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IT'S MORE THAN THE MUSIC
Life Lessons on Friends, Faith, and What Matters Most
By Bill Gaither with Ken Abraham
Copyright © 2003
The Gaither Charitable Foundation, Inc.
All right reserved.
It seemed as though the big days of my career were over; I could see the
handwriting on the wall and it wasn't pretty. I was fifty-five years of age, and
after enjoying a successful career writing and performing music for more than
three decades, in 1991 the music world was about to pass me by.
I had been a composer and a musician most of my adult life. Making music was all
I had ever known; it was all I'd ever dreamed of doing, all I'd ever wanted to
do, and now, like the heavy wooden lid coming down on a grand piano, I could
see, feel, and hear the music coming to an end.
I was discouraged and slightly depressed as I considered my options, but I
wasn't upset. In the music business, change, and making adjustments to it, is
the norm. I was accustomed to seeing one aspect of my career wind down while
another area of opportunity opened up. Granted, the line between the end and the
beginning is sometimes hard to discern, like the line separating the sand from
the sea. They seem to run together for a while, and what we think is an ending
often becomes a new beginning. Besides, my wife, Gloria, and I had achieved many
of our goals musically, and we were beginning to think about backing off a bit
anyhow, slowing down, and living a seminormal life.
Oh, we still planned to be involved in music, but more as mentors rather than as
performers. We still planned to write and publish music, discover and promote
new artists, and even host a few concert events ourselves, but we had been in
the spotlight long enough. It was time for us to step offstage and encourage the
next generation of writers, musicians, and singers.
One day I told Gloria, "It seems that the Gaither Vocal Band is winding down,
but before we quit, we'd like to record a southern gospel classic. I've always
loved that style of music, so I'd like to have all my old heroes come in and
sing on one song, something we all know. It might be fun, and besides, I'd like
to honor some of those people who first got me excited about gospel music when I
was a kid."
I called some friends and invited them to join the Gaither Vocal Band-at the
time comprised of Mark Lowry, Jim Murray, Michael English, and me-for the
recording session to be held at Master's Touch studio in Nashville. One of the
first people I called was Hovie Lister, the inimitable leader of the famous
Statesmen Quartet, one of the first gospel quartets I had ever heard as a young
Hovie had long since retired and was living in Atlanta, but he was just as
energetic as always when I talked to him by phone.
"Hovie, I want to get some friends together to help me out in the studio on an
old song. Think you might be interested?" "I'll be there," Hovie replied. "Just
tell me when and where."
"Well, the Vocal Band is recording a new album-I think we're going to call it
Homecoming or something like that-and we want to include some of the grand old
gospel songs. We got to thinking about it and said, 'Wouldn't it be fun to
invite some of our friends to sing a song-some of the great gospel singers who
influenced us when we first started out in music so many years ago?' We're going
to be recording in Nashville, and I'd be thrilled if you could come and help us
out on the song, 'Where Could I Go but to the Lord?' We're planning to shoot a
video of that song, too. Think you can make it?"
"I wouldn't miss it!" Hovie replied in his usual upbeat style. "I'm not sure who
all is going to show up, but I'm going to ask several other friends, some of the
old-timers like Glen Payne and George Younce of the Cathedrals, J.D. Sumner and
some members of the Stamps, James Blackwood, and of course, Jake Hess."
"Jake's gonna be there?" Hovie asked excitedly. "I hope so. You know he hasn't
been feeling so well lately, but I'm going to ask him."
"Oh, I sure hope he can come," Hovie answered. Hovie and Jake had worked
together for fifteen years as part of the Statesmen, as far back as the late
1940s. Later, Jake left the Statesmen to start a new "cutting edge" group known
as the Imperials. It would be a thrill for me to have them in the same studio
again. "I'm going to invite the Speers and the Rambos, too," I told Hovie, "and
who knows who else. We'll just have an old-friends party."
"Sounds good to me," Hovie said. "I can't wait! Where are you going to do this?"
I gave Hovie the details regarding the time and location of the recording
session, and he assured me again that he'd be there.
I was off to a good start. I continued contacting a group of gospel music
legends including those I had mentioned to Hovie as well as Buck Rambo, Howard
and Vestal Goodman of the Happy Goodman Family, the jolly, heavyset couple known
for the size of their hearts as well as the size of their physical frames. Eva
Mae LeFevre, of the family group by that name, said that she could come, as did
several members of the famous Speer Family. My friends Larry and Rudy Gatlin of
the Gatlin Brothers heard about the session and said they might drop by as well.
Everyone seemed genuinely excited about the idea and willing to help.
These old-time gospel artists were legends to me. They had been the hottest,
most popular groups on the circuit when I was growing up. As a young boy, I
became obsessed with their music and with them. Now, however, many of the
singers were retired, or at least inactive. Some had fallen on hard times.
Others were struggling with poor health. For many of them, the tour buses,
recording contracts, standing ovations, and deeply moving spiritual moments were
fading memories. Although a few of the artists were still able to travel and
sing and keep their datebooks relatively full, it was obvious that with each
passing year their fans were dwindling. They'd been passed by, ignored by the
music industry they had helped to create, and for a number of years now they had
been set on the shelf in obscurity. Some had retired comfortably, but others
were struggling to survive after pouring their hearts and lives into the music
and ministry. Many gospel legends were barely eking out a subsistence living as
fewer congregations invited them to sing in their communities. I had hoped that,
if nothing else, our recording get-together might remind these heroes that they
were not totally forgotten.
On the day of the recording session, we were scheduled to begin rolling tape
around ten o'clock to record "Where Could I Go but to the Lord?," a classic
written by James B. Coats. For some strange reason, when I booked the studio
time, I had reserved it all day simply to record one song. As it turned out,
that booking proved to be providential.
By noon, the foyer of the Master's Touch studio in Nashville was already abuzz
with activity. It was like walking into a class reunion. The room was crowded
with the friendly faces of people who had sung on shows together all around the
country for decades, but in recent years they had hardly seen or talked with one
another. There were my dear friends Rosa Nell, Mary-Tom, Faye and Brock, and Ben
Speer of the Speer Family. The Speers were one of the first gospel groups I'd
ever heard, and in 1960 Ben Speer published the first song I had written, "I've
Been to Calvary." Since then the Speers had sung many of Gloria's and my songs,
including "Let's Just Praise the Lord," "The Family of God," "The King Is
Coming," and "There's Something about That Name." The Speers were singing Bill
and Gloria Gaither songs long before anyone else had even heard of us. I was
especially glad that they could be here on this occasion.
In another part of the room was Buck Rambo of the Singing Rambos, another family
group, and Eva Mae LeFevre, a founding member of one of the most popular gospel
singing groups in America for decades. Looking around the room, I saw two of my
dearest friends, Glen Payne and George Younce of the Cathedrals. Glen and George
had experienced a wonderful resurgence in their careers in the mid-eighties when
the younger generation of music artists discovered that "those two old guys can
James Blackwood was there, too. James was on the program the first night I ever
sat in the world-famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, in 1948. He and his
family formed the nucleus of the famed Blackwood Brothers Quartet and were true
pioneers in this kind of music. James, too, had been sick recently, and I was
glad he could make it to the taping.
I was especially excited to see Jim Hill. Jim had sung with the Golden Keys and
was the first professional singer to whom I'd ever "pitched" one of my songs. He
sang "I've Been to Calvary" shortly after I had written it, and thanks to Jim
and the Golden Keys, Ben Speer heard the song, and both groups recorded it.
Later, my younger brother, Danny, had sung with Jim as part of the Golden Keys.
Jim's own composition, "What a Day That Will Be," had been sung and recorded by
hundreds of groups and was already a classic in this genre of music.
Staying close to the coffeepot was J.D. Sumner of the Stamps Quartet, the
renowned gospel singers who backed up Elvis Presley during the last few years of
his life. The country music artists Larry and Rudy Gatlin did indeed drop by the
studio. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Gatlin Brothers had risen to superstardom in
country music, and their song "All the Gold (in California)" had even topped the
pop charts, catapulting the Gatlin Brothers to performing in Las Vegas, on NBC's
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and in many other places where traditional
country music had not yet made significant inroads. The Gatlins' close family
harmonies were a pleasant reprieve for many music lovers who didn't care for the
heavier rock sounds that dominated radio airwaves at the time. The Gatlin
Brothers' rich voices took them around the world to some of the biggest and best
music venues of the day. They had grown up listening to gospel music, though,
and the brothers had never forgotten their roots.
The atmosphere in the foyer was electric. Everyone was talking, laughing,
hugging, and catching up on what each friend had been doing. For years, these
folks had seen each other almost every week in concerts around the country. They
had worked together so often, most people in the room knew each other's songs by
heart. Often, if one group was doing an encore, the other groups on the program
would join them on-stage for the finale. Frequently, musicians from various
groups joined in the fun. It was like one big musical family ... and now they were
together again, in the same room.
I hated to break up the party, but when I noticed the time, I thought, Hey, this
is great, but we have some work to do here. I held open the large studio door
and said, "Let's go in and sing awhile," motioning toward the inner studio. The
party eased into the room, and when everyone had assembled I prayed a brief
prayer, thanking God for allowing us to be together and asking Him to bless our
efforts. Everyone said amen, and I went to work positioning the singers at
various places in the oak-paneled studio. Overhead microphones were
strategically placed throughout the room, allowing some of our old-timers the
luxury of remaining seated while singing.
I explained that a camera crew was on hand to get some footage that we might use
for "clips" in the Gaither Vocal Band video of the song. Camera crew was
probably a grandiose term for the video production team. They had only one
video-camera! "Don't even pay attention to the camera," I said. "Let's just have
fun and sing."
We had asked several artists, including Larry Gatlin, Vestal Goodman, and
Michael English, to sing solos at certain points, so the three of them gathered
around a large Neumann microphone near the center of the room. The only
instrument in the studio was a grand piano. I had already recorded the
instrumental tracks, which the singers could hear in their head-phones as they
sang. We waited for the red light to go on in the studio, indicating that we
were recording. The excitement was almost palpable, but we weren't really sure
what to expect once the tape started rolling. We had assembled a few of the
greatest gospel singers in history, but some of the men and women in the studio
that day hadn't sung a note in public for several years, much less tried to
harmonize with other singers. Worse yet, it suddenly occurred to me that
although these artists had performed in hundreds of concerts together around the
country, except for the rousing "anything goes" encore numbers, they'd never
really sung together seriously. I sure hope this works, I thought as the red
light came on.
It quickly became clear that my biggest problem was not getting this chorus to
sing-my problem was getting it to stop! Everyone was so excited to be together,
and was having such a wonderful time, the enthusiasm just kept bubbling up and
over-flowing! All the singers in the room that day were professionals; they all
knew that under ordinary recording circumstances we were to be quiet before the
red light was illuminated as the song began, and until the light went out after
the song was over, indicating that the recorder in the control room was turned
off. And of course, everyone knew that in most recording situations, one was not
to give in to any extraneous expressions of praise or worship, no matter how
spiritually moved a person might become during a song.
We all knew how to behave in a professional recording session. But these were
not ordinary recording circumstances. And it became obvious after about ten
minutes that this was not going to be an ordinary recording. Everyone could
sense the Spirit of the Lord was in that studio.
Jake Hess had to sing for a funeral earlier that day so he arrived late for the
session, and we were all thrilled to see him, especially Hovie Lister. Hovie
nearly wept as the two men embraced in the studio. Jake's smooth-as-velvet voice
was the lofty standard that aspiring gospel singers of my generation hoped to
As Jake listened to the music, he, too, immediately recognized that something
unusual was going on. Always the quintessential gentleman, Jake looked over at
Vestal Goodman and spoke quietly and reverently, "Something special is happening
here. I've never felt such a strong presence of the Spirit in a room in my
Jake was right. We could all sense it, even if we couldn't describe or control
it. Something was happening! Somebody other than Bill Gaither was in charge of
this session! We recorded the chorus, and then Vestal, Larry, and Michael sang
their solos. It was awesome! The soloists recorded their parts perfectly, and
the choir of old-timers sang as though it was their debut. This is even better
than I'd hoped for! I thought. It was so good, before the bouncing red needles
on the recording console had time to lie still, I was gathering everyone
together again. "Let's do another take," I said.
Excerpted from IT'S MORE THAN THE MUSIC
by Bill Gaither with Ken Abraham
Copyright © 2003 by The Gaither Charitable Foundation, Inc..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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