GOGR Music History

The world of gospel music experienced many changes during the decade of the 1970s. As that decade came to a close, many of the top groups that began the 1970s had either disbanded or changed in such a way that they were no longer viable forces on the gospel music circuit. The Oak Ridge Boys became outstanding country music artists. The Imperials changed their focus to contemporary Christian music. The Thrasher Brothers flirted with country music prior to disbanding. The death of Big Chief Wetherington signaled an end to the Statesmen Quartet as quartet purists knew them. The Stamps Quartet changed their focus to their Elvis Presley connection before disbanding after the divorce of Ed Enoch and Shirley Sumner. The Prophets realized that the once lucrative gospel music industry no longer held such "fortunes" and they disbanded. The Blackwood Brothers became a shell of their glory days, as James Blackwood was moved to "added attraction" status. Even some of the major mixed groups either disbanded or changed their music focus. The world of gospel music was in need of a super group to revive itself to its former glory. Gospel music was in a perpetual coma and needed some kind of an injection to revive itself. It was time for an all-star group of major proportions to arrive on the scene. Who would fill the void left by these gospel music absentees?

Realizing that many of the groups of the past had gone by the wayside, JD Sumner and Jake Hess began to brainstorm. How could they revive the world of gospel music in their own special way? What would it take to bring the glory days of gospel music back to the stage? Soon, Hovie Lister was brought into the discussions.

After much deliberation, these gentlemen decided to work to form a mega-group of All Stars. Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, and Floyd Cramer realized that the sum of the parts was greater than the individuals, and formed a partnership of country musicians called the Masters III, so why couldnít gospel music artists try something similar? After all, these guys did a few concerts together with much success. Perhaps the world of gospel music was ready for an All Star Quartet to revive their sagging industry. The original plan was to form this group and do just a few select dates each year. That was fine, until James Blackwood was handed the date book . . . but I digress.

When the plans for the Masters V began, JD Sumner had disbanded the Stamps Quartet and wasnít having a great time in retirement. JD was always a great visionary, and always associated himself with others that had a similar vision. As plans were being made to assemble a great "all star" quartet, there were but a few names placed on the table for discussion. JDís original idea was to form a quartet with Jake Hess, James Blackwood, Hovie Lister, and Connor Hall. All were masters of their trade and had storied careers in gospel music.

The original idea wasnít to form a full time quartet, but rather one to do a few tours each year. Little did they know that the Masters V would soon become one of the most popular groups in the gospel music field.

Connor Hall had all of the qualities that the Masters V desired. He was an "old timer" with a gorgeous tenor voice. He was a great musician with a long career with the Homeland Harmony Quartet. However, his health was not good, so they decided to explore other options. Connor may have been the better choice nostalgia-wise, but his health just wasnít up to the rigors of touring with a major quartet.

Hovie Lister had reformed the Statesmen Quartet and had a great group, but Hovie had a difficult time keeping consistent personnel in the quartet. Needing a dependable bass singer, Hovie called his friend, JD Sumner, and JD joined the Statesmen Quartet for a short time. JD was a great bass singer, and the Statesmen was a great quartet, but somehow the Statesmen didnít seem "right" with JD as bass, and JD was never a "Statesmen" type bass singer.

Since Connor Hall wasnít physically able to join the quartet Hovie suggested that Rosie Rozell be considered as the tenor for this new quartet. Rosie was singing with the current version of the Statesmen and fit the role in this new quartet quite well. The original idea was for this new and unnamed group to travel only on a part time basis and the Statesmen to remain intact. In fact, current Statesmen lead singer, Buddy Burton, was to be the arranger for the new group. Hovie Lister announced in the January 1981 Singing News "the Masters V is a special venture, by special request, for special occasions and will no way interfere with the ministry of the Statesmen Quartet." This arrangement only lasted a short time before the Statesmen disbanded for the second time in less than a decade.

James Blackwood was nearly an afterthought in the 1980 version of the Blackwood Brothers. He was only an "added attraction" with the group as his son, Jimmy, was the current lead singer with the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. However, many promoters insisted on James appearing with the quartet, so prying him away from the group that bore his name may be more difficult than originally expected. After discussing it with James, he agreed to fill the role with the Masters V on a trial basis.

The original Masters V consisted of Rosie Rozell singing tenor, James Blackwood and Jake Hess alternating between lead and baritone, JD Sumner singing bass, and master emcee and pianist Hovie Lister rounding out the group. Their first tour was quite successful, and these masters of their trade had a great sound from the beginning.

Hovie saw the potential of this group, and soon fazed out the Statesmen Quartet. The Masters V still had not gotten a firm commitment from James Blackwood, so after the first tour the quartet began to work as the Masters V with Richard Coletrane singing baritone. This group did a few dates as the "Statesmen Quartet" and also did some appearances as the "Masters V."

Soon, James Blackwood fulfilled his obligations with the Blackwood Brothers and joined the Masters V full time. When the appointment book was handed over to this master salesman, the Masters V found themselves working more than 200 dates each year. As the adrenaline began to flow, these old pros wanted to be on the stage every night. What began as a "thirty date a year" group quickly became one of the hottest acts in gospel music.

The Masters Vís first self titled album won a Grammy Award for best traditional Gospel performance. Most of the songs from this Skylite album were songs formerly associated with either the Statesmen Quartet or Blackwood Brothers. As subsequent recordings were released, most of the quartetís songs fit this same mold. Their fans appreciated these familiar songs, but it may have made the group a bit lackadaisical. They could still excite the crowds with these old standards, but the group didnít practice as much as they should. While their overall sound may have suffered, few noticed for these gentlemen were masters at their craft. When Jake was the lead singer, the group sounded like the Statesmen. When James sang lead, it brought back memories of the Blackwood Brothers. Had the group spent as much time in the rehearsal room as did their previous quartets, the Masters V would have ascended to even greater heights.

Every member of the Masters V had previously led their own quartets, so it was inevitable that someone had to be in charge of the Masters V. Hovie Lister was chosen for this task and he was ably assisted by James Blackwood. As mentioned earlier, originally the group would only perform selected dates, for between them they had enough bypasses to build an interstate highway. James felt otherwise, and began to book the Masters V relentlessly.

The major problems with the Masters V at this time were age and health. Rosie Rozell was the first to fall when he suffered a stroke in 1983. The group needed another "master," and Sherrill Nielsen filled that role for about a year. He had previously sung with both the Statesmen and the Imperials, so he was a perfect fit for the group. Nielsen was replaced by Steve Warren. Warren was the son of a Texas gospel music promoter, and had followed the gospel music circuit since he was a small child. He fit the Masters V perfectly, and brought some necessary youth to the group. Warren was a talented musician and could sing nearly every part in the quartet. He was also an excellent arranger and produced the Masters Vís most progressive recording, "Thru the Years with the Masters V." This was the first recording by the Masters V that didnít rely on the old hits of the Statesmen Quartet and Blackwood Brothers for the bulk of the songs.

Steve Warren injected some youth into the quartet, and soon found out that he was the healthiest man in the quartet. It soon became necessary to have other gentlemen fill in for some of the unhealthy members of the quartet. Chris Hess, Jakeís eldest son, often filled in for an ailing James Blackwood. Tommy Thompson, formerly the bass singer with the Statesmen, filled in for JD Sumner.

James Blackwood was the next to leave the quartet. His health was suffering due to the strenuous travel schedule of the quartet. Chris Hess, Buddy Burton and Charles Yates all filled his role for a short time before Ed Hill was hired as permanent baritone for the quartet.

Soon after James Blackwood left the Masters V, Jake Hess again experienced health problems. Once again, as he did with the Statesmen Quartet, Jack Toney followed Jake Hess as lead singer with the Masters V. Although health wasnít the issue, Steve Warren left the Masters V and Sherrill Nielsen joined the Masters V for a second stint.

The Masters V had some very successful recordings on Skylite records. Their first recordings featured famous recordings by the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers. An album of hymns was extremely popular as were two records that featured hits of the Statesmen Quartet and the Blackwood Brothers. The Masters V was on the circuit just as vinyl recordings began their demise. Their last two recordings were available only on cassette are quite rare.

The Masters V had a very successful eight year run in gospel music. As they neared the end of the line, the group began using soundtracks and stacked vocals during their personal appearances. Hovie Lister became rather disenchanted with this arrangement and resigned from the Masters V. The group of five masters had become JD Sumner and four other singers. The end of the Masters V was in sight.

Charles Waller assembled the original Masters V at the first Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in 1988. Masters Rozell, Hess, Blackwood, Sumner and Lister closed the first Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in style as they performed their signature song, "Oh What a Savior."

JD Sumner hired Steve Warren to replace Shaun Nielsen and debuted his newly formed Stamps Quartet at the 1988 National Quartet Convention with former Masters V members Jack Toney and Ed Hill.

All of the original Masters V have gone on to sing in the Heavenly choir, yet the memories of this group remain. This group singlehandedly revitalized gospel music in the 1980s. I hope you had the opportunity to experience them firsthand as I did.

Your comments are always appreciated, and I welcome your questions. Please send your questions to me at john@grandolegospelreunion.com and post your comments at the end of this article.

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