GOGR Music History - Jack Toney

Jack Toney's passing on April 15 left a great void in the world of gospel music. This native son of Boaz, Alabama possessed a vocal quality unsurpassed in the gospel singing world.

Jack began his professional singing career in the 50s doing evangelistic work with Rev. John Hull . . . a gentleman who spoke at Jack's funeral. John Hull and his group, the Joymakers, soon began to feature young "Jackie" Toney. During the later 50s, Jack also sang in a part-time group known as the Songmasters.

As Jack's notoriety grew, he took a job singing with the Prophets Quartet of Knoxville, Tennessee. Jack joined forces with Ed Hill, Lou Garrison, Jay Simmons, and Joe Moscheo to present the  "unique sound in gospel music" that the Prophets became known for. Jack didn't remain with the Prophets for very long, and was replaced by Roy McNeil.

This first taste of professional gospel music whetted Jack's appetite for full time singing, and he found himself filling in with several of the great groups of the day. He filled in for Les Beasley in the Florida Boys, and also traveled with the Speer Family for a short time before he got a call from JG Whitfield. Mr. Whitfield had just formed the Dixie Echoes, and he asked Jack to join the group as lead singer replacing Doyle Wiggins. The Dixie Echoes had just performed in Carnegie Hall, and were charting their course as an up and coming group in gospel music.

The Dixie Echoes thrived with the talents of George Forbis, Jack Toney, Joe Whitfield, and Sue Whitfield. Jack's powerful voice was a prime reason for their quick rise in the gospel music ranks. This up and coming group with their handsome lead singer drew the attention of many in the gospel music world. This led to a call from Hovie Lister of the famous Statesmen Quartet that would change Jack's life forever.

Jake Hess turned in his resignation with the Statesmen in late 1963, and Hovie began searching for the man that could aptly fill the role that Mr. Hess had occupied for nearly fifteen years. Not only did the singer have to be an excellent musician, but he would have to look the part of "Statesman". Tall and handsome Jack Toney fit the group like a glove. Many years later, I was talking to Jack about his silver hair. He said, "I've had gray hair for a long time. But there was no way Hovie was going to have a gray-headed lead singer! That just didn't fit the part. I used a lot of Clairol to keep Mr. Lister happy."

Hovie could have chosen from many Jake Hess "wanna bes" that were numerous in gospel music in 1963. Lots of singers were imitating the "Hess Sound", but Jack was different. He had his own style. Instead of filling Jake's shoes, he made his own footprints with the Statesmen Quartet. His style was much different from that of Jake Hess. This would prove to be one of several times that Jack would follow Jake in a quartet situation.

There was a brief period of adjustment between the Statesmen and Jack. Jake Hess was one of the most popular men in gospel music, so it was reasonable that there was a period of transition. Fortunately, Jack related to the fans very well both on and off the stage, and the Statesmen went on to do some of their finest singing with Jack in the lead spot.

The group continued their long association with RCA Victor, producing some of their finest recordings with the group of Rosie Rozell, Doy Ott, Big Chief Wetherington, Hovie Lister and Jack Toney. They began the "Singing Time in Dixie", a syndicated television program, during this time, and their bookings continued to swell. Jack brought songs to the group such as "Ship Ahoy" and "Beyond the Gates" that quickly became two of his signature recordings.

While with the Statesmen, Jack married the former Cheryl McSpadden, and life on the road as a newlywed led to his departure from the Statesmen Quartet in 1966. Roy McNeil, the man that replaced Jack in the Prophets, replaced him in the Statesmen Quartet. This lineup only lasted for a year or so before Jack returned to the Statesmen and Roy returned to the Prophets. Jack remained with the group for another year or so before again resigning. In the book "Happy Rhythm", Jack related, "I had some family problems. Just to make it plain, my wife didn't want me on the road. I have never been a good road person. That was probably my downfall in the singing business. I love to be at home."

Not long after Jack left the group for the second time, tenor Rosie Rozell also departed. Unlike Jack, Rosie had the idea of forming his own group, Rosie Rozell and the Searchers. He called Jack and asked him to help him with the Searchers. Before Jack could turn down the offer, Rosie informed him that he'd already purchased new suits for Jack! He spent about a year on the road singing with Rosie Rozell and the Searchers, renewing a friendship that continued until Rosie's death.

During some of Jack's "down time" from full time gospel singing, he worked as a choir director and sang in several part time groups in the Alabama area. He sang in the Southmen with a young Tim Riley, and also sang in the Gadsden Ambassadors.

Full time work in gospel music again called, and Jack accepted the call to replace Jake Hess in the Masters V. In the Masters V, he rejoined his former bosses, Ed Hill and Hovie Lister, along with Sherrill Nielsen and JD Sumner. By now, four of the five members of the Masters V were former Statesmen. This was the last version of the Masters V before they disbanded. When they did disband, JD Sumner reformed the Stamps Quartet with Jack Toney as the lead singer. Jack sang with the Stamps Quartet for about three years before again retiring from full time singing.

 Hovie Lister and Jake Hess joined forces again in 1992 to reform the Statesmen Quartet. About the same time, Jack, Roy Pauley, Buddy Burton, and Rosie Rozell began to perform as the Legends. This group embraced the Statesmen sound, and did a few dates singing Statesmen classics in addition to new songs from the pen of Jack and Gail Toney.

Life on the road again took its toll on Jake's health, and again Jack was called on to return to his spot as lead singer for the Sensational Statesmen. By now, the Statesmen were only singing selected engagements, so the travel wasn't nearly as extensive for these quartet veterans. Through the years, Hovie tweaked the personnel of the Statesmen Quartet, but the lead voice of Jack Toney remained the anchor of their sound. He also brought some fine songs to the Statesmen repertoire.

Jack and Gail Toney were married November 14, 1984. He and Gail began a new career as a song writing team, and have written more than 500 songs. The Toneys wrote songs such as "I Will Rise Up From My Grave" (a Number One song for the Kingsmen), "Some Dawning" (Kevin Spencer Family), "Ridin' High (Kingsmen), "Jesus Is Coming for Me" (Inspirations), "Born to Royalty" (Legends) and many more. The Statesmen recorded some of his finest songs on their last several projects. Toney penned songs such as "God Must Have Sent Down an Angel", "Saints Don't You Know", "You Can't Shake the Rock", "Grace Marches On", and "I Wanna Rock My Soul" which all became a part of later day Statesmen performances.

Since the death of Hovie Lister, many thought that the Statesmen sound would also die. Shortly before Hovie's death, Grand Ole Gospel Reunion promoter Charles Waller formed "Hovie Lister and the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet". Jack's golden tones were a vital part of this group. Along with Hovie and Jack, Charles assembled former Statesmen Roy Pauley and Buddy Burton along with tenor John Rulapaugh to relive some of the memories of the Statesmen from years past. This group was originally formed for a one time performance, but Hovie experienced the magic and requested that they make a recording together. The Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet's first recording proved to be the last recording for the great Hovie Lister.

After Hovie's death, Jonathan Sawrie joined Jack, Buddy, Roy, and John and they continued to perform on a limited basis as the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet. It was with that quartet that I last heard Jack Toney's magnificent voice. This past February, I was privileged to sit in the studio with Mr. Waller and Mosie Lister as they produced what was ultimately Jack Toney's last recording. The songs recorded that day were all penned by Mosie Lister, and many featured the talents of Jack Toney. For that, I am grateful.

As I sat in the studio, I heard this gentleman sing "His Grace is Sufficient for Me". I marveled aloud that his voice never sounded finer. Little did I know that the sting of death would soon silence the wonderful voice of this gospel music legend. Jack, we will miss you, but we'll look for you beyond the gates.

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