GOGR Music History -
Statesmen Quartet

Jake Hess left the Statesmen Quartet in late 1963 to pursue his dream of again singing in the perfect quartet. Jake felt like he had sung in the "perfect quartet" with Denver Crumpler, Doy Ott, Big Chief Wetherington, and Hovie Lister. Now it was his turn to chase that dream. He felt that the Statesmen had become a bit lax in their performances and recordings while resting upon their laurels. They were still the top group in the nation, but Jake felt like there was something missing. He began to devise a plan to form the Imperials Quartet. This quartet would encompass the grace and style that he desired without all the flash and splash of the Statesmen Quartet. Jake wanted a group that could sing a two-hour concert and never repeat a song. He joined forces with four other quartet veterans (Henry Slaughter, Sherrill Nielsen, Gary McSpadden, and Armond Morales) to form Jake Hess and the Imperials.

This news was devastating to Hovie and the rest of the Statesmen Quartet. Jake Hess was the cornerstone around which the Statesmen had formed their sound for nearly fifteen years. Replacing their lead singer would be a daunting task.

Gary McSpadden had earlier filled in as lead singer with the Statesmen Quartet when Jake was sick, but Jake had hired him to sing in his new group. Not only did Hovie need someone that could sing the part, but he also needed someone that LOOKED like a Statesman. A dignified presence and a golden voice do not necessarily go hand in hand. However, Hovie decided that Jack Toney was just the man to fill that role.

Although Jack was a rather young man, this gentleman from Sand Mountain had years of gospel music experience and an excellent voice too. His experience with John Hull and the Joymakers, Prophets, and Dixie Echoes gave him a strong background in the gospel music field. He had also spent some time filling in with the Florida Boys, so Hovie thought this was a great choice to fill the shoes of the great Jake Hess. The world of gospel music would soon see that Jack didnít fill Jakeís shoes, but he actually made his own footprints in the history of gospel music.

Jack Toney was tall and handsome and possessed a wonderful voice. Few men could immediately walk on the stage with the top group in gospel music, but Jack did it with dignity and class. The Statesmen barely missed a beat with Mr. Toney handling the second tenor duties. His golden voice became the trademark sound around which the Statesmen Quartet sound was fashioned throughout the 1960s. Jack did a good job singing the old Statesmen classics originally made popular by Jake Hess, but his forte lied in the new songs he brought to the group such as "Ship Ahoy" and "Beyond the Gates." These songs followed Jack for the rest of his life. His voice was quite different from the man he replaced, yet his charisma and style make him a perfect fit for the Statesmen Quartet. Many hours of rehearsal and new quartet arrangements once again brought the polish to the quartet that they desired.

As the mid 1960s approached, The Statesmen continued to be at the top of the gospel music game. Jack blended with the Statesmen, and their performances began to showcase their new young lead singer. As more and more groups joined the ranks as full time gospel music artists, the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers team continued to set attendance records and their album sales continued to thrive. Soon, they began a syndicated gospel music television program called "Singing Time in Dixie." This program featured these two quartets along with many of the other top groups such as the Oak Ridge Boys, Speer Family, Stamps Quartet, Rebels Quartet among others. Of course, most of the featured groups on the program were members of the Skylite recording family which was owned by Statesmen-Blackwood Enterprises. This exposure tended to increase their record sales which benefited both the quartets and the corporation. The Statesmen would feature some of their latest recordings on the program, but they would also frequently feature Jack taking the lead on some of the Statesmen classics from yesteryear. He did a wonderful job of adding his personal style to these classics . . . not copying Jake, but adding his own "Toney" spin to the music.

It's interesting that the first major recording the Statesmen made for RCA Victor after Jack joined the group was "The Statesmen Quartet Spotlights Doy Ott." This was a great album for the quartet, for it took some of the initial pressure off of Jack Toney and placed it squarely on the shoulders of their great unassuming baritone singer, Doy Ott. Doy pulled off this classic album with his trademark dignity and class. There has never been a baritone singer quite like Doy Ott. His talents and abilities both as a singer and instrumentalist are second to none. Given his contributions to the Statesmen Quartet in particular and gospel music in general, this writer believes that Doy Ott is one of the most underrated individuals in the history of gospel music.

During the days that the Statesmen were comprised of Rosie Rozelle, Jack Toney, Doy Ott, Jim Wetherington, and Hovie Lister, they released many recordings on the RCA Victor label. Strangely enough, one of their biggest recordings of all time was on the RCA budget label, RCA Camden. Normally, RCA Camden releases were made up of a couple of new songs and several songs that had been previously released. The exception to this rule was "All Day Singing and Dinner on the Ground." The talented Goss Brothers were hired to provide background instrumentation. This budget project ended up being a Grammy Award nominee.

When Jack joined the Statesmen, he was a bachelor. Soon after joining the Statesmen, Jack married and his wife, Cheryl, was often featured on the Singing Time in Dixie television program. Jack and Cheryl soon tired of his extensive time on the road, so Jack left the Statesmen Quartet for a while.

Roy McNeil was a quartet veteran having sung with groups such as the Rangers Quartet, Rangers Trio, and the Prophets Quartet. He had earlier replaced Jack as lead singer with the Prophets Quartet, and followed in Jack's footsteps with the Statesmen. Roy was one of the finest song stylists that gospel music has ever known. His unique style and vocal range made him a valued asset to any quartet. He sang first tenor with the Rangers Trio and later assumed that position with the Stamps Quartet. During his tenure with the Statesmen, the quartet demonstrated extremely high vocal harmonies as Roy and Rosie had similar vocal ranges. Although Roy's time with the Statesmen was limited, the recording output by the quartet was outstanding. The two albums the Statesmen recorded with Roy McNeil rank among the finest of their RCA Victor years. Interestingly enough, after several months, Roy returned to his former position as lead singer with the Prophets and Jack Toney returned to his position as lead singer with the Statesmen.

Soon after Jack returned to the fold, the Statesmen began another television venture. This program entitled "Glory Road" was a half hour program. However, this new program was recorded in living color . . . a dramatic change of pace from the black and white format of "Singing Time in Dixie." Another change was that this program featured the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers with only one guest group as opposed to the "Singing Time in Dixie" concept which featured several other great gospel groups from the Skylite recording fold.

Jack remained with the Statesmen through some of their greatest years, but decided to leave the group again in 1968. The first time this writer saw the Statesmen Quartet in person, Jack had just vacated the second tenor position in the group. Don Butler, long time friend of the Statesmen, was filling in while the group found someone to take Jack's place with the quartet.

Jim Hill had been singing first tenor with the Stamps Quartet for a number of years. He was an established song writer and had been the manager of both the Golden Keys Quartet and the Stamps Quartet. Jim was quite happy to move to the second tenor position, for he was pushing the upper limits of his vocal range by singing first tenor. This wasn't as easy as it appeared, but Jim made the change with ease. Interestingly enough, former Statesmen lead singer Roy McNeil replaced Jim Hill as tenor singer for the Stamps Quartet.

Much like the situation when Jack Toney joined the Statesmen, Jim began to fit his style into some of the old Statesmen standards such as "Oh My Lord What a Time," "Faith Unlocks the Door," and "Get Away Jordan." Jim joined Rosie, Doy, Chief and Hovie and recorded one of their most popular albums, "Thanks to Calvary." Included on that album was one of Jim's most popular compositions, "For God So Loved." Jim had a very charismatic personality. He could sell a song as well as anyone in gospel music. The quartet again ascended up the ladder to the top of the gospel music industry as they focused their energies on their new lead singer.

Soon after Jim joined the Statesmen, Rosie Rozell left the quartet. He was one of the most popular tenors that ever stepped on a gospel music stage. His new wife, Betty, had been singing with the Searchers for several years. Rosie left the Statesmen to join the Searchers and the group changed their name to Rosie Rozell and the Searchers. The Searchers had a very unique sound that was undergirded by an organ. At this time, they were the only group in gospel music to use an organ in their personal appearances. The group had a Pentecostal flair, and featured Rosie on about half of their songs. They had a short, yet interesting career in gospel music.

The Statesmen Quartet hired Sherrill Nielsen to replace Rosie. Nielsen was the original first tenor with Jake Hess and the Imperials and had an impressive resume which included tenures with the Plainsmen, Songfellows, and Speer Family. He had a beautiful Irish tenor voice which helped the Statesmen recreate some of the sounds that the group embraced during the Nabisco years. Sherrill was also able to relate to the younger members of the audience and brought new songs such as "The Impossible Dream" and "Gonna Shout Hallelujah" to the stage. The group with Nielsen, Hill, Ott, Wetherington, and Lister was among their finest. The group chose appropriate material and the Statesmen Quartet continued to be a big force in gospel music throughout the early 1970s.

Join us again next month as we explore a change that rocked the world for the Statesmen Quartet. Your comments are appreciated, and I welcome your questions. Please send your questions to me at john@grandolegospelreunion.com and please post your comments at the end of this article.

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