GOGR Music History -
Melody Boys Qt
The lineage of the Melody Boys Quartet runs deeply into the Stamps Baxter Music company. In the 1940's, there were quite a few groups that used the moniker "Melody Boys" in their name. The version of "Melody Boys" that evolved into the current "Melody Boys Quartet" was first known as the "Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet". This group featured Hershel Foshee singing bass and "Smilin'" Joe Roper at the piano as its mainstays. After these gentlemen served their time in the armed forces, they reorganized the quartet in Carbondale, Illinois. The membership included Russell Guest on tenor, Horace Comstock singing lead, Melvin Red on baritone, Hershel on bass, and Joe Roper played the piano. In the early days, many personalities were associated with the Melody Boys Quartet name. Among some of the better-known names were Jimmy Jones, Doy Ott, Odis Echols, Reece Crocket, and Jack Pittman.
This group relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1947 where they remain today. They began a long association with KARK radio, and became one of the best-known groups west of the Mississippi River. The quartet owned the airwaves, and always began their programs with "Give the World a Smile". Although groups of this day weren't afforded the travel luxuries of today, the Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet did travel extensively in their geographic area.
Not only were the members of the Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet active in the area of singing, but they were also quite active in the teaching aspect of gospel music. It was through this medium that they made the acquaintance of Gerald Williams. Hershel Foshee soon became a mentor to 14 year-old Gerald Williams. Gerald's voice had already changed, and he patterned his rounded vocal tones from Mr. Foshee.
Hershel Foshee suffered a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 37, so he attempted to scale back his activities. In the process, he formed the "Hershel Foshee Junior Quartet". Gerald Williams joined James Burleson, Tommy Ashcraft, and Freddy Holmes in this quartet. Marie Jarvis Adams, the only female member in the history of the Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet, accompanied the group with her unique piano style. The Junior Quartet knew many of the songs of the Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet, and often performed in concert with them. This would prove to be quite fortunate, for when Mr. Foshee passed away in 1949, Gerald Williams found himself singing bass for the Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet at the tender age of sixteen.
Hershel Foshee and Joe Roper had been the driving forces behind the quartet for several years. At Mr. Foshee's death, all of the managerial duties fell into the lap of Joe Roper. The group had been called the "Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet" prior to World War II, but during their reorganization and relocation, they had become known as "Hershel Foshee and the Stamps-Baxter Quartet". When Mr. Foshee passed away, they changed their name to "Smilin' Joe Roper and the Stamps-Baxter Melody Boys Quartet".
The association of the quartet with the Stamps-Baxter Music Company was to be short lived. The quartet's main function was to sell song books, and their programs were expected to use the latest Stamps-Baxter material exclusively, extensively and exactly! Unique arrangements of song book material was strictly forbidden as was using material from competitive music publishers. The writers placed pressure on the quartet to perform the songs exactly as written.
Not only was Joe Roper an excellent writer, but he was also a gifted arranger. He was also a stubborn individual! He prided himself on the arrangements he wrote for the quartet, and he didn't like being painted into a corner by the Stamps-Baxter Music Company. After meeting with company representatives, Mr. Roper decided that he didn't care for their demands, and thus dropped their association with Stamps-Baxter Music Company. Thus, the group became known as "Smilin' Joe Roper and the Melody Boys Quartet".
The personnel of the Melody Boys Quartet in 1949 included Fred Smith -- lead, Rex Parnell -- tenor, Richard Smith - baritone, and Gerald Williams singing bass. Richard was only a member for a short time, as he was filling in for Coolidge Faulkner who was serving in the Army. Faulkner soon rejoined the group, and the membership of Rex Parnell, Fred Smith, Coolidge Faulkner, Gerald Williams, and Joe Roper began to make strong inroads into the world of gospel music.
The Melody Boys Quartet continued to perform on a regular basis on KARK, and their popularity spread. KARK was a 5000-watt radio station. This strong signal had the quartet singing in homes throughout all of Arkansas, parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and even into Missouri.
Joe Roper's arrangements were difficult and demonstrated the fine musicianship of the quartet. The singers stayed well within their ranges. Harmony, blend, timing, phrasing and precision became trademarks of the Melody Boys Quartet. The current group continues to exemplify those traits learned in their formative years.
In 1950, the group began to record their radio programs on tape and was thus able to travel extensively within an 18 state area. The recording studio was primitive compared to the standards of today, yet the recordings made by the Melody Boys Quartet in 1950 are outstanding. Many songs the Melody Boys Quartet introduced to the gospel singing world have become gospel standards. "Peace in the Valley", "Pray", and "I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy" are among the classics recorded by the Melody Boys Quartet. Joe Roper wrote many songs such as "Sinner's Plea", "Faith in My Savior", and "What a Happy Day" that the Melody Boys Quartet introduced to gospel music. Roper also had a knack for arranging spirituals allowing the quartet to produce sounds similar to the popular black groups of the day.
James Blackwood was so impressed with the talented Melody Boys Quartet that he approached the group with idea of forming a quartet team to "monopolize" the quartet business. Roper balked at the idea, and probably cost the Melody Boys Quartet the notoriety and popularity that they so deserved. Soon thereafter, the Statesmen Quartet and Blackwood Brothers formed a partnership that ruled the gospel music circuit for many years.
During the early 1950's Rex Parnell was offered a job as a baseball commentator, and left the group for those greener pastures. Russell Guest rejoined the group for a short time, but soon Rex returned to the quartet for a brief stay. Coy Cook also joined the group for a short time as first tenor. Soon, Jerry Venable came on board to sing tenor. Jerry sang a very nice "country alto", and eventually took over the emcee work for the quartet. Jerry was a wonderful comedian in addition to his outstanding vocal talents. He would soon become a noted television personality in the Arkansas area.
The group experienced several personnel changes in the mid-50s. Gerald Williams left the group for a short while, and was replaced by Charles Jeffries. Gerald wasn't gone for long, and returned to a group that included Jerry Venable, Fred Smith, Coolidge Faulkner, and Joe Roper. Fred Smith, a very talented lead singer, left the group and was replaced by James Burleson. James and Gerald had sung together in the "Junior Quartet" a few years earlier.
Rich in its history, the Melody Boys Quartet continued to be one of the top quartets in the nation musically speaking, and were chosen to sing at the first National Quartet Convention in 1957. By this time, the group was made up of Jerry Venable - tenor, Don Randall -- lead, Coolidge Faulkner -- baritone, Harold Smith -- bass, with the ever-present Joe Roper at the piano. By the next year, Jim Boatman had replaced Harold Smith as bass singer.
Although the Melody Boys Quartet had very talented musicians, the group was suffering financially. The world of gospel music has never been a gravy train money-wise, but the wheels had come out from under the train the Melody Boys Quartet was riding. Joe Roper hired several young musicians and reorganized the quartet, but inexperience made it difficult for Joe to achieve the sound he desired. Richard Oliver, Bob Walters, Tommy Thompson, and Billy Tedford were among the singers that shared the stage with Joe Roper in his final stand with the Melody Boys Quartet.
Joe soon retired the group, and joined former Melody Boy Jim Boatman in the newly formed Prophets Quartet. Few members left the Melody Boys Quartet to join other groups, for as Coolidge Faulkner said, "After having been with the best, I didn't want to settle for less". However with the Melody Boys Quartet officially disbanded, four veterans of the quartet formed the new Venable Quartet. T.O. Miller, Gerald Williams, and Fred Smith joined Jerry Venable in a group that became very popular in Arkansas fueled by their daily television program on KARK-TV.
In the ensuing years, Gerald Williams had a desire to return to his Melody Boys Quartet roots. Joe Roper had gone on to play for the Prophets and the Stamps Quartet, so there was no active Melody Boys Quartet for several years. Gerald reformed the group using several singers with former ties to the quartet. Richard Oliver, Bob Walters, Bill Thompson, and William Garvin joined Gerald Williams in this new version of the Melody Boys Quartet. After about a year, Don Mooney replaced William Garvin at the piano. The group was operating as a part-time quartet with all the members holding down full-time jobs. This aggregation lasted a few years before they also disbanded.
After a hiatus of a few years, Gerald Williams again reformed the Melody Boys Quartet with former member T.O. Miller, John James, and Gerald's son, Steve Williams. Again operating as a part-time group, the membership changed a bit as Fred Smith's son, Ronnie, joined the group as did Jerry Trammel. As bookings increased, Doug Boydston and Johnny Minnick became members of the Melody Boys Quartet. However, these increased bookings were not necessarily a blessing, for they infringed on the full-time jobs of the quartet members. Once again, the Melody Boys Quartet disbanded in late 1986.
Since Gerald now had "lots of time on his hands", he went out to hear a young trio called Homeward Bound. Gerald was quite impressed with their sound, and they soon joined their talents as the new Melody Boys Quartet. Mike Franklin, Chris Bennett, and Jonathan Sawrie became the newest singers in the Melody Boys Quartet. Homeward Bound had a band, but they soon quit leaving Jonathan Sawrie as the lone member of the Melody Boys Quartet "band". Chris Bennett soon left the group and was replaced by Doug Kramer.
This group remained together for nine years. They performed mostly on a weekend basis, for all of the guys had full-time jobs. The group soon melded into one of the finest quartets in the gospel music industry. Jonathan Sawrie developed a piano technique quite similar to Joe Roper in addition to having a wonderful lead voice. Mike Franklin, a former Air Force recruiter, had a wonderful tenor voice and added comedic relief to the stage performances. The group developed a great repertoire, drawing extensively from Joe Roper classics. Jonathan soon developed an unusual rapport with the audience, and became a fine emcee as he displayed his characteristic dry wit.
When Doug Kramer left the quartet in 1998, the group hired Jeremy Raines from Versailles, Mo. as the new baritone. Jeremy brings a strong and varied musical background to the group, and he also plays a mean saxophone! Just prior to Jeremy joining the group, The Melody Boys Quartet made the decision to travel on a full-time basis. With this new acquisition, the Melody Boys Quartet continued to climb the ladder of success in the gospel music world. They were soon featured on the cover of Gospel Voice, The Singing News, and most recently Christian Music Perspective Magazine.
The Melody Boys Quartet is one of the few groups currently singing gospel music that remain true to their roots. Although they are afforded the luxury of modern instrumentation and unlimited studio manipulation, they pride themselves in that they never use stacked vocals to aid their recordings or live performances. Although this technique can give a fuller sound and cover minor vocal indiscretions, the Melody Boys Quartet has not succumbed to this practice. When you hear the Melody Boys Quartet in concert, that's what you get . . . FOUR voices singing excellent four part harmony.
In late 2002, Jonathan Sawrie left the quartet and was replaced by Ryan Seaton. Ryan's stay with the quartet was short-lived as he resigned his position in August 2003. Jonathan Sawrie graciously agreed to return to the quartet as they continued to sing some of the finest music in the business. Jeremy Raines moved up to the lead position in 2004 and Ben Blessing joined the group for a short stint as baritone singer and piano player. Following Ben's departure, 17-year-old Joshua Noah joined the group.
personnel change occurred for the Melody Boys when Mike Franklin announced his
retirement near the end of 2004, ending a long and dedicated tenure of 18 years.
Jeremy Raines and Josh Noah announced their departures in late 2005.
Allen Sipe spent the first seven months of 2006 traveling with the group as
baritone and pianist. Today's version of the Melody Boys consists of Gary Bullock - Tenor, Donnie Hooten
- Lead, Caleb Matheny - Baritone and Pianist, and of course Gerald Williams
continues his role as bass singer, manager, and veteran Melody Boy.
I would encourage any of you interested in a more in-depth look at the Melody Boys Quartet to get a copy of Gerald's autobiography , "Mighty Lot of Singin'. . . Gerald Williams of the Melody Boys Quartet". Gerald and his daughter, Judy Cox, have done a great job with this book. The majority of the facts included in this "lesson" came from information gleaned from this excellent volume. This article would have been impossible without this resource. Deon Unthank wrote a fine review of this book several months ago for the SoGospelNews.com web site. It is available from the Melody Boys Quartet at www.themelodyboysquartet.com.
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