The name Blackwood is
synonymous with Southern Gospel music. In 1934, three brothers and a son from Choctaw County, Mississippi formed one of the most popular quartets in the history of Southern Gospel Music. The original group consisted of bass singer Doyle; lead James, tenor Roy, and Roy’s son R.W. singing baritone. The quartet was formed in the midst of the Great Depression in the US, which was a time when Americans were struggling to provide for themselves and their families. The American people needed hope and that was what the Blackwood Brothers Quartet was all about: bringing hope to the world and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. The group, dedicated to the cause, developed a loyal fan base that would only continue to grow.
Billy Blackwood recalls, “They got a break that catapulted them to a national level overnight when, on June 13th, 1954, they appeared on and won the most popular television show of the day, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the 1950’s version of today’s American Idol. Outside of the south and the loyal fan base they had established in the upper Midwest, most of the US hadn’t been exposed to gospel quartet music. Well, that changed overnight when the Blackwood Brothers won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts with a rousing tune called, ‘Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs?”
Read on for more on the Blackwood Brothers, for this triumph for the quartet was soon eclipsed by a terrible tragedy…
This triumph for the quartet was soon eclipsed by a terrible tragedy. Two weeks after their appearance on national television, group members, R.W. Blackwood and bass singer Bill Lyles were killed in a devastating plane crash in Clanton, Alabama. Blackwood states, “Bill & R.W. made the fateful decision to take the group’s private plane up for a practice takeoff to make certain they had the feel of the runway, where they anticipated taking off after dark. After one pass and an attempted touchdown, something went terribly wrong as the plane went straight up, stalled and fell to the ground bursting into flames, instantly killing R.W., Bill, and a young man named Johnny Ogburn, who had gone along just for the ride.”
This was a tragic event for the family and the group, but God was in control. James Blackwood almost retired the group, but was encouraged by friends and family to continue. A young charismatic bass singer named J.D. Sumner and R.W.’s younger brother Cecil Blackwood joined the quartet adding an exciting new dynamic. From tragedy to success, the group rose to another level and “they were awarded by RCA Victor records as the first gospel group to sell in excess of one million records.” James and Cecil Blackwood along with J.D. Sumner organized the first the National Quartet Convention in 1956. The NQC still exists today and is the longest running Gospel music event in history.
Many great vocalists and performers have been a part of this incredible group: bass singers J.D. Sumner, London Parris, Cecil Stringer, John Hall, and Randy Byrd, and tenors Calvin Newton, Bill Shaw, Cat Freeman, along with many others. James Blackwood left in the early 1980’s to form the Master’s Five and continued singing as a solo artist as well. He also appeared on many of Bill Gaither’s Homecoming videos until his death in 2002.
The group is currently comprised of Billy Blackwood, James Blackwood’s youngest son, singing baritone. Billy grew up playing drums on tour with the Blackwood Brothers, then with the Elvis Presley Show before settling into music ministry. Wayne Little fills the tenor position with the quartet. His signature tenor voice delights fans all over the world. Little previously traveled with the Crystal River Boys as well as New Millennium. Former Stamps Quartet and Florida Boys bass singer Butch Owens adds his unique bass voice to the group. Owens is the father of Ian Owens who sings bass with Soul’d Out Quartet. Last, but not least, Canadian Michael Helwig sings lead for the group. He previously traveled with the Wilburns, The Williamsons, the Stamps, and the Dixie Echoes. Together, Blackwood’s tender baritone, Little’s classic tenor, Helwig’s powerful lead, and the smooth rich bass voice of Owens come together to produce that authentic, old-timey quartet sound.
This group has been a true pioneer and trailblazer in this field, leading the way for the groups of today. In their 80-year career, the quartet has recorded over 200 albums and toured in 47 countries. They were the first Gospel quartet to appear on national television, as well as use a tour bus. They have won eight Grammy Awards and six Dove Awards and were inducted in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN in 1998. In their long storied career, the quartet has had many memorable experiences. In terms of the most memorable, Blackwood states, “I would say the tandem events of winning Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on June 11, 1954, followed by the plane crash on June 30th that claimed the lives of R.W. Blackwood, Sr., and bass singer, Bill Lyles.” This event truly was a phoenix moment for the group, reminding them that God is in control and will never forsake His children.
The group celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2014 by releasing a brand new recording that blends together the classic sounds of the old days with the new more progressive sounds of today’s quartets. Billy Blackwood says, “To commemorate this occasion there are two new recording projects by the group’s current record label, Daywind Records. The first is called Forever / 80th Anniversary Recording and features 10 songs, seven
new and three old, that may be the best recording by the Blackwood Brothers in decades. From the opening sounds of ‘You Can Find What I Found,’ to the closing chord of ‘Dear Jesus, Abide With Me,’ this record is packed full of powerful songs, old and new, that take the Blackwood Brothers to a new level of artistic excellence.” Also available is an 80-song, four CD set, which is a panoramic history of the Blackwood Brothers extensive recording career. This incredible collection includes recordings from the 1940’s and takes listeners through history concluding with the Anniversary recording.
In 2015, The Blackwood Brothers Quartet shows no signs of slowing down and plans on continuing to spread the Gospel through song. The future is looking bright for this legendary group. Billy is excited to continue to carry on the legacy of this incredible group. He teases about the future saying: “Fans can expect the quality and class always associated with the Blackwood Brothers; the comedy and tender moments that are a part of every concert we do. Most of all, the old songs and new songs that exalt the Lord Jesus Christ will leave listeners with both the satisfaction of hearing the classics they know and love as well as new songs that are destined to become classics.”
Billy and the rest of the group haven’t let their success distract them from their calling. The group holds true to their mission statement: “The Blackwood Brothers Quartet exist to declare the gospel of Jesus Christ in songs that convey the message and the hope of the gospel.” This legendary quartet has been a pillar of Southern Gospel Music for decades, inspiring many groups over the years. God has truly blessed this group with the ability to entertain, but most importantly spread the Gospel to the world. For 80 years, the group has experienced great success and continues to release quality recordings as well as performing to sold out crowds.
The current lineup is heralded as one of the best in the group’s history. Southern Gospel Music would not be what it is today without the Blackwood Brothers.
By Justin Gilmore
First published in the November 2015 edition of SGN Scoops digital magazine.
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