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J.D. Sumner & the Stamps: Taking Care of Business in the 70s

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When JD Sumner assumed leadership of the Stamps Quartet in 1965, he transitioned the group from a viable quartet to a powerhouse of young talent, and that momentum would only continue building as the group pressed forward into the decade of the 1970s.
 
1By mid 1970, the Stamps Quartet consisted of JD Sumner (bass), Ed Enoch (baritone), Donnie Sumner (lead), Gary Buck (tenor, replacing Roy McNeil), Tony Brown (pianist), Duke Dumas (guitarist), and Kenny Hicks (bass guitarist).  The Stamps were more popular than ever, and at this point, signed a recording contract with Benson Music’s flagship label, Heart Warming Records.  JD surprised many of his fans and colleagues when he hired, of all things, a bass singer.  JD’s many business interests became increasingly difficult to manage from the back of the Stamps’ bus, therefore, former Keystone Quartet bass singer Richard Sterban stepped into the bass shoes.  
 
2The Stamps seemed able to withstand any key personnel change that came their way.  JD quickly learned he could place his full confidence in the quartet, so he began turning much of the road management duties over to Ed Enoch and Donnie Sumner.  Whether in concert with their fearless leader or not, gospel music fans loved the new youthful lineup of the Stamps.  The following year, just after recording their Live in Nashville album, Bill Baize replaced Gary Buck as tenor singer.  Both Buck and Baize appear on the Live in Nashville album, with Baize replacing Buck’s solo lines and some of the harmonies where Buck’s voice would have been more audible.
 
3The Stamps joined forces with two other major players in the gospel music world, The Oak Ridge Boys and The Rambos, in forming a power-packed stage team called Gospel Festival U.S.A.  The first half of their program consisted of each group doing what they did best, singing!  The second half featured a “semi-dramatic” play entitled “The Three Nails”.  I understand that this portrayal was quite intriguing.  “Nails” was released in 1970 on LP by Heart Warming Records.  The tour continued for a little over a year until the groups felt that the tour had run its course.  Richard Sterban recently mused, “Some of the artists didn’t like each other too well, which lent some credibility to the fight scenes.”
 
4Charged with energy and charisma, the Stamps with Sterban, Enoch, Sumner, and Baize on vocals recorded some of the finest gospel albums of the 1970s.  Tony Brown soon left the quartet to join the Blackwood Brothers, and several pianists spent time at the piano bench with the Stamps during the early 70s, including Nick Bruno, Linda Robinson Sholar, Phil Johnson, and Ronnie Mabe.  Duke Dumas also left for the Happy Goodmans around this time, and was replaced briefly by Doyle Dykes.
 
5When Elvis Presley called for the Stamps to serve as his backup group in 1972, JD had left the road almost completely, but Elvis would have none of this.  JD was in short order persuaded to take the stage with the Stamps again, and the Stamps became the only quartet in the business with two bass singers, an arrangement that actually worked quite well.  With JD often able to sing a full octave below Richard, along with female vocal group the Sweet Inspirations to provide the higher harmonies, Elvis received a full vocal background that he was quite happy with.  This arrangement lasted until Elvis’s death in 1977.  Eventually, the Stamps would become Elvis’s opening act.
 
6In the competitive world of gospel music, the Oak Ridge Boys frequently served as the incendiary for the Stamps to push harder towards a stronger stage presentation, so when Richard Sterban decided to join the Stamps’ “arch-rival” in 1973, JD was none too happy about his decision, yet the bond between JD and Richard endured for the remainder of JD’s life.  Replacing Richard was Canadian Ed Wideman, who only remained long enough to appear on one album, Leaning on the Arms of Jesus.  Donnie Sumner soon left to join with Tim Baty and Sherrill Nielsen in forming Voice, who would open concerts for Elvis Presley for the next two years.  Ed Enoch moved to the lead spot, Dave Rowland briefly assumed the baritone position, and JD returned to the bass slot full-time.  
 
7Following the disbandment of the Prophets Quartet, Ed Hill had been working for Sumar Talent Agency when JD asked him to fill in until a permanent replacement could be found.  Hill would “fill in” for the next five years.  Hill also put his previous emcee experience to work with the Stamps, as he became the “voice behind the King of Rock and Roll”.  As Elvis’s announcer, Ed Hill announced each program, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.  Thank  you and good night!”
 
8As the Stamps stayed busy with a wide array of appearances at gospel concerts, churches, and large arenas with Elvis, JD once again opened his bus doors to another bass singer, Larry Strickland.  Ronnie Booth and Pat Brown each served brief stints as tenor for the Stamps following Bill Baize’s departure in 1976, with Gary Buckles, formerly of Jerry and the Singing Goffs, finally taking over the tenor role.  
 
9The Stamps and the music world were devastated by the loss of Elvis Presley on August 16, 1977.  While Presley’s passing marked the end of a musical era, his legacy has remained very kind to the Stamps Quartet.  For the next three years, the Stamps were part of numerous tribute programs to The King.  Several more talented artists would bring their talents to the Stamps Quartet, including but not limited to – Sandra Steele, Richard Lee, Jennifer O’Brian, Milton Smith, Art Ross, and David Ponder.  
 
10JD and Ed Enoch had been close-knit singing partners for more than a decade.  Not only this, but Ed was also JD’s son-in-law.  When Ed and Shirley Sumner-Enoch divorced in 1980, JD would not continue without his friend.  With this unfortunate turn of events, JD disbanded the Stamps Quartet.  The Stamps Quartet name had been consistently active in one form or another, sometimes even in numerous forms, since 1924.  For the first time in more than six decades, the Stamps Quartet was gone from the world of gospel music, at least for now.
 
As always, thank you for your positive feedback on this column!  You may reach me anytime atalan@alankendallmusic.com.  Check back next month as we finish “the rest of the story”!
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Absolutely Gospel Music
Formed over 19 years ago by Deon & Susan Unthank originally as SoGospelNews.com, the site was birthed from an email discussion group by the same name. The SoGospelNews email discussion list was created by the Unthanks after the Singing News shut down its extremely popular discussion list. SoGospelNews started as a simple webpage listing artists, fans, individuals, etc. that were avid supporters of the newly formed SoGospelNews talk list. The site eventually took on printing news for Southern Gospel artists, and eventually took on reviewing the latest recordings from both signed and independent artists within the small genre. SoGospelNews became the most viewed Southern Gospel website on the Internet with over 4,000,000 hits per month.

The Unthank family are now involved in the site, as well as the addition of over two dozen staff writers. The website is based out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In April 2010, SoGospelNews changed its name to AbsolutelyGospel.com. The name change allows them to cover news items of not only Southern Gospel, but also Country Gospel, Inspirational, and Black Gospel.

On January 5, 2011, Susan Unthank passed away, leaving the website in control of Deon, their son, Chris, and their daughter Amy.

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