The Southern Gospel Music Association is pleased to announce the eight individuals who are the 2014 inductees to the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Each of the inductees have left their own special touch on Southern Gospel music, and as a result, it is only fitting that his or her contributions and work be forever honored.
Southern Gospel Music Association president Arthur Rice says, “As we have been with each inductee class, we are very excited to have another group of Southern Gospel pioneers and leaders come into the Hall of Fame membership. The Southern Gospel Music community has certainly benefited from the work and dedication of these people through the years.”
The newest members of the Hall of Fame are…
Colbert Croft (deceased)
Claris G. “Cat” Freeman (deceased)
Claude Daniel Hopper
Warren Lester Roberts (deceased)
Faye Ihrig Speer
Francis Jane “Fanny” Crosby Van Alstyne (deceased)
Induction honors will take place during the National Quartet Convention to be held Sept. 21-27, at The LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Inductions and tributes for the deceased members of the “Class of 2014″ will take place during selected evening NQC performances. The Singing News Fan Awards on Thursday afternoon will host the induction honors for the living members of the 2014 class.
Claris G. “Cat” Freeman
Mr. Freeman was born March 11, 1922, near Fyffe, Alabama, to Gordie and Mae Hicks Freeman. He was one of six children, including a younger sister, Vestal, who would later be known as Vestal Goodman. He was gifted with an amazing tenor voice, and at age 14, began singing with The Maddox Brothers. In 1940, Mr. Freeman met Lee Roy Abernathy, who was so impressed that he recommended the young singer to The Blackwood Brothers, a group Mr. Freeman ultimately joined in 1948.
In 1951, Mr. Freeman joined Hovie Lister and The Statesmen Quartet during the group’s “glory days” that took them to the top of Gospel music. He was with them until 1953. He returned to that group in 1957 following the unexpected passing of Denver Crumpler. In addition to The Blackwood Brothers, Mr. Freeman also sang for The Oak Ridge Quartet, The Revelaires Quartet, The Melody Masters Quartet, The Deep South Quartet and The Jubilee Quartet.
Mr. Freeman was known for his humorous antics and showmanship on stage. In his time, he was considered to be the best at relating to an audience, and then capturing the song that would stir them out of their seats.
Mr. Freeman spent much of his time in his later years teaching others through old-fashioned singing schools that went from church to church and home to home. After his death on March 21, 1989, The Premiers Quartet of Rainsville, Alabama, established The Cat Freeman Foundation in 1990. The foundation would assist aspiring young artists to attend Southern Gospel music singing schools, such as the Alabama School of Gospel Music, the Steve Hurst School of Music Ministries and the Stamps-Baxter School of Gospel Music. The Cat Freeman Memorial Scholarship Fund awarded more than $10,000 in scholarships each year to young artists.
Mr. Crook began his career in 1961 as the pianist for The Tennesseans. He soon began session work at the famed RCA studios on Music Row in Nashville. In 1964, Mr. Crook joined The Plainsmen Quartet, and toured with Governor Jimmie Davis. The group also worked in crusades with Evangelist Billy James Hargis.
From 1967-1970, Mr. Crook played for The Sego Brothers & Naomi. However, Mr. Crook is best known for his time as pianist for The Happy Goodman Family. During this time, he and fellow member, Aaron Wilburn, co-wrote the well-known Southern Gospel songs, “Just Any Day Now” and “What A Beautiful Day.”
In 1977, Mr. Crook started The Eddie Crook Company, becoming one of the most recognizable producers in the industry. He helped launch the careers of many notable groups including The McKameys, The Bishops, The Perrys, The Wilburns and The Mid-South Boys. Several recording labels developed from the parent company, including MorningStar, Cross & Crown Records, 4 Square, Renaissance, Harvest, Wren, and Cedar Hill. Mr. Crook also has the distinction of producing more No. 1 Gospel songs than any other producer.
Along with The Happy Goodmans, Mr. Crook was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1998. He was awarded “The Marvin Norcross Award” in 2004 along with his wife, Janice. In 2005, his name was added to “Piano Roll of Honor.”
Mr. Heil grew up in York, Pennsylvania. As a pastor’s son, he came to faith in Christ at an early age. He and his family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when his father was called to pastor a church there. He developed his love for Southern Gospel music by hearing The Couriers in concert.
While in high school, he became interested in news media, and was hired by a local radio station. He became an award-winning radio news director. Mr. Heil later moved into television, where he was a TV news director from 1977-1979.
Mr. Heil was always interested in syndication, and was inspired by the Top 40 chart in Singing News and other popular countdown-type radio programs. This laid the foundation for “The Gospel Greats,” and the first broadcast aired in February 1980 on five or six stations. Today, the program is heard on more than 200 stations. In 1986, he started Springside, which is one of the largest on-line catalogue sites for Southern Gospel music.
Mr. Heil is a founding member of the Southern Gospel Music Guild, and served as president for nine years. He was vice-president of the Gospel Music Association, and currently serves on the advisory board of the SGMA.
For 15 consecutive years, “The Gospel Greats” was awarded the “Favorite Syndicated Program” in the Singing News Fan Awards. Other personal achievements include The Marvin Norcross Award (1991), The James D. Vaughn Impact Award (2004), and The Lifetime Achievement Award (2009).
Of all his achievements, Mr. Heil says the most exciting is hearing from listeners who have been saved and touched by the Lord. He reminds us all that “The Gospel Greats” is “the greatest songs about the greatest message…the Gospel.”
Francis Jane Crosby Van Alstyne
As David was called the “sweet psalmist of Israel,” Fanny Crosby is the “sweet ‘hymnist’ of the church”. She is said to have written more than 9,000 hymns, many of them the most beloved of the church.
Francis Jane Crosby was born on March 24, 1820, in Brewster, New York. She became ill at six weeks of age, and treatment by a man posing as a doctor left her blind. After the death of her father, she was assisted by her grandmother, Eunice, while her mother worked. Eunice would read the Bible to young Francis, and she would memorize several chapters a week. Her poetic ability was recognized early when at age eight she wrote, “Oh! what a happy soul I am! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be.”
At 15, she entered the New York Institute for the Blind, and became a teacher there. While at the Institute, she met presidents, congressmen, and even read her poetry before Congress, becoming the first woman to speak in the Senate. She met and married Alexander Van Alstyne, who was also blind and musically gifted. She was hired by William Bradbury to write hymns for his publishing company; and she also worked with fellow noted hymnist, Robert Lowery.
Some of her most well-known works include: “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” “Near the Cross,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Rescue the Perishing,” “I Am Thine, ‘O Lord,” “Jesus is Calling,” and her personal testimony, “Blessed Assurance.”
She continued to write up until her death at age 94. Someone once asked her if she regretted being born blind. She replied that she would have prayed to be born blind, “Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.” She met the Savior when her faith ended in sight on February 12, 1915.
Rev. Colbert Croft
For many songwriters, songwriting is their passion and pursuit. But for some, the songs are an overflow from dedicated ministry of the Gospel. Such are the songs of Rev. Colbert and Joyce Croft, which number more than 5,000.
Rev. Colbert Croft was born on May 4, 1941, in Berlin, Georgia. He was not a Christian until after he began dating Joyce. After telling Joyce that he couldn’t marry her because she needed to marry a preacher, Mr. Croft went to the First Baptist Church in Jasper, Florida, where he was soon saved and called to preach. They were married in 1964. He began his ministry as a pastor, but entered full-time evangelism when he and Joyce sensed the call from God on the same day.
The Crofts were married for 49 years, and were a ministry team. Rev. Colbert would write the lyrics, and Joyce would pen the music. They wrote one of the best-known songs of today, “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand).” Other songs include “I Believe When He Died, He Died for Me,” “Is That Footsteps I Hear?,” and “Flow Through Me.”
For more than 25 years, the Crofts hosted the annual Labor Day Singing in Valdosta, Georgia, which featured many of the top groups in Southern Gospel.
Rev. Colbert Croft passed away January 1, 2014. It was said of him, “His life was a life of proclaiming the cross and blood of the Savior through songs and sermons. Ministry was not his vocation—it was his life.”
Warren Lester Roberts
Mr. Roberts was born August 4, 1920, in Red Oak, Georgia. While in high school, he developed a desire to be in radio. His first job was at WEAS in Decatur, Georgia, in 1947. He played all genres of music, but his preference was Southern Gospel.
In 1948, Mr. Roberts began producing the popular radio program, “Gospel Quartet Time”, which aired for 40 years. He became the “Master of Ceremonies” for the iconic “Wally Fowler All-Nite Singing” at the Atlanta Civic Auditorium. This popular singing featured all the top groups of the day. In 1958, he was signed by an Atlanta NBC affiliate to do a weekly, 30-minute Southern Gospel television program. “Warren Roberts Presents” became very successful in the Atlanta area, and was later extended to one hour. In 1971, he hosted a live Southern Gospel program on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which was broadcast nationwide.
Mr. Roberts also enjoyed success as a songwriter. He penned “Somewhere Along the Way,” which was recorded by George Beverly Shea. “May The Lord Bless You Real Good,” which he co-wrote with Wally Fowler, became the theme song of the movie, Ada, and was sung by Dean Martin. But, Mr. Roberts often said his “claim to fame” was when he introduced Wendy Bagwell & The Sunliters on the live recording of Here Come the Rattlesnakes.
Mr. Roberts said being in broadcasting allowed him to do his favorite two things: be on the air, and communicate with people the message of Jesus through the music.
Faye Ihrig Speer
Since 1921, the name “Speer” has been synonymous with Southern Gospel music. The Speer Family has more inductees in the SGMA Hall of Fame than any other family. In 1948, Faye Ihrig married Brock Speer, and became a part of that family legacy.
Faye Ihrig Speer was born October 19, 1928, in Augusta, Kentucky, the daughter of a Nazarene preacher. She met Brock Speer while singing in a college ladies’ trio. They were soon married, and typical of the life ahead for her, their honeymoon included performing with the family at an all-night singing. Mrs. Speer’s time with The Speer Family varied according to demands of family life. She sang until her children were born. She returned to the group in the 1960’s when Dad and Mom Speer’s health began to decline. As part of The Speer Family, Mrs. Speer appeared across the nation on numerous television programs. In 1979, she was a part of the group’s first No. 1 song, “What Sins Are You Talking About?” She was also featured on many of the group’s 70+ recordings.
Following The Speer Family’s retirement in 1998 and her husband’s death less than a year later, Mrs. Speer made frequent appearances on the Gaither Homecoming videos. Mrs. Speer has received numerous awards both as an individual, and as a member of The Speer Family, including The Living Legend Award by the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion, and well-deserved civic recognition for her volunteer service in the pediatric clinic at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.
Looking back over her life, Mrs. Speer says, “Two things I’ve learned in life are that God never fails and we all go through changes.”
Claude Daniel Hopper
Mr. Hopper was born the son of a sharecropper on a tobacco farm in Madison, North Carolina, October 8, 1937. He was saved as a teenager, and enjoyed listening to Gospel music on the radio. In 1956, he attended his first Southern Gospel concert, and it changed his life. Along with four of his seven brothers, he started The Hopper Brothers in 1957. His future wife, Connie Shelton, joined as pianist in 1958. It was the beginning of what would be known as “America’s Favorite Family of Gospel Music.”
Mr. Hopper married Connie in 1961, and they have two sons, Dean and Michael. When Connie became a vocalist in 1970, they became The Hopper Brothers & Connie.
Dean married Kim Greene, and she joined the group in 1989. They became known as The Hoppers.
Mr. Hopper’s legacy is entwined in the success of The Hoppers. In 1981, they were honored to sing for the inauguration of President Reagan. They are favorites on the Gaither Homecoming video series, and combined, the group has won more than 60 awards for mixed group, vocalists, musician, and more.
In September 2011, the Southern Gospel Music Guild board recognized Mr. and Mrs. Hopper’s significant contributions to the music industry with the SGMG Lifetime Achievement Honor. In 2012, The Hoppers were inducted into the GMA Hall of Fame.
In addition to performing, Mr. Hopper is a respected businessman and a leader in the Gospel music industry. He serves on the Board of Directors of the National Quartet Convention and oversees “Hopper Heritage Foundation”, an organization that provides scholarships to future singers, ministers and businessmen.
Mr. Hopper’s lifelong philosophy is reflected in the song, “If I Can Help Somebody.” He says, “by helping others help themselves, then you have already achieved what you wanted in life.”