By Dixie Phillips
Little Willie Wynn is commonly known in gospel music as the man with a million friends. After interviewing him on the telephone I can see why. His gentle warmth and down home personality makes you feel like you’ve known him your whole life.
Recording artist, Woody Wright, traveled and sang with Willie for several years. He had these kind words to say, “Willie is my mentor. My dad passed away in 1979. Willie broke the news to me while we were on the road. I consider him my ‘stand-in’ father. He is my absolute best friend. There is not a more influential figure in my life. I owe my career to him. I often tell him, if he had not given me my first road job in the music field, I would have probably gone to college and become a doctor or a lawyer.”
Southern gospel historians consider Willie a legend in gospel music. His story of humble beginnings and then achieving the pinnacle of success so few artists ever experience is the stuff movies are made of. It’s sheer inspiration and should encourage every child who has a dream of singing for the Lord.
Willie was born the seventh child of Cyrus Wynn and Allie Belle Lunsford Wynn in Moultrie, Georgia. He was raised by a single mother on 173-acre farm with his six brothers and one sister. Willie said, “When my father left, my dear mother poured her life into us kids. She loved us and we loved her. All of us helped with chores around the farm.”
Willie learned a tremendous work ethic in the cotton fields of south Georgia with his close-knit family, but he also learned he loved music. “My brothers and I would work in the fields and we always had a dinner break. While we ate I listened to the beautiful music of the Statesmen, Blackwood Brothers, and the LeFevres. Nobody ever taught me parts, but I could hear them all. They came easy to me. It was a gift from God.”
God had His hand on Willie and when he was 14 at Hopewell Baptist Church, he gave his heart to the Lord and was baptized. The young man also knew he was supposed to sing gospel music. “From as far back as I can remember, I felt a call from God to sing for Him. I can’t really explain it. I just knew I was to sing tenor in a gospel male quartet.”
Willie joined a quartet when he was still a teenager and sang with the Happy Four regularly on a local radio station. The group was well received and their fan base kept growing around Georgia. When he got in high school, he sang with the FFA quartet. “I just knew I had to continue pursuing my dream. In my heart I believed I would one day sing with the Statesmen.”
While Willie was honing his musical talent, a man moved to Moultrie from Atlanta. He shared Willie’s dream and wanted to start a gospel quartet of his own. “We tried to round up a few singers, but then the guy moved back to Atlanta. I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve my goal, but then the same fellow kept calling me and inviting me to move to Atlanta. When the time was right, I moved there and got a job in a bookbindery. After working for about a year Denver Crumpler, the Statesmen’s tenor singer, passed away. They were looking for someone to fill his position. I went to the Briarcliff Hotel in Atlanta to audition. I knew all their songs and had a great time singing for them. There was one more fellow after me to try out—Rosie Rozell. Even though they hired him, I still felt in my heart I would one day sing with the Statesmen.”
Even though Willie didn’t get the tenor position, Jake Hess recognized the young man’s talent. When some of the members of Wally Fowler’s backup quartet for his All Night Singing asked if anyone knew of a good tenor singer, Jake Hess suggested they contact Willie. The group didn’t waste a minute. They drove to Willie’s house around 11:00 p.m. and convinced him to come down to Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium. “Even though I wasn’t feeling the best, I threw on my coat and went with them. I sang all the songs and was hired on the spot. Eventually the group was named The Oak Ridge Quartet.”
Warner Brothers was the Quartet’s record label. They suggested the group change their name to the Oak Ridge Boys. The guys all agreed. At this time the group consisted of Willie Wynn, tenor singer; Smitty Gatlin, lead singer; Ron Page, baritone singer; Herman Harper, bass singer; and Tommy Fairchild, pianist. They were noted for being on the cutting edge of gospel music with a progressive country sound.
It was during this time the fans fell in love with the skinny Georgia boy with his smooth tenor voice. At every concert the Oaks introduced him, “Make welcome Little Willie Wynn!” The crowd went wild and the nickname stuck. All 116 pounds of “Little Willie Wynn” sang his way into the hearts of his fans with songs like: “Jesus is Coming Soon,” “Mama’s Last Amen,” “King Jesus,” “After All,” “My God Is Real,” “Mama’s Teaching Angels How to Sing,” “The Grass Is Greener on the Other Side,” “After Calvary,” and “Little Is Much.”
The Oaks’ popularity skyrocketed. Invitations came for them to sing on the Porter Wagoner Show, the Johnny Carson Show, the Merv Griffin Show, and they regularly appeared on the Johnny Cash Show. They were invited to make a guest appearance in the movie ‘Sing a Song for Heaven’s Sake’. The Oaks received international invitations and performed two tours in Sweden. During this time they gained even broader audience appeal and recognition. They received several Dove Awards and even a Grammy Award. They were in more demand for television appearances than ever before. Willie and the Oaks were rated as one of the top gospel groups in the business.
Willie sang with the Oaks for 15 years and came off the road in 1973, to pursue a business venture and be closer to home. “I was offered a deal too good to refuse—an airplane business. What I didn’t see on the horizon was the severe fuel crunch. It didn’t go as I had hoped.”
The next year, Hovie Lister called and invited him to sing with the Statesmen. “I knew God had put that dream in my heart. I saw the prayers of that little boy from the cotton fields of Georgia come true that day.”
After recording a few albums and singing with the Statesmen, Willie formed another group—Willie Wynn and the Tennesseans. Group members included Elmer Cole, Dave Maddox, Woody Wright, and Michael Sykes. Willie said, “Even though we had great talent and recorded several records, we were never quite able to get the group off the ground.”
The Georgia farm boy wasn’t afraid of hard work. He decided to start another group—Sweetwater. Once again the roster was jam-packed with some talented singers: Darrell Holt, J.T. Hicks, Gary Clark, and later with Woody Wright and Michael Sykes. “Once again, we were blessed with great songs, arrangements, and talent, but we just couldn’t make it to the level we hoped to.”
Willie married the love of his life on Valentine’s Day 1991. He said, “My wife, Sandi, is a beautiful person and singer. She is the highlight of my life.”
Sandi and Willie received a phone call from Bill Gaither, inviting them to come to Alexandria, Indiana, and be part of a videotaping. Willie stated, “I cannot say enough good about Bill and Gloria. They have done more for the gospel music field than anyone I know. They have resurrected careers that have been dead longer than Hitler.”
Another important phone call came to the Wynn house in 2013. “Woody Wright called and insisted I record a new project—Willie Wynn & Friends. He actually wrote a song “The Oak Ridge Boys and Me,” especially for this project. If that wasn’t enough of a blessing, then the Oaks came to the studio and sang backup on that song with me.”
Not only did the Oaks come out to support Willie, but Bill Gaither and Ben Speer also sang backup. It’s plain to see Willie loves people and they love him back. His new project is proof of just how much folks treasure “the big heart of little Willie Wynn.”
Willie Wynn & Friends also includes 11 new recordings of popular songs from Willie’s days with the Oak Ridge Boys and new versions of great hymns and classics. Ponder Sykes & Wright (who first sang together as members of Willie’s group, The Tennesseans) are featured on several songs, along with other former Tennesseans Elmer Cole and Dave Maddox. Bill Gaither, Ben Speer and Gene McDonald provide support vocals, as well as Willie’s great friends Darrell Holt, J.T. Hicks, and Gary Clark from the group Sweetwater. The musician crew is a ‘who’s who’ of some of Nashville finest players.
Woody Wright is quick to honor the man who helped him get his start in gospel music. “The November 3rd 2014, “Willie Wynn and Friends Bash” will be our fourth annual event. The first was the evening that Willie was inducted as an individual to the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame. So every year since, we have assembled the former members of Willie’s groups (The Tennesseans and Sweetwater) to keep honoring Willie, who made it possible for dozens of wannabe Gospel singers get started. Among those names are myself, Michael Sykes, David Ponder, Elmer Cole, and many other players and singers.”
Fans will love hearing Willie’s signature voice again. His huge heart shines through every song and his music guarantees to inspire his million friends and fans.
Willie also participated in a DVD/CD made in 2012 and 2013 with Scott Kramer and Woody Wright, Good News Music Radio. Willie said, “We are getting incredible number of inquiries about these projects. We are all very excited about them. Fans can purchase them at www.williewynn.com.”
Editor’s note: The November 3rd 2014 “Willie Wynn and Friends Bash” was part of the annual Creekside Gospel Music Convention in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. For more information, visit http://www.creeksidegospelmusicconvention.com/
Written by Dixie Phillips
Published by SGN Scoops digital magazine in October 2014
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