The Blackwood Brothers Quartet had just experienced a thrill that no other gospel quartet had ever hoped to accomplish. They had been a part of a national television talent program, and had won the competition. The quartet then appeared with the famed McGuire Sisters on a national radio program. Their recordings for RCA Victor were among the labelís best sellers. In a very poignant and foretelling description, the Blackwood Brothers were flying high. Life was great for the Blackwood Brothers and they were embracing every moment of it.
Bill Shaw, James Blackwood, R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, and Jackie Marshall were as close to perfection as any quartet that had ever appeared on a gospel stage or sang on a gospel recording. Each gentleman possessed a beautiful voice with outstanding vocal range.
Jackie Marshallís piano skills havenít been equaled in the gospel music field for more than fifty years. His fills and introductions are legendary, and filled every nook and cranny in the Blackwood sound.
Bill Lyles had a very melodic voice and a manner that always made him a crowd favorite. Although Lyles never had the lower register that would later be the foundation of the Blackwood sound in later years, he had a superb upper range. His solos were a welcomed feature in all of the Blackwood performances, and Bill had a great knack for singing rhythmic and syncopated vocal parts.
Tenor Bill Shaw was the new kid on the block, yet he performed as a seasoned veteran with the Blackwood Brothers. Shaw was a classically trained vocalist with a bell-like tenor voice. He had the ability to blend perfectly, and his classically tinged solos and featured parts gave a very unique sound to the quartet.
There have been few baritones before or since that have had the range of R.W. Blackwood. Before the days of R.W. Blackwood, the part of baritone was almost a forgotten part of the gospel quartet. R.W.ís charisma and stage presence didnít allow anyone to forget him. It was almost as though R.W. and his uncle James were in a contest to be the "star" of the quartet. James was often the comic foil to R.W.ís endless pranks and stage patter. R.W. had a phenomenal range as evidenced by some of the extremely high quartet endings on which he often sang the top note. His solo voice was also exceptional on songs such as "The Robe of Calvary" and "It Took a Miracle."
In the annals of gospel music, James Blackwood is always recognized as one of the top lead singers ever to step on the stage. In 1954, James was coming into his own not only as one of the finest singers in the industry, but his savvy business skills and excellent emcee work were being perfected. James possessed a range that was envied by many first tenors. His classic style was the backbone of the Blackwood Brothers from their early beginnings and remained so until the early 1970s.
Four outstanding, versatile vocalists accompanied by arguably the finest quartet pianist of the days. This was as close to a perfect quartet as the world of gospel music had experienced thus far. The Blackwood Brothers played to sold out audiences wherever they appeared, and their recordings outsold all of their competitors (and yes, I use the word "competitors," for the groups of that day were always competing for their fan base and their pocketbooks).
Knowing the cutthroat business of gospel music, the Blackwood Brothers joined forces with the Statesmen Quartet who were their largest competitors. James Blackwood and Hovie Lister were arguably the finest quartet managers of that day, and they realized that the two groups could fill nearly any auditorium in the country. The marriage of these two groups proved to be great for these two groups as the "team" became one of the most powerful forces in the gospel music industry. The "team" soon was in control of the gospel music industry.
After their success on the Arthur Godfrey program, the Blackwoods were at the pinnacle of gospel music. God was truly blessing the quartet. Little did they realize that they would soon plunge from their peak of stardom into the depths of misery in only three short weeks.
The quartet continued to travel by airplane in order to fulfill the request of their large fan base throughout the country. Many close to the quartet were concerned with the fact that R.W. and Bill were not extremely experienced pilots and were troubled about the safety of the quartet. In spite of the misgivings, they continued to fly to their dates and they continued to fly to most of their engagements for reasons mentioned in the previous article.
In late June of 1954, the Blackwoods made plans to fly the quartet to a concert date in Clanton, Alabama. The night before, June 29, 1954, the group had performed in Gulfport, Mississippi. As fate would have it, someone recorded their performance, and it will live in infamy as the last performance of Bill Lyles and R.W. Blackwood. This recording still exists in the hands of a select few gospel music historians and fans.
The Blackwoods were scheduled to appear on a program to celebrate the Peach Festival in Clanton. As the quartet ascended into Clanton, there was a great crowd assembled to greet the famous Blackwood Brothers. The Blackwoods exited their ten passenger Beechcraft airplane to a throng of their fans. The quartet spent nearly and hour shaking hands, signing autographs, and smoozing with the crowd. These folks loved the Blackwood Brothers and the Blackwood Brothers loved their fans! This evening, the Blackwood Brothers were scheduled to sing with their friends and business associates, the Statesmen Quartet..
Most of the members of the quartet soon went into the hanger where the evening concert was to be held. The Blackwoods would be flying out of Clanton soon after the concert. As the shadows began approaching, R.W. and Bill decided that they would like to check out the take off situation while there was still some daylight. Young Johnny Ogden, son of the promoter of the event, asked to go along for the ride. R.W. was attempting to make their departure as safe as possible, but tragedy lurked for the three aboard the aircraft. The wind had shifted, and the aircraft needed to take off on the opposite side of the runway.
The landing strip was short and unlighted, so R.W. wanted to test out the situation prior to taking off after the concert. Normally, the quartet would request that the attendees of the concert line the landing strip with their cars and headlights aíblazing. This made for a lighted landing strip and made takeoff for their Beechcraft a bit easier. R.W. wanted to insure the safety of the quartet and attempted a trial run in the daylight before the actual flight.
As dusk was falling over the airstrip in Clanton, the Blackwood Brothersí airplane ascended into the heavens. R.W. and Bill maneuvered the aircraft around the area as the weather altered. The winds were changing, and thus the flight plans for the trio on the plane changed. R.W. attempted another landing on the opposite side of the field. Not only was the evening crowd aghast as they watched the ill-fated aircraft, but the members of the other groups on the program had gathered to watch this turn of events. The plane made two attempts to land. It then bounced a couple of times upon its descent and attempted to ascend once again but to no avail. The wheels didnít stick on the runway, and the aircraft made another try to land. This time, the craft pointed straight toward the Heavens, made a 180 degree flip and then crashed to the ground with an earth crashing thud. Flames engulfed the airplane as the crowd stood unmoving.
James Blackwood rushed toward the fiery crash but Jake Hess grabbed him from behind and saved him from a certain death. The remaining members of the quartet and the crowd watched in terror as the Beechcraft erupted in flames and their partners in song perished in the blaze.
For James Blackwood it was impossible to imagine life without R.W. and Bill. They had become such an integral part of the Blackwood Brothers that James couldnít conceive of laboring on. He rode back to Memphis with the Statesmen Quartet and avowed that he never would sing again.
This day, June 30, 1954, will live on in gospel music infamy. Many think this may be the day that gospel music died, while others assert that it propelled the Blackwood Brothers onto greater heights.
For Bill Shaw, Jackie Marshall and especially James Blackwood, it was the worst of times.
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