Almost Statesmen, Part 3: An Interview with Bobby Clark
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.
After Denver Crumpler died, Hovie Lister also tried to hire Bobby Clark. At the time, Clark was singing tenor for the Rangers. In his 2009 autobiography The Cathedral Quartet: The Early Years, he relates the incident with remarkable candor:
I flew to Atlanta to audition with the quartet and was awarded the position. My wife was pregnant with our first son, and she told me that if I took the job with Hovie, she would divorce me. After first telling Hovie that I would accept the job, I reluctantly declined, seeing the tremendous burden this would place on my marriage and my family. In spite of the many telegrams which Hovie sent asking me to reconsider my position, I remained with the Rangers and Hovie hired Rosie Rozell.
In a recent interview with SouthernGospelBlog.com, Clark graciously agreed to elaborate further. “God had called me to preach,” he recalls; “I’m an ordained Baptist preacher.” He was studying for the operatic stage and in seminary at the same time. After a year at Bob Jones, he switched to a seminary; at the same time, he says, “I was studying with a very fine voice teacher in Detroit, Michigan at Wayne State University.”
He was a good friend and classmate of Bryan Jones, pianist for the Toney Brothers. Jones invited Clark to a concert which the Toney Brothers and Statesmen did in Detroit, Michigan at the Gilead Baptist Church, “one of the biggest independent churches in the country at the time.” At dinner afterwards, Jones introduced Clark to Denver Crumpler.
Clark has fond recollections of Crumpler, noting that “I was a fan of his,” and that “Denver was a very fine gentleman – he looked the part of a riverboat gambler, but he was very classy. Denver just stood and sang. I was tought that way; opera singers don’t move around on the stage that Gospel singers do. They concentrate on correct tone placement and on getting everything right, as they were taught.”
Shortly afterward, Jones invited Clark to another concert at the same church, this time with the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. It was a singing revival, where they would sing for forty-five minutes to an hour and fifteen minutes, before handing the program over to Bob Barr to give an invitation.
After the concert, Jones took Clark backstage, and told Blackwood Brothers pianist Jackie Marshall that he wanted him to hear Clark sing. Marshall asked, “Bobby, would you like to get into the quartet business?”
Clark said, “I don’t know anything about the quartet business.”
Marshall said, “I know a quartet [looking] right now—a good quartet with fine personnel. If you’d be interested, I’d be happy to go ahead and tell them [about you].”
Marshall contacted Jimmie Jones, manager of the Deep South Quartet. Jones called Clark to ask for a tape. He indicated that they had just lost Kermit Jameson, and that he’d heard that Clark came highly recommended by Denver Crumpler and Jackie Marshall. So Clark sent Jones a recording of “How Great Thou Art,” which Clark had made on a wire recorder. Once Jones received it, he called Clark and asked, “How quickly can you get here?”
Clark ended up becoming close friends with Denver Crumpler; he recalls staying in Crumpler’s home when in Atlanta, adding: “We were close friends. He helped me with many things about singing in quartets.”
“Crump came to me one time when I went to hear them sing,” Clark continues; “he said, ‘Hovie’s paying attention to what you do vocally.’
Clark indicates that Crumpler knew his health was not the greatest; “Denver was a diabetic and had a bad heart. He said ‘I’ve told Hovie that if I ever pass away [to call you].'”
So, several years later, Clark was singing with the Rangers in Akron, Ohio, with Dave Reece, Roy McNeal, David Ingles, and Warren Holmes, when Hovie gave him a call.
Clark still recalls the conversation distinctly. “I’ve tried out 15 tenors,” Hovie told him. He doesn’t recall all their names, but does know that Lister told him that Jim Hill, Willie Wynn, and even Rosie Rozell had tried out at that point. Lister told him that they had done the tryouts “in order to give the genuine constituents of Gospel music, especially tenors, a chance to try out,” but that “we called you because you’re the one we want.”
Lister arranged for a round trip ticket to Atlanta for Clark; it was the first time he’d ever traveled on a big jet. At the time, Lister rented the entire seventh floor of the Briarcliff Hotel on Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta. He lived there, ran the quartet’s offices from there, and had a rehearsal area there.
Clark recalls the audition clearly. “I happened to know every song the Statesmen did, in the keys they did it, and the arrangements that they used.” The rehearsal went well; “I rehearsed with them for four hours, the first part of the day. Hovie said, ‘We’ll break, have dinner, come back, and rehearse a little more. But as far as we’re concerned, every man in this quartet wants you. You sing a whole lot like Crump—you have a natural tenor range in which you sing.”
His wife was unwilling to leave her family and move to Georgia, so Clark decided he had to turn the offer down. But Lister didn’t give up easily, sending multiple telegrams urging him to change his mind.
Though Clark doesn’t clearly recall the order in which events transpired, what they told him indicates that he was likely the first person offered the job; Asbury Adkins was probably offered the job after him but before Rosie Rozell.
“Rosie was a great tenor and a good friend,” Clark remembers. “His singing wasn’t like mine”; Rozell would slide into notes and do other flourishes which operatically trained tenors would avoid. “We used to talk occasionally on the phone.” The last time Clark saw Rozell was at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion where Charlie Waller orchestrated a reunion of the original Cathedrals lineup. Rozell was seated out front; when Clark went over to talk with him afterwards, Rozell could barely talk due to a recent stroke.
After Clark had told the Statesmen story, the interview discussion drifted across a broad variety of topics. Clark is a veritable fount of fascinating information—details that only an insider would remember but few are alive to tell. These anecdotes are diverse:
- He sang with the Oak Ridge Quartet for a while, but left because he “couldn’t make a living” there.
- When he was with the Weatherfords, they would record a 15 minute TV program segment for Rex Humbard every Monday. Peter Jennings, who had a news program in Cleveland at the time, would drop by the studio to watch and listen—he greatly enjoyed the Weatherfords’ music.
- He believes that the best quartet he ever sang with was the original Cathedrals.
- He has performed with two opera companies, the Lyric Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Orlando Opera Company in Orlando, Florida. The latter was while he pastored a church in Orlando; a highlight of his time with them was performing alongside soprano Roberta Peters during the first act of La Boheme with the Orlando Orchestra.
And naturally, he had some fascinating Cathedrals recollections:
- When the time came to expand the Cathedral Trio into the Cathedral Quartet, Bobby, Glen, and Danny’s first choice was George Younce. (We knew that part.) But if they couldn’t get him, their second choice was Noel Fox.
- The Original Cathedral Quartet recorded a number of jingles (which Danny Koker would arrange)—among these were ads for Republic Steel and the Ford Motor Company.
- On the With Strings session, Armond Morales and members of the Imperials were there, in a monitor room, watching the recording process.
Recording The Cathedral Quartet With Strings was a landmark event in Bobby Clark’s career. On that session, he recalls, they recorded the entire album in two three-hour sessions. Bill Purcell played organ. Charlie McCoy brought his suitcase full of harmonicas. Buddy Harmon, Elvis’s drummer, played drums. Players from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s string section provided the strings. Heartwarming’s Bob McKenzie wrote the symphony orchestra parts. In those days, the musicians and vocalists would all record at the same time.
The Cathedrals walked in knowing the music so well that, on several of the songs, including “Hide Thou Me,” there were no re-takes. “We got a standing ovation from the orchestra,” Clark recalls; “they’d never seen that happen before.”
Clark also shared a number of general insights into the industry. Perhaps most fascinating: “Success for quartets is measured by the longevity of singers who stay with a group and don’t seek greener grass with another group.”
That said, Clark recalled that he has never focused on the external indicators of success. He has never sought “to be number one, at the top of the heap. All I sought to do was sing with the voice God gave me and for the cause of Christ.”