The Cornerstone of The CCM Music Industry:Guess Who?...by Philip Mayabb
When the name Gaither is mentioned to a Christian music fan, most of them will instantly think about the long running Homecoming series of videos, or the successful tours of the same name. For the past 25 years, the Gaithers have been a cornerstone of the Southern Gospel market, and SG fans seemingly cannot get enough of the Homecoming artists. Bill Gaither has made a substantial amount of money promoting video tapes, DVDs, CDs, and concerts that feature a large number of Southern Gospel’s biggest names, both older and younger. It’s been a good run, that’s for sure, because Bill Gaither and those artists associated with him are now the toast of an entire musical genre.
But what is so unfortunate is that many, many years ago, the Gaithers were one of the cornerstones of the Contemporary Christian industry, and were single handedly responsible for helping some of the biggest names in CCM get started, from Sandi Patti, to Steve Green, to even WhiteHeart. Known predominantly for their amazing songwriting achievements (The King Is Coming, Because He Lives, He Touched Me, the list goes on and on), Bill and Gloria were icons during the early days of CCM, and they had earned every bit of respect that they got. In 1980, still at the peak of their career, the Gaithers and Word records decided it was time for the Bill Gaither Trio to record the group’s fourth live album. The dates for the recording were set, and so to add a little variety to the mix, Bill decided to try something different on the album. Prior to the shows that the new live album were to be recorded at, Bill pulled BGT lead singer Gary McSpadden aside, along with Steve Green and Lee Young, who were the tenor and bass for the trio’s ensemble of backup singers, to try a song as a quartet.
It is no mystery that Bill Gaither is a lifelong fan of Southern Gospel quartet singing. As he states on the album Live Across America, he first heard the harmonious sounds of a Southern Gospel quartet when he was in the sixth grade, and he has also named the Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers as two of his favorite groups of all time. So drawing from his love of the four part male group, he decided to recruit the three other men to sing an old song called “Your First Day In Heaven”, a quartet staple that has been sang and/or recorded by most every Southern Gospel quartet that has ever stepped on stage. McSpadden knew the song well…he had already recorded it in the mid 60s, as the baritone singer for Jake Hess & The Imperials. Green and Young, on the other hand, had little to no experience singing in a quartet, and so they required a little polishing and practice, however when the time came to record the Stuart Hamblen classic, the newly formed quartet passed the test with flying colors. Your First Day In Heaven is one of the highlights of the Bill Gaither Trio’s album Live Across America, but more importantly, it drew a lot of interest from the fans, because at that time, the only other contemporary quartet was McSpadden’s former group, the Imperials. Always the innovator, Gaither then decided that if one song could piqué so much interest, why not try an entire album? The result was released in early 1981, and it is our Vinyl Revival album this week…The New Gaither Vocal Band.
For the first four years of the group’s existence, the word “New” was added to the name of the group, which made sense, because it literally took the Vocal Band 10 years before they recorded back to back albums with the same lineup in place. However, this debut album consists of the four singers who had performed together on the Gaither Trio’s live recording, and the result is a really good album, filled with great harmonies, some impressive songs, and great production work by veteran producer Chris Christian. The New Gaither Vocal Band is a solid recording from start to finish, with an emphasis on the classic four part quartet harmony, which The Imperials had moved away from after hiring Russ Taff. Now even though this is a contemporary album through and through, there are some nods to the Southern Gospel field that the Vocal Band dominates today. “Have You Made Your Reservation” features the classic Southern Gospel theme of going to Heaven, and the album’s closing track, “Every Eye Shall See” has a really nice SG arrangement, complete with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. However songs like “Don’t Play With The Devil”, which was the group’s debut radio single, are straight up contemporary, would probably shock some of the Vocal Band’s current fan base. There actually are songs that Homecoming fans will recognize on this album…the opening track, “He Came Down To My Level” was actually re-recorded by the group in 1998 on the album God Is Good, and “It Won’t Rain Always” has been covered on at least one Homecoming video that I know of.
This album has a pretty diverse selection of musical styles as well, you get power pop songs like “Not By Might, Not By Power”, power ballads like “Living Sacrifice” and “Abide In Me”, adult contemporary numbers such as the aforementioned “Don’t Play With The Devil” and the Chris Christian penned “Where Would I Turn”, and even a New Orleans jazz style remake of the song that started it all, “Your First Day In Heaven”, which was interesting, but not nearly as good as the original live recording. There is a good cover of Gary Chapman’s “I’m Yours” which has a nice little bouncy feel to it, accompanied by the Vocal Band’s tight harmonies. Another song that fans really enjoyed back then was “Because Of Whose I Am” which was written by Dony McGuire and Reba Rambo, who these days can still be seen occasionally on some of the Gaither Homecoming videos. All in all, the Vocal Band did a bang up job on their debut LP, and actually received pretty decent airplay on the radio station that I listened to back then. Fans seemed to enjoy the group’s music and sound, even though it was just slightly different from that of the Bill Gaither Trio, and sales of the album were good enough that DaySpring decided to bring them back for a follow up LP two years later.
Anyone who has followed the Gaither Vocal Band closely over the last 37 years knows that the group has been a revolving door for personnel changes, and like their contemporaries The Imperials, their roster of members reads like a who’s who of legendary singers…Michael English, Mark Lowry, David Phelps, Guy Penrod, Larnelle Harris, and even former Imperials Russ Taff, Jim Murray and Jonathan Pierce are just some of the singers who have helped make the Vocal Band the iconic institution that it is today, but for the first 12 years of its existence, the group was a tried and true CCM group. During that time, they turned out several great LPs, and due to songs such as “Daystar” and “A Few Good Men”, they were respected as one the best vocal groups in CCM history. However in 1991, they recorded an album of Southern Gospel standards, and were joined by some of the most legendary singers in the history of SG. The recording was simply titled “Homecoming” and it changed the history of CCM, Southern Gospel, and the Gaither Vocal Band. It was such a monster hit that in 1993, the Vocal Band recorded its final contemporary album, “Peace Of The Rock”, and then became a full time Southern Gospel group the following year. The journey of this remarkable quartet has been quite a ride, and it all started with one song, followed up by this outstanding debut album. They may not be “New” these days, but there is no doubt about it, the Gaither Vocal Band has earned its place in Christian music history, and this week, they have earned their spot on CCM Classic’s Vinyl Revival.
Side One -
- He Came Down To My Level (Dwight Liles)
- Living Sacrifice (Dwight Liles & Chris Christian)
- Don’t Play With The Devil (Gary McSpadden & Sammy Byars)
- Because Of Whose I Am (Dony McGuire & Reba Rambo)
- Abide In Me (Bill & Gloria Gaither & Chris Christian)
- Have You Made Your Reservation? (Gary & Rosemary Dunham)
Side Two –
- Not By Might, Not By Power (Bill & Gloria Gaither & Chris Christian)
- It Won’t Rain Always (Bill & Gloria Gaither & Aaron Wilburn)
- Where Would I Turn? (Chris Christian)
- I’m Yours (Gary Chapman)
- Your First Day In Heaven (Stuart Hamblen)
- Every Eye Shall See (Bill & Gloria Gaither)
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