GOGR Music History
Blackwood Brothers – The Early Years
There have been several books written devoted to the history of the famous Blackwood Brothers Quartet (one of which I was an instrumental contributor), so anything I write here may well be insignificant in comparison. However, no historical accounting of gospel music would be complete without the inclusion of this pioneering group of gospel musicians.
In order to fully tell the story of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, it will be necessary to do so in several parts. Their story is always interesting, often entertaining and occasionally heart-wrenching.
The story of the Blackwood Brothers begins in their home in Choctaw County, Mississippi where music and devotion to God were an important part of the Blackwood family. Although they grew up in the heart of the Depression, the family did their best to promote music within the family.
When James Blackwood was ten years old, he learned that a singing school was coming to town. He and his brother, Doyle, desired to attend this school, although the family could scarcely afford the six dollars tuition for the two young men to attend. The matriarch of the Blackwood family sold some of her prized chickens in order to fulfill the dream of her boys. This proved to be one of the best investments anyone has ever made toward the development of gospel music.
James and Doyle Blackwood worked diligently at the Clear Springs Church Singing School. Their talent was noted and they quickly found themselves singing in a quartet with their teacher Vardaman Ray singing lead and Gene Catledge singing bass. Soon, the Choctaw County Jubilee Singers became quite popular in their area of Mississippi. They sang in the area for about a year and Mr. Ray contributed a great deal to the professionalism that the young Blackwoods continued throughout their career.
Roy Blackwood, older brother of James and Doyle, had become an evangelical pastor in several rural communities. He realized the importance of having special music in his services and often sang with his son, R.W. Roy had pastored churches in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama but felt the need to move back to Mississippi in anticipation of the birth of his second son, Cecil Stamps Blackwood.
When Roy moved back to Mississippi, plans to establish a family quartet began. There is no harmony quite as natural as that amongst family, and the Blackwood Brothers epitomized that fact. The year associated with the formation of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet was 1934. The group strove for a distinctive style woven around family harmony. The group sang together for about a year before Roy and R.W. moved to Fort Worth, Texas where Roy was called to pastor a local congregation. Doyle also left the group to join the Homeland Harmony Quartet. This left 16-year-old James in Mississippi without a quartet to call his own for a short time. In the interim, James continued to sing wherever he could.
Soon the brothers would reunite yet again. All of the young voices had completed their changes, and the group solidified itself with Roy singing tenor, James singing lead, R.W. singing baritone, and Doyle singing bass and playing the guitar for the quartet. It was later noted that all the Blackwoods possessed fine lead/baritone voices but their ability to place their tones allowed them to sing all four parts to perfection.
The Blackwood Brothers continued to hone their craft as they sang at various venues throughout Mississippi. They realized that in order to reach their full potential, they must devise a way to expand their horizons into new communities. They often used a crude public address system attached to the roof of their vehicle to announce the fact that the Blackwood Brothers were in town for an evening concert.
Soon, the group approached radio station WHEF and began to share their ministry over the relatively new medium of radio for the first time. They soon discovered that the radio airwaves would be a great way to show their talent to the masses.
When the quartet attended the Mississippi State Singing Convention in the capital city of Jackson, they saw their first professional quartet: The Frank Stamps All-Star Quartet. Although the Blackwood Brothers were in awe of this fine quartet, they soon learned that the respect was mutual. The Blackwood Brothers soon began to represent the Stamps-Baxter Music Company.
With the Stamps-Baxter Music Company helping out the quartet, the Blackwood Brothers began to travel from town to town singing the gospel. The quartet moved its home location to Jackson, Mississippi and radio station WJDX. Soon, the quartet had secured a daily radio program. At first, the management of the station wanted the Blackwood Brothers to sing secular music in addition to their gospel tunes. Soon, the outcry from the fans allowed the quartet to sing a program consisting of only gospel music as was the desire of the Blackwood Brothers.
Late in 1938, the quartet auditioned for a powerful radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Blackwood Brothers Quartet soon became a part of the staff of radio station KWKH. This new station with their strong signal offered an opportunity for the quartet to sing throughout Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and even into east Texas. As the quartet continued to thrive in this area, again they caught the eye of the Stamps organization. Soon, the Blackwood Brothers became known as the Blackwood Brothers Stamps Quartet. In hindsight, it’s interesting to note that in later years the Blackwood Brothers actually owned the Stamps Quartet Music Company.
Their association with the Stamps Music Company gave them more access to bookings, transportation, and personnel. In return, the Stamps Music Company received a portion of the gross income of the quartet. At this time, the Blackwoods were using only Doyle’s guitar as the sole accompaniment for the group. V.O. Stamps felt that the group needed a pianist, so he assigned Joe Roper to be the first pianist for the quartet. Joe was a great pianist, song writer, and teacher of gospel music. Joe remained with the quartet for a few months before being replaced by Wallace Milligan. Wallace remained with the quartet through 1939 and was replaced by Marion Snider. The quartet remained in Shreveport until July of 1940. The Stamps organization had provided the Blackwoods with a pianist, an automobile, and a steady income.
The Stamps organization realized the need for a quartet in Iowa, so they had the quartet move to Shenandoah, Iowa. The quartet began to distribute their program on radio station KMA in Shenandoah with three daily broadcasts. This station had great coverage throughout the area and the Blackwood Brothers flourished. Doyle Blackwood was their master of ceremonies, being dubbed "The Mighty Mite of the Mike." The fun stories of their time in Iowa are best told in other volumes. I would encourage you to check my bibliography to fully enjoy these tales.
The Blackwood Brothers accepted invitations to appear in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The quartet considered themselves blessed to be proclaiming the gospel and doing what they really wanted to do: sing gospel music!
When the quartet moved to Iowa, Marion Snider moved back to Texas and Hilton Griswold joined the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Hilton remained with the quartet for many years as both a pianist and vocalist during times of need for the quartet. This gentleman was a true quartet man, and filled in wherever he was needed whenever necessary.
World War II had a tremendous impact on the nation as well as the world of gospel music. Rationing had a dire effect upon the extensive travel of gospel quartets. Gas and tires were at a premium. It was impossible to make their engagements with the demands of rationing. Despite their attempts to remain intact, the Blackwood Brothers had to disband as a family group. With great regret, the quartet disbanded . . . at least for a time.
During the war years, the Blackwood Brothers realized that most of the members of the quartet would be called into military service. Roy Blackwood, who was several years older than the other members, was the only one that didn’t fit the profile for the military.
James and R.W. moved to California where several of their Iowa friends had found a home. R.W. and James moved their families to San Diego to work in an aircraft plant. James and R.W. were certified journeymen welders in the Rhor aircraft factory as they helped with the government war effort. Soon, these young Blackwoods received the news that Roy, Doyle, and Hilton Griswold were all moving to San Diego for a reunion of the quartet. The quartet continued to sing whenever possible as they combined their quartet work with their national defense work obligations.
Doyle Blackwood faced some serious health concerns and needed to leave the quartet. Versatile Hilton Griswold filled in as bass singer for a short time before the quartet procured the services of bass singer Don Smith. Don was a fine bass singer from the west coast and did a fine job with the quartet. Don later was an essential part of the Blackwood recording career as he helped them with many of their private label recordings.
R.W. Blackwood received his notice to report for the armed services in 1944. Hilton Griswold took care of the baritone part during R.W.’s absence until he too received his draft notice. Uncle Sam was not being very kind to the Blackwood organization. James also received the same greetings from Uncle Sam as R.W. was absent from the quartet for more than two years. The Blackwoods were happy to enlist A.T. Humphries and his wife, LeVera to fill their vacancies for a short time. However, Hilton and James both had some physical limitations, so they weren’t accepted for military duty. The US Army’s loss was gospel music’s gain. Soon the Blackwood Brothers would be back at nearly full force.
James and Hilton were able to keep the Blackwood Brothers Quartet name thanks to God and His grace. Troy Chafin filled the tenor spot for a few months when Roy had to take a short leave. James was a real trouper as he kept the quartet afloat during these disturbing times. During their tenure at KMA, Harold Bell filled the pianist role for a short time.
As the war came to a close, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet also had some closure on the west coast. James renewed their contract in Shenandoah and the Blackwoods returned in the form of Roy Blackwood (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), Hilton Griswold (baritone and pianist) and Don Smith (bass). Doyle remained in Chattanooga, Tennessee where he had established himself with local radio station WAPO. Again, the Blackwoods were renewed in their careers and in their spirit. Soon, the family found out that R.W. Blackwood would return to the United States and would be reunited with his family in late 1945. The Blackwood Brothers would soon have 24 year old R.W. Blackwood singing baritone with the quartet, safe from the hazards of war. They returned to the KMA radio airwaves October 1, 1946.
The quartet soon began to further their impact in the gospel music business and began to issue recordings to be enjoyed by their fans in their homes. Thus began the recording career of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet . . . a career that would recognize the Blackwood Brothers as one of the most prolific recording artists in the history of gospel music.
Don Smith, their bass singer, was on early recordings. He returned to California and again the Blackwood Brothers had a slot to fill. Doyle Blackwood had moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee to work in the radio business. He suggested that James hire a young bass singer named Bill Lyles. Lyles had sung with several groups including the Swanee River Boys. He had a very melodic voice and remained with the quartet until his untimely death in 1954.
The quartet toured throughout the midwest and played to record crowds. They attempted to keep up their radio obligations while playing all of their personal appearances. It soon became obvious that the quartet was stretching themselves beyond their limits. They could not keep up with the demand they had established. After much thought, the Blackwoods decided that they needed two quartets. During this time, they established the Blackwood Gospel Quartet. Calvin Newton and Cat Freeman had both filled the roles as tenor with the Blackwood Brothers. Cat Freeman, James Blackwood, R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles and Hilton Griswold were the members of the Blackwood Brothers. Roy Blackwood, Doyle Blackwood, Johnny Dickson, Warren Holmes, and Billy Gewin (later replaced by Ken Apple) made up the Blackwood Gospel Quartet. These two quartets filled personal appearances and radio dates for many months. Each quartet knew all the arrangements, and each quartet could "tote the mail" whenever called upon to do so. The two groups even combined in the studio for several recordings that were billed as the Blackwood Gospel Chorus.
Times were good for the Blackwood family. God was richly blessing them.
Next month, we’ll see the changes that took place within the Blackwood Brothers as they made a move to Memphis, Tennessee.
I would appreciate your comments both on the web site or at If you have questions, requests, or comments, I would be happy to respond to them.
Much of these details in this article were obtained from these publications:
"The Legacy of the Blackwood Brothers" by Paul Davis
"Above All" by Kree Jack Racine"
"Precious Memories -- A Discography of the Blackwood Brothers" by John Crenshaw, Wayne Hilliard, and Jim Guild.
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