Tony Cummings looks back on the decades-long career of THE STATESMEN
Southern gospel, with its unique mix of male barbershop harmony, country music tinge and call to get back to that old time religion played a key part in the development of pop and rock.
In the book Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick documents the huge influence that pioneering Southern gospel group The Statesmen had on the teenage Elvis Presley. The young would-be singer who was soon to change the face of popular music, was a passionate devotee of the All-Night Gospel Singings held at Memphis' Ellis Auditorium. "The shows themselves were the broadest of panoplies, running the full spectrum of gospel styles from the dignified 'shape note'-influenced singing of older groups like the Speer Family and the Chuck Wagon Gang, to the flashy showmanship of the Sunshine Boys, to the stately harmonies of the Blackwoods, who adopted many of their hits from the new spiritual style of such Negro quartets as the Soul Stirrers. The Statesmen were an electric combination, anchored by the disarmingly conventional and unremittingly cheerful manner of the accompanist, leader and founder, Hovie Lister, and featuring some of the most thrillingly emotive singing and daringly unconventional showmanship in the entertainment world. Sharply dress in suits.they piled tenor on top of counter tenor, and the falsetto on top of that, building to Jake Hess' virtuosic lead. Meanwhile, bass singer Jim Wetherington, known universally as the Big Chief, maintained a steady bottom, ceaselessly jiggling first his left leg, then his right, with the material of the pants leg ballooning out and shimmering. 'He went about as far as you could go in gospel music,' said Jake Hess. The women would jump up, just like they do for pop shows."
The Statesmen were formed in 1948 by MC and pianist Hovie Lister. Hovie had previously performed with the Rangers Quartet and the Le Fevre Trio. The Statesmen's early years had their share of dues-paying times. A local radio show in Atlanta, their own custom record label releasing a stream of 78s and travelling thousands of miles in a beat up automobile eventually took them to the Southern gospel big time. The Statesmen made many of their best recordings for RCA Records and with regular appearances on syndicated television and radio shows even came to record the theme music for two feature films, God Is My Partner and A Man Called Peter. The personnel of The Statesmen would change several times over the years, but Hovie was the constant. In 1984 Hovie was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame. Hovie died of leukaemia aged 75 on December 28th, 2001. He left behind him one of Southern gospel's proudest legacies.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.