The sound that dominated church music in the 20th century is no more
The Short Version
With the recent death of Ben Speer, the style of southern gospel music popularized by James Vaughn and the Stamps-Baxter singing schools in the earliest part of the 20th century fades into the mist. The old quartets are gone. In their place is a smoother, slicker sound that is more like popular country music than anything that has its roots in a church. This was a sound that influenced people such as Bob Wills and Elvis Presley, among others. The genre has suffered before, but this time there likely is no resurrection.
A Little Background
I realize that the majority of people who are our regular readers won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Certainly, most of those in my immediate circle have never heard of southern gospel music at all and even among those who do, few would recognize the difference in styles between the mid-20th century and now. Southern gospel music is important, however, not merely from a religious perspective within the Christian community, but from an educational perspective as well. Let me explain why.
Way back in the mid-1800s, when any kind of formal education was limited largely to the wealthy and formal music education even more difficult to afford, along came this guy B.F White and his good buddy E. J. King. White had developed a four-tone scale, commonly known as the fa-sol-la scale, that used shapes to indicate the notes. It looked something like this:
The style was modified over the years to eventually account for a full 8-tone scale, but the purpose remained the same: to make it easier to teach music to people who couldn’t read. Singing schools teaching the shaped-note system occurred all over the country, most frequently in the one-room churches that also doubled as the community schools. Music schools were often held on Saturdays so that the hymns could be sung in church on Sunday.
The system spread steadily throughout the 19th century, especially throughout the South. Then, in 1920, James Vaughn revolutionized the whole music school paradigm by forming a quartet with three of his brothers that would travel, perform, and teach. This provided for each of the four parts to break out and be taught separately, making the schools more efficient.
Vaughn’s quartet was so successful that it started a movement. Vaughn himself founded 16 other quartets and sent them out singing and teaching. Quartets started popping up everywhere. Some were specific to singing schools, but others began to focus on performance, singing at tent revivals. When Virgil Stamps founded what would become the Stamps-Baxter Music Company in 1924, the singing school movement spread even faster as the paper-backed song books were cheaper for churches and individuals to afford. The song books were so popular that I’m willing to be there are still rural churches scattered across the South that has them sitting in their pews.
As the nation sank into the Great Depression, more people turned to churches as a source of comfort and the singing schools as a primary source of entertainment. There were a lot of notable people who were involved, including Alfred Brumley, Thomas A. Dorsey, Bob Wills, and Mosie Lister. Anyone familiar with the heritage of southern gospel music has sung the songs these people wrote.
In the middle of all this, in 1939, G.T. Speers, more commonly known just as “Dad,” formed a quartet with his wife Lena, and his sister and brother and law. Dad Speers worked for Vaughn’s company at the time and later took a position as a singing teacher for the Stamps-Baxter company. As his own sons, Ben and Brock, grew older, they eventually replaced Dad’s sister and brother-in-law. Their daughters, Rosa Nell and Mary Tom would sing with the group at different intervals as well. The Speers Family represented, in almost every way possible, the core and spirit of southern gospel music. Here’s a sample from a 1950s performance with Mom, Dad, Ben, and Brock.
Then This Happened
After World War II, southern gospel music, with its rich harmonies and a call-and-repeat music style that made each part stand out, took off and became a commercial success. Singing “conventions,” featuring multiple quartets, became as popular as the tent revivals that dominated the Eastern portion of the United States, especially the South. The quartets were typically accompanied by an accomplished pianist whose stylings were as unique as any sonata and frequently as complicated as any jazz riff. The sound was wholly unique from anything else being recorded at the time.
Groups started becoming celebrities. Names such as the Blackwood Brothers, The Statesmen, The Cathedrals, The LaFeveres, The Happy Goodman Family, The Chuck Wagon Gang, The Flordia Boys and The Kingsmen were well known and frequently drew large crowds. Southern gospel music became a competitive recording genre in which music labels such as RCA were all too happy to invest. However, that post-war burst was to be short lived.
In 1954, a plane carrying The Blackwood Brothers Quartet crashed, killing two of its members. Almost overnight, the quartets and many other musicians abandoned flying and took to using tour buses. While the buses seemed safer, there was an emotional price to be paid for spending hours on end traveling from one engagement to another. Disputes flared as differences in musical taste and the limits of personal space along with time away from families took its toll. As was common for the time, many quartet members also smoked heavily, creating health problems for several.
As television became increasingly popular, southern gospel music took its place there as well. Prior to the dominance of network daytime television and news, many local stations produced their own programs featuring quartets both local and national groups. In 1964, Lea Beasley of The Flordia Boys produced the first nationally syndicated southern gospel program, “Gospel Singing Jubilee,” anchored by the Florida Boys, but featuring every major southern gospel group in the country.
With the 60s, the influence of more contemporary Christian music, fueled by the success of musicals such as Godspell, and Jesus Christ, Superstar, as well as the popular compositions of Ralph Carmichael, began to increasingly dominate among younger audiences. The popularity of southern gospel music waned as churches struggled to hold the attention of teenagers and young adults.
Audience numbers and record sales declined through the early part of the 70s. Then, in 1973, at the National Quartet Convention in Nashville, TN, James “Big Chief” Wetherington, the bass singer for The Statesmen since 1953, died suddenly backstage of a heart attack as the group was about to go on. Hearts sank as the death of one of the most recognizable figures in southern gospel music was announced on national television.
One can argue that from that point forward, southern gospel music was seen more as a novelty act. When Elvis Presley added J.D. Sumner and the Jordanaires as his backup group, few people knew of the long-standing connection Presley had with southern gospel music. Instead, they saw the secularization of a gospel group. When the Oak Ridge Boys released a secular album in 1977 and scored a hit with Ya’ll Come Back Saloon, the public perception of southern gospel music plummeted even more.
While southern gospel music never went away, it became more of a niche genre with a small and aging audience.
Bill Gaither To The Rescue
In 1991, The Gaither Vocal Band was recording in a Nashville studio and invited several well-known gospel singers and groups to join them for a specific song. After the song was recorded, the singers, many of whom had not seen each other in several years, stayed and reminisced and sang around the piano. This gave Bill Gaither an idea to create a program that would bring together the remaining living southern gospel legends as well as current groups, including soloists and duets that had started dominating the genre in the 1980s.
The resulting Homecoming series of videos and recordings were a boon for both Gaither and the southern gospel music industry. Suddenly, people were interested in old-time southern gospel music again with its individual voices blended together in syncopated counterpoint and improvisational piano stylings that were a blend of ragtime and jazz. Just as much, people were interested in the aging legends that Gaither brought together. Seeing Ben Speer, Jake Hess, Vestal Goodman, and J.D. Sumner all singing together was a reminder of just how powerful the blending of those voices could be. When The Statemen’s Rozie Rosell joined Jake Hess, Hovie Lister, and George Younce one last time for Oh What A Savior, there was hardly a dry eye left in the house.
One of my favorite moments was when the Homecoming choir was singing Heavens Jubilee with Rosa Nell Speer on the piano. Homecoming pianist Anthony Burger tried bumping Rosa Nell off the piano bench. It didn’t work. Here’s what happened.
The little fun moments like that made this revival of old-time southern gospel music feel personal, feel special. Millions of people bought the tapes and recordings, bringing the genre of southern gospel music back into the limelight once again. The number of groups began to grow and even though the new sound was different, it is difficult to deny that the Homecoming events prevented southern gospel music from being relegated to a moment in history.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and when one centers a series of events around personalities who are already well past their prime one has to expect that there is going to be a point where those who started the series are no long there, and after more than twenty-five years that is what has happened. Consider all the wonderful musicians who appeared on the Homecoming series that are no longer with us. I’m not sure this is a complete list, but here’s what I could find. The year each one died is in parenthesis.
- Albertina Walker (2010)
- Andraé Crouch (2015)
- Anthony Burger (2006)
- Ben Speer (2017)
- Bob Cain (2000)
- Brock Speer (1992–1999)
- Buck Rambo (1991–2016)
- Cliff Barrows (2016)
- Danny Gaither (2001)
- Doris Akers (1995)
- Dottie Rambo (2008)
- Earl Weatherford (1992)
- Eldridge Fox (2002)
- Eva Mae LeFevre (2009)
- George Beverly Shea (2013)
- George Younce (2005)
- Glen Payne (1999)
- Hovie Lister (2001)
- Howard Goodman (2002)
- J. D. Sumner (1998)
- Jack Toney (2004)
- Jake Hess (2004)
- James Blackwood (2002)
- Jessy Dixon (2011)
- Johnny Cook (2000)
- Labreeska Hemphill (2015)
- Mary Tom Speer Reid (2014)
- Rex Nelon (2000)
- Roger Bennett (2007)
- Rosie Rozell (1995)
- Stephen Hill (2012)
- Vestal Goodman (2003)
Some of those deaths hit the community especially hard. Anthony Burger died unexpectedly while on a Homecoming cruise in 2006. Dottie Rambo passed from injuries sustained in a bus accident in 2008. Both were dominant and joyful personalities that lit whatever room they were in. As each southern gospel legend died, a bit of that old-time music passed with them.
According to Pollstar, the Homecoming tour sold more tickets in 2014 than major rock acts such as Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. However, by 2015, the number of legends able to participate in the tour had reduced so severely that, once again, audiences began to diminish. The light began to go out.
Why Do I Even Care
I know that, for our regular readers, this whole article has to seem strange and out of place coming from someone who speaks against the hypocrisy of religion in general and questions the singularity of any deity on a regular basis. So, what gives? Why do I find this particular matter one worthy of several hours of fact checking and date confirmation?
Because, for the first 25 years of my life, southern gospel music was home. The Statesmen, Blackwood Brothers, and Cathedrals were the bulk of records my parents owned. We watched the Gospel Singing Jubilee while getting ready for church on Sunday morning. I learned to play piano in that improvisational style. When I could coax our family around the piano in the evenings, these were the songs we sang. Southern gospel music was a part of our daily life.
Equally important, these were the people we knew. Doy Ott, a former baritone for The Statesmen, was an optometrist in Bartlesville, Oklahoma when not out singing with the quartet. We would drop by, say hi, and listen to his stories about the antics between Jake Hess and Hovie Lister. When I was 14, J. D. Sumner, who was a towering 6′ 5″, claimed I was too short to reach the piano and stacked hymnals on the piano bench before I sat down to play. I met Hovie Lister for the first time when I was 19 and we remained friends until his death in 2001. These and many other relationships we had were personal. In one way or another, each one was influential in how I grew up.
In a metaphorical sense, Ben Speer’s death locks the door on that part of my life. Those who were the most influential, whose instructions and advice I heeded the most, are all gone. While we have recordings and videos to remind us of their incredible talent, we can no longer experience those personalities, listen to the stories, or get bumped from the piano bench as we once did. No matter how wonderfully mastered the recording is, there is no matching the chill that came from being in the same room as Rosie Rozell’s soaring tenor or feeling the floor vibrate when J. D. took his bass extra low.
No one sings that old-time style of southern gospel music anymore, either. Voices that dominate today’s southern gospel scene are more polished, refined, and frequently carefully honed through years of practice and education. One won’t find anyone who first learned to read shaped notes among today’s artists. Today’s southern gospel music is more about who gets the solo on the verses, not the give and take counterpoint of each voice.
I spent no small amount of time yesterday listening to the top 20 southern gospel songs as listed by the Southern Gospel Times. The experience was interesting. I’ve not listened to contemporary southern gospel for many of the same reasons I don’t listen to contemporary country music: the sound holds practically no relationship to the original. That doesn’t mean the sound was bad, mind you. In fact, the vocal abilities of most the artists I heard were quite impressive. Yet, the sound is more heavily produced, micro-managed in a studio to the point that the necessary sense of emotion and conviction that is pertinent to southern gospel music is lost.
A good example would be 2nd Generation’s cover of the Hemphill’s I Came On Business For the King, which is currently number seven on this week’s chart. The trio has a nice sound and great harmony. The song itself has an appealing melody that sticks in one’s ear long after it’s been heard. I can understand why the cover jumped so high its first week on the chart. However, when I turn around and compare that to the original recording by the Hemphills circa 1977, with 13-year-old Candy Hemphill taking the lead on the song Joel Hemphill wrote, the emotion evoked is still amazingly stronger than the new cover.
Southern gospel music now revolves more around individual voices. Quartets of any kind are rare. I had to jump down the chart to number 24 before finding a song by the Tribute Quartet. Their sound was, again, quite good, but so polished and carefully produced that it was missing any connection that might have said, “This is more than just another song.”
I’m not sure words sufficiently communicate what I’m feeling. Let’s see if we can do this another way. Consider first this video posted recently of the Tribute Quartet singing an old southern gospel standard, This Old House. The song, which features the bass, is deceptively difficult because of the tempo at which it’s sung.
Now, listen to an older version featuring George Younce and Glen Payne with The Cathedrals. Mark Trammell is singing lead which dates this video somewhere in the 1980s. Personal side note, Mark’s daddy, Charlie, and my daddy were friends for several years. I first met Mark at their home in North Little Rock when he was 15. He had an amazing voice even then. Anyway, consider the difference in how George treats the song.
See the difference? Please tell me you do. Same song, but totally different levels of emotion and cohesiveness. Notice how George brings the group into a circle so they can actually hear each other, creating a better blend. Few modern groups understand that dynamic, but George grew up in a day when all four members of a quartet had to sing around a single microphone. That unified sound came people working together, not from a mixing board in the back of the auditorium.
Yes. I will admit that there is a lot of “old man reminiscing” going on here. As every generation grows older, there is the challenge of adjusting to the newer sounds of music that is constantly progressing and adopting new technologies and capabilities. We miss the older sounds because they were comfortable for our ears. We know those sounds better and can relax. We don’t know newer music so it takes more effort to listen and we don’t always come away feeling that the effort was well placed.
Let me also reiterate that there is nothing wrong with contemporary southern gospel music. The genre is still valid and isn’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. While the audiences for individual groups tend to not be as large as the Homecoming gatherings once were, they are still significant enough to warrant attention and consideration.
But that old-time southern gospel sound? Those songs with intricate harmonies and the pianists with fingers that flew across piano keys are all but gone. Not only are the people who sang them gone, but to a significant degree, the people who listened to them and enjoyed them are gone as well. Without a definable audience, any music genre is going to fade away.
Remembering What Was
What southern gospel music lost with the passing of Ben Speer was the last loud, dominant voice for that old-time, singing school-based, shaped note style of music. He was instrumental in keeping the Stamps-Baxter singing schools going and in reminding the world of that unique sound of which he and his family were so very much a part. I suppose that Bill Gaither might continue to include some of those old songs in whatever occasional Homecoming events he might have, but Bill’s relationship to that old-time style isn’t the same as Ben’s was. Bill has always been more progressive and supportive of integrating new sounds with old music. Ben, on the other hand, was always there to say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but let me remind you how it was meant to sound.”
With Ben Speer’s death, we lose that direct historical connection, that champion of the Stamps-Baxter songbook. No, Ben isn’t the last of that era, but he was the last dominant figure to make sure the sound wasn’t lost or corrupted, that the old-time way of teaching music wasn’t forgotten, and to show us how beautiful it could sound when done correctly. During Ben’s funeral service, Bill Gaither referred to him as the “harmony marshal.” That’s Ben’s commitment to that old-time sound, one committed to intricate and constantly moving harmonies with melodies that lept from high voices to low voices with no warning. Ben understood what it took to put it all together.
We don’t get that sound in the same way anymore. Now, it’s all handled in the control booth. If someone’s pitch is a little off, it’s auto-tuned. If the tempo starts to lag it’s simply pushed a little digitally. All the human fallibilities are removed and along with it so is the sense of human spirit and emotion with which we once identified.
Below, I am embedding the video from Ben Speer’s funeral service (April 11). Unless one is really a huge fan, you’re not likely to want to sit through the entire thing. While the stories and eulogies are entertaining enough on their own, the length at which they go on becomes a bit tiresome for anyone not close to the family. There are a couple of moments, though, to which you’ll want to jump forward.
The first comes at 48:10 when a local choir takes the stage. These are not professional singers. These are volunteers who have a connection with the Stamps-Baxter singing schools of which Ben was so very much a part. They sing four songs. This is southern gospel music in the raw, the sound that came from rural churches all across America for the better part of the 20th century. There is no measured volume, no careful blending of voices. This is an open-up-and-let-it-fly style of singing. During the summer, which church windows would be open, you could hear the sounds all over town and the echoes out into the country. What you want to hear, though, is about the 55-minute mark with the choir sings a verse in the fa-sol-la style taught in the singing school. Don’t be surprised if it takes a moment for your ears to adjust. To the uninitiated, it can sound as though they’re singing in some strange language. It’s not. At the 58-minute mark, they move into a song by “Dad” Speers that was one of Ben’s favorites and was well-known for singing, He Is Mine and I Am His. Again, the sound is unpolished, but the emotion is evident throughout the auditorium.
Then, following a couple of eulogies and other songs, at 1:32:50 Bill Gaither finally takes the pulpit and after some brief remembrances, leads the Homecoming choir in some of Ben’s best-known songs. I’ll be honest, this part was rough for me. I looked across the faces and there were so few that I recognized. I saw Lea Beasley of the Florida Boys there and Reba Rambo-McGuire as well as a handful of others, but all the other familiar faces and voices with which I grew up were absent. They’re all gone. As the choir sang songs I’ve heard Ben Speers and his family sing my entire life, there was no getting rid of the lump in my throat. Oh The Glory Did Roll comes at 1:47:34 and gives one a more polished, professional version of the Stamps-Baxter style of singing. It really is quite impressive. Then, at 1:51:30, they start in on Never Grow Old and when they get to the second verse, they bring up a video of Ben merged with a video of Dad Speer, singing the song along with them. The emotion couldn’t have been any higher.
Be sure, southern gospel music will continue. There will be singers and groups that will stand out and they will find contemporary ways to speak to a contemporary audience. But it will be different. That old-time southern gospel sound, the part that was rooted in the Sacred Harp and burgeoned from the Stamps-Baxter singing schools, is gone. What’s left are memories. Recordings. Videos. We’ll hold on to those memories with fondness even though our life takes us so very, very far away from that community. I’ll always appreciate what this sound and this music means to me and a part of me will miss it.
With fondness, we say goodbye and rest in peace.