“It’s happened to all of us in the business,” the group’s iconic bass singer, Ray Dean Reese, says with a smile.
As they are proving night after night in 2019, the Kingsmen are doing just fine, just as they have been since 1956. Actually, they’re doing more than just fine as they continue to pack people in for concerts and challenge listeners with a mix of some of their classic hits and new songs off their latest CD, “Victory Shout.”
Reese, who first hit the Kingsmen’s low notes in 1967, says it is all about what the group brings night after night. “People are thirsting for the message,” he says. “(Like with the Kingsmen) we’ve been singing for so many years. I feel like we (have) set a standard down through the years of live recordings and different songs. It’s like going to hear a preacher, in a sense. They have heard him before and what he’s presenting. What we present is encouraging to them. They enjoy it. It’s a message, so therefore they continue.” What they are hearing is a new twist to the familiar Kingsmen sound and message.
Last June, lead Bob Sellers left the group to pursue a solo career from his home in Alabama. In July, baritone Randy Crawford retired due to health considerations. Losing longtime members could have created a void, but the Kingsmen are still going strong.
The newest guys are Chris Bryant, who took Sellers’ spot onstage and is new to singing full time, and Alan Kendall, who has traveled in the past before pursuing other interests. “We were longtime fans of this music coming into it,” Kendall says. “We have a passion for this kind of music.”
Kendall, 36, says the opportunity has been more than he could have imagined. “I got my feet wet a few years ago singing with another group, but I got married and spent some time singing part time. To be able to come back really is a dream come true. It has been wonderful!”
The Georgia native grew up a fan of the Statesmen, Oak Ridge Boys, Cathedrals and Singing Americans and now stands next to Reese, sharing the message through song with a Hall of Famer every time the Kingsmen sing.
“The thing about this music is it tells stories,” Kendall says. “It tells stories probably better than any other form of Christian music out there. We still have people in their fifties hearing Southern gospel for the first time. We are seeing people who first saw the Kingsmen in the ‘70s or ‘80s and were kids then. They are coming now and bringing their kids to hear us.”
Kendall, who had been singing solo when the Kingsmen came calling, brought the house down with a stirring rendition of “Battle Cry” when we saw them at Christiansburg Baptist Church, near Bagdad, Ky.
Bryant, two years younger than Kendall, had been working in paint sales while singing part time with The Bibletones in Mississippi. “I had been doing that for 18 or 19 years when God opened this door,” Bryant says. Reese remembers how Bryant came aboard. “We already knew of Alan but didn’t know Chris Bryant,” Reese says. “Some guys in other groups told him we were looking for a lead singer and they thought he could qualify for us.” Bryant submitted some tapes and the group found some YouTube videos of his work. Bryant met with the Kingsmen while they were touring in Alabama and soon after, he was offered the job.
“It’s just a good fit for me,” Bryant says. “They are good guys and I grew up a fan of the Kingsmen, since they are one of the classic quartets. But it was a big move for me.” Bryant’s powerful lead is on display in many of the group’s classics such as “Wish You Were Here.”
The new guys agree that the old message is what keeps the Kingsmen at the top of Southern gospel after 63 years. “I think one thing that has kept them relevant through the years is great songs,” Bryant says. “You have to have great songs, and the Kingsmen have a list of fantastic songs they have introduced to gospel music. Songs like ‘Look for Me at Jesus’ Feet’ and ‘Wish You Were Here,’ to some of the newer songs.”
And the Kingsmen have been pioneers in the industry. “The Kingsmen really set themselves apart from other groups back in the ‘70s with their song choices, their style of singing and their stage presentation,” Kendall says. “They were never afraid to take a stand on certain things. Their ‘Big and Live’ album is an example. The recording had the shouts from the crowd. The record company wanted to take that off. They said, if you take it off, take us off. That was a pivotal moment really, that album. People got to listen to a live worship experience.”
That cutting edge attitude lives on in a group that features three singers — Bryant, Kendall and tenor Chris Jenkins — who were not born until at least 10 years after the release of “Big and Live.”
“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s you can see the evolution of the Kingsmen,” says Jenkins, who is 32 and in his second stint with the group. “They took on that certain Kingsmen sound. Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s they kept that going. They started doing things out of the box that most quartets wouldn’t have been doing at the time.
“We don’t sit back and rest on our laurels. We have been there 63 years and are still trying to make great music, great music that people will like and music that will be relevant. It’s music that people will hear and will be life changing.”
Jenkins is featured on “Victory Shout,” the title cut of the latest CD, a song that was added just before going into the studio. The CD, which is the quartet’s first with Bryant and Kendall, had been in the works for about a year. Among the cuts are “Running to Win,” featuring Kendall and “That’s Where You’ll Find Me,” a ballad that tells of meeting at Jesus’ throne and features Bryant.
The CD also contains a Kingsmen classic, “The Prodigal Son,” written by Larry Gatlin and originally recorded by the group in 1991. “We wanted a song to really feature Ray,” Jenkins says. “We found several on this album but we wanted something to really feature him. Our record executive kind of pulled that out of the hat.
“We had picked out the songs, then two more songs came in. ‘Victory Shout’ was one of those. I thought it would sound great with a choir behind it. Then one day Brandon (Reese, Ray’s son and the group’s sound engineer and road manager) and I were sitting at the front of the bus and I said, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s a radio hit.’ It’s an anthem-type song. Something about the song just jumps out at you.”
The latest single reminds Christians that God is still in control, regardless of life’s circumstances.
The Kingsmen learned that, again, in the past year, just as they have repeatedly learned since 1956. “Victory Shout” expresses those lessons.
“It’s a lot of encouragement,” Bryant says. “It talks about the different trials we have been through, trying times we don’t know exactly what’s going on or why God’s doing what he’s doing, but we have to trust him. The CD as a whole has that kind of feel from start to finish. It’s an uplifting CD.”
Ray Dean Reese plans to keep singing
Ray Dean Reese’s Hall of Fame career with The Kingsmen began in 1967 and he doesn’t see it coming to an end any time soon. “It’s a great heritage and I am thankful to be part of it,” he says of his work with the Kingsmen.
Reese turned 80 in May. “That’s just 40 twice over,” he grins.
How long will he continue singing?
“As long as I can!” he says with a big smile. “My momma lived to be 99 years old. I expect to be singing at 98.”
By John Herndon
First published by SGNScoops Magazine in July 2019
For more Gospel music features, read the latest SGNScoops Magazine HERE.
Listen To Todays Gospel Music Here