Music History -
The calendar has turned to late 1974, and it would seem that the greatest quartet ever to sing gospel music has appeared on the stage for the last time. The record table has been shut down for the last time, and the bus has been sold. The members of the Statesmen Quartet have all gone their separate ways, and the world of gospel music felt the void left by the departure of this great quartet.
After a couple of years out of the public spotlight, Hovie Lister was asked to preach at the annual Homecoming service at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia. Hovie had pastored here for a dozen years while still with the Statesmen Quartet. Unbeknownst to Hovie, the folks at Mount Zion had also invited Doy Ott, Rosie Rozell, and Jake Hess to surprise Hovie with a Statesmen reunion. As Hovie saw his longtime friends arrive at the church, he walked over to the piano and began the famous introduction to "Oh What a Savior." The Statesmen were reborn as a trio!
Hovie, Jake, Doy, and Rosie performed limited engagements as a trio for a couple of years, and also recorded several albums in this configuration. For the first year, the Statesmen trio never took the stage without having a single unused microphone placed near the piano in honor of their fallen comrade, Big Chief Wetherington. The demand for the Statesmen trio continued to grow. The group considered hiring a bass singer, and this writer heard the group sing with Rex Nelon on a couple of occasions. This group brought back the sound of the Statesmen Quartet like no other.
Soon, it became apparent that the group was again going to be a full-time group. Chris Hess was tabbed to replace Doy Ott, under the guise of allowing Doy to spend more time in his chiropractic practice. Chris sang with the quartet for several months, and was even on one Statesmen album prior to leaving the group.
Doy Ott's departure from the Statesmen Quartet also became his permanent retirement from gospel music. He suffered a stroke in 1982 and never recovered. He passed away in late 1986. Doy's class on stage was only surpassed by his musical abilities as a writer, arranger, and accompanist.
Jake and Chris Hess left the quartet at the same time when Jake took a job as featured vocalist at a large church on the west coast. The Statesmen Quartet then reformed with some new personnel. Ed Hill joined the group as baritone. He was a smooth baritone singer that had spent many years with the Prophets and the Stamps Quartets. Tommy Thompson from Little Rock, Arkansas was chosen to be the bass singer. Although he was small in statue, he sounded remarkably like the Big Chief and had a wonderful stage personality. Former Statesmen lead singer Gary Timbs sang with this group for a short time, and was replaced by Buddy Burton. Buddy was a great musician, and had sung with Smitty Gatlin in the Smitty Gatlin Trio. This group recreated the classic Statesmen sound like no other aggregation of the quartet.
This group traveled together for several months. Their stage performances relied heavily on the greatest hits of the Statesmen Quartet. Tommy Thompson first left the quartet, and was replaced by JD Sumner. The Stamps had recently disbanded, so JD hopped on the Statesmen bus. In the next few months, the Statesmen took on several new faces. Charles Burke hired Ed Hill to manage the Singing Americans, so Richard Coletrane took over the baritone spot in the quartet. Jake Hess returned to the group as lead singer.
Much had happened in the quartet world in the last few years. JD Sumner, Jake Hess, and Hovie Lister put their heads together and decided to form an all-star quartet to perform on a limited basis. They procured the services of Rosie Rozell and James Blackwood and the Masters V was born.
It was originally thought that the Masters V would only perform select dates, but they soon became full-time so the Statesmen Quartet name was retired once again. Buddy Burton originally planned to travel as musical consultant for the Masters V while continuing to sing with the Statesmen, but this idea quickly evaporated. However, through the years several former members of the Statesmen Quartet would also take the stage as a member the Masters V. During this time, former members of the Statesmen also performed together under various names.
The career of the Masters V is fodder for another article and they disbanded in 1988. This was the same year that Charlie Waller began the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion and the Statesmen Quartet again took the stage.
Charlie Waller reunited the Statesmen in 1988. At this time, the quartet consisted of Rosie Rozell, Jake Hess, Buddy Burton, Tommy Thompson, and Hovie Lister. This group also made a short tour with Larry Strickland replacing Tommy Thompson. Hovie and the Statesmen continued to perform at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion with various lineups until Hovie passed away in late 2001.
Jake and Hovie often discussed the possibilities of reforming the Statesmen Quartet, but this reorganization never really happened until Bill Gaither encouraged them to again put the quartet on the road. After a tedious audition process, three "new" Statesmen joined Jake and Hovie. Johnny Cook, Biney English, and Bob Caldwell were chosen to be the "new" Statesmen. They quickly released a new project on the Canaan label entitled "Revival." They also did what this writer considered the unthinkable. Gaither recommended that they hire a second keyboardist to augment the sound of the quartet. Jeff Silvey joined the group and played keyboards and ran the soundtracks. This was the first time the Statesmen had ever sung with tracks, and it bore little sibilance to the Statesmen of old. It was still nice to see the old masters, Hess and Lister, on the stage once again.
Once again, Jake's health led him to retire from the stage. Hovie continued to persevere with many different members filling the various roles in the quartet. Jack Toney replaced Jake and, except for a few months, stayed there until Hovie's death. Some others that sang with the quartet in the ensuing years included Tank Tackett, Gene Miller, Nick Val, Roy Pauley, Buddy Burton, Scooter Simmons, and Steve Warren.
Wallace Nelms, Jack Toney, Mike LoPrinzi, and Doug Young were able to again embrace the Statesmen sound. They recorded one project before Mike left the group to join Cecil Blackwood and his Blackwood quartet. Rick Fair replaced Mike in the Statesmen Quartet and that group remained virtually intact until Hovie's death. This group had the ability to sing "old time Statesmen style" as long as Hovie remained at the piano. This group also felt the need to sing newer songs with soundtracks. This group performed many songs written by Jack Toney. The quartet was good, but they never had the true Statesmen sound without Hovie "oomm chucking" at the piano. Their recordings during this era were good, but they missed the charisma that Hovie provided at the piano and in the studio. Jack Toney again retired for a few months and Buddy Burton returned as lead singer. Buddy again convinced Hovie that his days in gospel music were not over, and Hovie again renewed his confidence on stage.
Charlie Waller realized that Hovie still had some good music left in him, so he formed the "Hovie Lister and the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet." John Rulapaugh was chosen to be the tenor singer for the group. His voice and abilities reminded the listener of Rosie Rozell. Former Statesmen Jack Toney, Buddy Burton, and Roy Pauley were also in the quartet. Hovie took the stage with this fine quartet with renewed vitality. Although Hovie's body was weakened by cancer, he asked Mr. Waller to put this fine quartet in the studio. For the first time in many years, Hovie Lister returned to the studio to play the piano with the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet. Not since the early Masters V recordings had Hovie played on a studio recording. The GOGR Quartet brought back the sound of the Statesmen Quartet like no other. Hovie's last recording made December 11, 2001 was the finest he had been a part of in many years.
The majority of the former members of what most of us remember as "Statesmen" have been promoted to the Heavenly choir. I am thankful for the opportunity to have seen and appreciated what these gentlemen have meant to the world of gospel music. Hovie Lister and the Statesmen Quartet set the standard by which all other quartets will be judged both now and in the future. They refused to limit themselves and were always looking forward to improvement. The world of gospel music is truly better today because in 1948, Hovie Lister had a dream, and that dream became the Statesmen Quartet.
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