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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Music Spotlight for a Sunday Afternoon

From 1964 until 1981 Americans awoke each Sunday morning to a nationally-syndicated program called, 'The Gospel Singing Jubilee.'  At the height of its popularity the show was broadcast in every television market in America, even in New York City and Los Angeles.

Headlining the Jubilee was a group from Pensacola, Florida known as 'The Florida Boys.'  Immensely popular, the group was part of the first gospel quartet concert ever held at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1963.  They were also one of the first groups to have a weekly television show with a national sponsor called, 'The Gospel Song Shop.'  And the Florida Boys to this day have the distinction of appearing on more television programs than any other gospel group, including Crook and Chase, NBC's Today Show, as well as televised appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.

The group was formed by a gentleman named J.G. Whitfield in Pensacola, Florida in 1948.  Whitt, as he was called, named the group 'The Gospel Melody Quartet.'  But promoters across the country almost unanimously introduced them as 'those boys from Florida.'  So, in the early 1950s, Whitt walked into the quartet office one Monday morning and said, 'Boys, as of this moment, from now on we are The Florida Boys.'

It was during the early 1950s that the fortunes of the Florida Boys began to change dramatically.  A young man from Tennessee who played the guitar and sang baritone was making a name for himself on the Grand Ole Opry with the Oak Ridge Boys, back when they were a gospel group.  Whitt hired a young Glen Allred to sing baritone for his quartet.  Thus, the first piece of the puzzle that led to the Florida Boys' success was in place.  Glen had that smooth, mellow tone that baritone vocalists are known for but which many fail to achieve.  To this day he is known as the greatest quartet baritone who ever lived.  I agree.  Of course, since we later became friends, I am naturally biased in my opinion.  But Glen was a great role model since I am a baritone singer.

One year later, Whitt hired a Marine, a Green Beret Sergeant, who had just returned from the Korean War.  His name was Les Beasley, who would become the group's lead singer.  Les became manager for the group when Whitt left the quartet to tend to his grocery business in Pensacola.

3 years later, in 1957 or so, the third piece of the puzzle to the Florida Boys' longtime success would be the hiring of a piano player from Brunswick, Georgia, Darrell Stewart, who was one of the few professionally-trained pianists in gospel music.

Thus, the 3 who would form the foundation for the quartet for the next 50 years were in place.

The group underwent many personnel changes through the years, with the exception of Les, Glen, and Darrell, but they always managed to put together a group with a distinct sound and style that was different than all the rest.

In 1966, the group hired tenor singer Tommy Atwood, who had been a country music fiddle player but wanted to sing Christian music.  Not only did Tommy sing a great first tenor but Les convinced him that he should play his fiddle in their appearances at well.  It was then that Les had an idea.  Each member of the group played instruments, so, in addition to Tommy's fiddle, Les played bass guitar, Glen played lead guitar, and Billy Todd played the rhythm guitar and sang bass.

This new country-flavored quartet singing took America by storm.  When they released their album entitled 'Kinda Country' in 1968, before the year was out the group had sold 800,000 copies of that album.

I met Glen Allred at a gospel singing back in the 60s when the Florida Boys came to my hometown for a concert. It was then that a long friendship began that lasted right up until today, even in their retirement.  Later I would get to know Les very well, and he too is still a good friend.  And then later on, Darrell Stewart became a good friend because he was always good for a laugh.  We always loved to share jokes.

As I said about the Cathedrals, these guys were my heroes as well.  I looked up to them as a boy, and I always loved their music.  When the group decided it was time to leave the road in 2007, they were at the top of their game.  Les stood behind the quartet to play bass guitar and hired a young lead singer by the name of Josh Garner to fill that spot.  He also hired the absolute best bass vocalist of this generation, Gene McDonald.  And in the tenor slot he hired Harold Reed, who fit perfectly with the group's new sound.  Glen Allred kept singing a perfect baritone right up until his retirement. I have never heard a man maintain such a near-perfect tonal quality in his voice after singing 250 nights a year for 55 years.

The following is but one example of their style from the Tommy Atwood era.  As you will see in the video, Les Beasley had a knack for taking old hymns and rearranging them for fiddle and other instruments.

This one will have you tapping your foot, and it is called 'Power in the Blood.'


As an extra bonus, here is a song the group made popular back in the late 60s-early 70s, and it features the baritone voice of Glen Allred and bass singer Billy Todd.  It's called 'Farther Along'--up-tempo.

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