The Statesmen and The Blackwood Brothers

Yesterday, reader Bryan Round left a fascinating comment with extensive first-hand observations on life as a Canadian Southern Gospel fan in the 1960s and 1970s. His comparison of Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen sets contained some surprising observations:

The Blackwoods, I seem to recall, were ‘Southern Gospel’ with a few ‘hymn-type’ songs thrown in. . . . The Statesmen, I felt, were also Southern Gospel but rather than appeal to the sausage-fingered, hand-clappers, they catered to the more sophisticated, slicked-back, finger-snappers. . . . Where the Blackwood’s singing was powerful, the Statesmen’s was refined.

But this mixture of groups worked well. Travelling and appearing in pairs meant the Blackwood/Statesmen combo sang to twice as many people than if they performed alone; those of the audience who would curl their lip at J.D.’s swaggering low notes might sit smiling, their heads tilted slightly, as the Statesmen sang. On the other hand, the Statesmen’s intricate harmonies would be totally wasted on the foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ set. But there would always be a spillover.

As the Statesmen did their finely-tuned material, some of the foot-stompers would start to look at each other, their raised eyebrows saying “not bad”. Similarly, some of those ‘artsy’ uptown folks would be momentarily shocked then amused to find not only their own hands but those of their friends clapping along with a classic Blackwood’s number.

This perspective intrigues me, as all the descriptions I have heard to date comparing the two sets were that the Statesmen were the exciting, energetic showmen who whipped live audiences into a frenzy. Meanwhile, the Blackwood Brothers certainly could do energetic convention songs, but their RCA Victor recordings of the early-to-mid-’60s contain quite a few numbers that suggest sacred music or high church influences. In other words, Bryan’s perspective is diametrically opposed from most previous descriptions I have heard.

Perhaps there is a way to balance or harmonize the perspectives, or perhaps some fans could look at the same experience and draw completely opposite conclusions. Would any of our readers who experienced those days care to shed a little light on the question? (Second-hand observations from those who have discussed this question with older fans are also welcome!)

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25 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. I can’t really comment on which perception was the common one of each group. I was a grade school kid in that era and do recall there were two types of crowds at the time mixed in the couple of performances my parents took me to. I suppose they would fall into the “finger snapping” category but my Dad did love the hand clapping music and joined along but my mother distinctly did not! From a kids perspective I liked the “rowdy” music” (this was also the sinful rock and roll era!) but don’t really remember who was considered in what category. It will be interesting to read what others have to say about the perception of the “adults’ of the time.

  2. I was a teenager during the days of the Blackwoods and Statesmen traveling together. A not-to-be-missed event was a chance to see them when they came to Houston, TX, my home town. We always got dressed up,
    asked our best girl for a date and we all went to the concerts. I didn’t know enough about music to really understand the difference between the groups, but I knew there was one. I grew up enjoying both of them for different reasons- the Blackwood Bros. sang songs I heard in church while the Statesmen sang songs I often had not been exposed to. Both planted a seed which continues to grow and feed me. At 72 years old, I can sit and listen to southern gospel music and remember those wonderful evenings filled with good friends, pretty girls and some wonderful music. They gave me a lifelong gift- the love of southern gospel music, which continues to bless me today.

    • That’s an interesting distinction; I don’t know if I had ever thought about the aspect of the Blackwood Brothers singing more familiar music.

    • I wonder if this guy ever even heard these groups. They were both wonderful and both appealed to my husband and I and to our friends.

      • I understood his comments as being complimentary – that he enjoyed both groups very much.

  3. My parents sang southern gospel when I was born. I grew up following all of them. The best programs were the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen.
    We would drive for many miles for that one.
    As for differences, It was their sound. Each singer compared favorably to his counterpart in the other group without sounding competitive. For instance, JD was the lowest and the funniest. Big Chief was Mr Smooth with a mellow tone and the appearance of a movie star.
    James was a powerful camp meeting singer. Jake’s unique style gave him a pop star sound, but, with a presence that made it look like he couldn’t believe that he could make a living having this much fun.
    Cecil Blackwood was smooth. Doy Ott was also velvety smooth. They both appeared to just enjoy being there. Yet, there appeared to be a total acceptance of all the other singers by these two guys. They were both class acts.
    Rosie was a tenor with no apparent upper limit. Every note was clear, dead on, and smooth. Denver was a very high tenor with a power to his tone. Yet, they did not compete.
    As for piano players, there were guys like Wally Varner, and Whitey Gleason for the Blackwood Brothers. They were awesome musicians and showmen. Hovie was a preacher who happened to play piano. I loved hearing all of them.
    I never felt that there were two audiences. One for each group. If so, it was quickly dispelled during their performance. These two groups formed the foundation for southern gospel music. They set the bar very high.
    There may be things about being my age that aren’t nice, but, being old enough to have attended the Blackwoods and Statesmen singings provide cherished memories!

    • As someone who didn’t even get to see the Cathedrals live, I can barely imagine. But very neat!

  4. Daniel, this post brought back some wonderful memories for me. I was probably in the first grade or so when I began to go to Memphis to the Ellis Auditorium with my mother and my aunt to see the Blackwood Brothers (at the time, with James, R.W., and Bill Liles, and the first tenor I vaguely remember was Aldon Toney, with Jackie Marshall on piano), and I especially remember the Statesmen (Denver, Jake, Doy, Chief, and Hovie). I found Bryan’s observations interesting, but they might be a tad different from mine, because I always considered the Blackwoods’ sound totally different with the Cecil/J.D. line-up. Both the early line-ups I mentioned were dynamic and huge crowd pleasers. The Blackwood Brothers had an amazing blend with R.W. and Bill, and James was SUCH a power lead singer. They were truly traditional, and they were a great quartet. But everything you’ve heard about the Statesmen was TRUE. They made the air crackle with excitement, even before they came onstage! They had the image…all dark-haired and as handsome as movie stars, classy, always dressed in those tux-type suits, and Hovie was the powerhouse showman and soul of the group. He was the perfect pianist for them with his style, and when HE got up and sang, and Doy went to the piano, things really got exciting. He was a Baptist preacher who sang with Pentecostal spirit. Their arrangements were unbelievable (Mosie Lister was the architect of their sound), and INTRICATE. They were flawless, but they never sounded “rehearsed”. The chord progressions and grooves of their songs, especially the bluesy ones (“Headin’ Home”…my GOODNESS) probably influenced my writing more than any other group, except possibly the Rangers Trio with David Reece, Roy McNeal, and Clark Thompson. The crowd never wanted either of these great quartets to leave the stage, and often at the end of the program, they’d ALL come out and sing together. They worked so well together, much in the same way that the Kingsmen and Gold City did years later. We still have a Blackwood Quartet today who can duplicate the original sound of those dear men I heard all those years ago, and I’m SO glad! It makes me happy that James’ son is carrying on the quartet. But we don’t have anyone today who is doing the sound that the Statesmen of the early 1950s had. Ernie and Signature Sound reminds me of the excitement they generated. And the Kingdom Heirs and one or two other quartets still sing songs of the style of the Statesmen. They have the image, too…all dressed alike in beautiful suits, which is something old-timers like me still love. I’ll end this “novella” by saying it was those evenings hearing the Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen that caused me to fall in love with quartet singing. And as you know, I NEVER WILL GET OVER IT! I never dreamed that one day I’d get to write the songs that they would sing, and that some of them would be reminiscent of “Headin’ Home” (“Steppin’ on the Stars” comes to mind…an amazing feature for Arthur Rice from a few projects back). A quartet on stage with a great piano player? Take a bus, take a train, take a car, take a plane…get me there, whatever the fare – I’m on my way to the SINGIN’!!!!!!!!!! 🙂

    • It seems that, of the different commenters I’ve seen on the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen lately, very few got to experience the Blackwood Brothers live with R.W. and Bill.

    • My earliest memories include a few visits with my dad to the Reynolds Auditorium in Winston Salem NC to the “All Night Singin’s” with group like Wally Fowler and the Oak Ridge Quarter (“Boys” came later) The Rangers and The Lefevers. After I was married and on my own, Reynolds became a regular stop for my wife and I. There were several wonderful national groups in that 60’s era but the Statesmen and Blackwoods always had the top billing. My memories are of great excitement with the Statesmen, more refined and smooth harmonys with the Blackwoods. The amazing thing was that either of the groups had the ability to fill the image of the other and meet any expectation. Both groups had an extremely good mix and blend of voices yet each member was a great soloist in his own right. The Blackwoods composed of James, Cecil, Bill Shaw, JD and Wally Varner were never equaled unless it was by the Statesmen line up of Jake, Doy, Rosie, The Chief and Hovie. I loved many of the groups both then and now but the StatesWood aggregation was always just a cut above.

  5. I will simply echo Dianne’s comment as she is much more articulate than I. The only thing I would add is that among my friends and family, one was either a Staesmen or Blackwood fan – never both – much like Kentucky and Louisville basketball fans!

    • I find it intriguing that it was viewed as an either/or proposition. These days, I doubt you would find many fans who feel as though they must be fan of The Hoppers OR The Collingsworth Family, or, say, Triumphant Quartet OR The Mark Trammell Quartet. I think it is fair to say that most enjoy both these days – and that most fans of the classic groups enjoy both the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen.

      • “Back in the day..” as the guy from Pawn Star would say, I did not detect a competitive spirit between these groups. They were friends. That was one of the things that made their concerts so much fun. Let us continue to honor the contribution to Gospel music that they made. If we were voting for the best group, I would cast several ballots.
        I’m thankful for the industry foundation built by Blackwood Brothers, Statesmen, Chuch Wagon Gang, Speer Family, Prophets, Goss Brothers and so many more. All unique and all awesome!

      • As I stated that “either or” was the feelings among some of my family and friends, I wasn’t speaking for anyone else. Also anyone who thinks there was no competition among groups, albeit in many cases friendly, must be wearing rose-colored glasses.

  6. I only got to hear the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers in their later years, but judging from recordings and reputation, I would say Brian is exactly right.

    Hovie Lister was enthusiastic and “shook his hair down.” This is reflected in his emcee work. James Blackwood, the spokesman for the Blackwood Brothers, was cool and collected.

    But, the Statesmen weren’t merely more intense. (The Kingsmen and Happy Goodmans were intense, too.) The Statesmen sang more complicated arrangements as a general rule.

    The Blackwoods were perceived to be more high brow

  7. Thanks to my grandparents and my parents, I started listening to Southern Gospel music before I could walk. My grandma would always turn on their big radio to the Blackwood’s or the Statesmen’s radio programs back in the forties and I would crawl over to the radio and sit there listening until the programs were over and then she would play some of those old RCA records of one or both groups. I loved it then and have never lost the love for this kind of music. When I got old enough to be in a quartet I started singing with others and now that I am 67 I am still singing in a quartet. The difference in the two groups never crossed my mind, I liked it all and to me they were singing to please and praise Him and it didn’t matter to me if it was a toe tapper or it was a song that would lead us into worship. I think the Lord likes it all and so do I. Praise The Lord for all of you singers and listeners alike. It is just a taste of what Heaven will be for me, and you too. May God Bless us All.
    Larry Thompson
    Lead Singer for The Voices IV

  8. Don’t know if he ever saw them perform but James Curtis in his book “Rock Eras” says the Blackwoods, with their restrained stage presence and sweet harmonies, played the Beatles to the Statesmen’s Rolling Stones. He added the Statesmen took more musical chances and had a generally rowdier show.

    I didn’t see the two groups until the early 70s but unreleased recordings from the 50s would seem to indicate that the description above might not be off the mark. I saw the Masters V in 1981 at an Elvis festival and the folks behind me, who saw the gospel groups in the 50s, seemed to consider Hovie a rock star based on their response to anything he did.

  9. The Statesmen were by far, the more musically involved. That is to say their arrangements and chord structures were more complicated than their peers of the era. But I think the big thing that seperated them was their energy on stage. To this day, that has not been equaled by anyone. They were showman singing and Christian message. I overheard a man ask Ben Speer at NQC a few years back, “If the Statesmen could come back today as they were in their heyday, how would they be received on main stage?” Ben Speer never hesitated a moment, “They would tear this place apart.”

    • I So Agree with Ben Speer!!! …… and let me say, this place could sure use a tearing apart!!!

  10. Some of the writers above mentioned that they did not get a chance to see either The Blackwood Brothers or The Statesmen.
    Someday gospel fans will say the same thing about The Gaither Vocal Band…I never saw them.
    Please, please find a way to see this marvelous group. They are the best, in my opinion. There are many fine groups out there, but the Gaither Vocal Band sets the standard in very fine Southern Gospel music.

  11. According to some family members, all now deceased, my mother-in-law occasionally played piano for the Blackwood Brothers when they were on the road during the 1950s and 60s. Her name was Melba, but I do not know her maiden name. She had black hair, was petite,and was a self-taught southern gospel piano player from the Beckley, West Virginia area. If anyone has any information or pictures, please leave a follow-up comment with contact information which will be forwarded to my e-mail address. Thank you, Lynn D. Neumann 08-19-’13

  12. I normally don’t make comments on these type forums, but I have to clarify some misstatements made on here. The Statesmen arrangements were NOT more complex than the Blackwoods. In fact, it was just the opposite. 90% of the time, one of the Statesmen is singing a solo with quartet backing up with oohs and aahs (or similar). The solo lead would constantly switch between lead, bass and tenor. They were masters of their art and their quartet rhythm was unmatched. The Blackwood Brothers on the other hand were usually singing 4 part harmony 90% of the time. Although it does not necessarily garner the same audience frenzy, it is far more complex. Like the Statesmen, the lead would be frequently switching, but rather than oohs and aahs, they backed up with full 4 part harmony. It is comparable to many choirs today. It is far easier to throw a soloist out front and have the choir sing backup than to have a true choral anthem where the full choir is singing the whole piece. A choir soloist with choir backup can often ad-lib and get a big audience response but the full choral anthem is more complex and far more difficult to execute. One final note that I would love to make to all quartet singers. A whipped up frenzied crowd response does not necessarily gauge the true audience reaction. The Statesmen tended to get the more frenzied crowd response, but the Blackwood Brothers actually outsold the Statesmen 3 to 1 at their doubleheader concerts. The crowd might get noisier when you do your loud screaming fast songs…but connect with you far more on your simple heart reaching classy songs.

    • Brad – it’s been forever! Great to hear from you again!