Recently, Tink and I were visiting with friends in Virginia when I asked if I could go upstairs to their library and borrow a couple of books.
Often, I borrow books from these friends as well as take them books of mine to read since we enjoy historical books, biographies and autobiographies.
Don followed me upstairs. “Take anything you want,” he said as he looked around and pulled out ones he thought I’d enjoy.
“Have you read this Dean Martin biography?” He knows I love Dean Martin so I took that one. And there’s one by an Elvis’ bandmember I selected. I noticed a book on a row’s end. It was obvious from the simple book jacket that it was from a small press — Brandon, Mississippi, as it would turn out.
“James Blackwood Memories,” I said softly, my mind tripping back all those years ago to when I, only four or so, would put on my best petticoats, my prettiest Sunday dress, black patent Mary Janes and accompany Mama and Daddy, both dressed, too, in their Sunday best, to all-night gospel singings in Atlanta put on by renowned promoter, Wally Fowler.
We never went on vacation and only ate out 10 or 12 times a year so it astounds me now to recall that we’d drive almost two hours to the Atlanta Civic Center — in the days when I-85 was a two lane, headed either south or north. Oh, how Daddy loved the Blackwood Brothers and when Hovie Lister sat down at a piano to begin the Statesmen Quartet, he’d say, “Listen up, now. He makes that piano sing.”
Unless you saw it in person or remember it from television, it’s hard to explain how magical those Southern Gospel Music groups were and how, with nothing more than a simple piano and four-part harmony, they made the stage jump with excitement. (A side note: the Statesmen sang at Hank Williams’ funeral and Elvis Presley insisted on his mama’s favorite quartet, the Blackwood Brothers, sing at hers. Elvis kept requesting songs to the point that the Blackwood brothers were afraid they’d missed their show that night.)
It was all pure joy to me as a little girl. Most of the groups were male quartets but there were a few women around. Wendy Bagwell and the Sunlighters. I loved Little Jan who is now married to Jerry Goff, the songwriter of “I Am Blessed.” Then there was Vestal Goodman, a large woman with an even larger voice, the remarkable Dottie Rambo and her daughter, Reba. Mama let me buy a publicity photo of 16-year-old Reba sitting in a window seat. She was dressed in a white sweater, black capri pants and little white go-go boots. I toted that picture with me most places I went, tucked either into my Bible or a little purse.
These singings probably didn’t last all night but I remember once that the Happy Goodman Family came back on stage for their third time — and yes, Miss Vestal was carrying a white hankie cause she tended to cry a lot when the Holy Ghost moved — and I asked Mama what time it was. She showed me her watch and explained the hands. “It’s ten to two. Almost 2 in the morning.”
Back at my friend’s bookshelf, I decided on the book so I flipped through it and a letter fell out, one written and signed by James Blackwood.
“Look here.” I handed the letter to Don and watched as he read it and smiled.
Don and his brother, Harold, grew up on Southern Gospel Music All Night Singings like I did. Their heroes were the Statesmen and the Blackwood Brothers. They listened to their records and, with two friends, practiced harmonies until they were exact. From them, they learned showmanship and how to time a joke.
It worked out well for them, too.
Harold, Don and their friends, Phil and Lew, became the Statler Brothers.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.