February 15, 2018

Are You Sure You Want to Sing in a Touring Group?

Not many people know about my life before the Imperials. I wanted to share that time with you now.

I had graduated from high school, and the next fall I enrolled in the University of Memphis, then known as Memphis State University. I commuted to and from school every day for a year.  I went from a relatively average sized high school to a large state school, which at the time had about 15,000 students. All of a sudden I was thrown into an environment totally foreign to me. Because I didn’t know what my major would be, I took the basic required subjects. All male students were at that time required to take ROTC and wear thick wool pants in the hot August sun, where we marched daily in the dusty ground. When you approached an officer, no matter how many books you were carrying, you were required to salute him. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled with that one bit.

After one year of college, I had my chance to escape!  My uncle James Blackwood, cousin, Cecil Blackwood, and JD Sumner had bought the Stamps Quartet publishing company and they wanted to put a group together to travel on the road, singing songs that were in their catalog. They handpicked members to be in that group. Roger McDuff was chosen to sing lead, Jerry Redd was tenor, Big John Hall sang the bass, “Smilin” Joe Roper on piano and I was chosen to sing baritone. Jerry didn’t last a year and was replaced by Jim Hill on tenor. We were called The New Stamps Quartet because there had been a Stamps Quartet in the late 40’s that was very popular out of Texas.  The photo attached shows the group with Jim Hill. We had an amazing sound and appeal and we toured 40 days a month! At least three times a year, we toured west to California, up the west coast to Canada, and back east across western Canada and then back home. It wasn’t uncommon for that old bus, (we called it Old Purple) to break down at the end of a tour or in the middle of the tour. Some of our days off were spent in a garage waiting for bus repairs. Such is the “glamorous” and exciting life on the road. Are you SURE you want to sing in a touring group?  Pray before you answer!

February 8, 2018

The Real Reason For Singing

I have returned home after a long three-week tour of Europe and there’s a mountain of catching up to do. Life is hectic and full of demands that never end. There’s pressure to meet deadlines and to be all that we can be so that no one will be disappointed in us. In truth, there’s only one whom I need to please. My Father in heaven watches everything I do and He hears everything I say. My greatest concern is that I don’t disappoint Him and that I never deny Him before the people to whom I sing. To be consistent and faithful in our walk with Christ is more valuable than achieving money and fame. By the way, if you are thinking of getting into the gospel music field because you’ve seen some guys on stage and you’d like to be there too, you had better reconsider. Make sure you have a calling from God on your life and the people to whom you sing affirm that, and He will make a way for you. If you consider it for any other reason, you will be disappointed and frustrated. I’ve seen many singers who don’t understand why the people they sing to don’t appreciate their talent. That’s a recipe for failure. Get your eyes off yourself and onto the real reason you should be singing; to glorify the God who made you and present that gift to your audience as an offering of praise and thanks to the Father who gave it to you…

The very first album we did with the new group in 1967 we named New Dimensions. Some of the songs had been sung by Jake Hess and Gary McSpadden with the group on stage, but never recorded, so we just put our vocals on tape. We added a few new songs that introduced both Roger and me, and we came out with a very good product that sold quite well. We included songs like The Impossible Dream, On The Other Side, Exodus, and tunes that you wouldn’t typically associate with southern gospel music. New Dimensions is available on my website at http://www.terryblackwood.com/store/. Our baritone was Roger Wiles who joined the group when I did in 1967. Roger had a big baritone voice with a lot of power when he sang. The blend with this group was amazing. My lead voice was big but thin when I got into a higher range and Roger’s voice was a bit lower and just as big all the way up. The sound of the four of us was amazing!

January 25, 2018

A Good and Faithful Servant

I am sitting in the hotel in Vienna, Austria, thinking about how blessed I am.  At this point in my life I should be resting at home in retirement and yet God in His infinite mercy and grace has allowed me to continue to sing His songs and share His love to the world. I’m not worthy of this great blessing but I’m thankful for it. I have so many wonderful friends around the world who love what I do and it brings great blessing to them. I will continue to do what I’m doing as long as I’m able.

Many people go their entire lives not knowing what life is all about, why they are here, and where will it all end. I think I have found the purpose for my life and though it is tough, it is also rewarding and full of meaning and purpose as I share the life-giving grace that has been extended to me.  I’m not a preacher and am basically shy but I know this; There is a God who made us all, who loves me and you and He has a wonderful plan and purpose for everyone who will trust Him with their life.

We all take different roads because each one has distinctly different paths that they will take. To find your unique purpose, you must first find the one who gave you life, the one who knows you better than you know yourself. He formed you in your mother’s womb and He knows what will give you the greatest satisfaction.

The apostle Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. Paul found the ultimate purpose for his life; to follow his Lord in obedience. The greatest satisfaction you will ever enjoy is to know that God is leading you in your life and you are following Him. When thinking about the brevity of life, it’s where we will spend eternity that is the ultimate question. If we have 70+ years here, we are fortunate. Some live much longer and some have less time. It’s really not about the quantity of years you have but the quality of the years you have been given that measure your success in life.  Jesus had only a short period of time to complete His mission on earth but He was faithful to His calling until the end and He lived a perfect life without sin.

I have fallen many times and yet God has never given up on me because my heart’s desire is to be obedient to His will. My greatest joy will be realized when my life is over and I enter into the presence of God and hear Him say to me “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joys of the Lord”.  Eternal life forever with my Lord will be finally realized. Exciting!

January 18, 2018

Go Where you are Celebrated, Not Tolerated

When I talked about making things happen, we surely tried. Wayne Coombs, our manager, was trying to put us before a younger, hipper college audience because he felt that would open a lot of doors for us to tour America’s colleges. It was a nice idea and a worthy effort. We were very excited about that possibility and so we “bought in” and got the clothes and the songs we thought would make that happen. There was a major college showcase in Los Angeles and Wayne got us on that show. It was October of 1970. Many young, hip artists appeared, but we were the only gospel artists on the bill. We bought these black military suits with a black belt outside and a red turtleneck sweater. We thought we looked pretty good. Unfortunately, when you are singing to a secular crowd of students who didn’t like government intrusion into their lives at all, and you walk out there looking like Hitler’s Gestapo, you can imagine what happened. That secular crowd of young people didn’t like us one bit!  They didn’t boo, but they didn’t applaud much. Nothing was thrown at the stage but after 45 long and painful minutes we left the stage with our tails between our legs and wondering what we were doing there in the first place.

It taught us a great lesson that I will never forget. There’s a very appropriate saying, “Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated”.  Ricky Nelson had a tune he wrote for just such a situation as we endured. The song was called Garden Party. It talks of trying to be something you are not and getting shot down by the crowd because you tried to please a crowd that simply didn’t want to hear what you had to say. He wound up in that song saying, “If memories were all I’ve got, I’d rather drive a truck”.  So, stay true to your calling and be who God made you to be. Nobody can be you better than YOU. Yes, stretch your limits and try new things like we did. You will find your boundaries and your limits or the audience will do it for you.

January 11, 2018

The First Jesus Festival

During those first three years with the Imperials, many doors were opened for us.  Joe Moscheo had gotten acquainted with Wayne Coombs, who managed several different artists outside our industry. He wanted to take us on and manage the Imperials. Since we weren’t strictly “southern gospel” he wanted to try to branch out and put us in venues that were a bit different. We were working with Elvis, with Jimmy Dean, and we were also striking out into new directions with music that might appeal to a wider audience. One of the first attempts was to place us at the very first “Jesus Festival” in Dallas, TX. We were doing a three-week stint at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas with Jimmy, and the festival occurred during that time frame. It was around 1971, in the summer, and we had a huge GMC Double Decker Scenic Cruiser bus with a double axle in the back. Jim Murray was driving and he pulled into the entrance of the luxurious Fairmont Hotel with our bus. There was a dip from the street to the hotel entrance and we got that bus stuck on concrete!  That dip in the pavement was just enough, that we got the front of the bus in fine, but the dip just happened to occur on the wheels that we needed for traction. The back end of the bus hit the pavement in the street and there we were – STUCK! The wheels that we needed for traction were unable to help us because we were dragging on the rear end. We had to get a tow truck to pull us out of the entrance of that hotel! How embarrassing!

The “Jesus Festival” was a huge success. It was an outdoor concert, much like a Christian Woodstock without the drugs. There were thousands of kids sitting on the ground enjoying the music. We were a headliner along with the likes of Andre Crouch and the Disciples, Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Nancy Honeytree, Keith Green, and many others. I will never forget seeing Larry Norman come on stage dressed in his tie-dyed t-shirt and funky tennis shoes, singing “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”. It was a world all its own and we were experiencing that world with the younger, next generation of Christian music fans.

January 4, 2018

Windows of Opportunity

There are three types of people in the world, so I’m told. There are those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those who stand around, scratching their heads saying, “what happened”?  I have to admit I had no clue of what was happening in my life when I graduated from Memphis State University with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a minor in music. I had made B’s and C’s in Business Administration and straight A’s in music but there were no signs of anyone interested in me upon graduation. So, my first job ever was selling ladies shoes in downtown Memphis. I can’t say I was very good at it. In fact, I was awful!  A lady would come in, I would greet her and she would show me the shoe she was interested in and tell me her size. The next step for me was to go to the back of the store where all the shoes were stored and find the shoe she wanted and her size. By the time I located the proper size and returned to the show room floor I had forgotten who I had spoken with!  The boss was very gracious with me and helped me through much of this but because I wasn’t cut out for this kind of work, I didn’t last very long.  After two months of agony for me and for my boss, I left the shoe business and waited for my new challenge that hopefully brought a better outcome.

I was at home, licking my wounds over my failure as a shoe salesman when Jake Hess of the Imperials called me and told me the doctors had ordered him to get off the road. He had a heart condition that required him to take his leave of the Imperials, the group he had founded in 1964. He had prided himself in selecting the best talent available and doing things differently on the stage than other groups. He had chosen Henry Slaughter on piano, Sheryl Neilson on tenor, Gary McSpadden on baritone and Armond Morales on bass. This group was built around Jake and he was an amazing singer/personality. I was a young, inexperienced shy young man without a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I was so confused that it took me a few weeks to even decide. I knew it was going to be a huge change in life for me and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it.  So, I did what we all should do when we don’t know what to do. I prayed about it and I acted upon my impressions that I now believe were from the Holy Spirit. We all have windows of opportunity that open for us and if we don’t seize the moment, they disappear. I think, looking back, God opened a door and I walked through it. My life took a dramatic turn from then on.

December 27, 2017

The Imperials and Exciting Opportunities with Jimmy Dean

The Imperials were exposed to many new and exciting opportunities with Jimmy Dean. He knew many in the television industry. One, in particular, was a man named Mike Douglas. His show was filmed out of Philadelphia, Pa, but was shown around the country on many different stations. It was like being on the network without actually being on the network. He was such a nice man and treated us with great respect. You can see him in this shot with Jimmy and the Imperials. We were singing on the set of his show and someone captured the shot. It had to be around 1969, the year we began working with Elvis at the Hilton International Hotel on July 31, 1969. The guy standing to my left is Roger Wiles. He came to the Imperials in 1967 when I joined. We actually rented an apartment together in Nashville since we weren’t making much money then. Roger was a great singer and our blend was the best with him on baritone.

Roger stayed with us three years. Not long after we went with Elvis, Roger decided to leave to pursue a solo career. We had to quickly find a replacement. We had been with Elvis at Houston’s Astrodome and while there we ran into Larry Gatlin. He was attending the University of Houston and singing in some in local venues there. We were frantically looking for a replacement and asked Larry if he would fill in for a while. He jumped at the chance to leave college. One of the first dates we did with Larry was at the Landmark Hotel in Las Vegas. Dottie West was the co-star and Jimmy Dean was the headliner. This was the beginning of our attempts to work with both Elvis and Jimmy and juggle the dates to accommodate both. Larry didn’t stay with us long as after meeting Dottie, he moved to Nashville to write songs for her publishing company. Not long after that, the Gatlin Brothers were organized.

November 8, 2017

The Imperials and Jimmy Dean

In 1968, just when the Imperials were considering disbanding for lack of dates, we got a call from Jimmy Dean’s office in New York City. He had heard our recordings and decided to fly us up there for an audition. At that time, he had just come off a very successful ABC network show where he showcased many country music stars. He was now going to do tour dates and he was using 12 men from New York City as backup for him. They were called the Cimarron Singers. Each were highly educated in the music field and they were featured in his show, singing songs like “Maria” and “Shenandoah”. The sound with those male voices was amazing! We got to New York and into his offices. We met Willie, his personal assistant and Bob MuCulloch his manager. They placed music in front of us and had us read the vocal charts the male chorus sang. Fortunately, my piano lessons paid off and we were able to read the music they put in front of us.  We were hired to do one three week show at the Theater in the Round in West Covina, CA. The supporting artists were the Lennon Sisters from the Lawrence Welk show. We thought we had arrived!

We replaced four of the Cimarron Singers and during the show Jimmy had us singing with eight of them on their songs. Later in the show he would announce us and we would step out and sing a feature. We chose a dynamic gospel song, He Touched Me with Joe Moscheo on the piano. There were rave reviews on the show. The critics had never heard a group like this. The reporter spoke of us as that group with those  “shotgun voices”. I guess we sang pretty loud, especially on the last chorus of the song but the reviews in the papers were really flattering. It didn’t take long before Jimmy decided he didn’t need the Cimarron Singers anymore so he fired them and from that point on, the Imperials were Jimmy’s supporting act.

November 4, 2017

The Jimmy Dean Experience

From graduation at the University of Memphis to three months later, singing with one of the top gospel groups in the nation was a big adjustment. I commuted to and from school to home for four years and now I’m riding a bus cross-country for months at a time. Our schedule was heavy, but the crowds approved of the new sound. We had new songs, a young sounding group with fresh, contemporary arrangements, and we appealed to a broad range of fans. We sang in high school auditoriums, city auditoriums, churches, and anywhere we could get a crowd. One date in particular stood out to me. We found ourselves singing for a big local food market in Beckley, W. VA. that asked us to come and sing for their grand opening. So, when we got there, we were escorted to the area of the grocery store where we were to set up our sound. It wasn’t very prestigious but there we were, singing our songs to eager grocery shoppers on opening day from a small stage in front of the fruits and vegetable section of that store!  Were they trying to tell us something?  We’ll never know.

The Imperials at that time were singing anywhere and everywhere we could because the dates just weren’t coming. After our first year it was so bad we weren’t sure we would survive a second year. It was during that time, between album one, New Dimensions, and album two, Imperials Now, that we got a call from New York and the offices of Jimmy Dean. He was a huge gospel music fan and knew of our group. It was that call that turned it around for the Imperials. It’s a great story and one that merits more time.

 

October 4, 2017

Bit by Bit, Note by Note

So how does a young, shy son of a gospel singer ever get to where I am today? Some call it luck. I call it God’s providence as He led me from very humble beginnings where singing in front of a crowd never was even a consideration. I was petrified of singing in public. Though my father was such a natural on stage, his son was quite the opposite. I was so shy that singing just wasn’t a consideration for me at that time. So at age 7, I began studying the piano.

 My teacher, Ms Pernie Wiley, was a disciplinarian who was quite old, very sweet but very strict.I don’t think she was ever married.  She saw I had talent and she wouldn’t let me get away with anything. If I didn’t practice, she knew it. I not only had to play the right notes, I had to hold my hand properly on the keys. I had one lesson a week and all we studied was classical music. She probably didn’t even know who Elvis was!  We would work on scales and arpeggios first and then the last 15 min I would play the song I had practiced that week. After three months, we would have a recital with all her students each playing the song they had learned and I would get to play my song. Being shy was hard enough. Being a perfectionist made it even worse! I might have played 99% of the right notes but I would remember those little mistakes I had made and that kept me frustrated. The encouragement I received from my family and my friends actually kept me motivated to continue my study of the piano. It has been an invaluable tool that I was later able to use as pianist and baritone singer for my father’s group, The Memphians, while I was a student at Memphis State University. Playing piano and singing at the same time is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  I stayed in that group while I finished school and paid for my education with the money we got from singing. Our group made two records and they both won awards. In 1965 the NEFF (National Evangelical Film Foundation) awarded us as best quartet of that year. We had a weekly television show in Memphis and toured all over the US in the summers and locally on the weekends when school wasn’t in session.  Later on, when I joined the Imperials, those 12 years of piano instruction served me well as I ultimately became vocal arranger for the group. That’s another story for another day.

So don’t despise the day of small beginnings because you never know where it will lead.

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