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!

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.

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.

September 12, 2017

My Grandmother Carrie Blackwood

So why am I spending so much time on my history in these blogs? Because our past is a great part of who we really are and why we do what we do. Our past serves as a foundation for shaping our views as to where we might be headed in the future and also helps determine our values as an individual. For me, the great legacy I received from the Blackwood family is significant because that family had several qualities that helped me get my start in music, and specifically gospel music. In the early 1900’s there was a Blackwood string band, made up of great uncles and cousins of theirs who just loved to sit around and play music until time for bed. They would spend their days in the fields, hoeing tobacco and picking cotton, and at night, since they had no television, they would assemble together and make music on guitar, banjo, harmonica and various other instruments. They weren’t polished or professional singers and musicians, but just played for the sheer enjoyment of playing. Their focus changed dramatically
when my little grandmother, Carrie Blackwood had a dramatic experience with Jesus Christ in a local revival there in Choctaw Co, MS one hot summer night.

The change in her life influenced the entire family. From a string band in the early 1900’s to a gospel quartet in 1934, the music was always sung and played with passion. That passion has never left me. Since that great revival that changed the lives of our family so much, it’s become more than just music to me. My faith in Jesus Christ is the prime motivator in what I do. Though my family had a gift to make music, it would have never taken me to where I am today because it was the gospel that transformed our lives and changed our focus from just making music to singing about the life
changing power found in gospel music.