GOGR Music History - Big Jim Waits...
The Dean of the Bass Singers
There is no bass singer that had a bigger impact in the world of gospel music in the decades of the 1930s-1950s than Jim Waits. He performed with many of the major groups during these formative years of gospel music, so his hand print is indelibly placed on the early years of gospel music.
Often called "The Dean of the Bass Singers" or "Deacon Big Jim Waits," he set a standard of excellence in the field of bass singers. He had a style and manner that showed love for his fans and his peers. He excelled not only on the stage, but in the recording studio and on the radio. His rich bass voice was heard throughout the country as he performed gospel songs like no other. I will not attempt to enumerate all of the groups with which Waits performed. However, he filled the bass role for many of the major quartets during the 1930s-1950s.
Jim spent several years on the vaudeville circuit before giving his life to gospel music. One of the first groups he sang with was the "Sunny City Four." He was with this group when he made his first real tour when they were hired to travel to New York and sing for a chain of theaters.
In his early years, Jim sang with groups such as the Electrical Workers Quartet, the John Daniel Quartet, and the Belmont Quartet of Atlanta. He was with several groups in the Stamps organization including the Stamps Baxter Mixed Quartet, and he replaced Frank Stamps in the Stamps Quartet in Dallas, Texas. Jim soon joined forces with the rival Vaughn music company when he joined the Vaughn Radio Quartet. This was said to be one of the finest quartets in the gospel singing field in that day.
Lee Roy Abernathy was the pianist for the Electrical Workers Quartet for a short time. Lee Roy recalls, "They were all the same height -- they looked good standing up there singing, and they all wore matching blue serge suits. They also were great entertainers." Incidentally, Lee Roy had to leave that quartet when it was learned that he was only fifteen years old and not old enough to join the union.
After singing with the Stamps Quartet in Dallas, Texas, Jim moved to Atlanta, Georgia to sing with the LeFevre Trio. Jim traveled many miles with the LeFevres before joining Connor Hall, James McCoy, Otis McCoy and Hovie Lister in the Homeland Harmony Quartet. Jim sang with the Homeland Harmony Quartet on several occasions. Some of the finest moments in the storied history of the Homeland Harmony Quartet featured Jim Waits and his superb bass vocals. They appeared on many radio programs, and were instrumental in spreading gospel music across the South.
Jim sang with several of the major groups in the Atlanta area. He sang with the LeFevre Trio on at least two different occasions, and the group made some excellent recordings for the Bibletone label.
Wally Fowler, a close friend with whom he had sung in the John Daniel Quartet, convinced Big Jim to move to Nashville and work as a soloist with Fowler's All Night Sings on WSM radio. He remained with Wally for a while, and later moved to Fort Worth to sing with the Chuck Wagon Gang. This venture was short lived as the desire to sing with a male quartet once again pulled Jim to Atlanta.
He moved to Atlanta and joined forces with Dan Huskey, Bob Shaw, Tommy Rainer, and Jerry Briggs to form the Revelaires Quartet. This quartet did some great singing. Their recordings for the Bibletone label are highly sought among collectors of gospel quartet music. Jim's rich voice was a large part of the group's success.
Health concerns necessitated Jim's retirement from the Revelaires, so he moved to Tampa, Florida to live near his daughter. His retirement was short lived, as the Rebels Quartet of Tampa soon procured his services. This was the finest quartet the Rebels ever assembled. The quartet consisting of Horace Parish, Lee Kitchens, John Matthews, Jimmy Taylor, and Jim Waits was the epitome of a true Southern quartet. They had great arrangements and were superb entertainers.
In 1955, Big Jim suffered a heart attack and had to leave the Rebels Quartet. He was replaced by London Parris. Although Jim was no longer a member of the Rebels, he continued to be their mentor and their biggest fan.
After Jim recovered from his heart problems, the allure of the road once again pulled at this former vaudeville performer. When performing is in your blood, a heart attack isn't going to remove it! Soon, Jim was back on stage performing once again. Much of the time, he traveled with the Speer Family as an "added attraction" at their concerts. Jim and Dad Speer were long time friends, and their friendship was evident each time they took the stage.
Brock and Ben Speer were both quite active in the Skylite-Sing recording company, so they had Big Jim record four of his classic songs with the Speer Family. These two singles were some of the finest moments in Big Jim's recording history. Connor Hall, long time friend and colleague, was president of Sing Records. He joined Jim and the Speer Family on one of the recordings. As Brock Speer recalled, "We were able to have something on our record table for Big Jim to sell. He had such a great time traveling and singing with us visiting with his many fans across the country."
According to the old timers, Jim Waits never appeared at a concert without perfectly shined shoes and a perfectly ironed suit. His voice could cut through an auditorium like a warm knife through butter. Jim's vaudeville career helped him overcome any obstacles he may incur on stage. He was a premier showman. He was the first bass singer to perform the "trombone" routine that was made popular by Billy Todd and later revived by Ken Turner. He would cup his fist and make his voice sound like a trombone as he performed his sugar sticks such as "On the Jericho Road." This act was a great crowd pleaser.
Many gospel music legends give credit to Jim Waits for teaching them the quartet business. Hovie Lister worked with Waits both in the LeFevres and the Homeland Harmony Quartet. He gives Jim much credit for teaching him the ways of quartet life.
In the book Happy Rhythm, Hovie discusses Big Jim Waits: "Big Jim taught me more about quartet work and how important it is to love people more that anyone else Iíve ever known, " Hovie observes. "Big Jim was my mentor. What I know about showmanship, I learned from him. When I was with the Homeland Harmony Quartet, he would slide down to get the low notes and he taught me how to go down the keyboard like I was trying to find the note, and I would end up falling off the piano bench. If it was a grand piano, then I would crawl under the piano like I was embarrassed and they would have to coax me out."
J.D. Sumner was another legend that looked up to Waits as a mentor both as a bass singer and as a quartet man.
Waits last stint in a full time quartet was again with the Rebels in the mid 1960s. London Parris had taken a leave of absence from the quartet. Bob Thacker was first hired to replace Parris, but soon Jim Waits was at the familiar bass microphone of the Rebels Quartet. He spent several months with the Rebels and even recorded the album "Good News" with the quartet before Parris again returned to the group.
Fortunately, the world of gospel music saw fit to induct Big Jim Waits as the first living member in the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1971. He was also posthumously inducted in the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in their first class of 1997.
Jim Waits set the standard by which bass singer were judged. He is truly a legend in the world of gospel music. I will close with the words Jim often said and lived by: "I love everybody and I hope everybody loves me!"
I grew up as a kid listening to Bij Jim. I had the pleasure seeing him in person several times as a you kid. He was one of the many singers that made me love Gospel music.
I NEVER KNEW PAPPY WAITS BUT THE HOMELAND HARMONY QUARTET HAD TWO GREAT BASS SINGERS AND IT WAS JD SUMNER HWO FORMED WHAT WAS THEN THE DIXIE HARMONEIRS BEFORE THEY WERE THE REBELS QUARTET BUT JD AND PAPPY ARE THE BEST
John, Your articles are always both entertaining and educational. I look forward to them each month. Thanks for the research you do to teach us more about these great pioneers. I guess when singers change from one group to another today, they are only following in historic footsteps.
Jim Waits is one of the most unforgetable characters I have ever met. It was my pleasure to sing with Jim when I joined The Homeland Harmony Quartet in 1949. I was called into the Air Force during the Korean conflict and Jim kept in touch through my wife and wanted us to start another group when I returned to the states. We joined with Dan Huskey and formed the Revelaires. Jim moved to Florida and joined the Rebels but later visited Atlanta for J. G. Whitfield's Old Timers Reunion with Homeland Harmony. Jim, Conner Hall, James McCoy, Wally Varner and I would get together for a rehearsal in the afternoon, I would take Jim to dinner and we would sing in the evening. He never lost his touch with the people. Ronal Reagan was the second great communicator. The first was Big Jim Waits. By the way, while he was proud to have sung with the Electrical Worker Quartet he was even more proud to have been a member of the Atlanta Police Quartet. Made him feel like a modern day Wyatt Earp.
When I was with the Revelaires, Big Jim was our goal-setter! We called him "Pappy" and as the pianist for the group, I didn't dare not play every note Pappy sang! What a joy in my life to have had the priviledge to be with Pappy, Bob, Dan and Tommy! Thank you for this special article on this great singer.
Thank you John for another exceptional article! Big Jim Waits has been one of my heroes since I was a child. Thank you for making me aware of many facts about this wonderful man that I did not know. I treasure the few video clips I have of him with the Rebels as well as the many recordings. You are the greatest, John!
The SGMA Hall of Fame web site says that Big Jim died in 1973. Seems like I read somewhere that it was in December, but I'm not certain. I don't know about an Electrical Workers Quaret reunion in 1972, but I know that Jim often participated in reunions of the Homeland Harmony Quartet.
Thanks for this wonderful article. I believe but am not certain that I saw a reunion of Big Jim and the Electrical Workers Quartet on the opening night of the 1972 National Quartet Convention. I was a new SGM fan at the time and did not know anything about its history. Can anyone confirm this reunion took place? Also when did Jim die (my apologies if it is in the story and I missed it.)
John, As always an informative and well-written article about a man who influenced so many. Thanks and well done. Dean
Thanks, John, for another informative article on one of the legendary names in Southern Gospel music. Interesting how many of our heroes that he influenced along the way.
Thanks John,as always a great story about a Great Person.........
In the 60's when we would sang in central Florida, we usually went to Mona & Pappy Porter's house to eat or they would bring food to the concerts. On one of our visits to their house, "Big Jim" was visiting also. What a treat to have met him and have time to talk about his quartet days. Quite a man for sure..They are all 3 gone now however the time spent with "Big Jim" and Mona and Pappy will never be forgotten..Thank you John for bringing back good memories..
Quite interesting, as I never saw Jim Waits in person; but singing with the Chuck Wagon Gang?- Thanks John, great job as usual-Harod
Great job, as always, John. I always learn something--often many things--I didn't know about the artists you cover.
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