Concert Review (Bostic, NC): Blackwood Brothers, Bill Shaw, Ken Turner, Ernie Phillips

We’ll do a news roundup at some point—either later today, Monday, or next weekend—and catch up with regularly scheduled programming.

Last night, my schedule unexpectedly opened up in time to catch the Blackwood Brothers in concert. Within the last year or so, they have added Billy Blackwood as baritone and Mike Hammontree as full-time pianist. This was my first time to see them perform (outside of NQC) since the changes.

When baritone/pianist Brad White left, there was some concern that the group would suffer for the lack of his Energizer-bunny spark of endless energy. But Billy Blackwood—Jimmy’s brother, making this the first time in a half-century that two brothers have had singing roles together in the Blackwood Brothers—provides that spark of energy (not to mention great vocal talent).

Hiring a full-time pianist was also an excellent move for the group. Though Mike Hammontree does not put the keyboard through its paces with quite the same energetic abandon that Brad White would use to terrify grand pianos within an inch of their lives and delight audiences in the process, he brings other diverse and prodigious talents to the group. He is conversant with a wide variety of instruments and a wide variety of styles, and is particularly adept with playing a guitar, also doing a guitar number or two in many of their concerts. He is also a great improviser; more on that momentarily.

Despite the fact that bass singer Randy Byrd was fighting seasonal allergies—though he was still so on top of his game that it would take someone who had seen him a number of times before to even notice—this was easily the best I have seen the Blackwood Brothers. Adding a full-time live pianist and a real-life brother with Billy’s level of talent and stage presence was certainly the right direction to go. They are, more than they have been at any point in the last two decades, a group you most certainly do not want to miss when they come through your area.

I walked into the concert having no idea that anyone besides the headliner group would be appearing. But I was pleasantly surprised; you see, if you will walk into concerts across the United States, you’ll often find local talent opening. Sometimes they are near or at professional quality; other times it might be a challenge to keep a smile on your face through the set. Well, in North Carolina, local/regional talent will also appear before concerts—except here, it just might be Bill Shaw, Ken Turner, and Little Ernie Phillips!

Ken Turner sang bass with the Blackwood Brothers in the 1970s; he sang several solo songs, including his sugar-stick vocal trumpet/trombone rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and between vocals and comedy soon had the audience in the palm of his hand. One of the other performers commented that he was glad it wasn’t a competitive setting, because if it was, nobody would want to follow Turner! He also joined the Blackwood Brothers for several songs, commenting afterwards that it was the first time he had sung with them since 1986. Blackwood Brothers pianist Mike Hammontree provided impromptu live accompaniment on piano and guitar for his set.

Little Ernie Phillips sang tenor for the Kingsmen at the peak of their glory days, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Phillips followed Johnny Parrack, and raised the bar; the two have been the gold standard by which all Kingsmen tenors since have been measured. Phillips must be at least in his fifties by now, an age by which many tenor’s voices start to deteriorate. But in the years since his Kingsmen years, he’s moved toward the classical-technique-influenced clear-as-a-bell tenor singing, and it has paid off. If it were a singing competition, he could out-sing most Southern Gospel tenors half his age.

One unforgettable highlight from his time on stage: At the request of Mike Hammontree, Ernie Phillips put together a scrap-iron quartet to sing “Glory Road.” Current Blackwood Brothers bass Randy Byrd joined, and played the Jim Hamill role perfectly. He stopped the song halfway through, after Ernie didn’t even try for the high falsetto note in the chorus. He first recognized Ernie as his hero (okay, that part is something Hamill wouldn’t have done!); then he said that he was really hoping Ernie would let it loose and hit some high ones. So Hammontree kicked the chorus off, and Phillips did not disappoint.

He hit the iconic high falsetto note on “see” in “I can see Him on His throne.”

Then he blew the roof off mid-chorus on the high power tenor line “I’m Heaven bound.”

Then he went from blowing the roof off to blowing my mind: In the ending, he went for the super-high notes he would hit in the Kingsmen Big-N-Live days, singing at least an E above high C, though I suspect it may have been a G, and holding it forever—only coming back down once the other singers were nearly out of breath!

Impressive as that was, the evening’s standout performance belonged to Bill Shaw. This 87-year-old legend is the last living link to the days when the Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen were one of the hottest tickets and concert combinations in the country. And much as Ernie still has what it takes to single-handedly recapture the spirit of the Kingsmen’s Big-N-Live days, Bill Shaw still—as an 87-year-old tenor singer—has that onstage charisma and the voice to make that era come alive one more time. There is occasionally a tremor in his voice which reminds you of his age, but there are far more moments where one would not guess that he was the oldest singer to share the stage that night. His clear-as-a-bell singing style, influenced by his classical vocal training, remains strong. He joined the Blackwood Brothers for several songs at the end of their first and second sets—”Old Country Church,” “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” and one or two others.

Earlier in the program, though, he sang a three-song solo set. He was joined by Buddy Burton and Burton’s wife on background vocals for “I’m Thankful, That’s All” and “I Should Have Been Crucified.” Then, singing solo, he commanded the stage with his signature song, “The Holy City.” This got the most unanimous and prolonged standing ovation of the night.

Turner, Phillips, and Shaw: Not bad at all for local talent, right?

Note: Because my availability and decision to attend the concert was literally at the last minute, I didn’t have either a camera to take pictures—which I most certainly regret!—or a pen to note a set list. Yet the evening was so incredible that I had to capture what I could from memory alone!


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41 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. The only thing I can say is WOW. What a night that would have been to go to that concert.

    • I know! I was planning on kicking back and enjoying the concert, slipping out of reviewer mode for once and just enjoying a good sing.

      But when all of that happened, I knew I had to ditch the schedule here and post a concert review instead! 🙂

    • I wish I could have been there! What is Buddy Burton doing these days?

      • It sounded like he was pastoring.

      • Buddy Burton has quite a history in SG music. Can someone give us a “timeline” of his career? I know he was a Singing American, and I’m thinking Statesmen and maybe the Florida Boys??? I believe he also sang with Jim Loudermilk in a group called The Legends…

      • I’m gonna try to do a Buddy Burton timeline, but I’m sure I’ll miss some groups . . . he has been with a few! I’ve tried to list these groups in the correct order, but I’m fuzzy on a few of them.

        Serenaders (with Ed O’Neal)
        Smitty Gatlin Trio
        Southmen Quartet (with Tim Riley)
        Statesmen Quartet
        Legendary Quartet (also known by “Former Statesmen” and “Rangers Quartet” (Rosie, Buddy, Tommy Thompson, Richard Coletrane)During this time, I think he also did some with with Jim Loudermilk and Rosie as Ed mentioned.
        Masters V (replaced James Blackwood for a short time)
        Singing Americans
        Stamps Quartet
        Legends (different than the Legendary Quaret) (Rosie, Jack Toney/Tommy Howe, Roy Pauley)
        Strangemen Quartet
        Men of Music
        Statesmen Quartet (at least twice)
        Dove Brothers (pianist and fill in vocalist)
        Florida Boys
        Southmen (again)

        Perhaps someone can fill in groups I may have missed.

      • That is incredibly impressive!

  2. Great review on what sounds like a great night. To top it off, you didn’t even have any car issues. 😀

    • Actually, I kinda did – my latest clunker can’t really handle the hills; the automatic transmission seems to take ten seconds or more to shift gears, if it ever does at all. So on the interstates, it was losing 15-20 mph by the top of the hill. Thankfully, traffic was light enough that I didn’t get in a wreck, but I couldn’t even keep pace with all the loaded semis on the hills.

  3. I told you when you moved to NC there would be opportunities to see stuff like this.

    Any time Phil Toney promotes a concert, it’s like a miniature version of the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion.

  4. Hidee,
    All I can say is Wow! I wish I could have been there! It sounds like a wonderful evening. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to seeing most of these gentlemen at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in August!

    • Not a problem! It sure was!

      I detest big cities. Not sure that I can set that aside long enough to get myself down to downtown Greenville… 🙂

  5. That sure was an awesome concert. Wish I could have been there. Thanks for telling us all about it. Love to read all about southern gospel concerts, all the reviews & news. Sure do appreciate all you do.

    • No problem, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  6. What a great night that must have been. Glad you got to go!! The Blackwoods are as good as they have been since the 60’s in my humble opinion. Love that group!!

    • I agree – I don’t think they have been this good since London or Big John Hall was with them!

      The longer this lineup stays together (tenor/lead/bass going on 7 or 8 years now), the better they sound together.

  7. Those little surprises are fun. Several years ago, i went to hear Mark Blackwood’s group and wasn’t sure who was with them. Turned out to be Bryan Hutson(singing tenor), Mark Blackwood, Jonathan Sawrie, and Burman Porter. It was absolutely fantastic. Piano only and classic material. I could have listened to them for hours.

    • Wow – sounds like a great evening. Yes, Bryan Hutson can certainly sing tenor if he’s so inclined!

      • Bryan once made a comment he could sing tenor, but couldn’t do it all of the time. I believe once when a Kingsmen tenor was sick, he and the tenor traded for a program. However, I don’t think he could keep it up show after show.

  8. Yeah, if you went to GOGR you would have already known that Bill is still amazing. Jus sayin’ man….

    • True. There just hasn’t been the money to do both GOGR and NQC in the same year yet.

      I already knew that Bill was amazing, and word had it he was still pretty good. It was just neat to hear it for myself!

  9. What a neat concert experience, especially with the opportunity to hear and see legends in the Southern Gospel industry! Sounded like a wonderful, spontaneous concert – one you won’t ever forget!

  10. What a neat concert experience, especially with the opportunity to hear and see legends in the Southern Gospel industry! Sounded like a wonderful, spontaneous concert – one you won’t ever forget! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Oh no! Clicking the “Submit a Comment” button and then stopping it real quick to add something else doesn’t work! Opps! 🙂

  11. NOT the Garms Family
    What a neat concert experience, especially with the opportunity to hear and see legends in the Southern Gospel industry! Sounded like a wonderful, spontaneous concert – one you won’t ever forget! 😀

    • Boy, it took a minute for me to figure out what on earth you meant by the handle there!

    • Ha, ha, ha! (Are you making fun of us?!) 😀

      (By the way, that might be a great name for a gospel group… 😉 )

      • Well, there have already been the Singing Echoes!

      • TGF, would I……uh we do that?

        I…I mean we…… think the Rambos’ original name was the Gospel Echoes, but as surmised by Daniel, that is not why I …we…chose it. 😀

      • Now THAT is funny! 😀

      • Oh my, I’ve been sleep posting. I need to get some help for that affliction. Perhaps some time away from posting.

  12. That’s amazing that his voice is still strong after all these years. I once got a video of a reunion of another quartet’s former members, and some of them (who were not as old as him) were having to lip sync to their old recordings.

    I’m a first time poster here, but I’ve got a question. Yesterday I purchased a used LP of old Blackwood Brothers songs. I saw that it had a signature on the back, but I didn’t bother to pay attention to it until I got home. It appears to be Bill Shaw’s autograph! The problem is, having never seen his signature before, I have no clue if it’s real or a fake. Does someone have something he’s signed that you could scan or photograph and email me so I could compare them? I’d really appreciate it.

    My email is pastorethan@yahoo.com.

    • I don’t think I have anything he’s signed.

      I’d say you have a better than 95% chance it’s authentic. Southern Gospel just isn’t a big enough genre, and the celebrities just are easy enough to find and get autographs from in person, that fakes are pretty rare.

      • Awesome! Thank-you. It’s actually a record of the group before the plane crash (a compilation produced later), but still cool that it has his autograph. I’m going to be passing through Tuscaloosa in just over a week, and I think I’ll try to get Jackie Marshall to sign it for me as well since he’s also in the picture on the cover.

      • I got my record autographed by Jack Marshall earlier this week. It was a real honor to get to meet him and watch a DVD of him playing the piano.

        But here’s something interesting. Yesterday I was browsing on Ebay for Blackwood Brothers records and I found this same album and, of all the ridiculous things to do, somebody had faked an autograph of one of the guys who had been killed in the plane crash on it. And I knew it was a fake because the back cover mentioned the crash and that he died in it.

  13. Ethan, if the record you saw on Ebay was the same one that I saw, it was autographed by R.W. Blackwood, Jr.

    I recognize his signature, and R.W. doesn’t include “Jr.” when he autographs memorablia.

    I don’t think this was an intent to “fake” R.W.Blackwood Sr.’s signature. I can only surmise that the album was purchased at a Blackwood Singers concert in the mid 1970s (when that LP was first released), and was signed by a few members of the group, although I don’t recognize the other two signatures on the LP cover.

    • Ethan, after further inspection of the lp you mentioned, I believe the other two signatures are “Danny Larson” and “Sandra”.

      Danny was pianist for the Blackwood Singers. Sandra sang in the Blackwood Singers and was married to Ron Blackwood. Ron was another of R.W. Blackwood’s sons.

      • Whew! When something like this comes up, I’m always so much happier to hear an explanation that doesn’t involve forgery!

      • Great to hear, now we can “forge” ahead. 😉