The Blackwood Brothers

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The Blackwood Brothers Quartet
The Blackwood Brothers.png
The Blackwood Brothers Quartet in 1965
Background information
Origin Mississippi, U.S.
Genres Southern gospel
Instruments Vocals, piano
Years active 1934–present
Labels RCA Victor, Skylite
Associated acts The Statesmen Quartet
Members Billy Blackwood
Wayne Little
Butch Owens
Michael Helwig
Mike Hammontree

The Blackwood Brothers are an American southern gospel quartet. They are nine-time Grammy Award-winning pioneers of the Christian music industry.

Musical career[edit]

The Blackwood Brothers Quartet was formed in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression when preacher Roy Blackwood (1900–71) moved his family back home to Choctaw County, Mississippi. His brothers, Doyle Blackwood (1911–74) and 15-year-old James Blackwood (1919–2002), already had some experience singing with Vardaman Ray and Gene Catledge. After adding Roy's 13-year-old son, R.W. Blackwood (1921–54), to sing baritone, the brothers began to travel and sing locally. By 1940, they were affiliated with Stamps-Baxter to sell songbooks and were appearing on 50,000-watt radio station KMA (AM) in Shenandoah, Iowa.

Doyle left in 1942 and was replaced with Don Smith. After Doyle left, The Quartet relocated to Memphis, Tennessee in 1950. The move proved to be successful for the group as they began to appear on television station WMCT in coming years. After the move, Roy left and was replaced with Calvin Newton, who was replaced with Cat Freeman, and after Freeman left, Alden Toney was hired to sing tenor. In 1951, Alden Toney and Don Smith left and were replaced with Dan Huskey and Bill Lyles.

In 1952, Dan Huskey left and was replaced with Bill Shaw. On June 14, 1954, the Blackwood Brothers lineup of Bill Shaw (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), R.W. Blackwood (baritone), Bill Lyles (bass), and Jackie Marshall (piano), won the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts competition on national television with their rendition of "Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs?" The excitement was short lived however, when a plane crash took the lives of R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, and Johnny Ogburn, a local friend of the Blackwood Brothers. The survivors, James Blackwood, Bill Shaw, and Jackie Marshall soldiered on. R.W.'s little brother Cecil Blackwood (1934–2000) took over as baritone and J. D. Sumner replaced Bill Lyles at the bass position. According to Ken Berryhill, their producer it was at about this point in their career that they first crossed paths with the young Elvis Presley, with whom they became friends but had to discourage from joining them. In the following years, the group were the first to customize a bus to make travel spacious and comfortable for entertainers thereby inventing the customized "Tour Bus", something which many years later, when already the most famous singer in the planet Presley saw and went straight out and had one made for him. The Blackwood Brothers were in fact Presley's favorite gospel group which led them to form an enduring friendship and collaboration which lasted even beyond Presley's death.

The group are also the founders of the National Quartet Convention, with Sumner also contributed to the group as a songwriter, sometimes writing all the songs for a music album. The Blackwood Brothers were also setting new standards in the studio. Their RCA Victor recordings from this time period are now prized collectors' items. The lineup with Bill Shaw, James, Cecil, and J.D. Sumner (who for many years was unchallenged as the Guinness World Record holder for having the lowest human voice on record, and was only superseded after Guinness started accepting vocal fry as part of the vocal range) is considered the classic version of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, with Jackie Marshall or Wally Varner on piano. A replica of the bus can be seen at the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.[1]

A replica of The Blackwood Brothers' tour bus at the SGMA Museum.

The Blackwood Brothers formed a partnership with the Statesmen Quartet to tour as a team in the 1950s. This dominance lasted for about a decade until the rise of gospel television shows in the late 1960s began to give competing groups wider exposure. The Stateswood team also started independent record label Skylite Records. At one time, the Skylite roster included The Blackwood Brothers, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, Jake Hess and the Imperials, the Speer Family, the Florida Boys, the Couriers Quartet, the Kingsmen Quartet, the Calvarymen Quartet, the Calvary Quartet, the Kingdom Heirs Quartet, the Statesmen Quartet, the Prophets Quartet, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Jordanaires, the Southernairs Quartet and the Rebels Quartet.

The Blackwood Brothers were still a major force in the industry at the end of the 1960s. In 1969, they collected nearly 200,000 signatures on a "God And Country" petition in retaliation to the banning of prayer in school. In 1969, James Blackwood's oldest son, James "Jimmy" Blackwood, Jr. (born 1943), stepped up as the main lead singer for the group. Jimmy was a member of the Junior Blackwood Brothers and the Stamps Quartet. From 1969 to 1980, Jimmy sang the lead for most of each concert, but James would come in at the end of the concert and do a rousing set that many considered the highlight of the night.[citation needed] James left the Blackwood Brothers in 1980 when he and other former members of the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet formed The Masters V. During the post-Sumner era the Blackwood Brothers quartet included bass singers John Hall, Conley "London" Parris, and Ken Turner, and tenors including John Cox, Steve Warren, Pat Hoffmaster and Robert Crawford. The 1970s and 1980s lineup with Pat Hoffmaster, Jimmy Blackwood, Cecil Blackwood, Ken Turner and Tommy Fairchild had the Blackwood Brothers' biggest hit with "Learning To Lean." This song holds the record in the "gospel music world" for being No. 1 on the national radio charts longer than any other song in gospel music history.[citation needed]

The Blackwood Brothers have recorded over 200 albums and sold over 50 million records. They have won nine Grammy Awards, four Dove Awards, and have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Association (GMA) Hall Of Fame, the Southern Gospel Music Association (SGMA) Museum and Hall of Fame, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Cecil Blackwood died in November 2000, and James Blackwood in effect retired the Blackwood Brothers name. Mark Blackwood continued the heritage in grand style with "Mark Blackwood and the Blackwood Gospel Quartet," eventually hiring tenor Wayne Little and bass singer Randy Byrd. In late 2004, Jimmy Blackwood joined Mark, and together they resurrected the Blackwood Brothers.[2] However, Mark left in 2005, reforming his Blackwood Gospel Quartet, and was replaced with Brad White. Jimmy Blackwood, Wayne Little, Brad White, and Randy Byrd appeared on the Gaither Homecoming video Rock of Ages (2008). Soon after, White left and was replaced with Jimmy's youngest brother, Billy. In 2012, Byrd was replaced with Butch Owens. Also in 2012, Jimmy Blackwood retired and was replaced by Michael Helwig.

Cultural Influence[edit]

The Blackwood Brothers appeal has reached across the musical spectrum for generations. Elvis Presley named the Blackwood Brothers as his favorite gospel quartet growing up. Johnny Cash formed a strong relationship with the Blackwoods and the two acts performed with each other numerous times. Their song "I Was There When It Happened" can be heard singing on the radio towards the beginning of the movie Walk the Line (2005)—when Johnny Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) was in Memphis. In the film and according to Cash's autobiography, while auditioning to earn a spot on the Sun Records label in his early career, Cash performed gospel songs that the Blackwoods sang with regularity. They also appeared on The Johnny Cash Show and performed in 1971. At the end of the 2008 biopic film W., the Blackwood's rendition of "Winging My Way Back Home" was played. Currently, The Blackwood Quartet has been a frequent act with Willie Nelson and his Farmaid musical festival, usually closing out the festival with a rendition of "Ill Fly Away." Bob Dylan announced in his 2015 MusiCares speech that he and the Blackwood Quartet would be recording an album together, his first Gospel album in over 30 years and he would be featured on the well known Blackwood song Stand By Me .

A lengthy profile of the early years of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet titled In the Midnight Aisle was published in the book Louise Brooks, Frank Zappa, & Other Charmers & Dreamers by author Tom Graves. Founding member James Blackwood was interviewed extensively for the profile.

Members (past and present)[edit]

  • Doyle Blackwood (1934–1942)
  • Don Smith (1942–1947)
  • Bill Lyles (1947–1954)
  • J. D. Sumner (1954–1965)
  • John Hall (1965–1968)
  • London Parris (1968–1971)
  • Ken Turner (1971–1988)
  • Cecil Stringer (1988–1992)
  • Eric Winston (1992–2000)
  • Randy Byrd (2004–2012)
  • Butch Owens (2012–present)
  • R.W. Blackwood (1934–1954)
  • Hilton Griswold (1944–1946)
  • Cecil Blackwood (1954–2000)
  • Mark Blackwood (2004–2005)
  • Brad White (2005–2009)
  • Billy Blackwood (2009–present)
  • James Blackwood (1934–1969)
  • Winston Blackwood (1983–1987)
  • Mark Blackwood (1987–1996)
  • Tony Peace (1997)
  • Mike LoPrinzi (1997–1999)
  • Rick Price (1999–2000)
  • Jimmy Blackwood (1969–83, 2004–2012)
  • Michael Helwig (2012–present)
  • Roy Blackwood (1934–1948)
  • Calvin Newton (1948)
  • Cat Freeman (1948–1949)
  • Alden Toney (1949–1951)
  • Dan Huskey (1951–1952)
  • Bill Shaw (1952–1973)
  • Pat Hoffmaster (1973–1979, 1981–1983)
  • John Cox (1979–1981)
  • Robert Crawford (1983–1984)
  • Rick Price (1984–1985)
  • Jerry Trammell (1986–1987)
  • Mike LoPrinzi (1988–1989)
  • Darren Krauter (1990-1991)
  • Steve Warren (1993–1994)
  • Paul Acree (1994–1997)
  • Tracy Trent (1997–1998)
  • Steve Warren (1998–2000)
  • Wayne Little (2004–present)
  • Joe Roper (1938–1939)
  • Wallace Milligan (1939)
  • Marion Snider (1939–1940)
  • Hilton Griswold (1940–1950)
  • Jackie Marshall (1950–1959)
  • Wally Varner (1959–1964)
  • Whitey Gleason (1964–1966)
  • Dave Weston (1966–1968)
  • Peter Kaups (1968–1970)
  • Tony Brown (1970–1971)
  • Tommy Fairchild (1971–1983)
  • Jeff Stice (1983–1985)
  • Brad White (2004–2009)
  • Mike Hammontree (2009–present)



Grammy Awards[edit]

  • 1966: Best Sacred Recording – Grand Old Gospel (with Porter Wagoner)
  • 1967: Best Gospel PerformanceMore Grand Old Gospel (with Porter Wagoner)
  • 1969: Best Gospel Performance – In Gospel Country
  • 1972: Best Gospel Performance (Other Than Soul Gospel) – L-O-V-E
  • 1973: Best Gospel Performance (Other Than Soul Gospel) – Release Me (From My Sin)
  • 1979: Best Gospel Performance, TraditionalLift Up The Name Of Jesus
  • 1980: Best Gospel Performance, Traditional – We Come To Worship
  • 1982: Best Gospel Performance, Traditional – I'm Following You

GMA Dove Awards[edit]

  • 1970: Album of the YearFill My Cup, Lord
  • 1973: Male Group of the Year
  • 1974: Male Group of the Year
  • 1974: Associate Membership Award
  • 1976: Associate Membership Award
  • 1977: Associate Membership Award


External links[edit]

Official website