Welcome to my latest edition in this series, as we will be reviewing the mainline releases from the Rex Nelon Singers/Nelons, where I will be reviewing their mainline albums from 1977-1998. Growing up listening to my dad’s record collection, he didn’t have any albums by the Rex Nelon Singers, but much like how I grew to love the Hinsons, I grew up watching them on Sunday mornings in the late 70s and early 80s on the Gospel Singing Jubilee. I always enjoyed hearing them sing such songs as “The Sun’s Coming Up”, “I’m Gonna Keep on Singin’”, “Come Morning”, “More Than Conquerors”, “We Shall Wear a Robe and Crown” and others, and the group was always one of my personal favorites on the show.
Let me pause for this caveat…this is the first time I am reviewing the music of a group that is still actively singing today. I will be covering the years 1977 through 1998, as Rex officially retired from the group in 1998. I don’t want my references to how the group sounded back in “the day” to be misinterpreted that I don’t feel the same way about the group today. The group is still just as phenomenal as previous incarnations had been, and I know Rex would be extremely proud of how the Nelon legacy has continued with such class and dignity!
Now, where was I? Oh yes…
The first album I ever owned by the group was “One Step Closer”. I was a member of the Canaan Record and Tape Club, and eventually I also obtained “Feeling at Home”, “We Shall Behold the King”, “In One Accord” and their 1978 “Live” album through the club. I saw the Nelons perform live a few times at the Raleigh Civic Center in Raleigh, North Carolina between 1983 and 1985, and I always thoroughly enjoyed seeing them there. I saw them in Durham, North Carolina at Living Waters Church on October 25, 1987, and I actually recorded the concert that night. From 1988 through the early 90s, I enjoyed seeing them numerous times at the Reynolds Auditorium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as promotor Earl Carney would have them there regularly. Of course, I have seen them numerous other times throughout the ensuing years, and I have followed them pretty closely my entire life, as their music is a big part of my life’s soundtrack. I wish I could nail down one specific album as my personal favorite, but they recorded so many wonderful albums, there are actually several that I would rank as my favorite! You’ll have to read each week to see which ones they are!
The Nelons have a very unique history…the group was birthed out of one of the true early pioneers, the LeFevres. Rex Nelon joined the group in 1957 as their bass singer, and the group enjoyed immense success during the 50’s and 60’s. As the 70’s dawned, the cornerstones of the group, Urias, Eva Mae and Alphus were getting older and one by one they all retired, with Eva Mae being the last to do so in 1977. With Rex assuming ownership of the group when Urias retired, and being they had “run out of LeFevres”, he took the current group and re-named them the Rex Nelon Singers in 1977. Rodney Swain and Kelly Nelon had been with the LeFevres for about a year at that point and Janet Paschal had been with the LeFevres since around 1975. The band was already in place with Rex Foster on piano, Greg Cothran playing bass and Robbie Willis on drums. The change proved to be a fruitful decision, as the Rex Nelon Singers enjoyed tremendous success, and by 1981, they won Favorite Mixed Group at the Singing News Fan Awards. The group continued to win numerous individual awards, as well as several Dove Awards and Grammy nominations through the years.
The original vocal line up remained unchanged until 1980, when Jerry Thompson joined them, making them a 5-member vocal group. The 80’s brought a few more changes as Janet left the group about a year or so after Jerry joined, enter Karen Peck. By 1985, they shortened the name to just “The Nelons” when the group transitioned back to 4 vocalists when Rodney left the group. By 1991, Karen Peck had married and left to start her own group, Karen Peck & New River, which remains one of the most popular groups in Southern Gospel music today. (Has that really been over 30 years ago???)
The 90’s brought waves of change within the group as the vocal line-up was in constant flux, with the most stable period being between 1994 and 1996. By the end of 1998, Rex officially retired from the group, leaving them in the capable hands of his daughter, Kelly. Sadly though, Rex passed away suddenly on January 24, 2000. Additionally, Jerry would also pass away several years later, on December 2, 2020.
The Nelons were a classy combination of progressiveness and tradition, as they were one of the most successful groups to walk the fine line of traditional Southern Gospel and Contemporary. They weren’t a loud or boisterous group, but they had a certain gracefulness when they hit the stage. They could be loud with such songs as “We Shall Wear a Robe and Crown”, “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down”, “He Called Me Out” and “I’ve Got a Right”, and bring a crowd to their feet, but they could also turn in very delicate performances on such songs as “If You Had Known Me”, “That’s Enough”, “Leaning Place”, “Sweet Beulah Land” and “Bring My Children Home”. The Nelons also had a special niche for those amazing power ballads such as “God Bless the USA”, “Here Comes Jesus”, “Medals, Crowns and Trophies”, “He’s the Calm Before the Storm” and “We’ve Got to Get America Back to God”. No one could deliver those with as much finesse and emotion as the Nelons could. During the 70’s, such groups as the Downings, Rambos, Lanny Wolfe Trio and the Gaithers started doing “Praise” music, and for the most part that was abandoned by a lot of groups in the genre until around 1983 when the Nelons recorded the classics, “O For a Thousand Tongues” and “We Shall Behold the King”. This was met with such tremendous success, that they continued singing those types of songs such as “Alleluiah to the Lamb”, “All Rise”, “Stand Still” and “You Are Worthy”. As I alluded to earlier, another strength they had was delivering the more traditional sounding favorites such as “Joybells”, “I Want to Be Like my Lord”, “Way Up in Gloryland”, “A Wonderful Change”, “Hallelujah” and “Walk Right Out of This Valley”…but they also could deliver the goods with the more progressive tunes such as “Jesus is Your Ticket to Heaven”, “Famine in their Land”, “God’s Way Up”, “Where Would I Turn”, “Wedding Day” and “Jesus is Alive and Well”. Truthfully, there wasn’t anything they couldn’t sing!
The Nelons were blessed with some of the most outstanding female vocalists, between 1977 and 1998. During the 70’s and 80’s, Kelly Nelon, Janet Paschal and Karen Peck were the “sweethearts” of gospel music, as they won multiple individual awards. During the 90’s, such names as Charlotte Penhollow, Tammy Britton, Kelly Benton and Amy Roth all filled big shoes and did a wonderful job keeping the Nelons music alive. Only a handful of male singers were part of the group during this time period, and Rodney Swain, Jerry Thompson, Todd Nelon, Paul White and David Hill all held down the tenor/lead spot admirably! The one constant in the group though, was Rex Nelon. Rex was one of the smoothest and one of the most pleasing sounding bass singers in gospel music and was one of the few bass singers who could carry an eloquent solo on those slower, meaningful songs. Unlike some bass and tenor singers, Rex was not a side attraction, as he was the main event, and was one of the finest singers (not just bass singer) in our genre. Rex took home some individual fan awards as well, including Male Singer of the Year in 1982, which is an honor not usually bestowed upon a bass singer (George Younce was the only other bass singer who won). He could bottom out on some low notes, and could churn out those up-tempo bass numbers on such songs as “I Want to Be Like My Lord”, “He Called Me Out”, “I Love to Call His Name” and the like, but I feel he shined the brightest on those slower tunes such as “Leaning Place”, “It’s Over Now”, “He’s My Best Friend”, “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good”, “The Seeker” and others.
Rex was also an exceptional group manager and businessman as well. A keen publisher, Rex owned his own publishing company (2 in fact…Rex Nelon Music and RNS Music) and seemed to always be on the lookout for new songwriters. When he assumed ownership of the LeFevres back in the 70’s, he also took ownership of their publishing company, LeFevre-Sing Publishing. Eventually, he also purchased the Stamps Quartet, Gospel Quartet Music and Goss Brothers Music catalogues as well as several others. Owning these classic publishing companies gave Rex and endless well of songs and allowed him to continually keep those classic songs alive by consistently recording and singing tunes from those catalogues.
I have a specific memory of Rex that is pretty comical…the first time I ever saw them in person was in Raleigh, NC in August 1983. I was standing at their record rack looking at the records and Rex was standing behind the rack and was towering above the record rack. As I was standing there, I felt someone tap me on the back. I turned around and no one was there, and then it happened again. By the third time, I looked up and Rex had this mischievous grin on his face. I just looked up at him and grinned and I let him know I knew what he was doing! He preceded to shake my hand and as I went to shake his hand, he kept moving his hand around where I couldn’t grab it and just had me in stitches. When I saw them in 1987, he tried both moves again with me, but I was older and wiser (I was 15 years old by this time) and caught on to his game much earlier than 4 years prior!
When looking back on the great groups in Southern Gospel Music, the Nelons remain one of the greatest groups to ever grace a stage. Rex was able to continue the rich LeFevre heritage, while also successfully creating his own legacy. I consider the group to be trailblazers as they were one of the few group who, very successfully, infused contemporary sounds into their music from the very beginning, and their influence is heard everywhere. I have heard their influence on numerous groups including the Taylors, Hoppers, Hayes Family, Mylon Hayes Family, Whisnants, and many others. Without the Nelons, our history and our music would have an extreme deficit in sophistication, style, dignity, and grace!
I hope you’ll join me each week as we walk through some remarkable music by the Rex Nelon Singers/Nelons! It’s going to be a fun ride as we relive some pretty awesome music!