I grew up on gospel quartet music. Daddy loved nothing better. He was a huge fan of groups like Hovie Lister & the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers, the Speer Family, the Florida Boys and many others.
You may not have heard of any of these outfits. They had their heydays from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. This was four-part harmony— lead, tenor, baritone and bass — typically accompanied, at least in the beginning, by only a piano player. A phrase often used to describe it was “four men and a piano” (although many groups included women in their lineups).
That description sounds like a recipe for a somber affair, doesn’t it? But this style of music drew thousands of people to arenas and auditoriums all over the South. Why? Showmanship. I could describe the level of showmanship, but words don’t really suffice. Just watch this video of Hovie Lister & the Statesmen performing “Get Away Jordan,” and you’ll see what I mean.
The promoter who raised this sort of music to national attention was a man from Adairsville, Georgia, named Wally Fowler, who started his career in music by leading a country band called Wally Fowler & the Georgia Clodhoppers, whose lead guitar player — Chet Atkins — would go on to become a musical legend.
Fowler staged “all-night sings” in cities all over the South, and my only experiences of downtown Atlanta when I was a kid happened when Mama and Daddy would take me to these shows at the old Atlanta City Auditorium (now Georgia State University’s Alumni Hall). Those concerts — each of which featured at least a half-dozen groups — were my first exposure to live music on a large scale.
They kinda blew my mind, and they were certainly the seed of my lifelong love of live music. But among all those concerts in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I never saw a Black quartet on stage. It wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I learned that the same thing I was seeing in Wally Fowler’s shows was simultaneously happening in Black communities all over the South.
In fact, the Black groups and white groups were often singing the same songs. Check out this recording of Dorothy Love Coates & the Original Gospel Harmonettes performing their own version of “Get Away Jordan."
Neither of these traditions have faded away. The gospel quartet form is one of the most resilient in music. Thousands of quartets perform all over the country, but sadly the performances remain largely segregated. The big event for white quartets is the annual National Quartet Convention in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. For Black quartets, the big annual gathering is called the American Gospel Quartet Convention, and it typically happens in Birmingham, Alabama, but was held virtually this past January.
A few weeks ago, I got the chance to hear some brand new Black gospel quartet music. Listening to it, I flew straight back to my youth. Although the players and singers are African American, the feeling their music produced inside me drew out long-forgotten memories. It took me home.
And now, I can’t stop thinking what kind of show we’d see if somehow the racial barriers fell, if somehow all the groups who come from this grand musical tradition could come together on a single stage.
A guy can dream, right?