The Statesmen Quartet was a southern gospel music group founded in 1948 by Hovie Lister. Along with the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen Quartet is considered the most successful and influential gospel quartet of the 1950s.
During the first years, the group underwent several member changes, which included singers like James "Big Chief" Wetherington, Denver Crumpler, Jake Hess, Doy Ott, Hovie Lister, Rosie Rozell, and Jack Toney.
Along with hits spanning many decades, The Statesmen Quartet had many notable successes including being the first Gospel group to receive endorsement deals. Additionally, they made television commercials, appeared on numerous radio and TV shows, and were signed to RCA Victor before launching their own label, Skylite Records, with The Blackwood Brothers.
The Statesmen Quartet was founded in 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia by piano player Hovie Lister, a Baptist minister and convention-style piano player with a flair for showmanship. Lister constructed the quartet as a hand-picked group of the best singing voices in order to secure a prime time-slot on the new WCON radio station. The initial line-up included lead singer Mosie Lister from Atlanta, Gordon Hill on bass, Bervin Kendrick from Birmingham singing baritone and Bobby Strickland of Albertiville singing the tenor. The group's name was lifted from the title of a newsletter published by Herman Talmadge, Governor of Georgia, with Talmadge's permission. The quartet made their debut on WCON in Atlanta in October, 1948.
From 1948 to 1952, the group underwent several personnel changes. In 1953, Lister's vision of the premiere lineup was realized with the addition of Denver Crumpler as tenor. Crumpler joined Jake Hess (lead), Doy Ott (baritone), and James 'Big Chief' Wetherington (bass), with Lister on piano and master of ceremonies. During the next years, The Statesmen Quartet achieved fame as one of the premiere groups of Southern Gospel music.
Broadcasting, recording, and business:
After having several radio programs in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, The Statesmen "became the first Southern gospel quartet to have a nationally syndicated TV program, Singing Time in Dixie, sponsored by Nabisco."
The group recorded 36 songs for Capitol Records from 1949 to 1953. They switched to RCA Victor in 1954, recording more than 30 albums during their years with that company. In 1968, they began recording for Skylite. (The Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers had formed that company earlier, but sold it in 1966.)
Although most fans probably thought of the group in terms of religious inspiration and/or entertainment, a 1964 profile of the group in Billboard magazine noted, "The Statesmen ... are known as a complex organization to the music industry." In addition to the broadcasting and recording activities already mentioned, the article cited ownership of four gospel music publishing companies that "print and distribute song books and sheet music."
The glory years:
In 1952, The Statesmen Quartet entered into a business partnership with The Blackwood Brothers Quartet. The "Stateswood" team would dominate Southern Gospel music for the next two decades.
Cat Freeman (brother of Vestal Goodman), a native of Fyffe, Alabama was replaced by the great Irish tenor Denver Crumpler. With this lineup, The Statesmen began recording for RCA Victor and began starring in the Nabisco Hour national TV show as mentioned above. Popular songs of this period include "Get Away Jordan" and "Happy Rhythm". As early as 1950, The Statesmen used the phrase "Rockin' and rollin'" in a song, and Hovie Lister's frantic boogie-woogie piano, piano bench acrobatics, and hair shaken down in his eyes predated Jerry Lee Lewis' use of the same tricks by a good five years.
During this period, the quartet had offices at the Briarcliff Hotel at Ponce and N. Highland in Virginia Highland, Atlanta. Business manager Don Butler and tenor Roland "Rosie" Rozell partnered to open the King & Prince Restaurant inside the hotel.
On July 4, 1955, the Blackwood/Statesmen team traveled to Texas for an engagement that would feature several secular artists on the same program. Among them was Elvis Presley. Elvis was planning to sing his rock hits, but refrained out of respect of his gospel idols, The Statesmen and The Blackwoods. The Statesmen exerted a powerful influence on young Elvis, who idolized and imitated Jake Hess' vocal stylings and Big Chief's leg shaking. In an interview with songwriter Bill Gaither, Hess remembered seeing young Elvis coming to Statesmen shows in Tupelo when Presley was only nine or ten. Hess said that the serious young Elvis would ask him, "How do you make a record?" or "How many suits you got?" On the Gaither Homecoming video "Oh My Glory", Jake Hess tells about Elvis coming to Statesmen concerts and being invited up onstage to sing lead in place of Jake on a song or two.
Phillip Goff, in The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, provided a description of how The Statesmen began one live appearance:
Greeted by thunderous applause, the announcer approaches the microphone: "You're listening to the original Wally Fowler All Night Singing, November the sixth, right here in Nashville, Tennessee, nineteen hundred fifty-nine. This is the eleventh anniversary and the greatest crowd that's ever assembled for any program in the Ryman Auditorium is here tonight for the all night sing." Seconds later Hovie Lister and the Statesmen Quartet launch into "Get Away Jordan." Starting with a rolling chord from Lister's piano, the quartet enters one singer at a time, letting their four-part "Get awaaaay" echo against the walls of country music's Mother Church."
Goff's description related but one aspect of The Statesmen's showmanship. Francis Edward Abernathy wrote about lasting changes that the group introduced to the world of gospel quartets:
The Statesmen Quartet added flourishes which entertained new audiences -- exuberant singing, arm waving, hand clapping, and electrifying performances. This was alien behavior for traditional convention quartets. But the new behavior attracted interest. The Statesmen became so popular that subsequent gospel quartets imitated their style.
Tragedy and triumphs:
In 1957, Denver Crumpler died in diabetic shock when his symptoms were misdiagnosed as a heart attack. Cat Freeman came back briefly, followed by lyric tenor Roland 'Rosie' Rozell, a soulful singer and former policeman from Oklahoma. The Rosie-Hess-Ott-Chief lineup recorded such classics as "Faith Unlocks The Door" and Rosie's signature tune "Oh What A Savior" and "There's Room at the Cross"
In 1963, Jake Hess left The Statesmen to form his own quartet, Jake Hess and The Imperials.
Hovie Lister tapped Jack Toney from Boaz, Alabama to replace Hess. Before long, Toney's movie-idol looks and powerful voice helped The Statesmen to soldier on without missing a beat. Ironically, Jack Toney would replace Jake Hess on five different occasions in three different decades with The Statesmen and The Masters V.
Bass singer "Big Chief" Wetherington died of a massive heart attack on October 3, 1973, while attending the National Quartet Convention in Nashville. He is buried in a small cemetery just outside Atlanta, Georgia.
The later years:
Later incarnations of The Statesmen would include tenors Sherrill 'Shaun' Nielson, Willie Wynn, and Johnny Cook; lead singers Roy McNeil and Jim Hill; baritones Chris Hess (Jake's son), Biney English and Rick Fair; and bass singers Ray Burdette, Bob Caldwell and Doug Young. Over the years, Jake Hess, Jack Toney, Doy Ott and Rosie Rozell would rejoin The Statesmen at various times, most notably a couple years after Chief's death when Lister brought back Rozell, Jake Hess, and Doy Ott as "The Statesmen" sans bass. A comical pairing of this classic Statesmen "trio" with longtime Blackwood Brothers/Stamps Quartet bass singer J.D. Sumner at the 1977 National Quartet Convention in Nashville was the birth of the Masters V Quartet, which would include, in its classic lineup, Rosie Rozell, James Blackwood, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, and Hovie Lister. The Statesmen's influence lives on in some of today's most popular quartets, such as The Dove Brothers, and Ernie Haase and Signature Sound.
Hovie Lister died on December 27, 2001, at the age of 75. He is buried in Decatur, Georgia.
Pianist and owner
Hovie Lister (1948-2001),
Boyce Hawkins (1951) (filled in for Hovie Lister),
Doy Ott (1951) (filled in for Hovie Lister),
Bobby Strickland (1948-1951),
Earl Terry (1951),
Claris G. "Cat" Freeman (1951-1953, 1957-1958) (died March 21, 1989; aged 67),
Denver Crumpler (1953-1957) (died March 21, 1957; aged 44),
Rosie Rozell (1958-1969, 1973, 1988, 1977-1981) (died February 28, 1995; aged 66),
Shaun Neilsen (1969-1973, 1975),
Willie Wynn (1973-1974),
Wayne Hilton (1974-1975),
Johnny Cook (1992-1993),
Tank Tackett (1993),
Steve Warren (1994),
Gene Miller (1994),
Wallace Nelms (1994-2001),
Mosie Lister (1948),
Jake Hess (1948-1963, 1975, 1977-1979, 1988, 1992-1993) (died January 4, 2004; aged 76),
Gary McSpadden (1960) (filled in for Jake Hess),
Les Roberson (1953) (also filled in for Jake Hess),
Jack Toney (1963-1966, 1967-1968, 1979, 1994-2001) (died April 15, 2004; aged 70),
Roy McNeal (1966-1967),
Jim Hill (1968-1971),
Gary Timbs (1971-1973),
Elmer Cole (1973-1974),
David Will (1975),
Buddy Burton (1979-1981, 1993-1994),
Wayne Little (1993),
Bervin Kendrick (1948-1951),
Troy Posey (1951),
Doy Ott (1951-1978) (died November 6, 1986; aged 67),
Chris Hess (1978-1979),
Ed Hill (1979-1980),
Richard Coletrane (1981),
Buddy Burton (1988, 1993),
Biney English (1992-1993),
Scooter Simmons (1993),
Jerry Candler (1993-1994),
Mike Loprinzi (1994-1998),
Rick Fair (1998-2001),
Gordon Hill (1948),
A.D. Soward (1949),
Jim "Big Chief" Wetherington (1949-1973) (died October 3, 1973; aged 50),
Ray Burdette (1973-1975),
Tommy Thompson (1979-1980, 1988),
J. D. Sumner (1981) (died November 16, 1998; aged 73),
Larry Strickland (1988),
Bob Caldwell (1992-1993),
Hovie Walker (1993),
Stacy Bragg (1993),
Nic Val (1987-1988, 1991, 1993),
Roy Pauley (1993),
Doug Young (1994-2001)