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Vinyl Record Review: The Hemphills

The Hemphills

I’m sure it’s very apparent by now, that I tend to lean toward mixed groups. I love male quartets such as the Kingsmen, Inspirations, Florida Boys, Statesmen, and others, but I suppose with my early exposure to such groups as the Happy Goodmans, Rambos, and Speers, they pretty much solidified my tastes and probably explains why I tend to prefer mixed groups. One group I was most fond of growing up was the Hemphills. My dad only had 1 record by them in his collection, “Take Us Home with You”, and I have no clue how or when he got the album, but I was intrigued by that record and the sound emanating from its grooves. As was the case with the Hinsons and Rex Nelon Singers, I grew up watching the Hemphills on the Gospel Singing Jubilee, as they were frequent guests on the show. I particularly remember them singing such songs as “Consider the Lilies”, “He’s Still Workin’ on Me” and “I’m in this Church”, and always enjoyed them when they were on the show.

The first time I saw the group in concert was in the summer of 1984 (I was 12 years old) at one of the big concerts at the Civic Center in Raleigh, NC. That night I was totally captivated by their live performance (especially watching LaBreeska) and I became an even bigger fan of the group. Over the next few years, I enjoyed seeing them a couple of times at a church here in Durham. The group returned to Raleigh in July 1988 for a concert with Wendy Bagwell & the Sunliters at another facility in town. By this time, I was working my first job as a disc jockey (a snotty 16-year-old who fancied himself as a Paul Heil wanna be) and was able to interview both groups for my little radio show. Joel and LaBreeska (as well as Wendy Bagwell & the Sunliters) were wonderful to talk to and they both treated me very kindly. I always appreciated them taking the time to talk to me and answer my many questions. I did get to see the Hemphills one last time in the summer of 1989 at another church here in Durham, where I did another interview with them. That would be the last time I got to see the group in person, as they disbanded the following year.

Joel grew up the son of a Pentecostal preacher, and LaBreeska grew up during the very early days of the Happy Goodman Family. LaBreeska’s mom, Gussie Mae was a sister to Howard, Sam, Rusty, and Bobby, making LaBreeska their niece. During the 40’s and 50’s, the Goodmans sang all over the south, often singing for Wally Fowler during his famed “all-night sings”. Joel and LaBreeska’s paths crossed when the Goodmans sang in West Monroe, Louisiana, and the two were eventually married on June 28, 1957, with Howard Goodman officiating. Within a couple of years, Joel accepted the call to preach and by 1961 they settled into local pastorship but would also go out to sing and preach in revivals and evangelistic meetings across the deep south. Eventually, Joel began writing songs and the Happy Goodmans were the first to record them, with “Not in a Million Years” and “Point of No Return”, being the first, as the Goodmans included both songs on their 1967 album, “Bigger N Better”. Joel and LaBreeska attended that recording session, and LaBreeska, making an almost prophetic declaration, commented to Marvin Norcross (who was the producer and president of Canaan Records) that he would be recording the Hemphills very soon! Sure enough, in a few short months, Joel and LaBreeska were signed to Canaan Records and found themselves right back in the same recording studio and with the same musicians, but Joel and LaBreeska found themselves on the other side of the glass, making their very first album, “The Country Gospel Style of Joel & LaBreeska”.

For a few years, Joel and LaBreeska sang as a duet with Joel playing the guitar. Occasionally they would bring along someone to play guitar along with them for certain dates, but they mostly sang for revivals and church services in Louisiana and surrounding states. By 1969, the Singing Hemphills came into fruition, consisting of Joel and LaBreeska, along with Joel’s nephew and his wife, Tim (singing baritone and playing guitar) and Dixie McKeithen (singing soprano and playing piano) and Bill Tharp playing bass guitar. Prior to joining up with Joel and LaBreeska, Tim and Dixie sang with Will and Shirley Cohen (Shirley had previously sang with the Gospel Echoes/Rambos) in a group called the Gospel Keys. The newly organized “Singing Hemphills” recorded their first album on Canaan Records called, “Take Us Home with You” and it was met with great success. Featuring such classic tunes as “Thank God I’m Free”, “Had it Not Been”, “I Found a Better Way” and “I’m Traveling On”, the group presented their own unique brand of country gospel, and quickly found their niche in the Southern Gospel industry. During their years with Canaan Records, they enjoyed moderate success with such songs as “I’ll Soon Be Gone”, “Preacher’s Boy”, “Sweet Zion’s Song” and “Unfinished Task”, but it wasn’t until they signed with Heartwarming Records that things began to skyrocket for the group. They began to consistently find themselves at the top of the charts with such songs as “Sing the Glory Down”, “Ready to Leave”, “I Came on Business for the King” and “He Wrote My Name”. During this time, the group was evolving and eventually, Joel and LaBreeska’s 3 children became integral parts of the group…Joey joined in 1970 to play drums and he eventually moved up to the front lines to sing baritone after Tim departed the group around 1976. By 1974, Trent had joined to play bass guitar and eventually, he moved to piano around 1980. Finally, Candy joined in 1975 to sing soprano for the group. By 1977, the final vocal line-up of the group with Joel, LaBreeska, Joey, and Candy was in place and there was no stopping them as they enjoyed immense success with such songs as “Consider the Lilies”, “I’m in This Church”, “He’s Still Workin’ on Me”, “Good Things”, “It Wasn’t Raining (When Noah Built the Ark)”, “Master of the Wind” and “God Likes People”. As the group moved on to Riversong Records and ultimately, Homeland Records, the group continued to enjoy enormous popularity with such chart-toppers as “I Can Smile”, “Jesus Built This Church on Love”, “Let’s Have a Revival” and “The Party’s Over”.

Sadly, in January 1990, just as the group was getting ready to enjoy their biggest year to date, the Hemphills suddenly disbanded. I remember when I found out, I was in shock and couldn’t believe the news. The Hemphills were such a dynamic force in the industry, and I couldn’t imagine our genre without them. I was still reeling from the Hinsons coming off the road just 2 years prior and now the Hemphills were gone, but their music and their songs have continued to live on!

Vocally, the crux of the original group was Joel, LaBreeska, and Tim, as Dixie primarily played piano, but did lend her soprano vocals on several songs. The “sound” of the original group was basically built around Joel. Joel was a country gospel singer, but unlike Kenny Hinson, Joel had more of an “old-time” country style, and no matter who was singing lead, with Joel in the mix, the group had a very unique and identifiable sound. LaBreeska’s dynamic vocals added a wonderful depth and quality to the group’s sound as well. I loved her gorgeous country and soulful alto tones, and she will always rank as one of my all-time favorite singers, who could deliver a moving solo better than anyone else. The blend with Joel, LaBreeska, and Tim was exceptional, and the group had a big sound during this era of the Hemphills. By 1975, Candy was performing with the group and added a unique youthful dimension to their sound. In 1976, Tim left to start a new group with Dixie (who had left the Hemphills by 1973, as she was pregnant with her and Tim’s daughter, Angelina) called the McKeithens, and Joey moved off the drums and took Tim’s place on the front lines. This version of the group with Joel, LaBreeska, Candy, and Joey, is the one most people recall when they think of the Hemphills. As Joey and Candy grew and developed into truly remarkable singers and communicators, the sound of the Hemphills continued to evolve through the remainder 70’s and into the 80’s. Though they still had distinct country undertones to their sound, the group gradually moved away from their original country style, taking on a more polished, mainstream form that really helped skyrocket the group’s popularity.

At the heart of the Hemphills’ music were the songs of Joel Hemphill. If you’ve read my ramblings on these discography reviews, you’ve probably caught on that I have a deep respect for songwriters and have always had an affinity for those individuals who paint beautiful pictures with words and music, and Joel Hemphill is one of my favorite songwriters. Joel was such a unique writer who could write such simple and lighthearted tunes like “He’s Still Workin’ on Me”, “Angels All Around You” and “God Likes People” that would have an audience singing along, and then turn around and lead an audience into Praise and Worship with such songs as “Consider the Lilies”, “The Only Real Peace”, “Master of the Wind”, “Every Need Supplied” and “Jesus Built this Church on Love”. Some of Joel’s most popular songs were those that had a sentimental element to them such as “Sing the Glory Down”, “I Learned About Jesus in Grandma’s Rocking Chair” and “Old Brush Arbor Days”. While we’re on the topic of being sentimental, Joel’s dad (who was a preacher) had a monumental impact on him, and Joel wrote several deeply personal songs about his dad including “A Preacher’s Boy”, “The World Lost a Friend” and “The Solider Won the Battle”. Joel also wrote a lot of what I call “preachy”, or sermon songs such as “God’s Gonna Shake this World Again”, “Chains”, “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Let’s Have a Revival” and “The Party’s Over”. Joel’s songs resonated so well with artists and fans alike, that just about every single group in our genre has recorded his songs. In fact, people are still singing and recording Joel’s songs today; case in point…the Down East Boys took his song “Ready to Leave” all the way to #2 in the Singing News chart in January 2023! So, it’s obvious that after nearly 60 years of writing songs, Joel’s songs are still relevant and still reaching people!

Along with their singing and their songs, another aspect of the Hemphills that made them so popular was their band. The Hemphills always had a top-notch band, and several top musicians were a part of the Hemphills band at one time including Bruce Watkins, James Gordon Freeze, Gary Smith, Eddy Bell, Harold Timmons, David Creech, Jerry McGuire, and several others. Some went on to become highly sought-after studio musicians and producers, and others moved on to play for some of the most elite acts in Country Music. It’s very sad that the age of the great stage bands has passed…but I digress…

There is a lot to talk about with the Hemphills…the songwriting, the music, the singing, the records…all were pieces of a puzzle that made the Hemphills such an endearing family and made them one of the great family groups of our genre! I hope you’ll join me on this journey as we walk through some truly remarkable albums filled with tremendous songs from the pen of Joel Hemphill (as well as a few written by LaBreeska, Candy, Joey, and Trent). This is gonna be a blast…so let’s go!

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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