This month we celebrate 60 years of memories of the Granddaddy of ’em All….the National Quartet Convention. If you are a historian/concert-and-
promotions nut like myself, perhaps you have pondered the following. Which artists performed at the first Convention? Who sang the first song? Who was the first emcee? What was it like to have been there? Well, I wondered many of the same things, until some years ago when a collecting buddy of mine shared with me some incredible sound board audio from the very first convention in 1957, recorded by MacAdoo Brewington. Much of the program was intact, and my next lengthy drive was spent listening to those exciting performances. Since we are celebrating 60 years of NQC at the end of this month, I will devote this month’s article to some of the special moments created at that very first convention in Memphis.
The first NQC was held at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, TN, on Saturday, October 19 and Sunday, October 20, 1957. JD Sumner, James Blackwood, and Cecil Blackwood had laid out much of the legwork in preparing this first-of-its-kind event. And naturally, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet were its host group.
Artists who performed on Saturday night of the Convention included: The Blackwood Brothers, Dixie Knights, The Watchmen Quartet, The Rhythm Masters featuring Dale Shelnut, Florida Boys, Rebels Quartet, Blue Ridge Quartet, Speer Family, LeFevres, Toney Brothers, Wills Family, “Little” Winston Blackwood, Big Jim Waits, Governor Jimmie Davis, The Chuck Wagon Gang, Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, Mosie Lister, The Cavaliers, and Stuart Hamblen. The first Convention emcee? Doyle Blackwood.
The first night of this inaugural event began by featuring all of the scheduled artists performing one song each in rapid fire succession. Who sang the first song? Knoxville, Tennessee’s Dixie Knights gave the very first performance, singing the rhythmic “I’m Gonna Trade My Old Cross for a Crown”.
All scheduled artists dashed across the stage for their single song performance within the convention’s first hour, after which each artist took the stage for a three song set. The Florida Boys were first on the main portion of the program. JG Whitfield, Glen Allred, Les Beasley, Coy Cook, and Derrell Stewart were fresh and delightful in the mid 50s. Stewart was equally as funny during this program as he would be over the next half century, as Whitfield encouraged the audience to not be overly encouraging following his piano turnaround on “Good News-Chariot’s a Comin'”. Of course the audience indulged Stewart with loud applause anyway, at which point he incorporated a few bars of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” into his solo.
Attendance for NQC ’57 was such that the annex of the auditorium, located behind the stage, had to be opened to ticket holders. Much was made of this by the artists, who were clearly used to performing with a curtain behind them. Upon entering the stage, Stuart Hamblen’s first words were, “Mercy, you don’t know whether you’re coming or going!”
Hamblen’s performance was an unexpected treat. His song, “This Ole House”, had reached the top of the Pop charts for Rosemary Clooney and was Billboard’s Song of the Year only three years prior. Hamblen was initially upset by Clooney’s upbeat treatment of the song, as he had written it to be a slow, mournful ballad. Naturally, Hamblen’s opinion of the arrangement softened once it became the nation’s biggest hit. Hamblen performed the verses as he had written them, speeding them up to the memorable tempo upon the chorus.
Another interesting performance from Saturday night was given by The Watchmen Quartet from Des Moines, Iowa. Doyle Blackwood introduced them as “The Watchmen Quartet with ‘Little’ Jimmy Hamill”. Yes, you interpreted that correctly, a 23-year-old “Pre-Big” Jim Hamill. The Watchmen were quite different from what fans would later expect from a quartet led on stage by Hamill. Hamill even stated, “You will be able to tell that we are built more for comfort than speed!” Not quite “three chords and a cloud of dust”!
Bro. Hovie Lister led Sunday morning worship service, as he would for many ensuing conventions, immediately followed by the Sunday afternoon program. Performing on Sunday’s concert were The Cavaliers, Sons of Song, Speer Family, Big Jim Waits, The Plainsmen, Melody Boys Quartet, Toney Brothers, Rhythm Masters, Dixie Knights, Watchmen Quartet, Harvesters Quartet, Blackwood Brothers, Hovie Lister & the Statesmen, Wally Fowler, The Wills Family, Stuart Hamblen, and the Rebels Quartet.
Giving particularly strong performances were the Sons of Song, the Plainsmen, Blackwood Brothers, Statesmen, Speer Family, and of course, Big Jim Waits. Judging by the mere audio of the performance by Waits and the Speer Family, I can only imagine the electricity felt in the auditorium as legends Dad Speer and Jim Waits shared the stage singing the classic “After Awhile”. Just listening, one can feel the joy and spirit of these two seasoned performers, as they sang about Heaven with every ounce of fervor that could be found within their hearts.
The Sons of Song had already made a tremendous splash at one of Wally Fowler’s All Nite Sings earlier that year, and their stand that Sunday afternoon had to have been equally as memorable. The Sons were the hottest new group in the industry at that time, thanks to the modern song stylings of Newton and Robinson, combined with the charismatic magnitude of Don Butler. Their dynamic performance beckoned two encores.
In the competitive world of gospel music during the 1950s, one would imagine that host group The Blackwood Brothers would be the last to cut back on their time on stage, yet in listening to the early recordings, the Blackwoods always were first to cut their performances shorter than the rest. Most of the time, their stands were half the length of their guests. Yet just because the Blackwood Brothers trimmed their performances in length, didn’t keep them from making their stands incredibly memorable. The Blackwoods’ performances at NQC were usually incredibly high-energy, with them sprinting through barn-burners such as “I Want to Be More Like Jesus”, “Devil Can’t Harm a Praying Man”, “He’s All That I Need”, “Feelin’ Fine”, and “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” often back-to-back. These are among my favorite audio clips from the early conventions. The Blackwood Brothers taught their peers and the many who followed in their footsteps that it is not about the amount of time you have on stage, but what you do with the time allotted.
Only a few artists from that first NQC are still living today. Bill Shaw is now 93 years young and still singing quite well, even traveling to Florida for some appearances with Buddy and Janet Burton a time or two each year. Lou Wills Hildreth has become one of gospel music’s greatest goodwill ambassadors. Les, Glen, and Derrell from the Florida Boys still pop up here and there. In fact, Les Beasley is President of the NQC, with his son Clark serving as the Executive Director. Speer pianist and soprano Joyce Black-West remains as delightful as ever at the piano.
I hope these observations have helped paint a picture for those who were not there in 1957, and I hope they accurately depict it for those who were. No doubt about it, there is no venue quite like the National Quartet Convention. Whether soaking in the stage memories, sharing funny road stories off stage, or just enjoying the ice cream, it is my hope that 2017 will lay the foundation for another 60 years of grand memories!
Please feel free to email me with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time!