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SG History 101

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SG History 101 - Plane Crash

This month, I want to focus on what ought to be a red-letter day for fans of gospel music. Over time, the date June 30, 1954 arguably has the same impact in gospel music history as December 7, 1941 has on followers of American history. Even 51 years later, there are many fans of gospel music that can still recall what happened on that day.

I contend that the events that resulted from what happened that day have affected gospel music to the present, and in some respects are continuing to affect gospel music.

The 1954 Blackwood Brothers Quartet boarding their plane L to R: RW Blackwood (holding door), James Blackwood, Jack Marshall, Bill Shaw, and Bill Lyles

That day, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet arrived by airplane into Clanton, Alabama to sing with the Statesmen Quartet at the airport hangar there as a commemorative event to help celebrate the annual Chilton County Peach festival.

The Blackwood Brothers at that time were at the pinnacle of their career…earlier that month, they had achieved nationwide fame and notoriety by their appearance on the very popular Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television program, where they had won the talent competition the night they appeared. Their 45 RPM single of the songs they sang on the show, “The Man Upstairs” b/w “How About Your Heart” was selling briskly at that time. They were the first gospel group to perform on national TV, and were reaping the benefits of that appearance.

Just two years prior, in 1952, the Blackwood Brothers had formed a professional partnership with the Statesmen, and it was working out for good for both groups by that time. The popularity that each group enjoyed was also unprecedented for a gospel singing group. Together, their “team” was the top attraction in gospel music by far at that time.

It seemed that the sky was the limit for the Blackwood Brothers. Sadly, they were soon to learn how true that indeed was.

1954 Blackwood Brothers posing in front of their plane
L-R: James Blackwood, RW Blackwood, Jack Marshall, Bill Shaw, Bill Lyles

It was also in 1952 that the Blackwood Brothers had decided to use an airplane to get to their concerts, reasoning that that means of travel would be much more convenient and less fatiguing than riding in the large automobiles that they and other gospel groups were using as their main means of transportation. The time they saved flying allowed them to spend more time with their families in Memphis, Tennessee. Baritone R.W. Blackwood was the group’s pilot, and bass Bill Lyles was the navigator and co-pilot.

On the day of the concert, R.W. decided it would be prudent to conduct an afternoon test flight, since the runway was narrow and had no lights, and it would be dark when the group left Clanton to return to Memphis. The usual practice in those days was to have cars turn on their headlights to illuminate the runways of such airports so pilots could see where they needed to go.

R.W. and Bill would have a passenger for their test ride…18-year old Johnny Ogburn, the son of the Festival’s director, had his parents’ permission to ride with them.

After the initial safety checks were done, the plane took off without any problems…as they circled the airport, the direction of the wind had ominously changed…and the people who had assembled to watch them looked on in surprise when they noticed that the plane was coming in to land on the opposite end of the runway where they were planning to take off that night.

On the approach, there was a hill the plane needed to clear to land on the runway safely…after numerous attempts to clear the hill safely to land without success, R.W. tried once more. On his last attempt, the plane’s engine stalled. As R.W. fought to get the plane under control, it suddenly dived straight upward before the engine finally stopped.

The gathered crowd below was becoming more anxious at the plane struggled, and when the engine stalled and the plane came hurtling down toward the runway, they gasped in collective fright as they watched the inevitable result.

The plane hit the ground with a sickening thud and burst into flames immediately. As it did, James Blackwood saw R.W. still strapped in his pilot’s seat, and in panic, rushed toward the plane in an effort to save his nephew and the others.

Attempts at rescue would have been futile, since there was so much fire engulfing the plane. Still, James was determined to do what he could, endangering himself in order to try to get to the bodies that were being burned in the wreckage. As James drew nearer to R.W., he felt someone pick him up and literally carry him to safety. James’ cries of “Let me go!” were not heeded, and his frantic kicks and efforts to escape were to no avail.

Years later, James would learn that it was Jake Hess who had physically removed him from the scene, and Jake’s reward for his heroism was a sore and badly bruised body from the struggle.

All three passengers of the plane perished. Autopsies revealed that R.W.’s and Bill’s necks were broken immediately on impact, and Bill’s body was found under the plane’s instrument panel, while R.W.’s remained strapped in the pilot’s seat.

News of the crash spread quickly. Walter Winchell brought the news to his audience right away, as did CBS radio and television, along with Arthur Godfrey. America was in shock at the news.

It was left to Hess to deliver the sad news back to James’ family and pastor in Memphis…and then, to take James back home to Memphis.

James Blackwood was in unspeakable grief and shock. All the way home, through a continuing mask of tears, he told Hovie Lister and the other members of the Statesmen (in whose car James was going home to Memphis) that he would not sing again…that he could not go on as a result of the tragedy. Lister tried to give James as much courage as he could, calmly reminding James that he was loved and that life must go on for the living.

The grief of gospel music fans was almost as great as James’…the funeral for R.W. and Lyles was held at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis…and the crowd of some 3,000 + mourners made even that fine auditorium seem tiny. And significantly, although they sat in a separate section from the majority of the mourners, the number of black people in attendance was large…and striking. It was a testament to the universal appeal of gospel music and its’ message to all people, regardless of social position or skin color.

Fortunately, the group had not scheduled any more concerts for a two month period. This allowed James time to ponder what to do next. It didn’t take him long to decide that he would indeed go on…that the Blackwood Brothers Quartet would keep on singing.

There was one engagement left to fulfill, in Fort Worth, Texas. James gathered tenor Bill Shaw and pianist Jack Marshall, and with the help of R.W.’s younger brother Cecil, and the Statesmen’s bass singer, Jim “Big Chief” Wetherington, the group made it through that concert. Wetherington and Kent Higginbotham, bass singer with Cecil’s part-time quartet, the Songfellows, filled in at various times during the period of transition, as did Cecil himself.

(circa 1956) James flanked by JD Sumner and Cecil Blackwood

Then, James had to find permanent replacements for R.W. and Lyles. The baritone opening was relatively easy to fill…Cecil was R.W.’s brother, and he was avalable. Cecil became the group’s new baritone, and would remain so for the next 46 years, eventually, upon James’ eventual retirement, becoming the manager of the Blackwood Brothers.

But who would sing bass? James asked the opinions of those closest to him, and one name became prominent quickly, though it was not the one James first thought of. The Sunshine Boys were another popular group of the period, and they had a talented bass singer named JD Sumner. James said years later that Sumner’s name just “kept coming up”, and though he didn’t think Sumner would be a good fit (he sounded nothing like Lyles), he began to believe that God was becoming involved in his replacement choice. With that idea in mind, James relentlessly offered Sumner the job, despite getting applicants far and wide from elsewhere (given the Blackwoods’ stature and popularity, this was no surprise). James was convinced that God wanted JD Sumner to sing bass for the Blackwood Brothers, and he would not take “no” for an answer.

“No” was indeed JD’s first response…since he was happy and content with the Sunshine Boys…but as James persisted, JD’s resistance quickly began to fade, and when James made JD an offer he could not refuse (part ownership in the quartet), JD finally accepted. JD Sumner became the Blackwood Brothers’ new bass singer.

(circa 1955 or so) L-R: Bill Shaw, James Blackwood, Cecil Blackwood, JD Sumner

And what a hire that was…almost immediately after JD joined the group, he gave the group a new stage presence, and a whole brace of new song material. JD wrote songs, which was a skill he had that was not encouraged by the Sunshine Boys, but with James Blackwood doing the prodding, JD’s creativity came bursting out. Sumner wrote over 700 songs during his Hall of Fame career, and the vast majority of them were written during his 11 years with the Blackwood Brothers. For part of that time, the Blackwood Brothers’ albums almost featured JD’s songs exclusively.

Also, not to be overlooked, James took a bigger role as MC during personal appearances of the group…and his stage personality became more powerful and had more of an impact upon audiences than ever before…and the strength of his voice seemed to grow proportionately!

Two other aspects of Sumner’s came to the fore during his time with the Blackwood Brothers. JD was an innovative, visionary thinker…he had ideas about group transportation and the gospel industry as a whole. With the Blackwood Brothers, he was in a position to put those ideas into practice that he was not before. About a year after he joined the group, he persuaded James that traveling by custom bus would be the way to go for a gospel quartet…and in 1955, the Blackwood Brothers became the first organization in all of entertainment, gospel or secular, to use a bus as its’ primary means of transportation! The Statesmen soon followed, and eventually, the bus became the standard form of transportation for most all entertainers…certainly for gospel singers!

(circa 1955) JD Sumner with his wife Mary

A year after that, Sumner conceived an idea for an annual talent convention for gospel singers…to encourage fellowship and cooperation between artists, and to give fans a chance to see all their favorite singers in one place in an annual gala event! In 1957, that dream became reality as the National Quartet Convention was formed, and remains gospel music’s premier annual event today!

And for the Blackwood Brothers and Sumner, JD’s joining the group was musically fortuitous as well. Not merely because of JD’s original songs, but because of JD’s well-deep bass voice…which became such a staple of the Blackwood Brothers sound. If possible, the quartet became more popular than it was before the crash. Symbolically perhaps, the quartet’s first appearance with Cecil and JD was August 5, 1954 in the still flame-scarred airport runway in Clanton, Alabama where the group’s career threatened to come to an end!

Further evidence that the group was all the way back, and then some, was when they returned to the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts show once more in September, 1956…and won the talent competition again! The Blackwood Brothers were back…on top, as they were just two short years before!

Sumner would go on to revitalize the Stamps Quartet in 1965, and become even more well-known as the “world’s lowest bass singer” as he and his group backed Elvis Presley on stage during the last five years of that superstar’s life. And Sumner would continue to be a leading figure in the gospel music world all the way up to his untimely death in 1998…and even today, the legend of JD Sumner still looms large over the world of gospel music.

Would JD Sumner have achieved what he did if he had not become a member of the Blackwood Brothers? That question is certainly a matter of discussion…but it’s arguable that had JD not enjoyed the profile he did as a member of the top quartet in gospel music (at least in terms of income and recording popularity), he might not have made quite the impact he did on gospel music as a whole.

And what of the Blackwood Brothers? How did they fare following the tragedy? Well, their record sales remained strong…only the Chuck Wagon Gang has sold more recordings than the Blackwood Brothers among gospel groups. And the level of popularity in the gospel singing business lasted for another two decades following the crash…fading finally in the 1980s when the industry had finally changed too much for the group to keep pace. Because James Blackwood had the faith and determination to carry on despite the tragedy, gospel music is richer historically and spiritually because of the example that James Blackwood put forth.

And there are other questions one could ponder as well as a result of the tragedy…for example, one of the bass singers that auditioned for the vacant job in 1954 was a young man named George Younce. Had Younce been hired, would there have been a Cathedral Quartet a decade later to enrich the history of gospel music?

All these “what if” questions are impossible to answer, of course, but there is no doubt that the plane crash of June 30, 1954 was a momentous event for all of gospel music…then, and yet today!

The tragedy “shook up” many in the world of gospel music…but because of the faith and determination of James Blackwood, the talents of James and JD Sumner, and the God-given characteristics of all involved, wonderful gospel music came our way…despite the horrible tragedy.

June 30, 1954, then, should be remembered by all gospel music fans…not only because of the voices that were stilled because of the plane crash, but because of the music and lessons we all can learn from it!

About This Article - SG History 101 - Plane Crash

John Scheideman's avatar Author: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Written: 06/01/2005 | Category: SG History 101 Comments: 1783

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Reader Comments

Great job! Once again, you've brought the history to life!

Just as there is a History Channel on cable TV, I wish there was a Southern Gospel History
Channel on cable. You could write and produce the episodes.

Consider this a strong suggestion to write a formal proposal to one or more of the gospel TV
cable channels to create a series -- Southern Gospel 101. You've got the goods to do it. You've demonstrated that. Your monthly columns are a blessing to all who read them. You've found your niche.

You could reach so much more of an audience if you'd get these on television instead of just online. I realize that the Internet is global and in theory everyone in the world could be reached by being online. However, television is the medium that the masses are tuned into daily. That's why I believe a Southern Gospel History Channel or Series on cable is the best venue for spreading the gospel history, about which you have proven yourself to be an adept researcher and writer.

By Jaynie Dillon-Jones on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 2:30:04

John: You have "rung" the bell again with your article about the Blackwood tragedy. I was a teenager in Iowa when this story unfolded and remember Kent Higgenbotham comimg with Cecil Blackwood and I believe Jim Hammil and the Songfellows to our little church in Woodbine, Iowa before the flight accident. They sang several songs at my mothers piano in our tiny living room while I stood inraptured by them taking time to do so. The former piano player for the Blackwood Brothers ,Hilton Griswold, was the youth director for the Assemblies of God in Iowa at the time also. At youth camp he would call me up to sing with him and others and we always sang Blackwood songs. I heard Bill Lyles and R.W. Blackwood with the group many times in those years and began to dream about someday singing gospel music. Litlle did I know at that time thatI would share the platform with the Blackwoods and other wonderful groups in venues all across America. Your article about some of my heros in gospel music has made me more grateful that I was priviledge to sing with them.

Your approach to this event is most interesting and so true. "What If" really makes you stop and think about what would have happened "If" this or that would have happened. All I know is that God has a plan for all of us and to be happy we must follow HIM.

Duane Nicholson

By Duane Nicholson on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 9:23:24

Another home run, John! You described the event so well, I felt like I was an eyewitness. You also include some info that I didn't know.

I enjoyed (and agree) with your analysis of the impact the plane crash had on Gospel Music. Once again God gracefully brought glory out of tragedy.

Keep up the good work.

By Jim Duggan on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 10:36:17

Great article, John. I enjoy all of your articles. The Blackwood Brothers, especially James Blackwood, have influenced me greatly. J.D. was one of my boyhood heroes. I always wanted to be a bass singer and sing just like J.D. However, I ended up being a baritone, so all I could was just sit back and appreciate such great singing. I also beleive that J.D. was vocally at his best during the Blackwood years. He was more than just a low note singer during this time. He also did a great job with his upper register.

After reading your article I am again reminded that God takes all things and works them together to accomplish His purpose for those who belong to Him.

By Mike McIlwain on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 11:18:56

Wow. John, what a great job you are doing with this monthly article. I look forward to each and every one. I had heard the highlights of the Blackwood Brothers tragedy in the 1950's, but I am fascinated to hear the deeper, more complete story. I'm curious, how do you do your research? However you pull it together, please don't stop. I love this. In fact, here's an idea: when you have enough of these articles compiled, you should put them into a book. I'll buy the first copy. If this website doesn't pay you, they should! If they do pay you, you deserve a raise!

By Ken Hurley on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 7:09:00


To those of us who were introduced to and turned on to great quartet singing by hearing The Blackwood Brothers know exactly what you mean when referring to importance of the plane crash.

Although it deprived us of knowing where The Blackwoods would have went with R.W. and Bill. It also gave us The Blackwood Brothers that I loved so much with J.D. and Cecil.

You do have an amazing story telling ability!

Your column is the first thing I read each month.


By Bill House on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 9:18:55

Another fine article - keep up the good work.


By Dean on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 9:36:17

GREAT story. I was too young to remember this story.I was born right before Elvis died. I LOVED it.

Rick Hendrix

By Rick Hendrix on Wed, June 01, 2005 - 10:06:51

Great Article John!

By Baldheaded Bus Driver on Thu, June 02, 2005 - 10:25:52

John, another great story. I was in the Navy at Memphis during most of 1952 and listened to the Blackwoods on the radio each morning. What a way to wake up and get ready for another day listening to them.


By Jerry B on Thu, June 02, 2005 - 7:33:28

Another great article, John.

How wonderful to know that, even in the deepest of tragedies, God's plan for our lives can and will continue. He always has a way to turn disaster into triumph and cause our best days to still be ahead for us.

This story reminded me of the faithfulness of our God, even in the midst of our deepest sorrows and deepest needs.

Thanks again for a wonderful story.

By CliffCerce on Fri, June 03, 2005 - 1:19:07

For the most part this article was very informative however greatly tarnished by the comment about black people sitting in their own section at the funeral. That statement was and is irrelevent for this article and in this day and age, should never have been meantioned even though it was one of the major sins of the south in the past and hopefully not in the 21st century.
As a white person, I am ashamed of how this was written.
I am sure the writer could have expressed
the broad appeal of the Blackwoods in a much more tasteful way.


By Tim Laughlin on Fri, June 03, 2005 - 7:56:44

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for their comments. I enjoy reading what people have to say about these articles.

I'd like to briefly address Tim's comments above, in hopes that it may clarify my intentions in articles like these.

Tim, I'm sorry you feel that my mention of the fact that the black mourners at the funeral of R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles were in a separate section fom the other mourners there somehow "tarnished" the article.

When I write articles such as these, I try to realize that a lot of my readers were not familiar on a first-hand basis of the event depicted. Some are, but most aren't. For those readers unfamiliar with the historical context of these events, I try to relate items in my narratives to the context of the events, for it is my experience that if one is as familiar with said context as possible, one can learn and understand the events much easier than if one is not...and is just looking as it were at words on a page.

Almost every other account of the event mentions the composition of the funeral as well...and I assume it is included for the same reason(s) I did. You correctly understood my intention in mentioning the black turnout at the funeral was to illustrate the enormous appeal the Blackwood Brothers had among all gospel fans, not just their primary white audience.

I feel the mention is relevant for the article, especially in light of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, issued just over a month before the plane crash occurred. That decision was the impetus in changing race relations in the last formally abolishing segregation laws in that part of the country. You rightly describe this as a "sin" of the South...and if we don't learn from our sins of the past, we are more likely to repeat them.
Refusing to look back at the realities of the period, then, does us no good as we strive to move forward.

I don't know how better I could have achieved my overll objectives in the article without mentioning that blacks were a part of the Blackwood Brothers story, albeit in a separate portion. I feel(as do my predecessors in telling the story undoubtedly do)that relating details such as these helps us to better understand the story and the time in which it occurred.

I hope this helps you better understand why I wrote the article in the way I did. Thanks again for your comments...I welcome all responses, critical or encomial...for they help me write articles that better serve our readers.

By John Scheideman on Sat, June 04, 2005 - 5:49:36


Once again I don't know how you do it! You make the readers feel like they were there no matter what article you write. I am also amazed at all the information you can pack into each article! I agree that you should write a book.

Thank you,


By Donna on Sat, June 04, 2005 - 11:02:27

Once again, a great article! I, like most of your readers, knew about the June 30, 1954 accident. I did not, however, know of the detail which you provided. I also wasn't aware that the young man was a passenger on the plane.
I found myself experiencing the horror that the people who were there had to be feeling, as they watched the plane crash to the ground.
Another thing that struck me, as I read your article, was the number of Hall of Fame bass singers that graced the stage with the Blackwood Brothers, throughout their storied career. There were at least three, and possibly four or five, that stood beside R.W. or Cecil through the years.
Thanks for the history lesson on one of the memorable times in gospel music history. I look forward to your next monthly article.

By Joe Mannon on Sun, June 05, 2005 - 10:54:56

JOHN, you are the man! Thanks for giving us the details about one of the most horrific tragedies in Southern Gospel music history. It makes me appreciate the Blackwoods all the more.

By Doug Rogers on Mon, June 06, 2005 - 12:12:44

John, thank you for yet another interesting article! The plane crash surely made an impact on Quartet music. You did an excellent job of sharing many intiguing ideas.

By Gayla on Mon, June 06, 2005 - 5:15:49


Another great job this month! Thanks for the time and effort you put into making these articles so informative and insightful into the history of these groups!

By Laurie on Tue, June 07, 2005 - 11:11:14


YES, I'm finally just now getting to read your article. I thought it was well written and the detail provided helped me to feel that I was actually there watching the scene unfold. Your attention to detail is awesome, even if the details are unpleasant. We must remain aware of our history in order to learn from it and not make the same mistakes now. That is what grace and mercy is for. smile

Be blessed!


By Kat on Thu, June 09, 2005 - 5:22:32


History, in and of itself, is not racist or biased. Don't let one disparaging comment give you the tuck head. The hyper-sensitivity of the political correctness era has caused people to want to rewrite history. You told it the way it was, not necessarily the way you would have preferred it. Let the history stand, and let us learn from it.

I share the gentleman's sentiments toward the treatment of our fellow black countrymen in our past, but it doesn't help their cause of equality to sweep the past under the rug of history.

It was my privilege to see the appearance of the Blackwoods on Arthur Godfrey's telecast just prior the the tragedy. A few years later I became a friend to the whole reorganized Blackwood Brothers Quartet with J.D. and Cecil. In the years that I knew them and worked concerts with them I never once heard them make comments with ethnic bias.

Yours was another in a series of accurate historical accounts. No "ifs", "ands" or "buts". You did a superb job, period.


By Neil on Thu, June 09, 2005 - 10:02:21