At age four, John Daniel Sumner first saw the Stamps Quartet perform at a campmeeting in Wimauma, Florida. Fascinated by the low notes of Frank Stamps, he told his mother that he would one day be a bass singer like Mr. Stamps. Truly prophetic words indeed, as JD Sumner would not only accomplish such, but would parallel much of Mr. Stamps’ life as well. JD grew into one of gospel music’s greatest bass vocalists, married at the Wimauma Campground, as did Mr. Stamps, and of course, he eventually became the owner and manager of the Stamps Quartet. By the time of JD’s death in 1998, his name had become synonymous with the name Stamps. This month we begin a series covering the story of one of gospel music’s greatest and certainly most colorful groups during the last half of the twentieth century, JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet.
When the Blackwood Brothers purchased the Stamps Quartet Music Company from Frank Stamps in 1962, they also inherited the Stamps Quartet. The Stamps Quartet had recently released their What A Savior album on Skylite Records and were still singing, but had not been active in the national quartet circuit for several years. With the acquisition of the Stamps name, the Blackwood Brothers revamped the group and moved its base of operations from Dallas, Texas, to the Blackwoods’ home base of Memphis, Tennessee. The new Stamps lineup consisted of Big John Hall (bass), Terry Blackwood (baritone), Roger McDuff (lead), Jerry Redd (tenor), and “Smilin'” Joe Roper (pianist). Roper, an outstanding pianist, songwriter, and arranger, brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the group, having performed with the Melody Boys Quartet, Prophets, and Blackwood Brothers. Hall and McDuff had previously performed together with Bob Wills and the Inspirationals. Redd and Blackwood were new faces to gospel music at the time, but both would make their marks on the industry in the years ahead.
The new Stamps were good, but like most new quartets, had difficulty establishing themselves, regardless of their legendary name. The group quickly released two new records on the Skylite label, including a re-issue of the What A Savior album (same issue number, same album front cover, only with a small photo of the new lineup on the bottom right corner). Jerry Redd tended to leave groups almost as quickly as he entered them, and it wasn’t long before he moved on to a short-lived quartet, The Rhythm Masters, and later the Speer Family. Jim Hill brought his heartfelt tenor voice and energetic stage presence to the Stamps Quartet, as well as his popular song “What a Day That Will Be”. Attempting to capitalize on the magnitude of Hill’s song, the group recorded “What a Day” and made it the title track of their next album. Mylon LeFevre joined as baritone singer in 1964, bringing his new hit, “Without Him” to the quartet. Once again, it became the title track of the next Stamps album. In early 1965, Charles Ramsey replaced Joe Roper at the piano. The quartet had also became regulars on the Blackwood Brothers and Statesmens’ new television venture, Singing Time in Dixie. Still, the group had difficulty turning a profit. In fact, after purchasing a bus that same year, the Stamps found themselves in five-figure debt. Group owners JD Sumner and James Blackwood knew something had to be done.
JD proposed to James that the only way the Stamps could properly be managed would be if he joined and took over management of the Stamps Quartet. James reluctantly agreed. Therefore, in late 1965, JD Sumner and Big John Hall switched places, and JD Sumner was the new manager and bass singer for the Stamps Quartet. James’s oldest son, Jimmy Blackwood, had been singing with another business interest of the Blackwood Brothers, The Junior Blackwoods. This venture had unfortunately also failed to catch on, so along with JD, Jimmy was brought into the Stamps as baritone singer.
With JD now at the helm of the Stamps Quartet, 1966 ushered in several more personnel changes. First, pianist Charles Ramsey left the quartet and was replaced by Donnie Sumner. While Donnie was a great musician, JD must have known that he would soon need a lead singer, as Roger McDuff had been contemplating singing full-time with his brothers, John and Colman. McDuff soon exited the Stamps for the McDuff Brothers, and Donnie Sumner stepped into the lead position. Taking Donnie’s place at the piano bench was a very young, yet experienced musician, Tony “Tarzan” Brown. As inconceivable as it may seem, JD Sumner soon became “straight man” to Tarzan’s wild stage antics. Perhaps even more inconceivable at the time may have been the fact that ol’ Tarzan would go on to become one of Nashville’s top music producers!
The next steps for the Stamps Quartet would involve adding extra musicians, beginning when Mylon LeFevre rejoined the group in mid 1966. Mylon joined as bass guitarist and featured vocalist on several songs. Other Blackwood son, 14-year-old Billy Blackwood, began traveling with the Stamps during summers as their drummer. At the beginning of 1967, the Stamps welcomed multi-talented guitarist Jimmy “Duke” Dumas to the group. Bands in gospel music were controversial during the 1960s, yet the Stamps seemed to make this transition seemlessly. JD’s rapport with his audiences and comraderie with the members of his group made it difficult not to love the youthful Stamps. In addition, both Jim Hill and Donnie Sumner were writing some great songs. Hill’s “For God So Loved”, “Each Step I Take”, and “No One Ever Cared So Much” were crowd favorites, and by the end of the decade, Donnie’s “The Night Before Easter” was voted Song of the Year at the Dove Awards.
Further changes took place for the Stamps in 1968. Mylon LeFevre returned home to the LeFevres, and Tim Baty took over as bass guitarist. Jim Hill, feeling the need to better preserve his voice, assumed the lead position with Hovie Lister and the Statesmen. Ironically, Hill was replaced by a former Statesmen lead singer, Roy McNeil. McNeil, although maybe singing a little beyond his vocal range with the Stamps, remained the great song stylist that he was with the Prophets, Statesmen, and Rangers Trio. His unique vocals contributed wonderfully to the young sound of the Stamps Quartet.
As 1969 came to a close, the Stamps consisted of JD Sumner (bass), Ed Enoch (baritone), Donnie Sumner (lead), Roy McNeil (tenor), Tony Brown (pianist), Duke Dumas (guitar), and David Hildreth (bass guitar). Tim Baty had just been drafted into the Army, and James Blackwood, who had suffered some health setbacks, expressed the desire to have Jimmy and Billy in the Blackwood Brothers, to which JD agreed. The Stamps Quartet at the close of the 1960s was a very different quartet from the Stamps at the beginning of the 60s. No one could have imagined the new heights that the Stamps would reach by the end of the decade, but certainly no one could anticipate what lay ahead for them in the decade to follow. JD Sumner and the Stamps were just getting started!
I appreciate your questions and comments. You may email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time when we move into the decade of the 1970s with JD and the Stamps!