What Can Baritones Do? A Case Study

This video is a case study in what a baritone can do to support a lead singer carrying the melody:

Tony Gore has the melody; a young Jonathan Wilburn, who is one of the most dynamic stage performers our genre has ever known, is singing baritone. Wilburn does at least as much as Gore to get the audience engaged with the song. Several things stand out:

First, too many singers in our genre look disengaged when they’re not featured on the solo. Wilburn, here, clearly shows that he is in the moment and cares about the lyric.

Second, Wilburn’s interjections between lines (i.e., “Look what my God did!”) aren’t random or distracting; they draw the attention back to Gore and/or to the lyric.

Finally, and most crucially: Wilburn shows as much energy onstage as Gore, but he doesn’t take it over-the-top. He doesn’t steal the spotlight; his gestures and exclamations match the intensity of Gore’s vocal performance. He could have distracted the audience from the lyric by taking it farther, but he didn’t. By matching Gore’s intensity, he made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

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12 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. This group during this era is what made me fall in love with Southern Gospel music. Their 1992 project, “Excellence,” is a dynastic album, and the video featured here is from a concert in Mt. Sterling, OH recorded as the video component to said album.

    And you’re right, Daniel: the Wilburns are a perfect case study in synergy; the group has consistently been better that the sum of its parts because of the energy they exuded from the stage.

    I had the privledge of attending my second Wilburn Reunion concert a few weeks back in Cave City, KY. (The first was held at Tony Gore’s restaurant in the Smoky Mountains!) Wilburn & Wilburn performed to lead off the concert, and Tony Gore did an individual set as well. Both acts were great. But when the two acts came together and added the beautiful Ms. Elaine, that’s when the place came alive.

    Synergy in Southern Gospel is an interesting topic. This act had/has it.

    • Wow, what a stirring video. If this doesn’t get you praising God, your praiser must be broken. Hey, God can fix it for you. Just call on Him.

  2. The Wilburns of that era are a prime example of a group who knew how to pick a song, pick the featured vocalist and the build everyone around them! This was not only true when Tony was featured, but Jonathan and Elaine as well. They had a great stage support for each other which created an excitement in their performances! Their album First Class from 1992 is a standard mixed groups today should pay attention to! Its an example of excellent song selection, great arrangements and great vocal features! Take a listen…..

  3. It is people like Jonathan that made SG what it is. Would our music be as big as it is without people like Hovie and Jake, Peg McKamey, Jonathan Wilburn, George Younce…this list could go on a while.

    I have noticed for years that some singers seem more engaged and even sincere than others. Some encourage the featured singer, thereby engaging the audience SO much more. While some don’t seem to smile, others can hardly contain their joy and don’t mind using a little energy on stage. I enjoy them all, but have to say, I like when a singer is excited about the message they are delivering. I go to a concert to have fun in the Lord and that is a lot easier when the group in fun.

  4. Thanks Daniel, I love seeing that video, that group had something special.

  5. Thanks for posting this video and this topic discussion. This is something that I think is lacking in churches in general, and as I sing the baritone part most of the time I can understand it. If we would all work together things would be so muc better. I know that it helps me when the others get behind me.
    Jonathan is one of my singing heros and He is one of the best at it. I do understand that people have different personalities, but at least let the world know that you are excited about singing about Jesus even if it is in your own way. After all it is the greatest music in the world!!!

  6. Did he necessarily have to be singing baritone to make the ‘contributions’ you’ve pointed out?

    • No, not necessarily. But the baritone is, in essence, more a supporting part than any other in a quartet. The bass singer focuses on clarity of low notes (when not singing a solo), the tenor focuses on the clarity of high notes (when not singing a solo), the lead singer focuses on carrying a melody, and the baritone’s job is to support the others and fill out the harmonies wherever needed. Wilburn here is embodying the supporting role in more ways than one.

      • The baritone part is such a difficult part to sing. I sing bass in our quartet but have been learning the other parts and I must say that the baritone part is the most difficult. That being said, it is a supporting role instead of a stand out role. The baritone singer has got to be able to engage the crowd but also must be able to blend with the group. He has to know what is missing and put it there. Jonathan was a great baritone in this video but he was and is still one more of a lead singer. I love the baritone part almost….almost as much as the bass part. Especially listening to Mark Trammell and George Amon Webster and Doy Ott, just to name a few!!

  7. Thanks for sharing this video. I love the Wilburns, and yes, Jonathan does a superb job. He’s got personality plus, too. I’m so glad I got to see the Wilburns Reunion at Tony’s restaurant, which included Jordan singing some, too. It was a very moving concert. I have lots of the Wilburns projects but wish I had the video of the Alabama Lightning – Live, hich was done back in Bessemer, Alabama in 1990. Good stuff!

  8. Hey folks!!! Wow this video brought back so many great memories for me, however I do have to mention something. On this song, the part Dad is singing is would be considerd the Tenor part not the baritone. Tony was the baritone in this group and in this song was singing the lead so that leaves three parts left to be sung, Alto- Elaine Wilburn , Jonathan Wilburn- Tenor, Bass- Jackie Wilburn. However in a male quartet there is a tenor part, but it is not called that, it is called the lead part. Please don’t take this as me being Mr. smarty britches, but I just wanted to mention it. Family groups are just weird!!!lol

    • Thanks! I do know that family groups use different terms than we’re used to with male quartets. I was using this in the context of non-bass non-melody male harmony singer. 🙂