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The Kingsmen

I am especially excited about this newest round of articles, as we focus for the next few months on my all-time favorite male quartet…the Kingsmen.  This series on the Kingsmen has been over 2 years in the making, as I started writing this introduction back in July 2021, and for various reasons I kept putting it off.  How do you tackle a group with such a large discography as the Kingsmen?  Where do you start and where do you stop?  Plus, the Kingsmen hold such a revered place for me, I worried would I be able to do them justice; so, I will admit that I was just a bit intimidated by the task.  Nonetheless, here we are 2 ½ years later and the time has come to focus on one of the greatest quartets to ever grace a stage!

I do want to take a moment and pause for this caveat…I don’t want my references to how the group sounded back in “the day” to be misinterpreted that I don’t enjoy the group of “today” or any other iteration of the Kingsmen.  I feel very confident that even the current group would agree that there was just something magical about the Kingsmen during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.  It was a different time for gospel music too (and all music in general), so there really is no way to remotely compare.  As with each of these series’, my goal is to talk about the music from my own perspective as a fan, along with sharing some historical tid-bits as well.

My very first memory of the Kingsmen actually took place in 1977 at the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, NC.  I have a vivid memory of “Big” Jim Hamill “bullying” a “Little” Ernie Phillips on stage.  I was 5 years old and slept through most of the concert in my mom’s map.  I didn’t realize who they were at the time, but after I came to know who the Kingsmen were a few years later, I confirmed with my parents about the concert and was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together that I was seeing the Kingsmen on stage that day.  I will add that the first coherent time I saw the Kingsmen was in July 1985 at the Civic Center in Raleigh, NC.  I was 13 years old, and yes, I stayed awake for the whole thing!

My “real” introduction to the Kingsmen came via a neighborhood friend back around 1979/1980.  This was a couple of years after my “great discovery” of my dad’s old albums and my affinity for the Happy Goodman Family began.  I had not discovered the Kingsmen yet (as my dad didn’t have any of their music), but my friends’ dad had a couple of their albums and he brought “Chattanooga Live” for me to listen to.  I was enamored by “Little” Ernie Phillips’ singing and Jim Hamill’s story of how Ernie came to the group was one of the funniest stories I had ever heard.  “Chattanooga Live” was electric, and I had never heard such an exciting album like that before.  It wasn’t long though, until my parents bought me my own copy.  “Chattanooga Live” still ranks as one of my all-time favorite albums, and Preacher J. Bazzel Mull’s iconic introduction is classic!  I still look at my wife sometimes and say (in my best J. Bazzel Mull gravelly voice), “Ain’t that right Mrs. Mull?”  (She just shakes her head at me!)

The second album my friend’s dad had was “Big and Live” and I loved that one too and very soon added my own copy of that album to my collection, but it was “Chattanooga Live” that made me a fan for life!  Though short lived (about 2 or 3 years), the iteration with Squire and Ernie is my favorite vocal line-up of the group, but no matter who was there, they were always a great group.  I was a died in the wool Kingsmen fan, and throughout the 80’s, my quest was to obtain every album I could find of the Kingsmen.  This was before collecting vinyl was a thing and there was no internet, so I had to reply on whatever I found in my local music stores or through mail order.

As any gospel music fan knows, the legacy of the Kingsmen goes much farther than “Chattanooga Live” or even “Big and Live”.  It’s impossible for me to compress the history of the Kingsmen into just a couple of paragraphs, but if I may briefly expound on their deep-rooted history, the Kingsmen began in 1956, when the “McKinney Brothers”, as they were originally known as, re-named themselves the Kingsmen Quartet.  The group consisted of Charles Collier singing tenor, Everett McKinney on lead, Raymond McKinney singing baritone and the bass was handled by Reece McKinney, with Charles Matthews (who came up with the name “Kingsmen Quartet”) playing piano.  Though they experienced a lot of member changes through the years, the Kingsmen became quite successful during the 60’s, spurred by popular television show, “Bob Poole’s Gospel Favorites”, based out of Greenville, South Carolina.  By this time, the group consisted of Jack Henderson, Frank Cutshall, Raymond McKinney, and Calvin Runion, with Eldridge Fox playing piano.  By 1966, Ray Talley had re-joined the group (after a year absence) and Eldridge moved to the frontlines to sing baritone.

As previously mentioned, there was quite a bit of change in the line-up of the group, with several members leaving and eventually coming back, including Eldridge Fox.  In fact, Ray Reese first sang with the Kingsmen from 1967 to 1968, but he returned in 1971 and has remained with the group ever since.  Between 1970 and 1971, the Kingsmen went through a bit of an overhaul, and eventually Eldridge Fox assumed ownership of the group and started work on building the Kingsmen into the powerhouse group they would eventually become.  By the end of 1971, the group had been solidified with Johnny Parrack singing tenor, Jim Hamill handling the lead and emcee work, Eldridge Fox singing baritone and Ray Reese returning to hold down the bass.  In fact, the week that Johnny Parrack joined the Kingsmen in the fall of 1971, this iconic iteration of the group would record their very first album, “The Kingsmen…Presented by Colonial Mobile Homes”.  This would be the group that would take the industry by storm a couple of years later with their 1973 live album, “Big and Live”.  The beginning of the great Kingsmen band, which played such a huge part in the success of the group, was also taking shape during this time, with Charles Abee on piano, Jim McCauley playing bass guitar, John Broome on drums and Leonard Hollifield playing electric guitar.

Comparing the Kingsmen from the 60’s to the Kingsmen of the 70’s and forward, is like night and day.  The popular version of the Kingsmen from the 60’s had a very classy and traditional male quartet sound.  They sang with a certain amount of finesse and a bit of sophistication, which is why they were such a favorite back in the day.  When Jim Hamill came on board in 1971, it was like a totally different group, as the Kingsmen began adopting a more loose style of singing, akin to that of the Happy Goodmans.  As the “new” Kingsmen sound was coming together, they popularized what they called, “Two Chords and a Cloud of Dust” type of singing, and the fans ate it up.  For the remainder of the 70’s and throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the Kingsmen remained one of the top groups on the Southern Gospel circuit.

So many classic standards were introduced by the Kingsmen including “Glory Road”, “When My Feet Touch the Streets of Gold”, “I’d Rather Be an Old Time Christian”, “I Can’t Even Walk”, “I’ve Got a Reservation”, “Beautiful Home”, “Saints will Rise”, “Child, Child”, “Stand Up”, “Meet Me at the Table”, “Wish You Were Here”, “He’s All I Need”, “The Next Cloud” and so many others.  The Kingsmen knew how to find songs that fit them, and they knew how to deliver them!  During the period I will be covering (1972-2001), the Kingsmen saw eight #1 songs; and just to prove the group hasn’t lost anything, they’ve enjoyed seven more #1 songs since 2001!

The Kingsmen have been honored with numerous fan awards including Favorite Group, Favorite Band, Album of the Year and Song of the Year, as well as various individual awards, and have also won the coveted Dove Award 3 times for Southern Gospel Album of the Year.  The Kingsmen released some amazing studio albums, but no group could record a live album any better than the Kingsmen, and some of the most iconic live albums of our genre were released by them!

Along with employing outstanding singers, songwriters, and musicians too numerous to name, the Kingsmen are definitely a team, and that played a big part of their success.  But many other things also attributed to the success of the Kingsmen…their rousing stage performances, Jim Hamill’s exciting emcee work, their award-winning band, along with Eldridge Fox’s strong business sense, to name a few.  The Kingsmen were always a great sounding group, but when Eldridge Fox assumed ownership and hired Jim Hamill in 1971, the whole dynamic of the group changed.  Hamill ran the stage and Foxie ran the business-side of things, and they basically became business partners, staying out of each other’s lane (or at least they attempted to!).  This dynamic duo changed the face of gospel music, and they knew what their fans wanted and knew how to deliver it…making the Kingsmen the true “Kings” of gospel music.  The Kingsmen would have a ton of fun on stage…making jokes, pushing the tenor into the rafters and pushing the bass to rattle the floors, all the while singing with all the energy and excitement one can muster, leaving the audience in shambles with no group wanting to follow them.  But they also knew how to have church…you’d be laughing hysterically one minute, but then the next minute, you’d be shouting and crying.  In fact, many of the Kingsmen’s concerts would turn into an old fashioned campmeeting before it was over with.  This was due in large part to Hamill’s ability to gauge an audience and how to work a crowd.  Without being overly preachy, Hamill knew how to get to you and would call the songs off the cuff, as the Kingsmen rarely had a set program.  Hamill understood timing and knew how to give the folks what they wanted to hear.  I’ve seen the Kingsmen in action more than any other quartet, and I’ve never left a Kingsmen performance disappointed and always felt that I was royally entertained and spiritually uplifted.

Next to the Happy Goodmans, the Kingsmen would be next in line as my all-time favorite group.  Their music is as much a part of the soundtrack of my life as the Goodmans, and their music has deeply affected me personally.  Admittedly, I am not as well versed with the Kingsmen from the 50’s and 60’s, and have very limited albums from that group in my personal collection and I don’t feel qualified to expound much on that era of their history.  So, with that said, I will focus on the version of the Kingsmen I am most familiar with and will cover the years from 1972 through 2001, which upon Foxie’s passing, the Kingsmen name was retired for a couple of years.

Without exaggerating, the Kingsmen recorded close to 100 albums between 1972 and 2001.  This total includes mainline releases, as well as their innumerable budget/independent releases, but does not include re-releases/re-issues, recordings by the band, solo albums etc.  In this series, we’re going to walk through close to 40 albums over the next 32 weeks.  I am so excited to talk about these albums by the Kingsmen and the impact they have had on me personally, on gospel music and on the body of Christ!  It’s going to be a wonderful journey honoring the rich legacy of the Kingsmen, and I hope each and every one of you will come along with me!

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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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