One of the greatest things we as advocates of southern gospel music can do for the industry is to teach our children to appreciate and respect the actual art form of the music itself. Mom and Dad Speer raised their children to literally eat, breathe, and live the music. From the moment they spoke their first words, the Speer children (Brock, Rosa Nell, Mary Tom, and Ben) knew very little else in life but to sing the gospel. This amazingly gifted and dedicated family built gospel music dynasty that stands head and shoulders over their peers and successors, even today at nearly two decades since their retirement. Through their long, storied career, they introduced to the world some of the greatest female talents in any avenue of music. This month, we honor the wonderful “Speer girls” and their impact upon the gospel music world.
The story of the Speer girls naturally must begin with the matriarch. Lena Brock Speer was never known as anything less than the foremost matron of gospel music. To all of her fans and peers, she was simply “Mom”. Mom Speer oozed class and dignity, both on and off stage. She could capture the reverence of a quiet hymn like “O Come Angel Band”, or bring the house down on a rousing hand-clapper like “Some Glad Day After While”, all the while maintaining her elegant poise on the stage. Without question, she unbeknowingly set the standard for women in gospel music. Nearly every successor in the ensuing five or six decades had a little bit of Mom Speer in them. The first woman to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and perhaps one of the five most influential people in gospel music history, her impact on gospel music can never be overstated.
The names Rosa Nell and Mary Tom have rarely been mentioned apart over the span of gospel music history. They were perhaps the most integral part of the early history of the Speer Family. If Mom Speer set the standard for what it took to be a Speer lady, Mary Tom and Rosa Nell defined the musical sound. The eldest Speer daughter, Rosa Nell was destined to play piano. She was a show-stopping pianist in the day when there were few show-stopping pianists. Few early recordings demonstrate her abilities at the keyboard, but if you are lucky enough to have heard the Speers’ Bullet single, “Land of Perfect Day”, you hear the turnaround that was so uniquely Rosa Nell, and the musical foundation she laid that was so uniquely the Speer Family.
Mary Tom was a darling soprano. Her vocal abilities projected a set of beautiful contradictions. Her vocals were homespun, intense, warm, and gorgeous. Sound like contradictory qualities? Certainly…yet Mary Tom used all of those in creating a million dollar performance. These attributes were no better evidenced than in her performance on the RCA single, “Climbing Up the Mountain”. The Speer sisters retired from the scene early in the life of the Speer Family, but they were never forgotten. When they re-emerged for select appearances in the early 80s, their many thousands of fans were overjoyed, and a new generation fell in love with them all over again. With their later appearances on the Gaither Homecoming videos and tours, the original Speer sisters were as popular as they had ever been.
While always seemingly more comfortable out of the spotlight, the lovely Faye Speer carried the “Mom Speer torch” for the last three decades of the Speer Family. Upon her marriage to Brock in 1948, Faye was in and out of the group due to her commitment in raising her and Brock’s children, but along the way she brought many outstanding vocal performances to the group. Her performances on songs like “Mansion Over the Hilltop”, “And He’s Ever Interceding”, and “He Still Reigns” were never flashy, but they were flawless. Faye had a way with a tender ballad. She projected a beautiful smile and an endearing humility to her fans from the beginning of her music career until her death. Her 2014 induction into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame was long overdue. I highly doubt Faye Speer ever knew just how strong her impact upon southern gospel music was.
Mary Tom’s departure from the Speer Family in 1955 marked a new precident for the family, that being the recruitment of “adopted” family members. Such a transition might have been difficult for any other family entity, but after hiring a singing and piano-playing firecracker like Joyce Black, the Speer Family proved this transition very seemless. Joyce was part of the Speers’ first long-play record, simply entitled The Speer Family Album. Joyce brought a new life to many of the Speer Family standards, and, with the smooth RCA Nashville production of Chet Atkins and Steve Sholes, the Speer Family sound was tight as ever.
In 1958, the lovely and certainly unforgettable Ginger Smith became the next adopted Speer. Who, pre-tell, WHO, could not fall in love with this beautiful lady once she took the stage? It was around this time that the Speer Family signed with the Blackwood-Statesmen owned Skylite Records, thereby allowing songs written by JD Sumner and the Big Chief to gain some heavy airplay. Many of Sumner’s songs were best performed or arranged by Sumner himself, but Ginger OWNED the song “Keep Me”. No one came even close to her outstanding rendition of the song, and I doubt anyone ever will.
In 1963, a daunting tradition began for the Speer Family, as the hand of matrimony began reaching for and pulling away many of the Speers’ soprano vocalists. Ginger Smith married Wally Laxson and left the group to join him in ministry. Another difficult change took place for the family that same year, as Mom and Dad Speer left the full-time gospel music scene due to Dad’s failing health. Faye Speer returned to the group as alto, and young Mississippian Ann Sanders stepped into the soprano vocalist and pianist position. With Ann, the lovely female talent of the Speer ladies continued, as the younger Speers began tackling some more intricate harmony arrangements. Ann’s feature on “I Must Tell Jesus”, backed by the beautiful background vocals provided by Brock, Ben, Faye, and Harold Lane, is a musical treasure for any gospel music fan. Once again, matrimony lured another soprano singer away from the Speer Family, as Ann married Paul Downing in 1969. Of course, this turned into a pretty fortunate moment for gospel music fans, as Paul and Ann formed The Downings later that year.
Following the death of Mom Speer, Faye returned home to the kids, and Jeanne Johnson became the Speers’ new alto vocalist. I doubt that this is only my opinion, but as far as this writer is concerned, Jeanne Johnson is easily the most dependable female vocalist in gospel music history, if not the best female voice ever. Every song that featured Jeanne turned to gold. Jeanne received a Dove Award for Female Vocalist of the Year in 1975. I had the tremendous honor and privilege of performing several numbers with both Jeanne Johnson and Sue Dodge at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion last year, and no question about it, Jeanne’s still got it. Both Bob and Jeanne Johnson contributed nearly a decade of service to the Speers.
Linda Robinson and Ann Downing were former roommates, and upon Ann’s marriage and subsequent departure from the group, Linda replaced her friend as the new soprano and pianist for the Speer Family . Linda’s voice was sweet and smooth like honey, and her tender delivery on songs like “I Sure Do Love the Lord” and “He Did Everything” will go down as two of the Speers’ finest recorded moments. The Speers’ arrangements and musical style was expanding and ever evolving, and Linda proved more than up to the challenge.
If Mom Speer was the all-time Queen of Gospel Music, young Sue Chenault was certainly Gospel Music’s Miss Congeniality, a title she won at the Miss Arkansas pageant only a few short years earlier. After being taken to meet the group in a white hearse by Ben’s son, Steve, Sue became part of perhaps the most fruitful period of the Speers’ prestigious career. “I Never Shall Forget the Day” may perhaps be the most popular female vocal performance in Speer history, if not their all-time biggest hit. Not only this, but Sue was part of more mammoth hits during this period including, “The King is Coming”, “Touring That City”, and “Here Comes the Bride”. Only Sandi Patty and Natalie Grant have more Female Vocalist Dove Awards than Sue, who won three consecutive trophies. Once again, marriage stole another soprano from the Speers, as she married Amos Dodge and joined him in an incredible church ministry based out of Washington DC. Since re-emerging at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion and appearing on the Gaither videos, Sue Dodge is still one of gospel music’s most beloved female vocalists.
I call Dianne Hooper-Mays the “Karen Carpenter of Gospel Music”. No, she didn’t necessarily sound like Karen Carpenter, but goodness, what a smooth voice. In addition, there was certainly a newer, more youthful, 70s-infused enthusiasm found upon her arrival, as evidenced by Speer hits like “Cornerstone” and “God Gave the Song”. In the midst of her eight year tenure with the Speers, she married John Mays. This time, marriage led to the addition of a Speer member rather than the departure of one. John and Dianne traveled with the Speers for many years.
Several more talented ladies brought their lovely voices to the Speers in the group’s later years. Faye, with children now grown, once again returned to the group. Suzan Speer, Vicki Harvell, Penny Cardin, Kathy Watson, Caroline Traylor, Jane Greene, and Karen Apple all shined profusely with the Speers. The Speer name has remained prominent through Brock and Faye’s daughter-in-law, Alison Durham Speer. Only Alison can perform a stirring operatic ballad, a soul spiritual, and “The Baptism of Stumpy Brown” in one setting!
The following words have dominated this month’s writing….beauty, talent, class, and dignity. These words define the amazing women who contributed their talents to the Speers. Mom Speer and all of the Speer ladies defined what it means to be a classy lady in gospel music. So thank you to Mom, Rosa Nell, Mary Tom, Faye, Joyce, Ginger, Ann, Jeanne, Linda, Sue, Suzan, Vicki, Penny, Kathy, Caroline, Jane, Karen, and Alison…not just for being your beautiful selves, but for how you have defined gospel music. You made it better because you stepped on the Speer bus, and you have brought to light and preserved one of the greatest musical legacies in any field of music. Because of your contributions, the Speer Family were and forever will remain above all things, Gospel Music’s First Family.
Thank you all so much for your kind emails and responses to this column. If you haven’t yet contacted me, be sure to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time!