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Blackwood Brothers

James Blackwood was the voice of the Blackwood Brothers. He was the rudder that steered the Blackwood Brothers’ ship. When people thought of the Blackwood Brothers, James’ picture immediately came to mind. James had led the quartet through many trying times, and he was the head of the corporation. But now, Mr. Blackwood was experiencing health concerns. The doctor told James Blackwood that he needed to rest. What would the Blackwood Brothers do?

At this time, the Blackwood Brothers consisted of longtime tenor Bill Shaw, baritone Cecil Blackwood, bass London Parris, and James as lead singer. Guitarist Dwayne Friend had recently joined pianist Peter Kaups to provide instrumental accompaniment for the quartet. When James got the news that he needed to rest, he approached the quartet with an idea. Would they be willing to accept other Blackwoods into the fold? Jimmy Blackwood and Billy Blackwood were both members of the Stamps Quartet. Jimmy was singing baritone with the Stamps and Billy was the drummer for the group. Would the other members of the quartet accept the second generation Blackwoods into the group? Even more important . . . would the fans accept this change?

After much prayer, the Blackwood Brothers approached their friend JD Sumner and asked him to allow the Blackwood boys to join their father in the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. He reluctantly agreed. James even offered to pay his son, Jimmy, out of his own salary, but that idea was quickly nixed. James Blackwood, Jr. then became the lead singer with the Blackwood Brothers, and Billy Blackwood joined the quartet as drummer. James Blackwood would take a back seat in the quartet and sing special numbers with the quartet, allowing to preserve and rest his wonderful voice. The Blackwood Brothers essentially had two lead singers for several years.

Jimmy soon became a formidable lead singer, but nobody could replace James Blackwood. The quartet experienced many growing pains during this time. Promoters that booked the quartet expected James to be with the quartet, and when he wasn’t there the crowd felt as if they had been cheated.

During this time, Cecil Blackwood began to take a larger role in managing the quartet. In true Blackwood fashion, Cecil was a master salesman, almost to a fault. He and the Blackwood Brothers put on a stellar campaign to sell subscriptions to the "Good News" gospel music magazine. Whenever folks would subscribe, they would be encouraged to vote for the Blackwood Brothers (and their extended family) for the coveted Dove Awards. This overzealous tactic came back to bite the Blackwood Brothers in their proverbial backside! By the time the 1971 Dove Awards were presented, members of the Blackwood family won nearly every award except Favorite Female Vocalist.

Although many in the industry felt that the Blackwood Brothers did no wrong with their tactics, James Blackwood decided it was in the best interest of gospel music to return the Dove Awards. Always a man of integrity, James wanted to do nothing to scandalize the Blackwood name nor that of the Gospel Music Association. The Blackwood Brothers were doing nothing in the solicitation of votes that the other quartets weren’t doing. However, they were just much better at it. As JD Sumner said many years before, "James worked us a lot harder at selling records than he did at learning the music!"

In addition to James sharing the lead singing duties with his son, the quartet experienced many more changes during this time. Larry Davis joined the group as bass guitarist and shortly thereafter (or possibly shortly before) Dwayne Friend left the quartet. Peter Kaups then left and was replaced for a very short time by former Stamps pianist Tony Brown. Next, beloved bass singer London Parris left the quartet to rejoin the Rebels Quartet. This was short-lived, for Parris quickly took several members of the Rebels to form the nucleus of his own group, London Parris and the Apostles.

Ken Turner, former bass singer for the Palmetto State Quartet and Dixie Echoes replaced Parris in the quartet. With Turner came a mixed bag of music and comedic charm. He brought Gomer Pyle, Mr. Magoo, Volkswagens, trumpets, trombones and some wonderful vocal impressions to the Blackwood Brothers. Often, Turner’s on stage antics overshadowed his great vocal prowess. Ken Turner had a great range, and added much to the Blackwood Brothers stage performance.

Tony Brown and Tommy Fairchild switched piano benches shortly after Turner joined the quartet. Brown moved to a more youth-minded quartet when he joined the Oak Ridge Boys. Fairchild had been an Oak Ridge Boy for over a decade, and was an accomplished arranger. His impact upon the Blackwood Brothers was immediate, as he brought some classy arrangements to the quartet.

The Blackwood Brothers were slowly moving away from the typical gospel concert settings and moving toward a more evangelical mission. Their long term recording contract with RCA Victor records ended in 1972, and most of their new recordings were being released on the Skylite label. They also had some releases on various private labels in addition to their Skylite offerings.

Long time tenor singer Bill Shaw left the quartet in 1973 after more than twenty years of singing with the Blackwood Brothers. Texan Joe Pat Hoffmaster was chosen to replace the respected tenor singer. The Blackwood Brothers continued to release recordings at an astounding pace. Some were excellent, and some were not. If the quartet went more than a couple of months without a new Skylite release, the record company would release yet another compilation of previously released Blackwood Brother songs with an entirely new cover. This became quite confusing to their fan base who was forced to wonder, "Is this a new recording, or just a rehash of old material?"

The quartet’s program became more geared toward hymn arrangements. However, it was during this time that the Blackwood Brothers recorded one of their best loved and most popular songs of all time, "Learning to Lean." The Blackwood Brothers got almost as much mileage from "Learning to Lean" as they did "The Old Country Church." During this time, the quartet began a tradition of including a song written by Bill Gaither and also a song written by Albert E. Brumley on each of their new records. In a typical concert program, the quartet would come on stage and sing for about thirty minutes and then with great aplomb, James Blackwood would take command of the stage. He would sing for about fifteen minutes, culminating the performance with the rousing Brumley tune, "I’ll Meet You in the Morning."

The Blackwood Brothers Evangelistic Association began to make inroads outside of the United States. They made numerous trips to Russia and to the Holy Land giving away Bibles and singing gospel music.

John Cox replaced Pat Hoffmaster as tenor singer for about a year and then Hoffmaster again returned to the group. By now, the quartet had gelled, and James Blackwood thought it was a good time to retire from the group that bore his name. He made arrangements with his longtime friends Jake Hess, James Blackwood, JD Sumner, and Hovie Lister to form the Masters V. James stayed with the Masters V for several years and the Blackwoods forged on without him.

In the next installment, we’ll attempt to follow what happened to the Blackwood Brothers in the ensuing years and see where some of the other members of the quartet have gone throughout their musical careers.

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Hope to see you this month at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at Dollywood!


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