SG History 101
SG History 101 - Bass Singers
As we begin 2010, we shall continue our overview of many of the southern gospel genre’s greatest singers by quartet parts, inasmuch as the quartet (particularly the male quartet) was the main vocal model of the genre for most of its’ existence. And this month, we come to the part that is arguably the most distinctive and celebrated in the genre, for a number of reasons.
I touched upon this in a previous SG History 101 article (July 2008) , and this article can be viewed as a companion pice to that one, to a point. Arguably the most distinctive and defining aspect of southern gospel quartets are their bass singers, because even more so than the high tenor singers, people are enchanted and fascinated with low male voices, and exactly how low the bass singers can sing. In fact, it is not unusual at all for people to enjoy a particular quartet for any reason other than that quartet has a particularly prominent or distinctive bass singer.
Arguably, it is the bass singer and the way he is used in a quartet that distinguishes southern gospel quartet music from any other musical genre, be it Christian or secular. Certainly many of the most famous and beloved gospel singers have been quartet bass singers, and their distinctiveness was key in taking gospel music from a mere sales vehicle for music publishers into a unique entertainment vehicle.
Lest anyone misunderstand that last sentence, I do not mean to imply that bass singers are only entertainment vehicles for singing groups. Some of the very best bass singers have been used to create a distinctive worship aspect to the music of a gospel quartet. I mean simply that since people have seemed to find quartet bass singers (and singing) particularly entertaining, they (bass singers) have had a lot to do with making southern gospel music especially distinctive.
That line of analysis is already developed in the previous article, however. Here, I simply wish to bring attention to the most distinctive bass singers historically, as I did with the previous articles in this series on the particular featured parts (tenor, lead, baritone) .
So let’s look back once more. You’ll recall that the original reason for the development of male quartets as the primary instrument of southern gospel music was because that they were the most popular demonstrators of the gospel songs in the various songbooks presented by the music publishing companies. And most of the arrangements were for quartets, especially male ones.
But in the beginning, there was no thought of “star” singers in those quartets or of rearranging songs to feature particular parts. And the singing was straight from the songbooks, not arranged to entertain concert audiences.
James Parks Waites
This initial development stage began to change primarily because of the work of a particular singer. James Parks Waites came to gospel quartet music not from a church or publishing company background, but a show business one, being a former vaudeville performer. As such, he had a sense for entertaining audiences in a way that few other quartet singers had. He also happened to have a very distinctive bass voice, and knew how to use it to reach audiences. This fact in addition to his unique onstage antics (shaking his pant legs on stage as if he were shaking low notes out of them, for example) along with his ease in relating on a personal level to gospel quartet audiences, probably made him the first “star” gospel singer. Waites’ singing and personality endeared him to gospel music audiences for decades, and with many of gospel music’s most well-known groups (the Stamps Quartet, the Vaughan Radio Quartet, the Homeland Harmony Quartet, the LeFevres, the Rebels Quartet, and even guest appearances with the Speer Family and Chuck Wagon Gang) . Arguably, just about every distinctive stage personality in the history of gospel music has been influenced to one degree or another by the career of Jim “Pappy” Waites.
No doubt about it, Waites was a star. And while he was virtually the only star of gospel music in the 1930s, it wasn’t long before he had competition in that regard from other singers. And, because Waites inspired other gospel bass singers to emphasize their unique and appealing voices, it is perhaps not surprising that most of that competition would come from other bass singers.
By the 1940s, the Rangers Quartet was perhaps gospel music’s most popular quartet. And it was not only because of the superb tenor voice and guitar stylings of Denver Crumpler, but on the other end of the scale, the distinctive bass voice of Arnold Hyles excited gospel music fans as well. With a gruff, loud voice, Hyles was able to sound a lot lower than the notes he actually sang, and in time became known as the “world’s lowest bass singer”. Capitalizing on Hyles’ appeal, the Rangers featured bass lines from Hyles frequently on songs, influencing other groups to do the same with their good bass singers. The bass singer began to be viewed as a crucial part of having a good gospel quartet, and other quartets began to be formed accordingly.
The Blackwood Brothers were another quartet that would gain much popularity in the 1940s, and again, the bass singer was a key in each gain in popularity. The first non-Blackwood singer in the quartet, Texan Don Smith, helped the quartet gain popularity during the Second World War, while his successor took them even farther. Bill Lyles was an extremely smooth and mellow bass singer with the Swanee River Boys who joined the Blackwoods in 1947 and soon thereafter, the quartet reached new heights of popularity, culminating in their famus Arthur Godfrey TV appearance in 1954. Lyles was equally adept at rhythm bass singing as well as being the featured vocalist on songs, and his affable personality endeared him to gospel singing fans.
One of the truly great (as well as beloved) bass voices who became well-known in the 1940s was Aycel D. Soward, who like Waites, came into gospel music from outside the traditional publishing company background, having studied voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He was well-known for having one of the fullest sounding bass voices ever in the genre. But unlike Waites, his fame came almost solely because of his vocal quality, not that plus stage mannerisms and personality. His success proved that one could be a successful, influential singer on simply a great bass voice alone. His greatness is perhaps best attested to by the fact that when Hovie Lister was looking to make his Statesmen Quartet the “perfect” gospel quartet, his original ideal bass singer was Soward.
But the man who would become Lister’s ideal bass singer also emerged on the scene in the 1940s. Georgian Jim Wetherington, like many of his contemporaries, served his apprenticeship in a variety of local quartets, but he first began to attract attention with one of the most accomplished quartets of all time musically speaking, the Melody Masters. Wetherington was so impressive with that quartet that fellow member Jake Hess kept him in his mind when he later joined Lister’s Statesmen…and when it looked as if Soward would no longer remain with the Statesmen, Wetherington was invited to join them.
There, Wetherington became the “Big Chief”. His extremely gifted voice and his stage presence, in addition to his ability to arrange and understand music, made him probably Lister’s key man in the quartet. Certainly, Wetherington was one of gospel music’s most charismatic personalities ever, in addition to being one of its’ most distinctive singers. Wetherington would be featured for 23 years with the Statesmen, helping them become one of the very top quartets in the genre until his untimely passing at the National Quartet Convention in 1973.
So skilled and influential was Wetherington that many today still regard him as the finest quartet bass singer ever. He was also an accomplished songwriter, with over 200 songs to his credit.
At roughly the same time down in Florida, a tall, gangly young man named JD Sumner was emerging with local quartets, coming into more widespread recognition with the Sunshine Boys, an accomplished quartet that dabbled in western music on occasion. But when the Blackwood Brothers lost their bass Bill Lyles in the famous 1954 plane crash, Sumner was invited to join that quartet. The rest is gospel music history.
With the Blackwoods, Sumner had the most visible platform imaginable to indulge in his many creative ideas (bus travel for quartets, the formation of a national quartet convention) , his bent for songwriting (over 700 songs, including “The Old Country Church”, “When I’m Alone”, and “I Can Feel The Touch Of His Hand”) , and most notably, a bass voice that went lower than anyone before him had dared to venture. Such performances as “Wonderful Love” and “I’ve Got To Walk That Lonesome Road” helped Sumner to earn the unofficial title of “world’s lowest bass singer”, which he was billed as being for more than four decades.
His later work with the Stamps Quartet and as a backup singer to Elvis Presley added to his reputation and recognition. But Sumner was a “star” long before he became associated with Presley, and this was primarily because he was among the very first basses (if not THE first) t consistently sing below the C two octaves below middle C, Prior to Sumner’s popularity, gospel quartet bass singers seldom sang below the above-mentioned C. Since Sumner’s popularity (and undoubtedly because of it) , most gospel quartet bass singers regularly sing down there, or below it.
Primarily due to Sumner, in fact, the test for a good bass singer became how low one could sing, even more important than how well they could sing. It was in the midst of that mindset that bass singers such as London Parris and Bob Thacker became known. Both Parris and Thacker were fine singers, but they were primarily popular with audiences because of how low they could sing (Thacker in addition was noted for his skill in recitations as well) , and make no mistake, both men had no trouble dragging bottom at all.
In fact, by the 1960s as a result of his work with the Rebels and the Blackwood Brothers, Parris became seen as Sumner’s chief rival for the title of being the lowest bass singer in the genre. Fans who enjoy low bass singing at its’ best would do well to listen to as much of Parris and Sumner during the 1960s as possible….both men would push each other to new depths, so to speak, on a regular basis.
There were, of course, a number of other very good (and well-known) bass singers that emerged on the scene during the 1950s. Herschel Wooten was a fine bass singer for Bobby Strickland’s Crusaders Quartet, and later the Harvesters. He, too, could reach the low, low notes with relative ease, as could the aptly nicknamed Seals “Low Note” Hilton, veteran of the Harmoneers and the Homeland Harmony Quartet, among others.
Other basses during that time that would build memorable careers included North Carolinian Jay Simmons, an extremely accomplished einger with the Plainsmen and Prophets, among others…George Younce (more on him later) , Armond Morales, whose attractive, smooth voice (featured with the Weatherford Quartet and later, the Imperials) was considered the best bass voice of all time at one time by Singing News columnist Roy Pauley, and Herman Harper, who was with the Oak Ridge Quartet (later Boys) from the late 1950s until 1969, when he left to work in the talent agency business.
Some very accomplished bass singers were parts of family groups in this time, such as Brock Speer, who established himself as not only the bass singer but the leader of his Speer Family group as well…and Rex Nelon became a mainstay in the LeFevres after singing with the Homeland Harmony Quartet, and later, chaging the LeFevres name to the Rex Nelon Singers, a group that became an industry leader by the 1980s. Both men were underrated and technically sound bass singers….as was Paul Downing, a most authoritative bass singer with the Dixie Echoes and later, his own Downings.
By the 1960s, even more fine bass singers emerged. Noel Fox was a fine bass singer with the Tennesseans and then the Harvesters before replacing Harper in the Oak Ridge Boys, being a part of that famous quartet’s most illustrious gospel music period, at least in terms of industry recognition and awards. And the man who replaced Fox in the Oaks, Richard Sterban, entered gospel music in the early 1960s with a number of Eastern regional quartets before joining the Stamps Quartet as second bass singer behind JD Sumner. He would go on to achieve a lot of recognition as a low bass artist with the Oaks when they hit it big in country music.
Billy Todd became well-known in gospel music with the Florida Boys in the 1960s, as did Ken Turner with the Dixie Echoes before starring with the Blackwood Brothers in the 1970s. Ray Dean Reese became popular with the Kingsmen when they became full-time in the 1970s, and a youngster named Mike Holcomb rose to distinction in the 1970s with the Inspirations, where his ability to reach the lowest notes as well as sing in higher registers with authority is still a distinctive feature of the Inspirations today.
Buddy Liles did fine work with the Orrell and Landmark Quartets before holding down (no pun intended) the Florida Boys’ bass position through the 1970s and 1980s. And in the category of bass singers who were adept at the lowest notes, John Gresham was outstanding with the Rebels and Thrasher Brothers from the 1970s into the 1990s. And Gene McDonald was a very accomplished bass singer with the Florida Boys upon succeeding Lyles in the group in the 1990s.
And the bass position is a good one for group longevity, too. A major case in point is Gerald Williams, who joined the Melody Boys Quartet as a 16-year old bass singer in 1949, and is still singing a very good bass for them today, 60 years later.
Probably the most celebrated bass singers of recent vintage in gospel quartet music, though, are George Younce and Tim Riley. Younce began his singing career back in 1949 in his native North Carolina, and sang with the Watchmen and Weatherford Quartets before achieving his childhood dream of singing bass with the famous Blue Ridge Quartet in the 1950s. He stayed with that quartet (save for a short cup of coffee with the Florida Boys) until 1964, when old singing friend Glen Payne invited him to make the Cathedral Trio the Cathedral Quartet. Like Sumner when joining the Blackwood Brothers, Younce would flourish there. He wrote a number of songs with the quartet, took over the group’s MC duties when original pianist and baritone Danny Koker departed, and most of all, sang the low notes with equal ease as he did melody lines in a baritone range. Younce was always recognized as one of the strongest pure singers among basses, yet the combination of the Cathedral Quartet’s musical acumen and the relative dearth of other outstanding quartets in the 1980s propelled Younce and the Cathedrals to the very top of the still quartet-driven genre in the 1980s.
Still, the same characteristics that made Waites, Sumner, and Wetherington among the most beloved quartet singers were all still there in Younce….a winning personality, great singing ability and stage presence, and the ability to thrill audiences with good, strong low notes. Younce remains one of the most influential gospel music personalities and singers ever, even after his 1999 passing.
Riley is also hugely influential today, though more celebrated for his ability to hit authoritative low notes than for any Younce-like vocal versatility. Riley has sung with quartets like the Southmen and the Dixie Echoes before joining the Gold City Quartet in 1981. And it’s primarily Riley’s low bass singing that has been the driving force in Gold City’s becoming the genre’s top quartet by the 1990s. And Riley is becoming more active again with the quartet after a road sabbatical of sorts, proving my contention at the outset of this article that a distinctive and low bass singer is sufficient by itself to give a gospel quartet almost instant widespread popularity.
As I hope you noticed, some of gospel music’s greatest personalities and singers have been quartet basses. Indeed, it can be argued that the now distinctive approach of gospel quartet bass singers is one of the defining aspects of the genre.
As before, this particular article doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive analysis of every great bass singer in the history of the genre, just an overview of some of the most popular ones. Your comments to expand on my observations and correct my oversights are always most welcome.
Next month, we’ll examine some of the more notable instrumentalists and pianists of the genre.