By John Crenshaw
Used By Permission of Singing News, a flagship publication of Salem Communications, Inc.
Keeping a Gospel quartet together for five years is impressive. Keeping a Gospel quartet on the road for 25 years is an outstanding accomplishment. Keeping a tradition of Gospel excellence alive for 80 years? Unheard of! However, this year The Blackwood Brothers celebrate 80 years of bringing the message of the gospel in song.
The history of The Blackwood Brothers begins in 1934 in Choctaw County, Mississippi. Brothers James, Doyle, and Roy Blackwood, along with Roy’s son, R.W., formed the first Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Their Church of God background provided the quartet a firm spiritual foundation. The Blackwood family also had a strong love for Gospel music, providing the basis for a great quartet. The group strove for a distinctive sound woven around family harmony.
In the early years, The Blackwood Brothers sang locally for churches and singing conventions. As the sound of the quartet improved, they began to bring their message through the relatively new medium of radio. Soon, the quartet was hired to represent the Stamps-Baxter Music Company. Prior to this time, The Blackwood Brothers were accompanied by Doyle’s guitar. After joining forces with the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, Joe Roper was sent to the quartet to become the first pianist for The Blackwood Brothers.
Stamps-Baxter moved The Blackwood Brothers to Shenandoah, Iowa, where they remained for several years. The impact of World War II made it necessary for The Blackwood Brothers to disband for a short period of time. They also moved their base of operation to San Diego, California, where James and R.W. were helping with the government war effort.
When the war ended, The Blackwood Brothers moved back to Shenandoah. As their popularity spread, they found it necessary to form a second quartet to keep up with their performance obligations. During this time, they established The Blackwood Gospel Quartet. The two quartets filled personal appearances and radio dates for many months to meet the demands of their fan base.
Shenandoah was home to the quartet for nearly 10 years; but the opportunity to relocate to Memphis, Tennessee, availed itself to the quartet. Prior to leaving the conservative confines of Shenandoah, The Blackwood Brothers was much like all of the other quartets of the day: singing in small country churches, doing radio programs, and selling song books out of the trunk of their car. When they moved to Memphis, the quartet found itself injected with new energies due in part to the grand music scene that infused Memphis. The Blackwood Brothers transformed the stodgy church music sound often associated with Gospel music to an exciting art form. They brought Gospel music out of the backwoods of rural American and carried it forth to a national audience.
Soon after moving to Memphis, the quartet stabilized with Bill Shaw singing tenor, James Blackwood singing lead, R.W. Blackwood in his familiar baritone role, Bill Lyles singing bass accompanied by a young pianist named Jackie Marshall. This group has often been referred to as one of the finest quartets ever to appear on a Gospel music stage. The Blackwood Brothers continued to grow in popularity and soon signed a contract with RCA Victor records.
Travel in those days was limited to back-road journeys in worn-out sedans. The innovative Blackwood Brothers realized that they must come up with other methods of travel in order to better serve their growing fan base. R.W. proposed that the quartet purchase an airplane so the group could fly to their engagements.
By the early 1950s, nearly half of the homes in America had television sets. Arthur Godfrey was one of the biggest names in early radio and television. “Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” telecast was one of the most popular and influential national programs of its day. In early 1954, The Blackwood Brothers auditioned for Godfrey’s show. On June 12, 1954, The Blackwood Brothers flew to New York City and appeared on the nationally televised program. Those Southern boys wowed the predominately Northern audience with their flair, style and showmanship. They performed their latest recording, “Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs,”, and it instantly became a top-seller. After their success on the Arthur Godfrey program, the group was at the pinnacle of Gospel music. Little did they realize that they would soon plunge from their peak of stardom into the depths of misery in only three short weeks.
In late June of 1954, the group made plans to fly to a concert date in Clanton, Alabama. As the quartet descended into Clanton, there was a great crowd assembled to greet the famous Blackwood Brothers. That evening, they were scheduled to sing with their friends and business associates, The Statesmen Quartet. The Blackwood Brothers would be flying out of Clanton after the concert; so as evening shadows began approaching, R.W. and Bill decided they wanted to check out the airport runway while there was still some daylight in order to make their departure as safe as possible. However, tragedy lurked for those aboard the aircraft. Problems ensued, and the airplane landed in a fiery crash.
James knew that these gentlemen could never be replaced, so in his grief he decided to disband The Blackwood Brothers. He announced this decision to The Statesmen Quartet as they drove him back to Memphis after the accident. However, God gave James the voice and the desire to spread His Word, and that Word would not be stilled. It was only through prayer and a deep trust in God that James decided to revive The Blackwood Brothers.
After much prayer and soul-searching, James began to re-form the quartet. R.W.’s younger brother, Cecil, was chosen to sing baritone. The search for a bass singer wasn’t quite as easy. Many bass singers applied for the job, but James made a decision that would chart the course for The Blackwood Brothers for years to come.
J.D. Sumner had established himself as a great singer with The Sunshine Boys. He had no intention of leaving The Sunshine Boys, but James made J.D. an offer he couldn’t refuse! Not only was J.D. a great singer, but he was also an astute businessman. J.D. and James formed a friendship and business relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. Their association brought new life to Gospel music through many of their innovations, including bus travel and the formation of the National Quartet Convention.
J.D. left The Blackwood Brothers in 1965 to join The Stamps Quartet because The Blackwood Brothers owned The Stamps Quartet, and they needed someone to steer that ship. So, the two quartets traded bass singers, and John Hall became the bass singer for The Blackwood Brothers.
In addition to John Hall, Dave Weston joined the quartet as pianist. Weston employed a “classical music” feel in his playing, which was far removed from the traditional quartet stylings of their previous pianists. With three highly trained voices in Bill, James, and John, and the dependable Cecil filling the baritone slot, the quartet moved toward a style that was more of an “inspirational” sound than typical quartet music. They continued to thrive in part because the quartet industry was experiencing a swing toward more evangelistic music. In 1966 The Blackwood Brothers became the first Gospel quartet to receive an award from RCA Victor Records symbolizing that the quartet had sold more than one million RCA records.
As the 1970s approached, the sound of the quartet underwent another subtle change. London Parris replaced Hall, bringing back a more traditional quartet sound to the group and other instruments were added to give the quartet a more modern sound.
James was the voice of The Blackwood Brothers; but by now, he was experiencing health concerns. The doctor told James he needed to rest. His sons, Jimmy and Billy, were traveling with J.D. in The Stamps Quartet. James approached J.D. with the idea that his sons join The Blackwood Brothers. J.D. agreed, and Jimmy became the lead singer with The Blackwood Brothers while Billy joined the quartet as drummer. James would take a back seat in the quartet and sing special numbers with the quartet, allowing him to preserve and rest his voice. During this time, the quartet continued to garner awards throughout the music industry.
In the following years, Cecil took on a larger role in the quartet both on and off stage. Pianist Tommy Fairchild began arranging the music for the quartet, and the sound of the group shifted toward a more “hymn-based” sound. It was during this time that they recorded one of their biggest hits, “Learning to Lean.” Even after James left the quartet to devote his time to The Masters V, The Blackwood Brothers continued to carry the gospel in song. Cecil continued to lead The Blackwood Brothers until his death in November 2000.
The patriarch of the Blackwood Brothers organization, James Blackwood, passed away Feb. 3, 2002. For a short time, the name of The Blackwood Brothers Quartet was retired. Jimmy and his cousin Mark Blackwood reorganized the quartet in 2005, and the group has continued to bless the many friends and fans of the quartet with a similar sound to the one perfected many years before.
About five years ago, The Blackwood Brothers were in the studio to record a project celebrating 75 years in Gospel music. Jimmy and his brother Billy had been discussing the recording, and Billy asked if he could take part in the recording by laying down some drum tracks. When Billy arrived at the studio, he learned that the baritone for the quartet had resigned, and no replacement had been found. Billy had done some of the vocal arrangements for the project, so producer Michael Sykes suggested that Billy sing baritone on a few songs “just to see how it sounds.” It sounded very good, and soon The Blackwood Brothers had a new baritone singer. Although Jimmy and Billy traveled together in The Blackwood Brothers in the early 1970s, this was the first time two actual brothers had sung together in The Blackwood Brothers Quartet in many years.
Jimmy retired from The Blackwood Brothers a couple of years ago, turning the reins of the quartet over to Billy. The current Blackwood Brothers Quartet continues to embrace the style and sound of their founders. Tenor Wayne Little has sung in several groups, including New Millennium and The Crystal River Boys, prior to getting on The Blackwood Brothers’ bus. Bass singer Butch Owens has a pedigree in Gospel music, having spent several years in The Stamps Quartet, The Florida Boys, and most recently The Songfellows Quartet. The retired law enforcement officer brings a rich voice and wonderful personality to The Blackwood Brothers. Canadian Michael Helwig took over the job singing lead with the quartet after Jimmy’s retirement. Michael is also an alumnus of The Stamps Quartet as well as The Dixie Echoes. Michael has sung tenor in other professional groups, and his vocal range is exceptional. God has blessed Michael with a wonderful talent, and he fills the lead position with class and dignity. Billy Blackwood, in his own self-effacing manner, claims to be the weakest vocal link in the quartet, but his smooth baritone voice and skillful arrangements provide the color and blend in the quartet harmonies. He also produces The Blackwood Brothers recording projects.
The Blackwood Brothers have won many awards in their career including numerous Grammy Awards and Dove Awards. The group is in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and several individual members of the quartet are enshrined in the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame.
Recently, another honor was bestowed upon The Blackwood Brothers as they were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, taking their place alongside Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash, among others. The current Blackwood Brothers were asked to perform on the awards program, and they brought the crowd to their feet with the spiritual “Everyday Will Be Sunday By and By.” Many of the Blackwood family children were in attendance to honor the Blackwood legacy.
The Blackwood Brothers are making plans for several special events in 2014 to celebrate their 80 years in Gospel music. In addition to The Blackwood Brothers Quartet, other members of the Blackwood family are also involved in the Gospel music industry. Mark Blackwood leads The Blackwood Quartet, and R.W. Blackwood, Jr. leads The Blackwood Singers. Ron Blackwood is active in the promotion and booking of several Gospel artists.
There’s no doubt that the founding four members of The Blackwood Brothers Quartet—Roy, Doyle, James and R.W.—are looking down from Heaven with a smile on their faces at the heritage and tradition of the Blackwood name.