My love story with gospel music begins with The Sunshine Boys. They were the first group I ever saw in my life, and my friendship with the Wallace Family is one that I cherish. From the moment those Sunshine Boys songs rang from my dad’s turntable, I was handcuffed to gospel quartet music.
The Sunshine Boys were certainly one of the most entertaining acts in gospel music history. Not only this, but some of the accolades achieved by this colorful quartet have and will likely remain unparalleled by any gospel or Christian music artist. The Sunshine Boys retired from full-time activity more than forty years ago, therefore, they haven’t been a household name among gospel music fans for quite some time. They somehow did not achieve the same titanic status as the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers, or the Speer Family, yet practically all of their peers rave them as one of their most admired artists, and a hot stage act that absolutely no one, including the Statesmen Quartet, wanted to follow. They conquered realms of the secular entertainment world that most gospel artists only dreamed of, all the while bringing their energetic and spiritual gospel songs with them to the stage. The Sunshine Boys clearly proved themselves as a force to be reckoned with, not just in gospel music, but as entertainers in general. In case you may not be acquainted with their achievements, or have simply forgotten, we shall spend the next few pages reviewing the contributions of a true musical pioneer.
The Sunshine Boys emerged in the late 1930s under the leadership of Cincinatti native, Milton “Ace” Richman. Richman and brothers John “Tennessee” Smith and A.L. “Smitty” Smith, performed together with various other musical personnel, and under multiple stage names. Eventually, Pat Patterson joined the group as baritone vocalist. Initially performing primarily Country, Western, and Pop music, the quartet expanded into the gospel music world upon the acquisition of talented young musician Eddie Wallace in 1942.
Their first recordings were with the Village label, and they were regulars on the WSB Barn Dance. Their sound was a mix of western swing and traditional convention style harmony. Songs like “When God Dips His Love”, “Lead Me to That Rock”, and “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done” were staples of their song repertoire from the beginning to the end of their career. In 1946, they appeared in a B-Western with Charles Starrett and Smiley Burnette, West of Senora. Starrett had recently acquired the persona of The Durango Kid, a Robin-Hood-type character which he would remain identified with for the rest of his life. The Sunshine Boys brought some comedy relief to the film, as Ace Richman and Eddie Wallace performed a rather unconvincing Romeo and Juliet scene for a bunch of cowboys in a saloon. This act quickly soured those roughneck cowpunchers, who adorned them with tomatoes and various other fruits and vegetables. Their act ruined, the boys finally decide to do what they do best, pick and sing. They sang another one of their signature tunes, “Dry Bones”. They would soon gallop and sing their way into eighteen more features, starring alongside Lash LaRue, Eddie Dean, and others.
Tennessee and Smitty Smith were always country artists at heart, and in 1949, they parted ways with the Sunshine Boys. This further reaffirmed Richman and Wallace to stick with gospel music. They hired young bass singer JD Sumner and tenor singer Horace Floyd from the Tampa-Lakeland Florida area. Floyd did not stay long, and was soon after replaced by local tenor Fred Daniel. This aggregation of the Sunshine Boys became perhaps the best-remembered, as Sumner and Daniel quickly captured the hearts and ears of music fans. Sumner and Daniel’s only appearance on the silver screen was made in the Starrett-Burnette film, Prairie Roundup, in 1951.
They soon landed a radio show with the ever-blossoming radio station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. Many rising country stars of the early 50s were featured on the WWVA Jamboree, including Hawkshaw Harkins, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, and later Jim & Jesse and The Osborne Brothers. With JD’s deep bass vocals, Fred Daniel’s energy, Eddie Wallace’s sharply-timed comedy, Ace Richman’s emceeing expertise, and their ability to sing everything from “How Great Thou Art” to “Ragg Mopp” to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, the Sunshine Boys attained equally legendary status on the station themselves. In the day when good flat-footed stage entertainment was at its peak, the Sunshine Boys entered their church service performances with the mentality of “the pastor does the saving, we do the singing”, and no pastor contested such. The Sunshine Boys brought so much joy, energy, and wholesome fun into the room that the devil couldn’t have put up with it!
In the day of the All Nite Sings, no artist wanted to follow The Sunshine Boys. To paraphrase JD Sumner, the Sunshine Boys could “give it to the Statesmen”. There was no shortage of what the Sunshine Boys could sing. They recorded over 800 songs for Langworth Transcriptions, spanning from 1950 through 1957. Any music fan that possesses some of these records, possesses gospel gold.
When the Blackwood Brothers suffered the loss of bass singer Bill Lyles and baritone RW Blackwood in a fiery plane crash in Clanton, Alabama, JD Sumner had a premonition that he would replace Lyles as bass singer. This he did, and Sumner gained even greater icon status as the Blackwoods’ famous bass singer over the next eleven years. The Sunshine Boys’ nucleus of Richman, Wallace, and Daniel, however, never faltered. These three gentlemen remained together for nearly two decades. They hired local bass singer Johnny Atkinson, a perfect fit for their rhythmic arrangements. As the gospel music charts became more prominent, the Sunshine Boys of the Atkinson era enjoyed prominent airplay, regularly attaining Top Ten hits such as “How Long Has It Been” and “I Am A Pilgrim”.
Eddie Wallace always loved to tell the story of the Sunshine Boys’ relationship with noted songwriter, Mosie Lister, and rightfully so, as The Sunshine Boys recorded some of his greatest songs before anyone else. Lister came to the Sunshine Boys in 1955 with a stack of “reject” songs. The Statesmen, Speer Family, etc., turned down all of these songs, therefore Mosie, knowing the volume of music the Sunshine Boys recorded, brought the music to them. In this stack were “How Long Has It Been”, “Where No One Stands Alone”, “Goodbye World Goodbye”, among others. Had the Sunshine Boys not recorded them first, these timeless classics may have never been heard.
There are endless fascinating stories surrounding Sunshine Boys. They were part of the first million-selling gospel song, “Peace in the Valley”, on which they backed Red Foley, in 1951. They signed a radio contract with ABC in the mid 1950s, outlasting a fledgling comedian named Johnny Carson by many years. They not only performed a wide variety of musical styles, but also advertised some rather unique products, including Minute Rice, Tube Rose Snuff, Dr. Caldwell’s Senna Laxative, and Prince Albert Tobacco. They also performed in USO shows and held war bond rallies. There seemed no limit to what The Sunshine Boys could do.
Johnny Atkinson left the quartet in 1956, and former Blue Ridge Quartet bass singer Burl Strevel joined the group. While the group with JD Sumner is best remembered perhaps due to the eventual star status of Sumner himself, the lineup with Strevel was perhaps the Sunshine Boys’ strongest. Sumner was still honing his talents with the boys in the early 50s, whereas Strevel brought an already-seasoned, deep bass voice to the group. The group returned for a second lengthy tenure in Wheeling on WWVA, and by the mid 1960s, were performing as headliners at The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
With such a commercial change in musical direction, the Sunshine Boys adopted more of a band image during the 1960s. Richman, Strevel, and Daniel were already excellent musicians, and in 1960, the group brought in expert guitar and banjo man Jerry Wallace. The group changed its name to The Diplomats, and flourished on the Nevada circuit. Several other noted musicians joined the group during this decade, including Jim Roberson, Lee Sierra, George Walmark, and Woody Woodruff.
Burl Strevel returned to the Blue Ridge Quartet in 1965, and Fred Daniel soon followed him in 1966. Jim Boatman briefly performed with the group as bass singer, soon after returning to The Prophets Quartet, and the group even hired a female vocalist, Kathy Zee.
Eddie Wallace wished for his growing children to enjoy their formative years in a more family-friendly environment than what could be found in Vegas, and with that, left the group in the late 60s, returning to the metro Atlanta area for good. The quartet only continued a short time without him before disbanding. Ace Richman and Johnny Atkinson both eventually found their way back to the Atlanta area, and the Sunshine Boys emerged from retirement, this time performing on a limited basis. Fred Daniel remained active in various business ventures, moving frequently, and local tenor Marvin Davis sang with the quartet when Daniel wasn’t available.
Sadly, Johnny Atkinson lost a battle with cancer in 1985. Burl Strevel had passed away in 1981, and the word “retirement” was simply not in JD Sumner’s vocabulary. Jimmy Jones, former bass vocalist for the Rangers Quartet, Deep South Quartet, and LeFevres, joined the quartet following Atkinson’s passing. Eddie Wallace said that Jones qualified for the job because “he is as old and as ugly as we are”. The Sunshine Boys continued performing for old-timers events, civic affairs, dinner concerts, and at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion during the decade of the 90s. Ace Richman passed away in early 1999, and another gospel music veteran, Bobby Shaw, began performing with the group. Upon the passing of Jimmy Jones in June 2006, and Fred Daniels in September 2007, the Sunshine Boys soon faded from performing. Eddie Wallace continued making several solo appearances well into his eighties, until a stroke in 2011 ended his seven decade music career. He passed away on August 5, 2014, at the age of 91.
The Sunshine Boys were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame, and received the Pioneer Award at the 23rd Annual Society of Entertainers. They were honored in 1983 in the Walkway of Stars in Wheeling, West Virginia. Richman, Wallace, Daniel, Sumner, and Jimmy Jones were all recipients of the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Living Legend Award, and are all members of the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Wallace and Daniel were co-recipients of the Dub Taylor Award, an award presented to performers who have appeared in western movies.
The legacy of The Sunshine Boys is an important one. They ventured where few Christian artists dared. The influence of their fast-paced, light-hearted, energetic programs are found in gospel groups today who have never even heard of them. Their contributions to the entertainment industry as a whole must never be forgotten.
Thank you, as always, for your kind words, emails, and private messages in regard to this column! I will gladly try to answer any questions or requests at my email – firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to visit my website at www.alankendallmusic.com. I would love to see each and every one of you at any one of my concert appearances! See you soon!