Over the next two or three months, we will be covering some of gospel music’s most famous quartets during time periods for which they may have received their least attention.
I have encountered a lot of regional and church-based male quartets who possess a great deal of untapped potential, yet fall into the realm of mediocrity by attempting the soaring harmonies and difficult arrangements of groups like the Gaither Vocal Band, Brian Free & Assurance, Gold City, etc., when in reality, this type of singing is far out of their comfort zone. Groups like the aforementioned can achieve these musical heights because they actually possess the specific talents to do so. Some up-and-coming artists tend to forget that their tenors don’t have to constantly stretch above high Cs and B flats, that their lead singers don’t have to sing in tenor range, and that their bass singers don’t have to sing lower than their capabilities in order to be successful in communicating their lyrics on stage. Every now and then, when the occasional group of this nature asks my advice, I usually find myself directing them to the music of the featured group in this month’s article.
A great deal of attention from Cathedrals fans has been focused on the decades of the 80s and 90s, and rightfully so. The songs and arrangements of those eras were both stirring and unforgettable. Yet most die-hard Cathedral fans like myself will tell you that the Cathedrals in their early years took a backseat to no one. The Cathedrals lineup of George Younce, Glen Payne, George Amon Webster, Roy Tremble, and Haskel Cooley serve as a great example of a group who built exponentially on their abilities while never pushing past them. Unembellished vocal arrangements with powerful lyrics and tasteful accompaniment were the hallmark of this quartet. No quartet soared higher with greater simplicity.
The Original Cathedrals featuring George, Glen, Danny Koker, and Bobby Clark had enjoyed immense personal and professional success as featured singing group at Rex Humbard’s Cathedral of Tomorrow. Their transition from Koker/Clark to tenor Mack Taunton and baritone/pianist George Amon Webster maintained the powerful quartet sound they had established five years earlier. Yet when the Cathedrals left the Humbard organization for full time travel in 1969, they found themselves professionally starting from scratch. The first half of the 1970s were trying years, as business was slow, and the only consistency in the quartet were the personnel changes. George and Glen had several gifted musicians aboard their bus during this era, including Lorne Matthews, Roger Horne, Roy Tremble, Jim Garstang, and Bill Dykes, yet the revolving door of personnel does no quartet any favors.
By 1974, George Amon Webster had returned to the piano position, and with the recommendation of original tenor Bobby Clark, George and Glen moved baritone Roy Tremble to the tenor position. Few would have relished Tremble taking the high part, as he had spent the majority of his gospel career singing baritone or lead with groups such as The Rebels Quartet and The Weatherfords, yet Tremble mastered his new role in the quartet. Tremble possessed a beautiful solo voice with a tender delivery. Tremble’s range rarely moved above a B flat, but no one could complain upon hearing his compelling performances of songs such as “Rise Again” and “Something Beautiful”. A quality singer first, a quartet man second, a high tenor last.
When baritone Bill Dykes left for Jerry and the Singing Goffs in 1974, George Amon Webster returned to vocals. Webster was the quintessential classic baritone singer. His full, round voice made him an asset to any quartet. And no baritone possessed a more natural, more pleasant solo voice than Webster. In addition, Webster was a multi-talented musician, as well as a prolific songwriter. Webster penned one of the Cathedrals’ greatest songs during this era, entitled “He Loves Me”, along with contributing other classics such as “Thanks for Loving Me”, “We Have a King”, and “He is the Great I Am”.
Inasmuch as Glen Payne was a master at a commanding and identifiable lead vocal, his ear for harmony was unmatched, particularly during the very early years and again from the 1980s on. Payne heard and wrote on paper the baritone parts that even few baritones could hear, and therefore, the Cathedrals baritones usually sang even higher than Payne himself. Yet with Webster anchoring the baritone part in much mellower, more in-depth fashion, Payne spent the second half of the seventies utilizing the higher end of his range more frequently. Once again, Payne never pushed past his comfort zone. Coming from the old school of teachers, writers, and arrangers like Joe Roper, Henry Slaughter, Cecil Pollock, and his former employer Earl Weatherford, Payne brought this older style of singing back to the forefront, amidst a sea of groups employing more hard-driving, more contemporary, and less-polished sounds into their programs.
George Younce was not only at his peak as a bass singer during the 70s, but as a songwriter as well. Younce penned around forty or more songs during this era that the Cathedrals executed in grand fashion, including classics such as “Yesterday”, “Jesus Christ, Solid Rock”, “So Dearly”, “Then I Found Jesus”, and “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet”. Younce came into his own as an emcee, setting a standard of both showmanship and ministry that many successors would pattern after.
Whether on stage or on record, every Cathedrals arrangement had tasteful accompaniment that only built upon the effectiveness of the lyrics they were singing. Haskel Cooley’s style of piano playing was heavily centered around the convention-styled gospel music. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cooley employed very few of those ever-popular long right-handed arpeggios, instead focusing on memorable licks between verses and choruses that made him every bit as memorable as the singers. Yet Cooley was still an accompanist first. Cooley also penned some great hits for the quartet. “Shoutin’ Time in Heaven” and “I’ll Sail Away Home” were early Cathedral classics, each soaring to the Top Ten of the Singing News Charts. After five years, Cooley departed the Cathedrals and entered into his own ministry in 1979. He would never again accompany another full-time gospel quartet, but his stamp on gospel music has remained unforgotten. In 2012, he was inducted into the Southern Gospel Piano Roll of Honor at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion.
Cooley lineup oozed both confidence and sincerity, and once this combination of musical talent hit the road, it was evident that the gospel music industry could no longer ignore their presence. Bill Gaither placed them on his Praise Gathering programs before largely contemporary Christian audiences. In a time of ground-breaking artist innovation as well as very polarizing receptions among fans and artists alike, the Cathedrals’ presence in arenas such as these only complimented their more progressive-thinking peers. Their appearances on the Gospel Singing Jubilee were always a breath of fresh air. Where groups like the Statesmen and the Imperials had broken new musical ground in previous decades, the Cathedrals thrived by taking their tried-and-true tradition to audiences outside the southern gospel music world. In 1977, perhaps no one was more surprised than the Cathedrals themselves, when they took home four Dove Awards, including Top Vocal Group and Album honors.
What made this specific lineup great and what makes them a model for up-and-coming quartets of today? In my opinion, it was their willingness to stay at their best by not leaving their vocal comfort zones, choosing musical simplicity with powerful messages over complexities that can sometimes not get past the foot lights, demonstrating high support for each other on the stage, and more than anything, just being themselves. George, George Amon, Glen, Roy, and Haskel never attempted to work their audiences into a frenzy with the same type of intensity of, say the Kingsmen or the Happy Goodmans. They simply poured zeal into good flat-footed singing. Other chart hits found their way into the Cathedrals’ repertoire, such as “The Last Sunday”, “Statue of Liberty”, “Sunshine and Roses”, “Jesus is Right for Whatever Seems Wrong in Your Life”, “The Prodigal Son”, and “Even the Winds Whisper His Name”. And few could not be moved as the quartet poured their hearts into new songs that have now become classics, including “Gentle Shepherd”, “Thanks to Him”, and “Worthy the Lamb”.
Upon Haskel Cooley’s departure from the group in 1979, talented pianist Lorne Matthews returned to the Cathedrals. While the group didn’t miss a beat, it would unfortunately be a short-lived reunion. Just a few short months later… Matthews, Tremble, and Webster simultaneously turned in their notices, forming a new trio, The Brothers. As devastating a loss as this was to George and Glen, the momentum gained from the last five years was far too great for them to be destroyed even by these difficult of circumstances. Within weeks, Steve Lee and Kirk Talley added a new freshness to the Cathedrals’ sound, and the group entered its greatest period of success the following decade. Sadly…Webster, Tremble, and Matthews never reached the same heights as they had known while with the Cathedrals. Within two years, The Brothers had gone their separate ways.
The true highlight of the Cathedrals Reunion in 1995 was the return of the quartet’s earliest members. Early tenors Bobby Clark and Mack Taunton soared with “Hide Thou Me” and “Unclouded Day”, while George, Glen, George Amon, Roy, and Haskel raised the roof with “Yesterday”, “Shout Over Heaven”, and “He Loves Me”. The chemistry had never waned between these pros.
Howard Goodman labeled the 70s Cathedrals as “Easy on the Ears, Heavy on the Heart”, a perfect testament of this particular era. No group in gospel music was more class-personified during this decade. If today’s gospel quartets would understand musically what the Cathedrals of the 70s understood, our music would thrive yet again.