Almost Statesmen, Part 2: An Interview with Ben Harris
The glory days of the Statesmen are now the stuff of legend. We play back the voices of Big Chief, Jake, Rosie, Denver, Doy, and Hovie on old LPs, and watch the few grainy black-and-white video clips that have survived on YouTube. Yet to this day, there are men still alive who had to turn down a bunk on the Statesmen bus.
In this series, we’re visiting with three of them. You met Asbury Adkins last time. This week, let’s meet…
Daniel: I seem to recall a post on the old SoGospelLovers message board where you mentioned that you once had to turn down a job with the Statesmen. Would you be willing to share this story with my readers?
Ben: In 1972, I was 21 years of age, singing lead for a contemporary Christian quartet known as the Impressions from Paducah, KY. We had opened for Jake Hess (another story) some months before, and apparently Jake saw something in me I did not see in myself. In July of that same year Doy Ott of the Statesmen Quartet, called my home one evening. He announced who he was and that Jake had given him my name. I thought it was one of my buddies playing a practical joke on me, so I kept asking him, “Who is this really?” Doy finally said, “Can we get past the part where you don’t think this call is real and discuss why I called?”
It seems they were going to be at the Massac County Park in Southern IL in a couple of weeks and Doy wanted me to show up for an interview and maybe a “tryout”. The Massac County Park was just across the river from Paducah and just a few short miles from my home in Kentucky. So, I made my way to Massac County Park Fair Grounds on the proper night, and found Doy, told him who I was, and why I was there. He told me to “Stay right here and I’ll go get Hovie.” Doy came back a few minutes later with Hovie and Big Chief. Doy gestured toward me and said to Hovie, “This the guy that Jake told us about.”
Hovie then walked up to me and asked me, “Young man what can I do for you?” To which I answered, “I heard you’re looking for a lead singer.” Hovie moved back a step or two and said, “I have a lead singer”. To which I replied, pointing to Doy, “Then why did he call me?”
Hovie made a little chuckle and told Doy, “Take him out to the bus, I’ll make sure Jim (Jim Hill their lead singer at the time) works the table. A few minutes later I was standing in the front of the Statesmen’s Flex bus, chatting nervously with Doy, Sherrill Neilson and Chief. O’Neil Terry, their long time bus driver, was sitting in the driver’s seat. More on him later.
Now, ever since Doy had called me I had been working day and night on every song they were doing at the time, and I thought I had them down pretty well. But when Hovie finally came onto the bus I found out all my work was for naught.
With no accompainment at all Doy hummed a note and told me to sing the lead on “Do you know my Jesus” which I did. Then he told me to sing the baritone part while he sung the lead, which I also did to the best of my ability. Next, he told Sherrill to sing the lead, and he pivoted toward me and told me to sing the tenor line. Eventually he asked me to sing the 6th on the last chord of the chorus. I did not have a clue what a 6th was, but I had been taught the moveable “Do” system as a kid, so I counted up in my head, from the Do and landed on the La. I sang the “La” on the end of the chorus and Doy told me I was right. I remember being totally surprised at being right.
Doy then asked Hovie what he thought, and for the longest time, Hovie said nothing. Finally, breaking the silence for what seemed like an eternity, Hovie said this to me, “Young man, come to Atlanta and spend 3 weeks with us. If we like you after that, we’ll buy you a suit.”
I was on cloud nine, walking about a foot or so above the ground. I drove home that evening and told my spouse that I was going to be the new lead singer for the Statesmen Quartet. But after I told her the entire story of the “3 weeks in Atlanta”, and the “we’ll buy you a suit” line, she put my feet right back on the ground, and pulled all the air right out of my sails.
She said. “You don’t have the job, you have a 3 week trial, and maybe a job if they think you’re good enough. That’s a big chance to take.”
She, of course, was right. So now I had to decide to either quit my job and head to Atlanta to give this a try, or turn Doy down and remain employed with the Civil Engineering division of the KY Department of Highways. My daughter had just been born into this world and over the next few days I finally came to the conclusion that I would accept the position if they would guarantee me the job, and If I could get no guarantee, then I would have to turn them down. Doy could not give me the guarantee I wanted, although he did pressure me to do the 3 weeks in Atlanta. But in the end, my daughter Sheila was more important to me than singing lead in any quartet.
Now, I would be lying if I told you I have never had regrets, for I have had many, virtually every day of my life since. But, I still believe that the decision I made was the best one for my situation at the time. Who knows, maybe I would have made it, and then again, maybe not.
Sheila is now a grown woman with a child of her own. She teaches English in a school system just about 40 miles south of Massac County Park, and not far from Paducah, KY. She is the light of my life!
An interesting side note here…….Jake and I became wonderful friends through the years, and when I moved to Nashville to go to work for Ronnie Milsap as his chief engineer, Jake and I attended the same church for many years. When Jake passed away a few years back, I went to his funeral and also the visitation the evening before. When I walked in I talked with Jake’s children, Becky and Chris for several minutes, and while we were talking, I noticed a man sitting to the right of Jake’s casket. It was O’Neil Terry, the Statesmen’s long time bus driver. I walked over to shake his hand, and even though he did not remember my name, he told me almost instantly, “You tried out for the Statesmen in that park in IL several years ago. I remember.” I was amazed he remembered after so many years. We talked a few minutes and he and I both mentioned how we were going to miss Jake.
Daniel: Fascinating! Where has your life gone since? And could you tell us about the group you’re with now, Southern Sound?
Ben: Through the years Jake gave my name to several quartets looking for a lead or baritone. And for some reason, none of those ever worked out. It was as if God had a different plan for me. One of those groups was the Dixie Melody Boys. As requested, I sent a demo tape to Ed. A few days later Ed called me and asked “Is this actually you on this tape?” Needless to say I never got the job and to this day I wonder what on earth he meant by that.
My “tryout” for the Statesmen is a wonderful memory I will cherish the rest of my days. I was blown away by the sheer ability of Sherrill Neilson. I was amazed at the great ear of Doy Ott, and relieved that the Chief was as friendly to me as he was. I was very intimidated, that’s for sure. But it was also a great experience, and although it never went further, it taught me more that evening than I thought possible.
When the opportunity came along to sing with a new group forming, I was very reluctant to say yes. But eventually I did, and that was the beginning of Southern Sound Quartet. It was intended to be a weekend per month kind of thing, just to scratch the itch a little. Well, it has become a bit more than that.
We now have the finest quartet we have ever had with Mike Young on tenor, David Fair on baritone, Rick Fair on bass, and Barry Patrick playing piano. We have had several name groups to copy our songs and arrangements, and this is flattering to say the least. But most of all, we just try to be the singers and Christians that God expects us to be. We don’t play the politics of Southern Gospel very well, nor do we inspire to do so. But we do intend on continuing on with what we feel God has led us to do. It has been a very tough road, but a very rewarding one as well.
One evening at a modest church in Richmond, VA, an elderly lady in a wheel chair came down for prayer while we were singing. I assumed she was praying for her health. When her prayer concluded she said, “I have resisted the Lord for 80 plus years, and tonight, I got saved.” That, folks, is the reason!
Daniel: Thank you very much! Readers can find more about Southern Sound—and hear sound clips of Ben’s voice today—at www.southernsoundquartet.com.
Coming next week: Bobby Clark!