The Grand Ole Gospel Reunion is a one-of-a-kind event due to the fact that we never assemble in the same way year after year. Here we pay tribute to the legends and various contributors of gospel music who have passed away since the 2010 GOGR.
Ray Burdett is perhaps best known in gospel music circles as the bass singer who had the daunting task of replacing Big Chief in the Statesmen, yet his career has been spent sharing the stage with some of the most popular names in the entertainment world. He was born on October 15, 1944. In his early years, he performed with his family in the Queen City Gospelaires, before serving his duty in the army. After the service, Burdett joined Whitey Gleason and the Jubilee Quartet.
In 1969, Ray joined Bob Wills and the Inspirationals, and was a prominent part of one of their most popular radio hits, "Let the Church Roll On". From there, it was on to the Blackwood Singers in 1971. When the Big Chief passed away in 1973, Hovie Lister chose Ray as Chief's replacement. While Chief's death cast a huge shadow over the remainder of the Statesmen's career, Ray did a tremendous job, remaining with the Statesmen until their disbandment in 1975. In the late 1970s, Ray sang with Willie Wynn and the Tennesseans, who eventually became backup vocalists for Billy "Crash" Craddock. It was at this point that Ray launched his career in country music.
Ray traveled as backup vocalist for Loretta Lynn during the 1980s. He joined the cast of Hee Haw in 1988, adapting the television name Ricochet Ray, and performed as a member of the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet and the Hee Haw Cowboy Quartet. During the 1990s, he performed on various shows in Branson, appearing with Wayne Newton, Barbara Fairchild, and the Brumley Music Show. Following his retirement from music, he worked at Big Cedar Wilderness Club until his death.
Ray Burdett died at his home in Branson, due to complications from cancer, on July 20. He was 66.
Seals L. Hilton was born on April 17, 1925, in Cedartown, Georgia. After receiving his education, Hilton served his country in the United States Army from November 1944 until his honorable discharge in 1946. Following his discharge from the army, Hilton joined the Harmoneers Quartet, where he remained until the group’s disbandment in 1963. It was with the Harmoneers he earned his stage name, “Low Note” Hilton. Although Hilton has had stints with multiple quartets, such as the Hi-Fi Quartet, Plainsmen, All-American Quartet, and the Rhythm Masters, Hilton’s career with the Harmoneers will always be his stamp on gospel quartet music.
The Harmoneers were at their peak during the early 1950s with Hilton, Fred C. Maples, Bob Crews, Happy Edwards, and Charles Key. The best way to describe the Harmoneers’ song catalog is “varied”. Their program contained gospel songs in the style of boogie-woogie to quiet hymns to upbeat convention-style music. Hilton’s distinctive bass voice played a major role in the identity and success of the Harmoneers’ sound.
his retirement from gospel music, Hilton moved to Centerville, Iowa, in
1970 and began working for Fuller Manufacturing, and later would become the
owner of the American Family Insurance Agency in Centerville for over 10 years.
He was a regular attendee and performer at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion,
and received the Living Legend Award for his contributions to gospel music in
1995. He was inducted with the Harmoneers into the Georgia Music Hall of
Fame in 2002.
Seals “Low Note” Hilton passed away on June 8. He was 86.
Warren Lester Roberts was born on August 4, 1920, in Red Oak, Georgia. During the Second World War Warren served in the U.S. Army from 1942-1946. He married Margie Adams, now deceased, in 1942 and they had 3 daughters, Melodee Bonita, Marsha Warren and Marissa Ann.
In 1946 he got his start in local theatre groups, such as Atlanta Theatre Guild, Atlanta Civic Theatre, Atlanta Civic Opera and Agnes Scott Blackfriars, playing both leading and character roles. Warren's early career desire while in high school was to be in radio. He started at WEAS in Decatur in 1947 and progressed to be a well known and respected "Disc Jockey" of various musical genres, but his primary interest was in Southern Gospel Music. This enabled him to do the two things he enjoyed the most - be on the air and communicate with people about Jesus through the music. In 1948 he took over the "Gospel Quartet Time" program and kept it on the air for over 40 years in the Atlanta area.
Charlie Waller said, "Roberts was a popular radio and TV icon in the Atlanta area for many years. He emceed the All-Nite Singings which were held at the Atlanta City Auditorium. Roberts' TV show, Warren Roberts Presents, was seen in the Atlanta area with great success. Roberts would invite the major groups passing through to be guests on his show. Not only did the group get exposure, Roberts always made sure each group got paid for their TV performance as well. According to Warren, his claim to fame was when he introduced Wendy Bagwell on the live recording of Here Come the Rattlesnakes. He loved quartet music, which he promoted proudly on his radio show. He was a good man and it would be nice if our industry had more individuals with the likeness of Warren Roberts.
Roberts also had a successful songwriting career, which began when his "Somewhere Along the Way" was recorded by George Beverly Shea on RCA Victor in the early 1950's. "May The Lord Bless You Real Good", recorded by Wally Fowler and several quartets, was also featured as theme music in the MGM movie "Ada" and was sung by Dean Martin. "God Bless You go with God" was recorded by 5 or more gospel groups and used as theme music for the Christian Crusade radio broadcast. Other recorded songs include "Everywhere You Go" and "You Can't Run Away From God."
A member of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Singing News' Golden Mic Award, Warren Roberts passed away on April 5 at the age of 90, following a period of declining health.
Enoch Sullivan was born on September 18, 1931, in St. Stephens, Alabama. Music was a big part of he early lives of Enoch Sullivan and Margie Brewster. Enoch's father, the Rev. Authur Sullivan, played string band and dance music during the 1930s. Enoch and Arthur patterned their music after Wade Mainer and the Mainer's Mountaineers, while Margie had followed the more country sounds of Molly O'Day, Kitty Wells, and Martha Carson. Soon, what had been a fun recreational outlet led to a ministerial calling. Upon a near-fatal illness, Arthur committed the rest of his life to preaching, praying, and singing the gospel. Enoch and Margie were married on December 16, 1949, and weeks later, they, along with Arthur, began their first radio program on WRJW in Picayune, Mississippi.
For over 50 years, Enoch, Margie, and the Sullivan Family carried their heartfelt bluegrass gospel music to governors, Congressmen, small churches, and large auditoriums. They have performed on the Grand Ole Opry, as well as Bluegrass festivals in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands. They are members of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame and the Alabama Country Music Hall of Fame. Enoch and Margie were both recipients of the Living Legend Award at the 2001 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion.
Enoch Sullivan passed away on February 23. He was 79.
Don Butler, while best remembered as the smooth baritone and emcee for the Sons of Song, has spent most of his career behind the scenes in gospel music. He joined Atlanta-based quartet The Revelaires in 1956, where he remained until their disbandment a year later. Shortly thereafter, he joined Calvin Newton and Bob Robinson in forming one of the most dynamic trios in gospel music history, The Sons of Song. The Sons of Song became an overnight success, due to the members' seemingly endless vocal ranges, and their abilities to invert harmonies with ease. Butler was voted "Mr. Gospel Singer of America" in 1958 at the National Quartet Convention.
Tragedy soon struck the Sons of Song at the peak of their career in the form of a major automobile accident, after which the group never regained the momentum it once had. Don recorded a solo record with the Statesmen Quartet serving as backup vocalists, entitled "Don Butler and the Sentinels", and worked within the Statesmen organization for several years. Don Butler was one of the charter members of the Gospel Music Association in 1964, where he also served as Chairman of the Board in 1976. He was president of Sumar Talent Agency for five years. He produced the GMA Dove Awards, as well as the Singing Time In Dixie and Glory Road TV Shows, where he also served as the announcer. He was a national officer and trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), as well as on the advisory board of the National Music Educators Association. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
Don Butler passed away on February 3, following a lengthy illness. He was 80.
Mary "Alene" Lester was born on December 8, 1923. She, along with her late husband Herschel, are best remembered as longtime members of one of gospel music's oldest names, The Lesters.
Known as "St. Louis's First Family of Gospel Music", the Lesters are now into their fifth generation of gospel singers. Successful promoters of gospel music, as well as seasoned veterans, the Lesters have blessed many hearts with their camp meeting style singing and intricate harmonies. Their music store and gospel sings at Meremac Caverns have also helped them in carving a place in gospel music history. Mrs. Lester was a vital part of all chapters of the Lesters' success. She was the recipient of the Miss Ina Award in 2005 from the Southern Gospel Music Association. Her husband Herschel was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
Alene Lester passed away on January 20, following a period of declining health. She was 87.
Grable was born on April 26, 1928, in Guy, Arkansas. He began playing piano professionally with
the Stamps Baxter Dixie Quartet at age 16, working daily with Frank Stamps and
his quartets playing piano for live radio broadcasts from radio station KRLD in
the early 1950s, Billy joined the Friendly Four Quartet in Fort Worth, where
they performed on KFJZ radio. They
also sang for a weekly television program on Channel 5 WBAP, which was the first
television station in Texas. They
were regularly featured on WB Nowlin's early Battle of Songs concerts
at Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth beginning in 1956.
remained active working in real estate, and promoting his Travis Avenue Gospel
Concert series in Fort Worth until his death.
He was a regular attendee at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion, performing at
the Piano Roll of Honor for many years.
Grable passed away on December 30. He
Sherrill “Shaun” Nielsen was truly one of gospel music’s great tenors, with one of the most varied careers of anyone in the entertainment world. He was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 10, 1942. Although his early home life was an unhappy one, he quickly found his place in life singing. He went to live with his grandparents at 14 and soon began singing at revivals and churches. Sherrill claimed that he was popular in school because he could outrun all the boys and sing higher than all the girls.
Sherrill began his music career in the early 1960s with California’s premier quartet, The Songfellows. In 1963 when Dad Speer suffered a heart attack and was forced to cut back on his participation with the Speer Family, the group decided to embrace a newer sound and hired Sherrill to sing tenor. Sherrill’s stay would be short-lived, as Jake Hess hand-picked him to be the tenor for his new group, The Imperials. The Imperials quickly captured the hearts of gospel music fans with their intricate harmonies and arrangements. Elvis Presley tapped the Imperials to sing back-up harmonies on his classic recording “His Hand In Mine”, and Sherrill began a friendship with Elvis that would play a heavy influence on his career.
Sherrill rejoined the Songfellows for a brief stay in 1966, and also served a short stint with the Plainsmen in 1967. His next major career move came in 1970 when he joined Hovie Lister and the Statesmen. Although the Statesmen’s glory years seemed behind them, Sherrill brought a new dimension to the quartet with his soaring Irish tenor, and the Statesmen continued to enjoy the musical excellence they always had.
In 1973, Sherrill joined Donnie Sumner, Tim Baty, and several of gospel music’s most prominent musicians in forming “Voice”. Elvis named the group after a Christian Periodical he had read, and signed the group to travel with him on a contract he had written on a sheet of toilet paper. Although Voice only remained together for two years, Sherrill continued to work with Elvis until his death in 1977. Sherrill is prominently featured on Elvis’s posthumous hit, “Softly As I Leave You”, which rose to the Top 10 in the charts and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Sherrill continued performing both gospel and secular music in various capacities until his death. He served two different stints with The Masters V in 1983 and in 1988.
Sherrill and Brenda Nielsen were a true example of an unfading love story. They were married on December 12, 1963. Due to the strains of Sherrill’s music career, the couple went their separate ways in 1967. Sherrill never got over the loss of his marriage, and penned his first song, “Time’s Gonna Heal the Pain”. They would each enjoy their own successes over the next four decades, but on June 28, 2004, they were remarried, and would travel together singing and ministering for the last six years of Sherrill’s life.
Sherrill Nielsen passed away December 10, following a long battle with lung cancer. He was 68.
Anthony Elden Greene, best known to his fans and friends as “Tony”, was born on October 17, 1968, to Everette and Carolyn Greene, the youngest of three children. Beginning in the early 1980s, Tony was the lead vocalist for one of gospel music’s most popular family groups of the last quarter century, The Greenes. Throughout their career they charted several hits such as “There’s A Miracle In Me”, “Stand By the River”, “When I Knelt the Blood Fell”, “Jesus’ Rocking Chair”, and others.
In addition to his singing abilities, Tony was also an accomplished musician, a comedian, businessman, and promoter. His cruises, bus tours, and annual concerts were among some of gospel music’s most well-attended events.
In 2000, Tony proposed to The Greenes’ soprano vocalist, TaRanda Kiser, on the stage at NQC, and they were married on February 13, 2001. On August 25, 2009, Tony underwent a successful kidney transplant, the donor being his wife TaRanda. He quickly resumed his touring schedule and remained busy with the Greenes until his final hospitalization on September 21, 2010.
Tony Greene passed away following several health complications on September 28, with family and friends by his side. He was 41.
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