Are great emcees born or bred?

When we see a great emcee at work—a Jim Hamill, George Younce, Roger Bennett, or Gerald Wolfe—we tend to assume that they must have been born with special talents.

But it is easy to forget the number of years each of the four spent in as a non-emceeing quartet member. Roger Bennett spent almost twenty years with the Cathedrals. Gerald Wolfe spent five years with the Dumplin Valley Boys and a year and a half more with the Cathedrals. Both had the opportunity to study the man who may have been the single most effective emcee of his generation, George Younce, at work every weekend.

But consider Younce, who spent around twenty years watching other emcees at work before stepping up himself. If I’m not mistaken, Danny Koker—not George Younce—was the original Cathedrals emcee, so Younce didn’t even start emceeing until four years into the Cathedrals run.

Hamill, also, spent twenty years on the road before becoming an emcee. Younce and Hamill were both Weatherfords and Blue Ridge Quartet members and heard emcees Earl Weatherford and (as I understand) Elmo Fagg, respectively, hone their craft in front of diverse audiences. Hamill also performed with the Oak Ridge Boys and with the Rebels, among others, prior to his Kingsmen years.

Undoubtedly, great emcees are born with some skills that translate well to effective on-stage communication. But the greatest, it seems, put in years of observing other effective emcees at work before reaching the level of greatness that inspires a new generation.

Are there exceptions? There may be a few. Michael Booth wasn’t the original Booth Brothers emcee. (That would have been, as I understand, his father, Ron Booth Sr.) But he didn’t spend that many years observing before taking the reins. There are undoubtedly others. Yet it seems that many of the greatest spend years observing other great emcees before diving in for themselves.

This raises another interesting question: Which great emcees of the next generation are currently paying their dues, quietly watching a master at work? Pat Barker? (He’s probably cut out to be an emcee.) Doug Anderson? Scotty Inman? Josh Singletary? 

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42 Letters to the Editor

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  1. As Pat Barker is clearly the most handsome man in southern gospel music, he would obviously excel as emcee… 🙂

  2. Great topic. Being an emcee is definitely more than just telling what the next song is titled. Having the opportunity to listen to and watch a skilled and experienced encee is priceless. I would liken it to a future pastor going to divinity school in preperation for the ministry. As for your question I’ll stick with the Kingsmen because I’m somewhat familiar with them. I think I’m right when I say that Ray Reese and Randy Crawford handle the emcee duties right now but their new lead singer, Bob Sellers, is a great emcee in his own right. I knew him when he was with Capstone Quartet and he handled the emcee duties there very well.

  3. As much as we go to hear good singing,a good emcee is essential. I liken it to a waitress.The food can be excellent but a poor waitress can make the experience less enjoyable,as can a good one make even simple food memorable experience.

  4. First off, let me say that I hope ED stands for Elaine something. If Ed is a man, then I am flattered and frightened!! lol
    I have the opportunity to see GV more than any other group. Gerald is clearly the best emcee since George. The key is to be relaxed and to focus on your strengths. Being prepared but also opened to the unexpected is also very important. I believe God prepares emcees just like he prepares someone for any other ministry. I have seen terrible emcees who quench the spirit by what they say, and have seen the most gifted usher in that same spirit by knowing exactly what to say. Daniel, as always this is a great discussion! ED, thanks again for the compliment, I think!

    • One time, I saw Gerald’s brilliance at handling the unexpected really show through. I went to see them once when someone from the audience called out a request for “Far Above the Starry Sky.” Gerald started engaging him, asking him a question or two. Then someone else from the audience called out, “He sings tenor!” Gerald called the man up on stage to sing the song with them. While he wasn’t a brilliant tenor, he was decent, and after the way Gerald set it up, the song got a standing ovation!

      • Gerald is by far (to me) the best emcee going today. I am not exaggerating when I say that I would pay the ticket price to a GV concert just to hear Gerald emcee. He has the same gift that George Younce had.

        George Younce could seemingly walk out onto a stage and almost instantly know what needed to be done in the concert that night.

        To me – that’s one of the greatest thing about the concert experience! An emcee can make or break a concert. (imo)

  5. I think Tony Greene was one of the best emcees .Even as a young kid he did a great job.

    • That’s the example I was thinking of of someone who just had it. I don’t know that he “studied” under anyone.

  6. I think Steve French does a good job with the Kingdom Heirs. Another would be Daniel Riley with Gold City. Of course Daniel grew up watching some masters but I think Steve probably jumped in with both feet.

  7. So many groups on the road today (including part-time and full-time) are not equipped or trained in how to emcee and/or communicate with an audience, that it makes those bright stars like Gerald, George and Michael shine even brighter. I believe you can have some natural stage presence, but the majority of it comes from learning: learning how to effectively communicate with an audience, “read” an audience and be able to adjust your program to follow the Spirit’s leading. Preparation is the key. I’m on staff with Allison Speer’s “Elijah Conference” and that is her primary focus–turning good singers into great communicators. The message we have to share is the most important message we could ever hope to deliver, so why should we not invest as much time and effort into making it the best it can be?

  8. Mark Lowry stands head and shoulders above any emcees I have seen since Younce. I have seen Mark in concert about a half a dozen times. I saw the Cathedrals probably 100 times. I was never disappointed with either experience. Mark is one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. He is not the simpleton he sometimes plays to Bill’s straight man routine. Even when I know where his story is going, it still captivates me. George use to do the same thing to me. I remember once seeing the Cathedrals three days in a row in three different towns. I saw the same jokes and the same ‘moments’ in all three concerts. Yet, they all felt genuine to me because of George’s emcee ability. Mark does that too. It never feels contrived even though it is something that he has been done before many times. I totally agree with you that Younce, Roger and now Gerald were/are the best in the Southern Gospel World. To me, other groups might have come close to the Cathedrals in sound (think Gold City or even Imperials) but only Gaither with Mark ever came close to being equal with the emcee.

    • I’d lean towards born, though emcees can pick stuff up over time.

      Emceeing is not an easy gig. Its more than just transitioning between songs and telling a few jokes. Delivery is HUGE. Two emcees with the same material can produce very different fan reactions. Some guys have it, and some don’t.

      One guy who you could say is more under “bred” would be Mark Trammell. He has certainly improved through the years. Of course, it helps when he has an easy target on stage with him on his left every night.

      • Funny how your comment is listed beneath the mention of Mark Lowry. This isn’t about emceeing per se, but it is related. I always thought that when Kevin Williams (a funny guy) took over for Lowry in the humor department after he left the GVB the first time, that he couldn’t deliver the jokes as well as Lowry, I still don’t. Mark can sure sell them and deliver them in a way that others can’t.

        Speaking of “delivering”, Elvis once made a comment that Ed Enoch “had the best voice in the world” or something like that (according to J.D.). Supposedly Ed would fill in for Elvis on high notes sometimes too. If I recall correctly, Elvis told the Stamps not to sing “How Great Thou Art” by themselves and intimated that they would outsing him. Anyhow, J.D. made the comment that Ed did have a great voice, but couldn’t “sell” the song like Elvis could. I think sometimes that difference and stage presence / likeability can make a less capable vocalist received better and more popular than ones more talented. Obviously vocal ability is important, but only part of the package. I believe that emceeing is another ability that a group needs a member to have. It is more than the music, but communicating and connecting.

      • Oops, that was unintentional. I’m usually better about not doing that…

      • I have done that too. 🙂 My point was just that both were connected to what I was going to say. 🙂

  9. All of the men you have mentioned above learned by watching and studying the late Hovie Lister. He was the one by which all others are judged. For a few months Tony Peace was filling in for us on baritone, and not being totally stupid as I tend to be sometimes, I gave the emcee work over to Tony. He is a master at running a program. Hard to judge who is the best, but Tony takes a back seat to no one. He was incredible. I learned a lot from him in those few months, and even so, barely scratched the surface of how good he is.

    • Tony Peace was such a perfect fit with the Kingsmen, too. Watching Tony emcee brought back memories of Jim Hamill, another who’d have to be considered one of the very best at working a crowd.

      It’s a shame he didn’t become a permanent fixture with the Kingsmen.

  10. A few of the current great emcees:

    Gerald Wolfe: as mentioned above, masterful, humorous, spontaneous and classy.

    Michael Booth: I’m surprised he has not been mentioned more here, but he is the epitome of spontaneity. The worst emcees try to use the same lines and jokes over and over and over. It shows it is nothing more than a rehearsal and feels canned. True talent can work when the teleprompter quits. Michael Booth at NQC one year was emceeing when the sound system made a LOUD bang. He immediately grabbed his chest as though he’d been shot and sprawled out on the floor like he was out cold and just laid there. The crowd ate it up. Not many people can pull that off without looking idiotic. He also did a brilliant job of setting up the next quartet later that night, giving fresh energy to an old routine. Making it feel like you were hearing the group for the first time.

    Mark Lowry: I agree with the poster above. I’ve been to scores of concerts, but one that will always stand out is when I saw just Mark and Stan Whitmire together. Mark stood there on stage by himself with his geeky looking green shirt untucked and just talked to us for 2+ hours. It was unbelievably good.

    Bill Gaither: Need I say more? I’m not even on the Gaither Train so to speak, but his creativity is unmatched.

    Honorable Mention: Tracy Stuffle can set up a song when he wants to. And yes, I’m still talking present tense because we can continue to pray and believe he’ll be back on the road again soon!

    • He was in my initial draft, but then I decided that I don’t know how good of an emcee his father was/is. So I swapped Roger Bennett in instead.

    • I consider Bill Gaither to be more of a smart emcee than a “great” emcee.

      Here’s the distinction: Gaither is most effective when he has a jester like Mark Lowry or Kevin Williams working with him, and he’s smart enough to realize that and run with it. Of course, he’s a master at running what happens ON the stage, but just talking to the crowd, he’d come across a little dull if he didn’t have guys like Williams and Lowry constantly butting in. Even at the NQC sing-a-long, he was quick to pull up people like Gerald Wolfe and others to help him keep the program interesting.

      Come to think of it, his singing is like that as well. People buy a ticket not so much to hear Gaither talk OR sing, but because they know he’ll bring fantastic talkers and singers with him.

  11. Mark209″s emcee is awesome! His name is Nate Justice and I believe he is only in his 20″s. Really adds to the entertainment ,and for years to come

  12. It would have been interesting to see Ron Booth Sr . emcee a concert.Gerald Wolfe does a great job .Does emcee go with soloist because I just saw Steve Green in concert and He did a great job one who has years of experiance .

    • Ron Booth Sr. was a very good emcee. Some old-timers will attest that he can tell a funny story and also get serious. He also observed many of the great emcees and worked with John Matthews, who knew how to set up a song as well as with the Toneys and Hamill.

      • Fascinating! This, then, would tend to support my thesis.

  13. I don’t know who Ruth is, but ma’am you are spot on in your analogy of likening a concert to a dining experience! That’s a great comparison! Gerald Wolfe, Gary Casto, Tracy Stuffle, Michael Booth, Brian Lester, and Eric Bennett are some of my picks for today’s best emcees. Of course, three of the masters–Jim Hamill, Tony Greene, and George Younce–are no longer with us but were truly in a league of their own in their day. I agree that one is probably born with a talent for speaking and the ability to communicate, but honing in on that requires studying those who do it well and just a good season of actual stage experience. If I were offering advice to anyone wanting to more effectively emcee, I’d have them study the work of the nine names I’ve listed above as a good foundation upon which to build.

  14. Great discussion and honored to be a part of it. Speaking for myself, I studied intently by watching Cathedral videos and then watching Bill Gather while on the Homecoming Tour for about seven years. Even still, I study him.

    I would see them do something and ask myself why? There was always a reason! Though there is a certain amount of spontinaity, there is a target that a good emcee is aiming for. It comes down to navigating the minefield of distractions and following the Spirits lead to ultimately reach the goal.

    The best advice I can offer is to speak on stage the way one does off the stage. Also STUDY THE WORD! If its not in you, it won’t come out. Without the quoting or reference of the Word, there is no power for the things that really matter. So, stay focused and keep the main thing the main thing.

  15. I am suprised nobody said “let the Lord lead you”…..
    I too have travelled with groups on the road and watched the same routines several nights in a row, we have had some great talent in the industry…singing and emcee’s…
    Karen Peck stood out to me as well.

    • Just my two cents, but I appreciate the emcee abilities of Mark Trammell, Randy Shelnut and Claude Hopper. I enjoy their subtle humor.

      BTW, for those of you who did not get “the most handsome man in southern gospel music” joke at the top of this thread, I am virtually positive that I have seen the very humble Pat Barker describe himself as such in an interview (Youtube?). Just a takeoff from that…

      • More than once, I think. 🙂

  16. Randy Shelnut is my favorite current emcee. His easy going manner and humble presentation is unmatched. Also as someone else mentioned the subtle humor is refreshing in an industry filled with Mark Lowry copy cats… Obviously Mark Lowry is a great emcee, but not everybody is Mark Lowry… In every Dixie Echoes concert you feel like you are having a conversation with an old friend… Very refreshing.

    As far as emcees from the past, Parker Jonathan and Tony Greene were two of the best…

  17. I would hav to give my vote to Gerald Wolfe. However, I want to give a shout out to McCray Dove for being a great person to talk to after or before a concert. Some of the performers aren’t very friendly sometimes, but I have never been able to say that about McCray.

    • That’s a great point. It’s important to be approachable.

      With that being said, there are also some ridiculous fans who have unreasonable expectations.

      I’ve only met a few artists in this industry who deliberately brush their fans away, but there are a few who deserve the reputation they have earned.

  18. Ernie Haase maybe 🙂

  19. I would not disagree with any of the names on this list. The emcee can make or break a group, no matter how good the singing might be. I was glad to see Daniel Riley mentioned. Danny’s laid back style is quile different from most of the others, but I think he is a major factor in making a 90 minute Gold City concert seem like it lasts about 30 minutes. Weeks later, I find myself repeating things that he said.

  20. Interesting topic, Daniel. I have to agree with your choices listed. There simply is no one like George Younce. I usually like the singing more than the emcee work, but he was so engaging and interesting that I didn’t even realize he had been speaking for 5 minutes! Jim Hamill and Gerald are also among the best ever. Such quick wits. Mark Lowry also possesses the ‘it’ factor. Can’t wait to see Tracey Stuffle back in action so I can critique him also (just kidding, he is fabulous and I can’t wait to see him back in action-Team Tracey!).

  21. Wow… I’m honored to even be mentioned in the same paragraph as some of the great emcees mentioned on this page. For the record, there was only one George Younce. Having watched him emcee programs more than 500 times (literally), it’s easy for me to say his gift of emceeing in any situation will never be matched, in my opinion.

  22. I believe that being a great emcee definitely gives a few requirements:

    1) You cannot have a shy personality. Being able to stand up and talk in front of a whole crowd of people in insanely scary (and I’m a person with a strong personality!) All of the great emcees we know had an outgoing, fun character, and the boldness to stand up and speak.
    2) It takes a lot of love for God, people, and wanting to communicate a message. Some people I know fall into the category of giving a speech: not really communicating with an audience and standing up their as if it is a punishment. People like Gerald Wolfe (and yes I believe you meet this criteria, Gerald 😉 ) show in their lives and when they communicate that they love people.
    3) You cannot expect everything to go perfect. Curve balls do come, and although they may not be liked, they will happen. Like when an emcee forgets their wording or makes a mistake, it’s not something that you may plan, but it happens. It’s just life. 🙂

    So as far and being born or bred? I think it is both!
    (By the way, these are not professional stats. Just my personal opinion 😉 )

  23. For the past 3 years I have traveled with Elliott McCoy (Three Bridges) and I have to say he is one of the best emcees I’ve ever seen. He often reminds me of George Younce. I have yet to see the first crowd that he does not make a connection with and most importantly, he is GENIUNE! He truly loves people and it shows whether he’s on the stage or interacting with them before or after a concert.

    • Neat!

      • I know Doy Ott filled in on piano for Hovie Lister while he was in the Army, but who assumed the emcee duties? Jake Hess?

  24. My guess would be Chief because everything I’ve ever read said he was “in charge” while Hovie wasn’t there.