The Most Prolific Writing Team in the History of Christian Music: Guess Who? By Philip Mayaab
There are many reasons why I enjoy doing Vinyl Revival for CCM Classic...I love vinyl LPs (obviously), and I enjoy presenting them to our listeners in their original audiophile glory. There's just something about listening to a classic album in the old school manner. Second, I enjoy doing this blog, because I enjoy sharing stories and history behind the albums we feature on VR - there's always a story to tell about your favorite artists and their music, and now we are expanding the Vinyl Revival family with the podcast, which I am also honored to host. This week's album fits these categories very well, and it does have a story behind it, which I will try relate in an informative and entertaining manner.
People from all walks of life and denominations instantly know the name Gaither. It stands for many different things - William J. (Bill) and Gloria Gaither are one of, if not the, most prolific writing team in the history of Christian music. They are to CCM what John Lennon and Paul McCartney are to mainstream pop music. The name also stands for a long running, and uber successful run of albums, video tapes, DVDs, and concert tours commonly known as the Gaither Homecoming. Their DVDs are some of the best selling long form video projects in Christian music history. The Bill Gaither Trio was one of the hottest gospel groups of the 1960s and 70s, and they were also the main outlet for recording the songs that Bill and Gloria wrote. Finally, there is the branch of the Gaither empire that we are addressing this week, The Gaither Vocal Band. We went over their genesis last year when we featured their 1981 debut LP on Vinyl Revival, but for those who have short memories (I'm right there with you), here is a quick catch up...when he was but a lad in the Hoosier state of Indiana, young Bill Gaither became hooked on Southern Gospel music, thanks largely in part to an old radio in the family barn. He would listen to the big radio stations that would carry during the early morning hours, before daylight, as he milked the cows (funny story, and Bill tells it so well). During the 1980 Gaither Trio tour, Bill commandeered trio lead singer Gary McSpadden (an original member of the Imperials), along with backup singers Steve Green (tenor, yes that one), and Lee Young (bass) to join their voices together and sing one of the most iconic Southern Gospel quartet songs of all time, Stuart Hamblen's Your First Day In Heaven. That's when fans started asking Bill, when are the four of you going to record an album? At some point during the tour, the performance of the song was recorded, and subsequently released in 1981 on the Gaither Trio's double album Live Across America, but the reality was that Gaither now had a bona fide hit making machine in his arsenal, so in late 1980, the four gentlemen went into the recording studio with producer Chris Christian to record a full length album of the quartet, which at the time, had no name.
In the quest to find a name, it was Steve Green who suggested The New Gaither Vocal Band, which was sort of ripped off from the Starland Vocal Band, who had scored a #1 pop hit in 1976 with Afternoon Delight. The name stuck, and the quartet had a name, and a title for their debut LP. Since The Imperials were the biggest act going in CCM in 1981, the Vocal Band was able to take advantage of being a four part male quartet with a contemporary sound, and the group became a hit with the fans. That album began a string of very good LPs, and also a revolving door of group personnel over the next several years, in fact, it took the Gaither Vocal Band six albums before they had released an album without someone leaving the group. Of course in 2019, the GVB is legendary for all of the men that have been members over the years, and our Vinyl Revival LP this week did indeed include a personnel change, and it was one that introduce one of CCM's most popular singers of the early 90s, at least until a scandal derailed both his personal life and his career as well.
Prior to releasing the album One X 1 in 1986, Gaither had a spot in the group to fill, because Jon Mohr, who had sang bass for the group's previous two LPs, had left the group in 1985. Being the forward thinking innovator that he is, Bill began to think about the future of his quartet, and its singers. He approached Gary McSpadden, who had been the Vocal Band's lead singer since its inception with the following line (paraphrased of course)...Gary, you and I aren't getting any younger, and it's only a matter of time until some of the notes we've been singing aren't going to come as easily as they have in the past. He then offered the proposal to move McSpadden from lead to baritone (the position Bill had held since the group started), and that he would move to bass vocals, when needed. The main objective was to move the GVB away from a full blown four part male quartet, and more toward a complete vocal group. McSpadden agreed with Gaither's reasoning, and accepted the change in part that he would sing, leaving Bill to find a new lead singer. Always the outside the box thinking innovator that he is, Gaither completely jumped ship, and instead of hiring someone familiar to CCM fans, he hired someone who was known almost exclusively to Southern Gospel fans.
Michael English, who was singing lead for the Singing Americans, a fairly well established SG quartet at the time, had caught Gaither's attention a year earlier, when he heard the Americans' rendition of I Bowed On My Knees And Cried Holy, a track which had became the Americans first #1 hit on the Singing News charts. It was from that hit that he was offered the job with the Vocal Band, which he accepted (small side note...if you ever get a chance to read Michael English's autobiography The Prodigal Comes Home, I would highly recommend you to do so - it is one of the best books you will ever read by a Christian music artist). The group got things ready for their fourth studio album, and third in a row with a new member, and they put that new member right out in the front, as Michael took over the duties of lead vocalist, and a reboot of the Gaither Vocal Band was underway.
In short order, the album One X 1 (pronounced One By One) is probably the most contemporary sounding LP from the 12 or so years that the Vocal Band was a CCM group. A lot of the credit for that goes to producers Keith Thomas and Billy Smiley, who had the group geared up and sounding like a well oiled pop machine. The group had mostly settled on adult contemporary sounding music on its first three recordings (although Passing The Faith Along, which was also produced by Smiley, could have easily passed for a Southern Gospel LP), but on this album, they were full blown Christian pop. Synthesizers had been brought out to the front, making the album sound like 1986 (the year it was released). Without a full time bass singer, the four members had the ability to experiment more with their vocal arrangements, making them sound much more current at the time as well. This album was a breath of fresh air, as Gaither, McSpadden, English, and tenor Larnelle Harris released an album that truly showcased what the Vocal Band was capable of. The album's opening track, The Lord Of Hosts was actually recorded that same year by NewSong, who was in the process of switching from Southern Gospel to CCM. I have always preferred the GVB version more, mostly because even though I like Eddie Carswell's voice, he can't out sing Michael English (let's be honest). The song was one of the radio singles from the album, and as I recall, did fairly well for the group on the charts. Another single, the Larnelle-led Can't Stop Talking About Him also did well on the charts, and the group actually sang it on the Gaither Vocal Band Reunion DVD just a few years ago, and it still sounded as good as it did on this original recording. The next song Look Up features Gary singing lead, and it actually has the first bass vocals we ever heard Bill Gaither sing. He wasn't quite the bass singer Jon Mohr had been, but he passed the test, and the track is a nice, upbeat tune. Then comes Michael singing Twila Paris' Lamb Of God, and again, I prefer this recording more than Twila's, only because of the amazing lead vocal performance. In my opinion, Lamb Of God was probably the song on this LP that showcased Michael English's vocal ability, and showed the fans that Bill had indeed chosen the right man to take over the lead vocals of the group.
Side one closes with Glorious Morning a more inspirational CCM type song, and more of what you might expect from the Vocal Band, only with some terrific Fairlight synthesizer work, that really works well, when teamed with the amazing voice of Larnelle Harris. Side two kicks off with the title track, and once again, the new lead singer is featured. One of my favorite things about the title song is that it actually has a keyboard bass in it, something the Vocal Band was not known for, but still sounded great with the new lineup. Things That Last Forever, the only song that Bill sang lead on, is up next, with a truly timely message, even for today, that it's the simple things in life, the love of family and friends, the ability to help others, and so forth which are the things that will never die, even after we leave this earth. This is one of my favorite Bill Gaither performances, and I believe you'll see why as you listen this week. Larnelle is brought back for Fool For Lesser Things, a keyboard driven, mid tempo song with a lot of great vocal work, both lead and background, but then again, would you expect less from a lineup like this? Michael's final song to be featured on, Forever was also one of the radio singles from the album, and as usual, he nails the vocal down with crafted precision. It helps when you have the ability to lay down equally great lead vocals on both upbeat songs and ballads, which this song is the latter, and it was once again proof that Bill Gaither had found his man. The closing song on One X 1 is one of my favorite Larnelle Harris performances of all time, called I Walked Today Where Jesus Walks, and has some of the most touching lyrics I have ever heard , which not surprisingly, were written by Gloria Gaither. If you have never heard this masterpiece of a song, I sincerely encourage you to listen in to Vinyl Revival this week, if nothing else than to hear this song. It will put many, many things in perspective for you, and if it doesn't, I believe that something is wrong. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the Gaither Vocal Band's best songs in their extensive catalog.
One X 1 was the group's first, and only album for Word's new Word Nashville label, which was not in existence for long, but I am so happy that I managed to buy a copy of it during the short time it was available. As for the Vocal Band itself, we all know what has happened since the album Homecoming was released in 1991, and I'm sure every one of us knows something about what Gaither has done for the world of Southern Gospel music during that time. I often wonder how things would have went if the GVB had remained a contemporary act, but it's hard to argue with success, and the group has seen plenty of that over the last 26 years, since they left CCM for Southern Gospel. CCM Classic is pleased to present one of the Vocal Band's most contemporary projects to date, and I believe you will enjoy listening to this unique take on a four part male quartet. As Bill once said the Beatles were a quartet...a weird one, but they were still a quartet, and though I would never describe the Gaither Vocal Band as weird, this album and lineup were one of the finest moments in their CCM history.
Side 1 -
1. The Lord Of Hosts (Eddie Carswell & Oliver Wells)
2. Can't Stop Talking About Him (Suzanne Gaither, Brent Henderson, Jeff Silvey, Ron Griffin, Bill George, Bill & Gloria Gaither)
3. Look Up (Gary McSpadden, Bill Gaither, & Billy Smiley)
4. Lamb Of God (Twila Paris)
5. Glorious Morning (Gary McSpadden, Lari Goss, & Linda Dooley)
SIDE 2 -
1. One By One (Gary McSpadden, Billy Smiley, & Chuck Bentley)
2. Things That Last Forever (Bill & Gloria Gaither)
3. Fool For Lesser Things (John Chisum & Bill George)
4. Forever (Todd Matson & Tom Niehus)
5. I Walked Today Where Jesus Walks (Gloria Gaither & Greg Nelson)
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