I have been subject of an accusation by many of my peers that I am not one to completely deny. I am a quartet snob.
Yes, that is partially true. Sadly, I have said very little about some of the wonderful mixed groups of our music since I began writing for Absolutely Gospel back in August. The recent passing of the dear and lovely Faye Speer, probably the most underrated female vocalist ever, has reminded me to again take a listen to some of the beautiful and intricate music of some of our greatest mixed groups.
It is true when they say that there is nothing that really beats family harmony. To be quite honest, I have found myself preferring mixed groups over quartets in recent years. This may sound a little harsh, but I feel that the quality of male quartet singing has declined significantly in recent years, while the quality of mixed group singing has improved quite a bit. The Nelons and the Isaacs are perhaps best proof to this statement. Both groups have taken a bit of a more acoustic, earthy approach to their music recently, and I absolutely LOVE it. The Nelons, in my opinion, are doing the best singing of their career. This is due in no small part to the stellar arrangements provided by Jason Clark and the late Lari Goss. Their ability with a quiet hymn arrangement is unparalleled these days. The Nelons’ A Capella Hymns album has been in my CD player a lot lately, as have The Isaacs’ Naturally and Living Years albums.
One mixed group, although having received many accolades of their own, never seems to get their due credit in the southern gospel industry, and that is The Chuck Wagon Gang. Some tend to write off the Gang’s simplistic performance style, but I’m here to tell you, don’t knock it till you’ve tried to sing it! The ladies of the Gang have always been the center of attention and rightfully so, but the tenor is the unsung hero of the Gang. My hat is off to Stan Hill, Ronnie Page, Ricky Karnes, Cousin Pat, Jim Wesson, and others who have tackled that challenging vocal part. To sing the leftover harmony part in any quartet as it is written is a challenge. The part is vocally all over the place. The tenor has to sing both high and low, and sometimes in quite rapid succession, in order to accomplish the harmonic sound that is The Chuck Wagon Gang. I filled in for Stan Hill with the Chuck Wagon Gang for several dates back in the fall of 2010, and had the time of my life! I also have never attempted anything more challenging musically than to sing that vocal part! I will always love and highly respect the Chuck Wagon Gang. I doubt that their legacy will ever be equalled by anyone in our industry.
If you want to explore even deeper into difficult mixed group harmony, pull out the Speer Family albums of the late 60s and early 70s. I like to think I’m good at hearing parts, but some of the music on these records left me scratching my head in wonder. The Speers with Brock, Ben, Harold Lane, Bob & Jeanne Johnson, and Linda Robinson presented some unbelievable five and six part harmonies on songs like “He Did Everything” and “I Sure Do Love the Lord”. If anyone had worried how the group would fare without Mom and Dad Speer, all doubts were surely laid to rest after wearing out the grooves on these masterpieces.
The sweet, homespun harmonies of Alphus, Urias, and Eva Mae LeFevre were like honey for the soul. As if that weren’t enough, you add sons Pierce and Mylon, versatile bass vocalists like Rex Nelon and Jimmy Jones, and a plethora of instrumental ability, and you had the unmistakable sound of the LeFevres. The few live performances that remain in the archives by this legendary name are electric. At the 1959 NQC, they followed the Statesmen Quartet, who could have left anybody else burning in their tracks, but not the LeFevres. They followed “Get Away Jordan”, “Something Within”, “Hide Thou Me”, and all the rest of the hot Statesmen numbers with simple, pure, raw talent followed with thunderous applause at the end of every number….something few groups could accomplish.
Then there was The Downings, quite possibly my favorite. I have never heard a fuller, more emotional, more exciting sound in my life. JD Sumner may have had the lowest voice, but I have a feeling that Paul Downing could have at least challenged him ably. To listen to Paul Downing’s recitations on songs such as “The End of the Beginning” and “Are You Tired” makes one wonder if that is what the voice of God himself would sound like. The intense energy found in “Greater Is He That is In Me”, “I Feel So Good About It”, “Oh I Want to See Him”, and “He Gave Me Joy” were contemporary for their day, yet somehow these songs have never seemed to date themselves. Such is the case of a group like The Downings.
As for other groups, have you heard The Renaissance sing “His Grace Is Sufficient for Me”? Check it out on YouTube!
Or have you heard some of Ginger Pitchers’ arrangements for The Lesters? You’d be doing yourself a favor to discover those.
And I even enjoy a lot of music by The Hoppers. In my opinion, hands down, The Hoppers’ finest performance is “That’s Him”.
Do you think I’m a quartet snob now?
Thank you for your questions and comments! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time!