The Hoppers are one of Gospel music’s best-loved families. They have been given awards and accolades and number-one songs for many years as audiences embraced their powerful harmonies. After 57 years, they are still going strong and pause for a moment to remember the past, live in the moment and look forward to the future during a conversation with SGN Scoops. Excitement abounds as each of the Hoppers speaks of their history, current happenings and possibilities in the years to come.
“I remember when we started; we’d have probably paid somebody to let us sing,” Connie Hopper laughs. “We went to a church one night and sang and got $12.73 in the offering plate.” Needless to say, much has changed since the Hoppers starting performing in 1957. They were then known as the Hopper Brothers and Connie. “In 1970, we quit our jobs and went on the road full time,” she remembers. “It was three of the brothers and me.”
Connie joined the group as the pianist and eventually married Claude Hopper. She began singing when Claude’s brother, Steve, left the group. “We have been so fortunate to support ourselves through the work God has called us to do, and none of that has been by accident, nor any of our own doings,” Claude explains. “Every day that we are blessed to travel is attributed to the support and prayers of each individual audience. We’re like a turtle sitting on a fencepost. You know he did not get there by himself.”
Connie wasn’t the only current group member to come on board as a musician. Claude and Connie’s son, Dean, signed on as the drummer at the age of seven. “The only thing I knew was that I wanted to play drums, and I would do anything I could to play music,” Dean points out. “I had a chance to play all these guys’ big (drum) kits – Mark Ellerbee (of the Oak Ridge Boys), Rick Goodman, Ronnie Sego and Billy Blackwood. That’s when the big bands were the big thing. Everybody had a four-piece band.”
Dean lived the dream. He vividly remembers flying home from Portland, Ore., by himself as an eight-year-old in order get back to school after the group was out on a lengthy road trip. “Dean would sit and watch Ricky Goodman and different ones play the drums,” says Connie. “He’s always been a good boy. He worked and helped his daddy on the farm, but he wanted to travel all the time. But we kept him in school.” Dean began correspondence school after ninth grade and has been on the road ever since. Dean adds, “I played drums for everybody, played on lots of records, and played on stage with everybody that would ask.” He later played the bass guitar and eventually moved into a more visible role as a vocalist when his uncle Will Hopper left the group.
“(Claude) really leaned on Roger Talley a lot. Roger was an incredible part of this ministry for 10 years. Roger said, ‘you need to go ahead and put Dean into that part.’ At that time, I would sing one every now and again.”
When Dean – who is seven years older than Michael – began playing the bass guitar, the door swung open for Michael. Roger Talley and Roger Fortner were also a part of the Hoppers’ band at the time.
“Coming in as a 13-year-old kid, I was fortunate that I arrived when everybody still had a band,” Michael noted. “Every weekend, we would go out, and I could stand on the side of the stage and watch people I respected. I’m thankful.” However, he admittedly didn’t have the same passion for it as quickly as Dean did.
“Michael was a different story,” Connie explaines. “Michael wanted to stay at home and ride his motorcycle and hang out with grandpa. After Dean went out on the road, that just left Michael at home. His guidance counselor called me and said, ‘Michael is smart, but he’s just not doing his schoolwork. I think that’s because you guys are gone.’ We put him in correspondence (school). He was 13 years old when he started.”
Michael adds, “I didn’t envision a whole lot at 13 other than my dirt bike and my grandfather. I just loved spending time with my dad’s dad. I spent a whole lot of time with him. He was my best friend. I’ve been blessed.”
Michael is now singing the bass part during the majority of most concerts. “It seems to be working,” Michael says. “They like us all up there as a family.”
The current Hopper brothers have assumed different and more extensive roles in the day-to-day responsibility of the group. “I am proud, very proud,” Claude emphasizes. “We never pushed them to be a part of this as boys. But now, seeing what they bring to the group and family as a whole, I don’t know how we ever did it without them. Both are very talented in their own right and in very different facets. Where one is weak, the other picks up the slack, and vice versa. They know how to pry the very best from Mother and I, which is a wonderful asset to me as both a co-worker and a dad. God knew what he was doing when he blessed us with them.”
Connie adds, “We never said, ‘this is what you’re going to do.’ At this point, if one of them were to say ‘this has been great, but I’m tired of this road,’ that would be fine with me. I thank God for them. They’re just great, and they’re talented.”
The rest of the group members have different perspective in terms of what the brothers bring to the table. “It’s hard for me to classify Dad, because he and I are practically the same person,” Karlye Hopper, the daughter of Dean and Kim Hopper, details. “We have the same taste, thoughts, humor, opinions, ideas, etc. It can be freaky at times. Dean is the tape, the bubble wrap and the shipping insurance, going out of his way to keep things are together and protected. Without him, I don’t know if this family would even make it to the stage. I would classify Michael as the cool, James Bond strain of tech genius – never irrational and always three steps ahead. He’s the quiet type but responsible for the nightly program, which is never the same twice. The quiet thing comes in handy when discerning where to go with the music.”
“He does a lot of creative stuff,” says Dean. “He manages our web site. He and I carry out the day-in and day-out grunt work that’s in the decision making, a lot that we learned from Dad. There are so many things, and now, he’s singing a lot. He’s just very solid. He’s more business-minded, like my dad.”
The family feels that the contrast in the brothers’ personalities balances out. “He’s very persistent,” Kim notes. “Michael handles a lot of the musical aspect of things and keeps us on the cutting edge. He does our multimedia stuff. He’s a computer nerd. If the bus has a problem, he’s the one on the phone. Dean is the one who can fix anything. He’s the face of the Hoppers right now. He’s the one dealing with the promoters. He has a vision like his father. He is a marketing genius. He is always a protector, but he has the heart of his mother. He can be straightforward with you, but he still has the heart of his mom.”
While the Hopper brothers have assumed larger roles, their parents have no immediate plans for retirement. “Retire? What am I going to retire to? I’m doing nothing now,” Claude jokes. “I genuinely love meeting and learning from people, but encouraging them and helping them is what encourages me. Whether it’s a waitress at the Bob Evans (Restaurant) or someone sitting alone in the back pew in church, if we can bring a smile to their face, then I am having the time of my life. The Bible says that laughter doeth good like a medicine. We are to laugh, smile and be merry thanks to the hope we have in Christ. Maybe that’s why I’m still out here. Maybe there’s still one ole stubborn guy needing to hear about joy from another.”
Claude’s joy is evident to the rest of the family. “Dad is more carefree,” Michael says. “He’s just having a blast. Good for him. He was doing so much. He doesn’t sit and worry about the detail things now. He delegates that to me and Dean.”
Karlye adds, “Pop has my heart. His heart is deeper than the Atlantic and his intentions are always the best. He just has a funny way of going about them. He got to a certain age and realized he just wasn’t laughing enough. He has been making up for lost time ever since.”
According to her family, Connie epitomizes the heart of the group. “Mom, her spirit has always been the same, and she brings that,” Michael said. “I think her purpose out here is to minister to the people and see people saved.”
Kim and Karlye view Connie in a similar light. “Connie is the unbiased, arms-outstretched Mother Teresa, if Mother Teresa had been from the South and clever with a skillet,” Karlye jokes. “She is what I aspire to be.” Kim adds, “Connie is our spiritual giant. She always looks on the positive. She can get tired in the way, but she never gets tired of the way. She is steadfast, diligent and very wise. It’s very quiet wisdom.”
Collectively, Claude and Connie have established a legacy. “They’re the patriarchs,” Michael points out. “They’re the Rock of Gibraltar, the foundation. They bring a tremendous amount to what we do, and they don’t have to do that much if they want to.”
Dean adds, “We all carry our load, but they’re great characters. They have lots of experience under their belt. Mom has a lot after what she’s seen God do in her life, dealing with cancer. The things God has entrusted with them, they didn’t take for granted, and they didn’t take lightly. That’s the way they were raised. They were raised to be very hospitable. Their decisions and their relationships have carved them into who they are.”
Kim joined the group in 1989 after having sung with her brothers as The Greenes. She can relate to some of Connie’s stories from the early days. “From the time I was 10 years old, we were on the road every weekend,” Kim explains. “We started out in a van. We sang in every little church where the door opened.”
Kim has been along for the ride during the greatest period of growth in the Hoppers’ ministry.
“I look at where the Lord’s brought us, and I don’t think we have changed any,” Kim says. “When we started out, we knew what we believed. When I look at it, I think God did this. It’s nothing we did in our strength. We just tried to be faithful and go through the doors he’s opened.”
Dean attributes some of the group’s steps forward to Kim’s addition. “From a stage standpoint, there’s no harder worker in this business,” Dean said. “When she was pregnant, she would go off the stage, throw up and then come right back and sing. She raises the level.”
“She was good when she was with her family. Kim was changing a lot. She got here and had to sing a tad higher. It changed a lot of stuff for her. She can convey. She draws a picture in singing a song. From a standpoint of performance, when you say ‘hit the gas,’ it’s on. Bill (Gaither) has always said, ‘I’ve said this many times, Kim never shows up when she doesn’t show up to work.’”
Kim feels that it was important for the group to evolve as music has evolved. “We try to reinvent ourselves musically, because things change,” Kim notes. “Ways of doing things change. We are still very much based in our faith, our belief and our work ethic. When we are scheduled to be somewhere, we go, and we give 100 percent when we get there. We let God do the rest.”
They also attribute a lot of the growth to Claude’s behind-the-scenes work. “Claude, being the boss, is the one who feels like that all of us are his babies,” Kim points out. “He’s very much a protector. He was always the one with the vision. He pushed and pushed and pushed … in a good way. He was on the phone booking the dates when the dates weren’t out there to be found.”
However, Claude never envisioned what the group has been able to achieve. “Why would I be worthy enough to live in a place and time when my heart’s desire did not cost me my life,” Claude asked. “A man by the name of Jim Elliot was made a martyr the same year I attended my first Gospel Music concert, and that is humbling in itself. God has stretched out His hand toward so many inconceivable goals, and I’m getting to see them accomplished. People say the older you are, the more appreciative you become. There is a lot of truth to that, and I don’t foresee my attitude reversing any time soon.”
The increasing opportunities have been humbling for all involved. “The places we’ve thankfully had the opportunity to sing and things we’ve been a part of, it’s very humbling,” Michael says. “When you can sing ‘Jerusalem’ in the city walls of Jerusalem, it’s pretty humbling. It can be taxing because of the scheduling. I like doing the overseas stuff we’ve done in Ireland, Norway and Scotland. There are some great people over there. They are so receptive, because they don’t get a whole lot out of it (Gospel Music).”
Kim adds, “When we look at where He’s brought us … when you are doing (new things), you are like, ‘this is what we do’ … things like singing at Carnegie Hall and meeting George Bush. But then we look back and say, ‘oh wow, we met George Bush.’ It’s a little unsettling.”
Kim agrees with Michael’s notion of how that the group’s schedule can be challenging in many respects. “The things we do and the people we meet are mentally more challenging now than they were then,” Kim notes. “When you travel with David Jeremiah to the Holy Land and you are the music for that event, there’s a lot more stress involved. We need to be on our game. In some of the bigger churches that we sing, there’s more expected. It’s very humbling, and it’s frightening. The scripture says, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ He has given us a music ministry, but we are required to do our best, be our best and represent Him.”
However, Kim acknowledges that there is ample reward; most evidenced in the lives of others. “To see and hear people say, ‘something you sang changed my life,’ it’s still exciting to know that God still uses us,” Kim says. “It’s exciting to have my kids on the road with me. We’re homeschooling our youngest one (nine-year-old Lexus). My kids are seeing the world and learning as much or more on a bus than they could in a classroom. To know my kids are excited and healthy is exciting. We’re taking them to places they’ve never been. To go into a church and for them to say, ‘our choir wants to back you up.’ To know they’ve spent the time to want to sing with us from our choral book, for our songs to be sung everywhere is amazing.”
Connie echoes those sentiments. “It’s not all about number-one songs,” Connie explains. “It’s not all about things of that nature. It’s about that song that you can sing and how it will relate to the people in the audience. Vestal (Goodman) said, ‘you can’t ever bless anybody else until you get a blessing yourself.’ I know He takes what you do or what you sing, and He uses it.”
While the group has enjoyed many chart-topping hits, Connie points out that one of the key moments in the group’s history came after being welcomed into the Gaither Homecoming fold. “I was so blessed, because there were people that … we were here (on one level), and they were there (on a higher level),” Connie remembers. “I just sat there and bawled. Bill heard us sing ‘That’s Him.’ That got us on the first video.”
However, it was their show-stopping rendition of “It’s Shouting Time In Heaven” on the “All Day Singin’ at the Dome” Gaither Homecoming Video that catapulted the group into another level of notoriety. The Inspirations performed the song in the 1970s, though its popularity wasn’t near what it grew into following that afternoon at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
“Bill said he wanted a fast song,” Connie says. “So, we did ‘Shoutin’ Time.’ It just kind of exploded. I thought, ‘who is going to like this old song?’ We got up there and started singing, and the hair started standing up on my neck. I looked at Claude and said, ‘there’s somebody up here besides us.’ The people started standing up. It had to be God.”
Although the fans continue to show their fondness for that song, it’s a variety of songs that the group members call their favorites. “It’s songs that paint a picture,” Kim says of her preferred numbers. “I’m a visual person. Any songs that are written that paint such a picture that I can see it, emotionally, they tear me apart. There was a song we did, ‘I Wonder What They’re Thinking Now.’ It talked about how the disciples were (feeling) when Jesus died on the cross. It’s anything that paints a picture where people are getting it. He didn’t just carry the cross. He carried me (lyrics to the group’s song ‘He Carried Me’).”
For Dean, it’s a different mix. “All the years Roger, Kirk and Debbie Talley were with us, it helped refine what we did,” Dean explains. “We always looked for good songs, songs that had a message. Somehow, God has let us have them. I never thought we’d have a song like ‘That’s Him,’ or ‘When He Comes Down,’ or ‘Jerusalem,’ or ‘Yahweh’ … but He has. There’s a song I used to sing called, ‘The Mountain Climber.’ It was very moving. It was motivating for me. There’s also parts in ‘Jerusalem’ that do that as well as ‘When He Comes Down,’ which we recorded for the first time in 1984, and ‘Anchor to the Power of the Cross.’ Then, there are fast songs like ‘Yes, I Am.’ They put something in you. My mom did an old Joel Hemphill song on her solo album in 1983 or ‘84, ‘I Wish I Had Done More.’ It fits her to a T.”
The group is currently in the studio working on a project that is being produced by Gospel Music Association Hall of Famer, Lari Goss. “The material on the project we are working on is going to stretch our audience a little more,” Michael points out. “I think we did that with ‘Jerusalem.’ I think we did that with ‘Yahweh.’ We have some great new songs from Paula Stefanovich, but it still sounds like the Hoppers.” Stefanovich wrote both “Jerusalem” and “Yahweh” for the Hoppers. “Her songs have revolutionized our ministry,” Kim notes. The upcoming project is expected to be released early in 2015. The Hoppers – a Spring Hill Music Group recording artist – are also working on a children’s audio project, with Connie having written many of the songs that will comprise that.
Daughter Karlye has also joined the family on stage and now makes regular appearances with the group, singing the alto part along with Connie. “The family ‘business’ is pretty important to me,” Karlye points out. “What they do is beyond a job or normal ministry. To me, it’s more of a legacy that has managed to remain one of integrity and sincerity. Fifty-eight years is a long time. For something to last that long, God must be smiling down on it.”
The 19-year-old recently completed her freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She travels with the group when her class schedule allows, leaving six family members extending across the stage when she is along for the ride.
“She is a fabulous singer,” Kim says. “She has said, ‘I want to go to school. I want a career, but I am committed to the heritage of the Hoppers.’” She first began to hear harmony at a young age. “It was somewhere between the second and third grade,” Karlye notes. “Mom noticed that I would hum the harmonies to whatever was playing on the radio. My talents were usually encased within the four doors of her sedan, but I was learning.” It wasn’t until last year that Karlye was thrust on stage.
“It was when my grandmother suddenly lost her voice and the family was next to desperate that I tried my hand at alto,” Karlye says. “It was one of those things where I got on a plane, put on a dress and was handed a microphone. I had never even listened for that part until the morning I flew in. That night in Birmingham was my first full concert, first time singing alto and the first time the people on stage appeared to need me, which, I admit, was a pretty cool feeling.”
As for her future with the group, Karlye, who is an English major aspiring to be a biographer/ghost writer, isn’t sure what direction she will go once she completes her college education. “I’m in school studying English and the Social Sciences with hopes of writing about real people,” Karlye says. “I discovered my fascination with personal histories over a decade ago during the interview process of ‘After All These Years’ (the Hopper family biography).”
The youngest Hopper, Lexus, has already exhibited talent vocally – with an ability to sing harmony – and instrumentally. “That nine-year-old … she’s the one,” Connie says with a grin. Kim adds, “They do have a heart for it. They will be involved somewhere I’m sure.”
Keeping things fresh can be a challenge for a ministry that has the stability that the Hoppers have enjoyed. “In my opinion, to keep it fresh, it’s the people that come to the concert,” Michael points out. “It can get stale, but if you can look down (into the audience), you can feel that energy from them. It’s appreciated.”
While they all put it in different terms, they seem to be on the same page in regard to the group’s future. “I see us continuing to progress,” Kim notes. “We will never allow the message to change. We want to do whatever we can do to go into the next step to broaden our music even more, to bring more youth into it. There are all kinds of different avenues opening. I see it progressing to wider audiences. We sing in Europe. I see more countries opening their doors.”
Some of the concerns involve the short term. “I want Mom and Dad to end well, whenever that is,” Dean explains. “Mom says there isn’t going to be a farewell tour. The future is to keep moving forward no matter what. We want to keep experimenting without abandoning our base. If we can take the folks on a little broader journey, let’s do that.”
Other visions for the group involve the long term. “I guess we get that from Dad,” Michael points out. “We’re not looking at next year. We’re looking at 20 years down the road. It’s his analogy of planting trees for someone else to sit under.”
For now, Connie and Claude are still enjoying the journey. “We’ve always loved it,” Connie explained. “I told the Lord a long time ago that I’d do whatever He put there for me to do. At this point, I could go home and stay. I would miss this, but I could be happy at home. I don’t want to (stop) until it’s the right time, because of the boys and Kim. I don’t know that I want them to stay on the road. They’ve been on the road a long time. I’m not saying (they should) give up the road completely, but if they can do something in the ministry, that would be good. They’re talented. I know they can. I’d like to see them carry the name on. They can sing good as a trio.”
Claude added, “For whomever God has prepared next, I hope they continue to travel to new places and encourage new people. I pray they never become close-minded or faint of heart and continue to share the Good News.”
The fans of the Hoppers also hope that there are many generations of this beloved family to keep sharing the Good News through their music. At SGN Scoops, we too hope to see many carry on the name of ‘America’s Favorite Family of Gospel Music!’
Written by Craig Harris
First published July 2014 by SGN Scoops digital magazine. For current issues of SGN Scoops, visit http://www.sgnscoops.com/