note that a leading gospel music publication erroneously reported in the mid 1950s that Ermon Slater was once a member of the Statesmen Quartet.)
Hovie convinced Denver to join the Statesmen in 1953. His clear Irish tenor voice and matinee good looks made him a natural for the quartet. He quickly learned all of the Statesmenís arrangements and soon the quartet began incorporating Crumpler's signature songs into their repertoire. Songs featuring Denver such as "Old Fashioned Love," "My God is Real," and "I Have a Desire" became show stoppers for the quartet.
The blend and precision attained by this group have caused many gospel music authorities to dub them "The Perfect Quartet." All of the vocalists in this version of the Statesmen Quartet were without a peer in gospel music. Hovie Lister was without a doubt the finest emcee in gospel music, and he was a splendid quartet pianist. Put it all together, practice your arrangements for hours at a time, and you have the "perfect quartet." Each gentleman was the best at his particular vocal part and their energy was second to none in the industry.
The rise to prominence in the gospel music industry was not merely happenstance. The Statesmen developed a work ethic that no other group of that era had known. They performed in concerts, had a daily live radio program, rehearsed endless hours, and would then travel to the next concert leaving little time for sleep before starting the same process again. This dedication to excellence paid great dividends through the years.
The Statesmen had been without a national recording contract since their record deal with Capitol ended in early 1953. In the mean time, all of their recordings had been issued on their private Statesmen Quartet label. This writer thinks they are some of the finest that the group ever released. They are rather "raw" with very little instrumentation, but the quartet sound is classic Statesmen. These recordings were usually sold only at their concerts and via mail order, so they are quite difficult to locate. However, they are a treasure to the ears of those that love the early 50s sound of the Statesmen Quartet.
Shortly after Denver Crumpler joined the quartet, the group signed a recording contract with RCA Victor records. The quality of their recordings improved with the addition of several noted studio musicians. Famous country guitarist Chet Atkins produced many of their early RCA recordings and added his guitar stylings to many of their sessions. This marriage with RCA Victor lasted for nearly fifteen years. In addition to the enhanced recording abilities, RCA was able to distribute Statesmen recordings throughout the United States and beyond its borders. They also recorded a number of songs for the RCA Thesaurus transcription service. These recordings were only made available to radio stations and are quite rare and entertaining.
The popularity of the quartet continued to grow, and soon the Statesmen accepted Nabiscoís offer to syndicate the Statesmen Quartet television program to other markets throughout the country. This was a number of years before the advent of video taping, so the programs were filmed much like a movie or a current day situation comedy.
Hovie and the Statesmen would not be satisfied with simply singing before the television cameras. They realized their audience expected the Statesmen to be "cutting edge," and their television program was no exception. They had elaborate sets built for the program and hired an experienced film crew to make the program a success. They also made arrangements to record the soundtracks for the program with the Wade Creager Orchestra, house band for the Biltmore Hotel Ballroom. The Statesmen began rehearsals with this nine-piece combo and prerecorded all the music for the Nabisco programs. They would then lip-sync the songs while being filmed for the program. The Statesmen were the first quartet to use an orchestra on a regular basis.
Many backdrops and sets were used for the television program. The Statesmen were pioneers in the music video business as they wove stories around the songs they were singing. These television performances were far ahead of the typical production skills of television crews in the mid 1950s as syndicated television programming was in its infancy. Not only did the Statesmen perform to countless people, but Hovie sold millions of Nabisco Saltines and vanilla wafers as the Statesmen sang "merry melodies coming your way, songs of happiness to brighten up your day." Each program featured an old hymn of the church accompanied by a pump organ. The Statesmen strived to appeal to the young and the old via their Nabisco television programs.
The national media had begun to take notice of gospel music in the middle 1950s, and the Statesmen were foremost in receiving attention of the secular media. On September 6, 1954, the Statesmen Quartet traveled to New York City to make their live national television debut on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The Statesmen performed their latest recording, "This Ole House," and easily won the competition. They remained in New York for the remainder of the week where they appeared live each day with Arthur Godfrey on the CBS television and radio network. The Statesmen Quartet was instrumental in putting gospel music on the national map.
The June 23, 1956 Saturday Evening Post featured an article about gospel music entitled "They Put Rhythm in Religion." The Statesmen were emphasized in the article which mentioned several other prominent artists of the day. The Statesmen Quartet was becoming known beyond the boundaries of the gospel music industry. They entertained offers to appear regularly on nationwide television. The William Morris Agency attempted to lure the Statesmen to the Las Vegas circuit. They were offered fabulous salaries to go beyond their gospel music boundaries. However, this would necessitate a change in their musical focus. The Statesmen were gospel musicians and had no interest in changing that course. They were first and foremost Christians, and they would not consider a career in popular music over their gospel music roots.
The quartet continued to grow in popularity as RCA Victor constantly kept new recordings on the market. The Statesmen were certainly ahead of their time, and they capitalized on it. On October 10, 1956, the "perfect quartet" recorded their last song together, for Jake Hess would soon leave the quartet to start a new business venture.
Les Roberson, formerly a member of the Weatherfords and the Oak Ridge Quartet replaced Jake in the quartet. Les was a natural baritone, but he tried valiantly to fill the role for which he was hired . . . singing lead with the top gospel quartet in the nation. The group including Denver, Les, Doy, Big Chief, and Hovie only recorded four songs, and they were the final single recordings released on the Statesmen label.
This change in personnel was a big blow to the Statesmen, but nothing on the scale of what would happen on March 21, 1957. As the Statesmen were preparing to leave for a weekend concert tour, Hovie received a call from Denver Crumpler's wife Frankie. She reported that Denver was quite ill and wouldn't be able to make the scheduled appearance. Hovie quickly summoned an ambulance, but the voice of this great Irish tenor was stilled at the age of 44. The "Perfect Quartet" would now only exist within the groves of their many recordings.
I hope you will join me next month as we continue with part three in the story of the Statesmen Quartet. Your comments are appreciated, and I welcome your questions. Please send your questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.