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The Blackwoods: A gospel music tradition

By Ken Horn

June 14, 1954. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, one of the most popular shows in those early days of television. The winners that night were a group of young men who were the first gospel group ever to appear on nationwide television. When the Blackwood Brothers Quartet won that night, they were catapulted into national prominence.

Just two weeks later on June 30 their rising star would come plummeting to the ground in a literal ball of flame.

As the group prepared to do a concert in an airplane hangar with the Statesmen Quartet in Clanton, Ala., baritone R.W. Blackwood, who piloted the group’s plane, decided to do a test takeoff on the short runway before dark. Bass singer Bill Lyles joined him. In view of horrified onlookers, after pulling up from an aborted landing attempt, the plane stalled, came crashing to earth and was engulfed in flames. Both men were killed. Jake Hess of the Statesmen restrained lead singer James Blackwood from rushing into the fire.

As James rode back to Memphis with the Statesmen, he told them, "I’ll never sing again."

The Blackwood family’s association with music can be dated back to the Blackwood String Band in 1900; its involvement in Pentecost, to 1918. James Blackwood’s parents were poor sharecroppers in rural Mississippi. In 1918, a circuit-riding preacher held a brush arbor meeting — the first time the Pentecostal message had been preached there. That night Carrie Blackwood, James’ mother, became the first person in Choctaw County filled with the Spirit. She was also instantly healed of two long-standing diseases and, that same night, asked God to save every member of her family within a year. She saw that come to pass. This began a Pentecostal heritage that lasts to this day.

Practicing for the Teen Challenge benefit: (l to r) R.W. Jr. and wife Donna, Terry, Kaye Blackwood Dewitt, James, Billy, Jimmy, Janice and Phil Enloe.

James was born the year after his mother was filled. He started singing duets with his older brother, Doyle, when he was 7. Three years later their mother sold enough of her chickens to get the $6 tuition for the two boys to attend a 10-night singing school. Before the school was over, the teacher asked Doyle and James to join him in a quartet. Oldest brother Roy and his son, R.W., joined Doyle and James to form the Blackwood Brothers Quartet in 1934. They quickly gained popularity on a little 250-watt radio station run out of a house. "Anybody that could carry a tune or play a banjo could get on the air," James remembers. After a few months, they landed a daily broadcast on a larger radio station and were singing all over Mississippi.

The group went to work for V.O. Stamps as one of several quartets in the pioneer Stamps Baxter Music Company. Their ministry grew as the group moved to Louisiana, then Shenandoah, Iowa, where Hilton Griswold became their pianist. Griswold, later to become a longtime Assemblies of God pastor, was with them for a decade. The quartet was experiencing unprecedented success when, in 1941, the United States was plunged into World War II. Unable to travel because of gas, rubber and automobile rationing, the quartet temporarily disbanded. During the war, some of the group served in the armed forces, while others worked supporting the war effort. R.W. was drafted and saw 95 days of frontline duty in Okinawa (a grim irony that he would survive the battle of Okinawa but die in a domestic accident on U.S. soil). After the war, the group added members – actually fielding two quartets for about a year — and eventually made the move, in 1950, to Memphis, Tenn.

In Memphis, the family visited First Assembly of God where James Hamill was pastor. "Dr. Hamill received us with open arms," says James. "And so the whole Blackwood clan joined First Assembly. We [James and wife Mim] have been in First Assembly since the move in 1950. This is where all of our children have been raised and saved and received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful association."

It was Pastor Hamill who would lead that somber funeral service for R.W. and Bill Lyles in 1954. After the plane crash, when James walked through the door of the home where the family had gathered, he fell on his face and the family wept together. The days that followed were dark. "I wasn’t able to pray for myself," says James. "I was in a state of shock. The prayers of many thousands of people finally got through to me that God still had something left for me to do." Those prayers kept a ministry from being derailed that has continued for 46 more years and running.

Still working through their grief, the group added James’ nephew, Cecil Blackwood, and J.D. Sumner and went back on the road. Over the years the group would continue to change but would never have a lack of ministry opportunities. James himself has sung in all 50 states and more than 35 countries.

In 1970, James began experiencing health problems and his son, Jimmy, who had been singing with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, took his place in the quartet. James made limited appearances with the group and, when his health improved, formed the Masters Five with vintage members of the Blackwoods and Statesmen.

In 1984 Jimmy was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. God healed Jimmy and the dramatic story was told in Deliverance in the Valley of Death, authored by Dan Betzer. Jimmy says, "That was the turning point for my life. Singing took on a whole new aspect, and the purpose was more ministry than just the performing of songs." Jimmy left the quartet for a solo ministry and for more than 13 years has been preaching, singing and sharing his testimony in churches large and small. Jimmy and wife Mona are members of Raleigh Assembly of God in Memphis where J.D. Middlebrook is pastor.

Billy, the youngest of James’ two sons, got caught up in the rock scene as a teen-ager. "I wanted to play music like they were playing," he says. "I got away from the Lord, got away from my family, involved in a lot of things I didn’t need to be involved in. The Lord graciously led me back, and when I was 22, I rededicated my life to the Lord and got back into Christian service and Christian music and have been doing that ever since." Six years ago the counsel of longtime friend Denny Duron, pastor of First Assembly of God in Shreveport, La., helped Billy respond to God’s call to full-time ministry.

Today James Blackwood, 80, is the patriarch of a family that could rightly be styled "the first family of Southern gospel music." He has been honored with plaques from two Assemblies of God general superintendents, Thomas F. Zimmerman and Thomas E. Trask. Standing among his many awards (he’s won nine Grammys and seven Dove awards) in the same modest, comfortable home where he’s lived since 1955, James exudes a passion for Jesus and a deep humility. He tells me, "My real reward is if I can hear Jesus say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’ That’ll be the reward."

The family still comes back to First Assembly in Memphis, now pastored by Thomas Lindberg, where James and Mim remain members, for reunions. Last year the third annual Blackwood Family Reunion was held there to benefit Teen Challenge. "I’ve always believed in Teen Challenge," says James. All family members pay their own expenses, receive no remuneration, and even fund costs of production and staging, which is directed by Terry Blackwood, son of James’ brother, Doyle. Terry is currently with Friends IV and formerly sang lead for the Imperials and Andrus Blackwood & Company.

The family that gathers on stage for this reunion is composed of: James Blackwood; his sons, Jimmy and Billy; nephew R.W. Jr., with his wife and daughter (who minister as the Blackwood Singers); nephew Terry and his sister, Kaye; and unofficial family member Phil Enloe (currently of the Couriers, a group that began at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo.). Dean Brown (who along with Jimmy, R.W. Jr. and Enloe, sang in their youth as the Junior Blackwood Brothers) is a member of Memphis First Assembly and usually a part of the reunion but unable to attend this time.

Since 1950, the Blackwood name has been well known in the Assemblies of God and throughout the world. Today their ministry is still touching this Fellowship and the body of Christ with music that glorifies Jesus. Multitudes are thankful that when James Blackwood said, "I’ll never sing again," the Lord changed his mind.


Editor’s note: The fourth annual Blackwood Family Reunion to benefit Teen Challenge will take place May 5, 2000, at First Assembly in Memphis. In 1998 the Blackwood Brothers were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn.

Ken Horn is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

 

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