GOGR Music History -
Sons of Song
One of the most unique sounds in gospel music came around in 1957 when a trio of young gospel musicians arrived on the scene with a quality unlike any other that the industry had ever experienced.
The Sons of Song were the first male trio to achieve any manner of success in the highly competitive gospel music industry of the 1950s. The excitement the group brought to the stage was second to none. They employed unique vocal arrangements unlike any the gospel music world had heard before or since.
Calvin Newton was a seasoned veteran of several of the top gospel music quartets when he joined forces with Don Butler and Bob Robinson to form the Sons of Song. Although Newton was only 28 years of age, he had already sung in several of the finest quartets in gospel music. He spent time with the Melody Masters Quartet, Blackwood Brothers, and the Oak Ridge Quartet prior to joining the Sons of Song.
Calvin's antics both on stage and off stage proved him to be one of the most interesting characters in gospel music history. In December 1956, Calvin resigned from the Oak Ridge Quartet in particular and gospel music in general before a sold out crowd in an all-night singing in Atlanta, Ga. In an emotion-filled speech, Calvin belittled the gospel music industry for their hypocrisy. He also said he was leaving gospel music to sing in a secular nightclub and would never return to the gospel music stage.
On the other hand, Don Butler's experience singing gospel music was a bit more limited. Don had a wonderful baritone voice, and had spent a few months singing with the Revelaires Quartet. The Revelaires were a talented quartet from the Atlanta area, but they disbanded in the mid 50s leaving Don without a singing job. Although he had other job opportunities, Don missed singing gospel music. He toyed with the idea of forming a new concept in gospel music, but lacked the other personnel to make this dream a reality.
Although Bob Robinson was a very young gospel musician, but he also had sung with some of the great groups of the day including the Deep South Quartet and most recently, the LeFevres. Butler had been impressed with Bob's vocal skills as well as his unique piano technique. He suggested that they consider forming a gospel trio, but this didn't seem to interest Bob at the time. However, when Calvin Newton agreed to try out the concept, Robinson also came into the fold. Bob has been aptly described as the man "with a tear in his voice".
Trios are now quite commonplace in gospel music, but in the 50s, this was a radical change from the norm. Butler's original concept was to form a trio of gentlemen with extraordinary vocal ranges, and thus invert harmonies and switch parts to make up for the "missing" bass part. He couldn't have picked two more capable musicians to join in this concept, for Robinson and Newton both had three-octave vocal ranges as did Butler. Robinson also had a very recognizable piano technique unlike any other in gospel music. Not only did the group sound good, but they were very handsome individuals. When these gentlemen hit the stage, it was magic!
This vocal aggregation became not a typical trio, but three separate vocalists with solo capabilities par excellence. There was no "star" in the group, but rather three superb musicians with the common goal of making the overall group sound the best it could be. In doing so, the sum became much stronger than any of its individual parts.
The Sons of Song worked on their arrangements and practiced their art for many hours before they were ready to perform for the finicky gospel music audiences. They decided to display their newly formed group at an all-night singing in Birmingham, Alabama. Wally Fowler was the promoter of the event which featured the top groups of 1957. The Sons of Song were not booked for the program, but showed up dressed to the nines in matching tuxedos. Newton persuaded Fowler to put them on the program. From all accounts, they were allowed to sing through the intermission of the program, and set the audience on their ear! They left the concert with a date book full of engagements.
Some of the big players in the industry did their best to keep the Sons of Song at bay, but their talent, excitement, and innovative arrangements made them a force to be reckoned with in the gospel singing world. No group wanted to follow the Sons of Song on the stage for as one industry giant told me, "They left the stage so hot, the next group would just melt in their tracks trying to follow them!"
They soon became known as the first "contemporary" gospel music group. Their early recordings were produced by a young and then unknown producer: Ralph Carmichael. The Sons of Song, innovative musicians themselves, was a match made in Heaven for Mr. Carmichael. The orchestrations and arrangements they preserved on vinyl with Mr. Carmichael were light years beyond any others in gospel music at that time.
While at the top of their game musically speaking, tragedy struck the quartet in the form of a truck full of watermelons. On a rainy night summer night in Florida, the Sons of Song met on a collision course with the rear of a tractor trailer carrying watermelons. In the ensuing crunch of metal, the Sons were sent flying around their vehicle. In the aftermath, Bob Robinson was left for dead in the local hospital. Were it not for the help of their friend and future Sons of Song member, Lee Kitchens, Robinson would have likely perished.
Butler and Newton were also injured in the crash, but Robinson's injuries were the worst. It was feared that the Sons of Song would never perform again. Although they did sing again, they never regained the magic they held prior to this accident. Calvin filled several dates as the Sons of Song with Jimi Hall filling in as pianist and tenor. During Bob's recovery, Don and Calvin also called upon L.David Young to fill Bob's role in the quartet. When Bob finally returned to the group, Don decided that he would leave the group, due in part to the injuries suffered in the accident. In the aftermath, Don Butler recorded a session with the "Sentinels". . . who were actually the Statesmen Quartet in disguise. Butler worked for the Statesmen organization for several years.
Several groups were spawned after the demise of the original Sons of Song. Don Butler formed a short-lived group called the Ambassadors. The Ambassadors featured Jim Hill, Bob Robinson, Don Butler, Bill Huey, and L.David Young. During this time, Calvin reorganized the Sons of Song with Jimi Hall and Les Roberson. Roberson had previously sung with Calvin in the Oak Ridge Quartet and had more recently replaced Jake Hess as lead singer of the Statesmen Quartet. This group never had the magic of the original trio and quickly disbanded.
On July 13, 1959, Bob Robinson joined forces with Bill Morris and Al Harkins to form The Velva-Tears. This group was also quite short-lived, but it was around long enough to record a very collectable album, "His Velvet Touch". The Velva-Tears actually sounded more like the Sons of Song than did the last version of the Sons of Song.
Circumstances led Calvin Newton to visit his friend Lee Kitchens in Tampa Florida. In an effort to resurrect the magic of the Sons of Song, Calvin and Lee persuaded Bob Robinson to join them in Florida and reform the Sons. Kitchens' voice had the depth necessary to sing in the trio, but he lacked the charisma and stage presence of Don Butler. However, the Sons of Song again reorganized and became quite active on the gospel music circuit. It was this group that recorded their biggest hit, "Wasted Years".
Various indiscretions in lifestyle choices again led to the breakup of the Sons of Song. Don Butler even returned to the group for a short time, knowing that the group had never been at the top of their game after he had vacated the baritone spot. They once again gained popularity and even recorded a number of fine albums on Wally Fowler's Songs of Faith label. Personal turmoil again led to the breakup of this fine trio.
At the insistence of Lee Roy Abernathy, Calvin and Bob joined forces with Jerry Redd and Paul Downing to form another short-lived group: The All Stars. The group never made an official recording, but it had a unique sound as did all of the groups containing Newton and Robinson.
Hoping to hold their personal demons at bay, the Sons of Song once again emerged at the request of Jake Hess. By now, Jake had become somewhat of a renegade in gospel music having formed the Imperials Quartet by recruiting some fine vocalists from other primo groups. He welcomed the Sons of Song to Nashville, and began to promote them along with the Imperials as a "team". Lee Kitchens and Bob Robinson were anxious to again be on the concert trail, but the gospel music "mafia", promoters, and fans weren't as willing to accept the prodigals back into the fold as was Mr. Hess. Again, the group disbanded and Lee, Calvin, and Bob went their separate ways.
During the ensuing years, when personal situations allowed, the Sons of Song got together periodically to sing for old timers nights. They even went into the studio to record a new album of their greatest hits with Bob, Calvin, and Lee.
In the late 1980s, Charles Burke joined Calvin and Bob to again revive the Sons of Song. A new, updated recording was released and the Sons worked several major dates before Burke left the group. Roy Pauley sang with the group for a while, but again the voices of the Sons were stilled.
Bob Robinson passed away a few years ago, seemingly unnoticed by most in the gospel music industry. Calvin Newton has replaced the demons in his life with a newfound joy of singing for God. He is often seen on numerous projects, and also has an active solo ministry. He has performed Sons of Song classics in recent years with Wallace Nelms and Ken Turner.
There has never been a trio that imparted magic on the gospel music stage like the Sons of Song!
Recently, Calvin's life story was recounted in the book "Bad Boy of Gospel Music" by Russ Cheatham. Cheatham is a professor at Cumberland University, and has done a fine job with this book. Deon Unthank reviewed "Bad Boy of Gospel Music" a few months ago, so I won't go into great detail. Just let me say that I would encourage you to read this book to fill in some of the gaps this abbreviated history may have glossed over. I am greatly indebted to this book for solidifying many of these facts in this history lesson.
On a personal note, let me thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, and understanding for having missed the December installment. My thanks to Susan and Deon for their kind words about my daughter's wedding. I also thank those of you who sent your good wishes both on the web site and to us personally.
It was a beautiful service of worship, and the newlyweds are quite happy. Carol and I are relieved that this chapter in our lives has completed with a very happy ending.
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