GOGR Music History

Charles Dickens may have said it best in the opening line of "A Tale of Two Cities." It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .

As the 1940s came to a close, the Blackwood Brothers had experienced a great deal of success in Shenandoah, Iowa. They had endured the Depression, World War II, several moves about the county, and yet they had survived and became very successful in their quest to sing the gospel.

The Blackwood Gospel Quartet and the Blackwood Brothers were both booked heavily, and they continued to constantly sing on radio and in concert while making a great number of recordings. The Blackwoods were always great sales people, and soon the demand for Blackwood recordings required full-time care. Although both quartets were quite successful, they determined it was necessary to disband the Blackwood Gospel Quartet. Roy and Doyle Blackwood were getting a bit older and they had both experienced some health concerns that constant road travel didn’t ease. In order to further the work of the Blackwood Brothers enterprises, Roy and Doyle retired from the road and spent their time filling the ever increasing demand for Blackwood Brothers recordings.

Shenandoah, Iowa was home for the Blackwood Brothers for nearly ten years (except for their brief hiatus in California), but it seemed that it was time to make another move. The Blackwoods had been in long negotiations with a radio station in Louisville, Kentucky, but they never came to fruition. Soon, they were offered an even better opportunity in Memphis, Tennessee.

Prior to leaving the conservative confines of Shenandoah, the Blackwood Brothers was much like all of the other quartets of the day. They sang in small country churches for a love offering, performed on an early morning radio program, and sold song books out of the trunk of their automobile. When they moved to Memphis, the quartet found itself injected with new energies due in part to the grand music scene that infused Memphis.

Memphis was a lovely Southern city, and the Blackwoods seemed a perfect fit for that progressive town. The boys felt an obligation to their aging parents, and Memphis was a much better location for their situation in order to be closer to their parents as well as a better location to further their singing career. Rhythm and blues, jazz, and black gospel sounds were prominent in the Memphis area. As many elements from these styles crept into the Blackwood Brothers’ repertoire, their arrangements took on a new pattern.

Hilton Griswold was an integral part of the Blackwood Brothers for many years. During their various transitional times, Hilton had filled in at nearly every vocal part in the quartet in addition to displaying his wonderful piano talents. When the quartet made the decision to move to Memphis, they did so with much sadness, for they left Hilton Griswold behind in Iowa. Hilton opted to enter the ministry while his beloved friends moved to Memphis.

When the quartet decided to move to Memphis, they needed to locate someone for their piano bench. They soon found a young pianist from Tuscaloosa, Alabama named Jackie Marshall to fill this role. Marshall had classical training and the ability to perform all types of music. Jackie was a ball of energy, and would become known as one of the top pianists to ever serve on the gospel music stage. Jackie joined the group shortly before the quartet made their move to Memphis.

Not only did Jackie bring excellent piano techniques to the quartet, but he was also masterful at arranging vocals in a very unusual manner. He soon had the members swapping melodies and inverting harmonies unlike any other quartet of that era. The top three voices in the quartet had an extremely high range, so many of their complex and unique arrangements featured the tenor, lead, and baritone singing unusually high harmonies anchored by the low tones of their seemingly bottomless bass. The Blackwood Brothers soon adapted a very animated stage performance that kept their audiences clamoring for more each night as they would perform across the South.

The Blackwood Brothers almost single-handedly transformed the frumpy church music sound often associated with gospel music to an exciting art form. They brought gospel music out of the backwoods of rural American and carried it forth to a national audience.

The Blackwood Brothers Quartet was first heard in Memphis on radio station WMPS September 1, 1950 on a program sponsored by the Dixie Lily Flour Company. By now, the Blackwood Brothers had secured the services of a new tenor singer named Alden Toney who hailed from Detroit, Michigan. Alden Toney, James Blackwood, R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, and Jackie Marshall premiered as the Blackwood Brothers of Memphis, Tennessee.

The popularity of the quartet was at an all time high. Personal appearances were numerous, and record sales soared. This popularity did take its toll on the Blackwood Brothers. After a few months, Dan Huskey replaced Alden Toney as tenor singer for the quartet. It was during this time that the Blackwood Brothers signed a recording contract with RCA Victor records.

Record production wasn’t a new thing for the Blackwood Brothers. In the mid 1940s, the quartet had formed their own record label. Prior to signing with RCA Victor, the quartet had recorded and distributed more than one hundred songs on their private record label, so they were seasoned recording artists. They had a full-time staff in place to manage their mail order sales since it was difficult to find their private label recordings in main line record stores. The majority of the people that owned Blackwood Brothers records either purchased them through the mail or at one of their personal appearances.

Although RCA Victor had previously recorded some gospel artists, having the Blackwood Brothers in their stable was an obvious feather in their cap. This move would now offer the Blackwood Brothers the opportunity to have international distribution of their recordings. Dan Huskey was a part of these first influential RCA Victor recordings. Many of their early Victor recordings had roots in the black gospel realm. In July of 1952, the Blackwood Brothers released their first long-play album. This was an eight-song collection called "Favorite Gospel Songs and Spirituals." This ten-inch album has become a gospel music collector’s Holy Grail, for it’s one of the first gospel albums ever released. Jackie Marshall’s intricate piano accompaniment was soon being augmented in the RCA Victor studios by other instruments including the electric guitar stylings of Chet Atkins.

Travel in those days was limited to back road journeys in worn out sedans. The innovative Blackwood Brothers realized that they must come up with other methods of travel in order to better serve their growing fan base. The group often turned down requests for their performances simply because they simply could not make it to these dates in a timely manner. R.W. Blackwood proposed that the quartet purchase an airplane so the group could fly to their engagements. This would enable the quartet to expand their ministry base while spending more time in Memphis with their families. R.W. was the pilot for the group and Bill Lyles was the copilot and navigator. For a couple of years, this was an ideal situation although James Blackwood was rather skeptical about the idea. His apprehensions would later come to haunt him. R.W. and Bill were not extremely experienced in their roles, yet the quartet took full advantage of their new mode of travel.

Dan Huskey left the quartet after about a year and was replaced by Bill Shaw from Anderson, South Carolina. Bill had been a member of the All American Quartet from Illinois for a few months, and he remained with the Blackwood Brothers for more than 21 years. This was a quite unusual tenure for a tenor with any gospel group . . . and especially one that had the high arrangements implemented by the Blackwood Brothers. Bill’s classical training and beautiful tones became a staple of the Blackwood Brothers sound for more than two decades.

The group consisting of Bill Shaw, James Blackwood, R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, and Jackie Marshall have often been referred to as one of the finest quartets ever to appear on a gospel music stage. They had it all: Great voices, interesting arrangements, perfect harmonies, and great stage presence. The Blackwood Brothers of 1954 became the standard by which other groups were judged.

By the early 1950s, nearly half of the homes in America had television sets. Arthur Godfrey was one of the biggest names in early radio and television. Godfrey’s Talent Scouts telecast was one of the most popular and influential national programs of its day. In early 1954, the Blackwood Brothers auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. They performed well and were given the opportunity to appear on an upcoming broadcast. On June 12, 1954, the Blackwood Brothers flew to New York City and appeared on the nationally televised Talent Scouts program. They were clad in shiny maroon suits with matching shoes. These Southern boys wowed the predominately Northern audience with their flair, style and showmanship. They performed their latest recording, "Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs" which the group had recorded a few days earlier in a New York studio. RCA was so impressed by the recording that they had it in the record stores within hours of their studio session.

The quartet was a rousing success on the nationally televised program, and they won first place on the Godfrey Show. One of the perks associated with this accomplishment was an invitation to appear on Godfrey’s morning television program for the balance of the week. There the Blackwood Brothers shared the stage with the McGuire Sisters and brought gospel music into homes all across America.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times . . .

I appreciate your comments both on the web site or at john@grandolegospelreunion.com. If you have questions, requests, or comments, I would be happy to respond to them.

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