Today’s Southern Gospel music is a range from traditional quartets to country-styled family groups to edgy trios and everything in between. The shift can be heard as radio deejays play an early Statesmen record followed by The Booth Brothers and then perhaps an Isaacs’ song. One group that has survived this evolution of sound is The Kingsmen and they have done it with flare, winning Dove Awards, being nominated for Grammy Awards and becoming members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The Kingsmen came on strong in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s with several live albums, showing that they were the best in live performances that engaged the audience. Now they are back with a new live album, demonstrating that the Kingsmen of today are still the masters of live quartet performance. [Editor’s note: Feature first published in July 2013 in SGN Scoops.]
Front Row Live showcases the best of the current Kingsmen lineup, including Bob Sellers, Chris Jenkins, Randy Crawford and the patriarch of the group, Ray Dean Reese still belting out a powerful bass. Ray’s son Brandon, who serves as the drummer and bandleader whenever the group appears with a live band, handles their live sound and co-produced this recording. The recording was made during the 2012 National Quartet Convention and highlights some older favorites like “Traveling Home” to newer ones like “He’s Everything I Need”, a number one song and song of the year nominee from their 2010 recording, Grace Says. The Kingsmen’s current radio single off the live recording is “Land Of The Free”, written by Phil Cross, a patriotic anthem that is garnering a lot of airplay.
Live Kingsmen albums have always had their own place in Southern Gospel history and Front Row Live is long overdue. Brandon Reese says, “I think people have wanted a great live recording from the Kingsmen for a long time and the best way to give them that live Kingsmen sound is to mix some old and some new music that everyone will love.”
Kingsmen fans know that the group’s sound is still much the same as it was when the group became known as the Ton of Fun in the 1970’s, and baritone Randy Crawford says that is not just by chance. “The Kingsmen have always been filled with excitement,” says Crawford, “Excitement for the music and the message. The reason the style has changed so little over the years is because it works! You find a formula and stick with it. Each group must find its own style and sound to really set themselves apart. The Kingsmen established theirs in 1973 with Big and Live and have never looked back. Because of the excitement in the music and message it continues to ring with old and young listeners alike.”
Ray Dean Reese explains that the reason the music still clicks with so many is a mixture of several ingredients. “The Kingsmen have a 57-year heritage of spreading the Gospel,” says Reese. “We have always tried to keep the presentation of the message of the Gospel as a priority, down through the years. As for our sound, we try to stay in touch with what the people want to hear and would open their hearts to the message of Jesus. We have been blessed to have talented singers through the years who have each added their particular gifts to the mix.”
Lead singer Bob Sellers agrees that it is a combination of the Message, the sound and the presentation. “Take away any one of those and you’re left with something that isn’t The Kingsmen!” Sellers continues, “As for the message, no song in gospel music should ever get off the ground without it, and I believe The Kingsmen have been blessed with some of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. Songs with messages that align with the word of God and absolutely rip at the listener’s heart strings. As for the sound, it’s a guaranteed sky-high tenor offset by low bass and powerful parts in the middle to hold true to the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust reputation, as well as any four of us being able to step up and deliver the vocal on a power ballad.”
Sellers says that listeners will hear many of the same qualities today that were present in the early live recordings. “As for presentation, we want to be sincere and connect with our audiences. People know when it’s just for show, and the greatest compliment we ever receive after a concert is that we were a blessing or that someone could really feel The Holy Spirit. We’ll do slow songs, medium songs and fast songs – they all preach Jesus born and crucified and risen from the dead, just in different styles – and we’ll inject humor, testimony and praise.”
“Sometimes we run across someone who seems afraid to smile at a gospel concert, but we don’t shy away from putting smiles on the peoples’ faces,” says Sellers. “The Bible says a merry heart does like good medicine. We know that lots of people come to a concert downtrodden and put out about something; whether it’s a health condition, problem in their home, on the job, in their bank account, or whatever. We want the couple of hours they spend with us to be a time of refuge, or an escape if you will, from the every day burdens that this life can sometimes deal.”
Southern Gospel itself has changed in many ways from the 1970’s and in some ways the Kingsmen’s music reflects those changes as well, due in large part to the new vocalists and to the increased direction of Brandon Reese. “I think Southern Gospel music has evolved but the core of our music is still Jesus Christ and without Him we would not have a song. I learn more and more about this industry and music in general every day, there is always something to learn.” Reese incorporates his learning into the Kingsmen’s music, increasing the technical skill of the group. However, some aspects of a typical concert have not changed and this is how the group holds on to their older fans while attracting a new fan base.
Long-time Kingsmen fans expect a live concert to help them put everyday cares aside and they also expect to hear vocal acrobatics that leave them astonished. “There’s that trademark Kingsmen ending people have come to expect where the tenor raises up into parts unknown and Ray Dean Reese airplanes down to something probably 4 or more octaves below it. The people can’t get enough of that and neither can we!” laughs Sellers. “We’re still open to new styles and progressive arrangements and such, as is evident by listening to most any of our more recent recordings, but we’re all pretty passionate about sticking with our roots and honoring the heritage that helped form the legacy of The Kingsmen that exists today.”
Honoring the legacy of The Kingsmen’s past does not mean that the group is resting on its laurels. Far from it, according to Randy Crawford. “Growth in musicianship just comes from never being satisfied with ‘getting by’,” says Crawford. “The guys in the group now are beyond dedicated to presenting the best sound we can, [as we are exhorted to do in] Psalms 33:3, without losing the true excitement the Kingsmen have been known for. As far as presentation – it’s just a matter of allowing God to have His way while showing the joy of the Lord in what we do. When you are having a good time in what you’re doing, it shows and translates to the crowd.”
Sellers notes that the growth of the group is also revealed in their choice of songs. “We are able to go totally opposite of a three-chords-and-a-cloud-of- dust style when it’s appropriate. A perfect example is the song ‘Loving Shepherd, Gracious God,’ written for us by Dianne Wilkinson. It’s nothing really high, really low or really loud, but just a great lyric taken from Psalms 23 with a great melody to support it. In fact, Bill Gaither called Ray after he heard it the first time just to commend him on recording the song, because he absolutely loved the message in it. All the singers are focused on blending and shining as an entire unit, or team as Ray likes to call it, more so than as individuals. Nobody on stage is trying to out-shine the other. We take our calling seriously and work as hard as we can with the talent God has given us to make it the best it can be.”
The Kingsmen team works hard together and also enjoys a lot of laughter together. “The best times for me are just sitting up in the front lounge listening to Ray tell his many stories,” says Sellers. “Whether it’s from his and Jim Hamill’s old golfing expeditions to different things that happened on the road back in the day, it seems like everything now is a little more normal and mundane in comparison. I keep urging Ray to write a book. I know people would buy it!”
Ray Reese has more stories than would fill a book, but he says some of the most memorable occasions are not necessarily the funny ones. “On a serious note, it would be the night in Chattanooga Tennessee when the concert turned into a revival service. Many people came forward to give their lives to Christ that night,” Reese recalls. “On the humorous side, one night we had to do two concerts in one night, one in Roanoke Virginia and one in Nashville Tennessee. We took a private plane and after several tries, Jim Hamill could not get his door shut on the plane! We went on anyway! Thankfully, we did not lose Jim along the way, though he was partially frozen when we landed.”
Tenor Chris Jenkins, the newest Kingsmen member, is already collecting humorous stories. “We were performing up north, and we were leading up to an invitation. Bob was introducing a song and I discreetly walked over to the track player and upon his cue, I proceeded to press the track he had introduced. I pressed it; nothing happens. I pressed it repeatedly and still nothing! Four seconds seemed like forever. Finally Randy whispered, ‘just press something!’
Southern Gospel is full of artists with an offbeat sense of humor, just like the men of The Kingsmen. Sellers says, “The funniest character I’ve ever worked with will be no surprise to anybody: Aaron Wilburn. Since we are both Alabama boys from funny named towns – Bobo and Gordo, we have a lot in common anyway, but I got to know him a lot better on my very first official weekend with The Kingsmen. When I first got on the bus, I started down the hallway and Aaron reached out of a bottom bunk, grabbed me by the leg and screamed. He nearly scared me to death! I didn’t realize that Aaron was on that tour with us until then, but I learned that week that when you go see him in concert, you’re just seeing him for what he is. He is a bonafide nut and all he does is get on stage and act naturally.”
Jenkins concurs that there are a lot of ‘nuts’ in Gospel music. “A group that I enjoy working with on the road is Gold City (GC). The Kingsmen and Gold City have been working together for years and I’ve been a GC fan for as long as I can remember. Invariably, the night will end in a KingsGold set. Tim Riley is not only a legend but to just sit around and talk to him; you’re sure to do a lot of laughing.”
The Kingsmen have had many moments of laughter, both on and off stage, but they also look for the tender moments when they hear how their music has touched lives in a more serious way. “We had a gentleman share his testimony with us of how that he’d followed The Kingsmen for years and how he’d always loved our music,” recalls Sellers. “He said that it was the Holy Spirit through our song, ‘The Old Ship of Zion,’ that finally lead him to the Lord and he said that the same songs he’d listen to for decades mean so much more to him now. We’ve had many people come to us and tell how our music helped lead them to the Lord. Those kinds of stories make all the miles worth the while. Sometimes it seems that we go for periods of time and never see anyone come to the saving grace of Jesus during our services and the devil starts whispering in your ear. Sure, there are people who get saved during our services, but these stories remind us that we don’t always see the fruits of our labor immediately. All that we can do is plant a seed by presenting the gospel to the best of our ability, then trust in the Holy Spirit to provide the increase.”
“It’s a blessing to have folks come by and tell us how songs such as ‘Old Ship Of Zion,’ ‘Wish You Were Here,’ ‘Healing Stream’ and others have touched their lives and made a difference,” says Ray Reese. “It’s amazing how God can use a particular song to minister to someone during a trying time in their life.”
Crawford recalls the gentleman that Sellers refers to and says, “He had been to see the Kingsmen dozens of times but never knew the Lord. He had been saved for less than a year as of that night! That is a true blessing and proof from God that His Word will not return void. This is one of the greatest testimonies I have heard and seen in many years.”
The members of the Kingsmen can relate to individuals from the audience who come to them with stories of salvation as well as stories of life issues that have been difficult to navigate. Randy Crawford underwent heart surgery in 2011, a procedure that threatened his ability to sing. “Not knowing God’s plan at that point was taxing to say the least,” Crawford shares. “But after a visit from my Pastor I was reassured that even if I could not sing or speak ever again, God still had a call on my life in ministry that will always be there. He might change the method by which I minister, but He will not change the call. I praise God He healed my vocal cords and allows me to continue to sing for Him. But no matter what, I will always be in ministry.”
Ray Dean Reese also had a brush with mortality, as shared by Bob Sellers. “In October of 2011 Ray had surgery to remove a cancerous prostate,” says Sellers. “His doctors followed that up with hormone therapy and he was scheduled to have begun radiation treatments this past February. However, when he went to discuss the timeline and setting up those treatments, his doctors told him that based on test results and everything they could determine, they saw no need to proceed with any further treatments and that all indications were that his cancer was in complete remission!”
When faced with health issues and the question of whether to continue in ministry, both Crawford and Reese have no intentions of quitting. “I don’t believe Ray ever plans to retire,” says Sellers. “I believe he will be a Kingsmen as long as the Lord allows him the health to travel and sing. He just turned 74 years old, so whether he has another five years or twenty years of traveling in him, we younger guys are going to enjoy him being around and keep soaking up all the wisdom we can from him.”
“Ray isn’t just a boss, but a great Christian friend to us all and to countless others across the nation,” continues Sellers. “He deserves all the accolades that he receives for the service to the Lord that he has put in over the past 50-plus years in gospel music, 48 of those with The Kingsmen! Whenever Ray’s tenure here ends, we realize it will be tough, but I know his desire will be for the group to get itself back together and carry on the legacy that he has worked so hard to help build, just as it has done in the past when other franchise names such as Jim Hamill, Squire Parsons and others departed. In knowing Ray and Brandon and their desires like I do, I believe that The Kingsmen will be around for many more years to come.”
Reese himself does not appear to have any intention of retiring anytime soon. He says, “I have been blessed by God to have the greatest job in the world, to spread the Gospel in song all over the world.”
Brandon Reese has looked toward the future and he says, “The Kingsmen Quartet is bigger than any one person who has been involved with this organization. It is about delivering the Lord’s message in song to a lost world. One day my dad (Ray) will retire and we will move on from there. It is what God has placed on my heart to do and Ray wants that as well.”
Ken and Jean Grady, hosts of the popular Gospel Music Today program, are thrilled to see that the Kingsmen are still going strong with no intention of slowing down, on or off stage. Ken says, “Jean and I have always loved The Kingsmen. We have seen them several times since the addition of Bob Sellers, Randy Crawford, and Chris Jenkins, and they are still the best. After all these years and many different lineups, they are still the masters of quartet singing, but they are not afraid to push the boundaries of that style, and I think that is the key to the future for The Kingsmen.” Ken adds, “We saw them recently and we were thrilled to see Ray Dean Reece looking healthy and lively on stage. We’re looking forward to hearing their Front Row Live CD. Those old live albums by The Kingsmen are still the ones people talk about, and we expect this new one to be in the same category.”
As the Kingsmen continue to share their music with old and new listeners, it is important to each member that the message is heard loud and clear. Sellers says, “When we leave the stage, more than anything else I want for people to say that we were genuine and that our presentation was anointed. Of course we want to be the best singers and performers that we can possibly be, but more than that, I want people to be able to receive and process the gospel that we have presented to them through the songs and words that He has given us that night. And for the people who come to see us who don’t know Jesus personally, I pray that they will leave a much different person than they arrived.”
“Whether we are in a church service or a true concert setting, we try our absolute best to always take time toward the end of the service to extend a formal invitation to those who’d like for us to pray for them or who would like to make a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ. I think this five or 10 minutes is the most important part of what we do. If we present the gospel in song and testimony, then don’t give people the opportunity to move upon whatever it is that God may be dealing with them about, then I feel we’ve done them a great disservice.”
Crawford agrees with Sellers’ comments and adds that he wants the message to be clear. “God has given His Son so that we can have life and have it more abundantly”, says Crawford. “There is but one way, one path to salvation and it is through Jesus. Romans 10:9 says, ‘That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved’.”
“We want people to know that Jesus Christ was uplifted”, adds Chris Jenkins. “We want them to have had good, clean Christian fun while the heritage of the Kingsmen was preserved.”
Reese sums up these comments by saying, “We hope our audience has been blessed spiritually and leaves with a smile on their face and a song in their heart”.
As the Kingsmen continue to bring their powerhouse talents to live audiences across the nation and the world, they are determined that the message of the music will never be outshone by the presentation. With the release of Front Row Live the group’s heritage of sharing the Word with talent and a smile lives on.
Photographs courtesy of The Kingsmen
For more information on The Kingsmen please visit http://kingsmenquartet.com and find them on Facebook and Twitter.
For more information on Gospel Music Today with Ken and Jean Grady, please visit http://www.gospelmusictoday.com/
Feature first published by SGN Scoops magazine in July 2013. Written by Lorraine Walker.
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