GOGR Music History - Prophets
"The most unique sound in Gospel Music" was the trademark of the Prophets Quartet. With the soaring first tenor voice of "Big Lew" Garrison and the solid baritone voice of Ed Hill as the anchors of the group, the unique sound of the Prophets thrilled audiences for nearly fifteen years.
"Big Lew" had a great falsetto tenor voice that was complimented by some of the finest lead singers in gospel music history. All of the Prophets? lead singers possessed an upper range as high as many first tenors. Add to this sound several excellent bass singers and pianists, the unique sound of the Prophets continued throughout the many personnel changes that beset the group through the years.
The Prophets can trace their lineage to the Kings Men Quartet from St. Louis, Mo. Ed Hill and Jerry (Jay) Berry were founding members of the Kings Men Quartet. This group was a big hit at the 1958 National Quartet Convention. Shortly after the convention, Hill and Berry realized their desire to sing on a full time basis. They moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and the Prophets were formed in March of 1959. They joined forces with James Lewis Garrison, Rancell D. Taylor, and Gary Trusler and recorded their first album on the predominately pop label, Coral. That first Prophets album is quite sought after by collectors of gospel music.
Soon thereafter, personnel changes began to occur. First, Fred Rose replaced Randy Taylor. Shortly thereafter, Jim Boatman became the bass singer and legendary gospel music teacher, pianist, and songwriter "Smilin'" Joe Roper became their pianist and arranger. Under Mr.Roper's teaching, the group became familiar with unusual arrangements and expanded their abilities.
The world of gospel music saw the potential in this fine group, and soon they became members of the Gospel Singing Caravan. Joe Moscheo replaced Joe Roper as pianist for the group. The group of Garrison, Berry, Hill, Boatman and Moscheo began to take the gospel singing world by storm. Innovative arrangements, likable personalities, and great stage presence made the group quite popular with the fans. "Big Lew" and Ed Hill had a wonderful stage rapport and always made their programs quite entertaining.
Soon, Jay Berry sought greener pastures with the Rebels Quartet and Jim Boatman left to join the Sunshine Boys who were beginning to play the Las Vegas circuit. Jack Toney joined the group for a short time followed by Roy McNeil. Jay Simmons soon joined the group as bass singer. This group was very exciting and began to sing songs written by Joe Moscheo, "the only Italian in Gospel Music". His arrangements and compositions became standards in the Prophets' repritore.
Simmons didn't stay with the group long and was replaced by Texan Dave Rogers. The popularity of the group continued to grow. Many call this version of the quartet their finest. Personnel continued to change as McNeil, Boatman, and Berry were members of the group multiple times. Other members of the group around this time included Charles Yates, Duane Allen, Jim Wesson, Everette Reece, Ralph Jarman, David Young, among others. This innovative quartet released an album at this time featuring six piano solos. The quartet took a back seat to its pianist. This was unheard of at this time in gospel music history.
In the late 1960's, Jim Boatman returned to the Prophets and Dean Brown became the lead singer. Don Seabolt later replaced Dean Brown as lead singer and the Prophets added Tommy Hensley as bass player. The group had several pianists during this time frame. With the exception of a short sabbatical by Ed Hill in 1965, the group maintained their sound and personnel with "Big Lew" and Ed Hill as tenor and baritone for more than ten years. This was soon to change, as Grady (Chico) Nix became the tenor when "Big Lew" retired from the group. Roy McNeil had again returned to the group, but the Prophets sound was much different without "Big Lew".
The Prophets continued as an entity until Ed Hill retired the group in 1973. Ed had planned to work for Sumar talent agency, but soon became the "permanent temporary baritone" for JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. Ed continues to sing today with Ed Enoch and Golden Covenant. He is one of the most underrated baritones in gospel music history.
Although the Prophets had numerous personnel changes, they maintained their sound largely due to the fact that their lead singers always had an extremely high upper range to compliment Lew Garrison's tenor voice. In fact, at least two of their lead singers went on to sing first tenor in other professional groups. Many of their lead singers were more than just lead singers. They were indeed "song stylists". The Prophets were a training ground for many professional lead singers.
Singers such as Duane Allen, Jack Toney, Gary Timbs, Don Seabolt, Butch Sanders, Carl Sanders, and Dean Brown either began or furthered their professional careers with the Prophets Quartet. These and many others did their part to establish the "most unique sound in Gospel Music".
It has been my pleasure to listen to this grand group as I write this article. In response to several requests, here is a selected group of recordings by this group that represent some of their finest endeavors:
"The Gospel Songs" Coral 57330
This is the first album by the Prophets. It is quite rare, but also unusual in the fact that this was normally a popular label and not noted for it's gospel artists.
"Glory Glory Amen" Skylite 5985
This album was the only one with Joe Roper. His arrangements and training are evident throughout the recording.
"No Disappointments in Heaven" Sing 3002
This recording is arguably the Prophets finest hour. Jay Berry is at his best in the 1963 release.
There is also a wonderful drawing of the group on the cover.
"Relax" Sing 3003
This is the only complete quartet album with Roy McNeil and Jay Simmons. Although the title suggests a laid-back recording, it is far from that. There are several gospel classics on this album.
"Vital and Vibrant" Heartwarming 1872
"Beauty Power and Peace" Canaan 9642
I list these together because they are among the first professional gospel recordings by Duane Allen, who was soon to join the Oak Ridge Boys.
"Again" Sumar 4352
This album features Roy McNeil's return to the Prophets after a successful stint as first tenor with the Stamps Quartet. They have a different sound here, but it is still quite good.
The Prophets recording output extends much further than this, but I consider these to be some of the group's finest recordings.
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Like someone else asked, where is Jay Berry and Roy McNeil today? I've been a fulltime nightclub singer for 31 years now but gospel music is still my first love and these two were absolutely among the best ever. I would love to see them on Bill Gaither's shows and wonder why they're not on them. Please let me know about them. Are they still living? Do they still sing? I loved them so much. Please someone let me know. Thanks
As a child, I remember a "big fat man who played the piano, and sang "My God is Real" in a very high voice. I have remembered all my life, and have wanted to know who he is, and to hear that song again. It was the most dynamic song, and it has rang through my head all these years!!! My life won't be complete until I hear that song again. Could Lew Garrison be that "big fat man" who sang such a stirring version of "My God is Real??" I remember him being very loud because of singing into the microphone. Please help me on this!!!
Just to let you know, Ed Hill has passed the group on and the Prophets are still singing and going strong today! The new group is located in Nitro, WV and continues to follow in the tradition of the original group and also carries on those good ole songs (and several new ones) that made The Prophets so well loved from the beginning. Call them at (304) 755-4717.
Are you speaking of the Gary Timbs that also sang with the Statesmen?
I was a young man in Knoxville when this group was first born. What a group! They were outstanding. Where is Jay Berry today? outside jake Hess he was the best lead singer I ever heard.
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