GOGR Music History -
Gospel music seems to have had their share of quartets that reached "legendary status" in various ways. Several have been hyped as "the best ever." Some of these groups seem to have taken the industry by storm, and were the groups from which legends were made. The Melody Masters Quartet fits this second description quite well, for they became the foundation of the Statesmen Quartet. There is very little recorded history to compare this group to groups of their era, but those that witnessed this group always speak of the quartet in the same breath as others taunted as the "best quartet ever." There are few around today that actually had the opportunity to hear this group perform, but according to eye witnesses, they were one of the finest groups to emerge from the mid 1940s.
The Melody Masters Quartet was formed like many groups of the day . . . members of one group got into a fuss and decide that the grass would be greener if they formed a new group! In late 1946, Jim Wetherington, Lee Kitchens, and Mosie Lister left the Sunny South Quartet in Tampa Florida to form the nucleus of the Melody Masters Quartet. They were joined in this endeavor by Alvin Tootle and Wally Varner. They seemed to delight in butting heads with the Sunny South Quartet. The stories of their antics have been recorded in other volumes, but they had a great time with "one-upsmanship" Not only were they rival quartets, but they worked for rival song book companies.
After a few months, Mosie Lister departed and was replaced by Calvin Newton. Jake Hess was originally chosen to replace Mosie, but Jake's arrival was delayed and the impatient Mr. Wetherington hired Newton instead. Jake did join the group soon thereafter. In the ensuing months, Lee Kitchens departed, Alvin Tootle moved from tenor to baritone, and Calvin Newton became the first tenor for the group. Jim Wetherington and Wally Varner remained constant with the group. After a few months, Cat Freeman joined the group, replacing Calvin Newton as tenor singer.
The quartet had a great sound, but they weren't making ends meet financially. The Tampa area was a bit small to support two full time quartets, so the Melody Masters Quartet soon left for greener pastures. Hovie Lister suggested that the group relocate to his hometown of Greenville, S.C. and they indeed moved there for a short while. Hovie was toying with the idea of forming the Statesmen Quartet, and the Melody Masters Quartet embodied many of the ideas he'd imagined for his quartet. If his greatest potential competition was several hours from Atlanta, his dream quartet may have a better shot of making it in the business.
Jake Hess has often told the story that the group had to "steal fruit" to keep from starving. The group continued to struggle, but kept the faith because of a great desire to sing. A short stay in Birmingham, Alabama didn't improve their fortunes, either.
The group finally found a home as paid musicians for KFAB radio station in Lincoln, Nebraska. They did three radio programs during the day and would do concert programs at night. Gospel music wasn't well known in Nebraska, so the Melody Masters Quartet was quite a novelty to those people. Their programs and stage antics were flawless, and they developed quite a following from the mid-Westerners. The quartet stepped outside the bounds of the normal quartets of the day, and the crowds loved them. Mosie Lister wrote several advanced arrangements, and the Melody Masters Quartet performed them well much to the delight of their audiences. The Melody Masters Quartet was arguably the first quartet to use modern harmony in their arrangements, often employing tight five-part harmonies in their presentations.
Although the group did some wonderful singing, The Melody Masters Quartet didn't leave much for us to remember them by in the recording studio. "Brudder Jonah" and "Moving Up to Glory" were the only songs the group ever recorded for sale. They were released on the White Church label. If these two songs are any indication, the group indeed lived up to its hype. I am aware of only four of their radio transcriptions also have survived the fifty five years since they were recorded.
Cat Freeman soon left the quartet and was replaced by Vernon Bright. Lane Shaw was also a member of the quartet during the years at KFAB radio. Both of these gentlemen were quartet veterans and were excellent singers.
Hovie not only liked the sound of the quartet, but he must have also coveted the members. Soon after forming the Statesmen Quartet, Hovie called Jake Hess and offered him a job. Jake accepted the call to relocate in Atlanta, Georgia and the gospel singing world has rejoiced ever since.
Ben Swett, Jim Wetherington's uncle, replaced Jake in the quartet, but the quartet soon disbanded. Hovie once again came calling, and Jim Wetherington began a 25-year tenure as bass singer of the Statesmen Quartet. Within a year, Hovie also had Cat Freeman singing in the Statesmen Quartet. This was 3/4 of the group singing on the Melody Masters Quartet's only recording!
In 1982, I was sitting backstage with Jake Hess and JD Sumner as they prepared to go on stage with the other Statesmen. JD was "holding court" as he talked about the Melody Masters Quartet. He took a puff on his cigarette and then smiled as he said, "I was glad the ole Melody Masters decided to leave Florida. They'd eat our sack lunch nearly every time we sang together. Those boys could ever more sing! And I don't mean just gospel music either. You ain't lived 'till you heard the ole Big Chief sing "Ole Buttermilk Sky." 'Course, he wasn't the "Big Chief" in those days. They were not only the finest gospel quartet in the country, but they were the best quartet of ANY kind. I sure wish you boys could have heard them. They could sing "Rag Mop," "Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette," "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," and then tear 'em up with an old hymn." Jake just smiled and nodded in agreement.
A few of the alumni of this group are still with us as of this writing including Lee Kitchens, Mosie Lister, Calvin Newton, and Wally Varner. These gentlemen would no doubt remember their time with the Melody Masters Quartet with a smile. The Melody Masters Quartet had a sound that was far ahead of their time. The paths they led helped to pave the way for the Statesmen Quartet. Although many have never actually heard the group, their influence is still recognized in gospel music today.
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