“Years ago when I was with the Stamps, the group was in rural Mississippi, in the wee hours looking for a place to stop for the night. Then road manager/primary driver, Jack Howell and I were the only ones up. We found a very small truck stop with an even smaller cafe. The waitress, curious about the bus, asked what we did. A short time after bringing our food, she returned to the table and said, ‘can I ask a question’. Her exact words: ‘is you guys really saved…..or do you just sing them songs’? Now there’s a question for every member of every group out there. I have been on the road with Mike Helwig off and on for nearly thirteen years through three different groups. Mike is definitely saved, and doesn’t ‘just sing’ any song. He sings every song as best he possibly can, with full intent of delivering the message within the song. Mike Helwig is my friend. He is my brother, and he is my example.” – Butch Owens, Blackwood Brothers/Stamps
This month we take a look into the life and career of one of southern gospel’s most significant figures of the last several years, Michael Helwig, not just historically, but through the eyes of many of the men and women he has performed with, as well as those of us who have enjoyed knowing him as friend and peer. Mike’s impact on gospel music has been monumental, not just because of his courage, determination, and drive over the last year as he has sung full-time through debilitating ALS, but also simply because he is one of the finest and most accomplished singers of our genre. This Canadian moved to the States to become a full-time gospel singer like his father and his quartet heroes, gained a stellar reputation as a vocalist, and ended up performing with some of gospel music’s most legendary names. He has left his mark on southern gospel as both an artist and a ground-breaker.
I first met Michael in 2009 in Rockport, Texas. At the time, I was singing with the Melody Boys Quartet and Michael was singing with The Williamsons. I was green as grass and trying to soak in every amount of musical knowledge that would help me be a better vocalist. Michael quickly impressed me with his abilities. Very few singers can provide a large sound and blend like kin folks at the same time, yet I noticed that Mike mastered both easily. He was dynamic, energetic, smooth, and “down-to-business”, when it came to communicating with his listeners on stage. Upon meeting him, I quickly discovered the humble every-guy he was off stage. He kindly brushed off any accolade paid to him, and quickly complimented the talents he worked with. Needless to say, I learned a lot from Mike Helwig that day. Great singer, true team player, top-notch quartet man.
A native of Kitchener, Ontario, Michael was bound to be a gospel singer. His father sang in a local group called The Shepherds Quartet, and Michael never forgot the songs his mother sang to him as a child. He fell in love with the classic sounds of the Cathedrals, Statesmen, and Stamps, and by age 19, was performing with a quartet of college-aged vocalists called Unashamed Quartet. In 1997, he was named Favorite Tenor for the Canadian division of the Gospel Music Association. From there, he joined popular Canadian quartet, The Torchmen:
“I’ve known Michael for many years now. Michael has always been energetic, although sometimes misguided. Like the time he tried to squeeze a large Cadillac V8 engine into a small Chev Fiero with a questionable frame, which proved unable to handle the torque of the big motor. Or the time, while travelling to a singing event, which he assured me he knew how to get to, we came to a dead end. Michael then explained that he remembered now…this is the location where he admitted he was lost and had to find someone to give him directions. God has changed Michael’s path for a reason, and we need to encourage him in God’s new path, not just reminisce and wish God would go back to ‘plan A’. Life is a challenge, but either way it gets better.” – Jon Hisey, The Torchmen
Michael’s first American singing gig began with The Wilburns in 2003. Although Jackie and Elaine Wilburn soon announced their retirement from gospel music, The Wilburns went out at the top of their game with Jackie, Elaine, Michael, Josh Singletary, and Gary Casto.
“If my husband, Jackie, were still alive, he could tell you a more about how a young man from Canada became a member of The Wilburns, because he hired him over the phone. What I remember was him showing up on our doorstep in Carthage, TN – having driven all the way from his home to get on our bus that weekend. I couldn’t imagine then, what a blessing he would be, not only to our ministry – but to us personally. The only thing I regret about hiring Michael Helwig is that due to Jackie’s poor health, the group was dissolved only a yr. and a half after he began singing with us, I do remember that whatever we needed Michael to do – he gave it 110%! (Oh yes, and it doesn’t hurt that he has that magnetic voice.)” – Elaine Wilburn, The Wilburns
Following the Wilburns, Michael replaced legendary baritone Ed Hill in the Stamps Quartet, joining Ed Enoch, Butch Owens, Royce Taylor, Jerry Kelso, Jack Howell, and later Joe Frech and Andy Stringfield. The group’s travels took them coast to coast, border to border, and then some. The Stamps enjoyed a newfound energy during this period. Michael remained with them until 2008.
“Honesty, integrity, and mastery of voice are but a few of Mike’s attributes. More importantly are faithfulness to family and our God which are without question in him. He’s my friend and my brother. I treasure the days spent with him on the quartet bus. I’m more fortunate than his other fans in that I weekly spend a day with him on my porch enjoying the solitude and beauty of the high hills. Mike, Butch Owens, and I have a friendship made of God. I pray God’s blessing on him.” -Jack Howell, Stamps
“Michael Helwig joined Ed Enoch and the Stamps Quartet at the retirement of Ed Hill. He was (has always been) an eager participant in all that surrounds him. In addition to being a great singer and addition to the group, he brought a unique wit and humor to the mix. But, he always spoke with deep love and admiration for his family. He was always very proud of his wife and children. Prayers and blessings to you, Michael. Strength and healing.” -Royce Taylor, Stamps/Imperials
“I had the privilege of traveling and singing with Michael for a year when we were with the Stamps quartet. He is one of the hardest working, talented men I’ve ever been around. We made a lot of great memories in that one year we traveled together. Folks say they are surprised at his attitude considering what he’s going through. I’m not surprised at all, that’s just Michael. He has one of the finest voices to ever come through gospel music and an incredible range. His work ethic speaks for itself, whether it’s working on old cars and fixing my keyboard (which he broke one night on stage-ask him about that). I’m glad Michael is finally getting the recognition he deserves in southern gospel, although that’s not at all important to him. I’ll always cherish my time working with him and thank the Lord for a lifelong friend in Michael Helwig.” -Andy Stringfield, Stamps/Kingdom Heirs
Michael traveled with Oklahoma-based mixed quartet, The Williamsons for two years, soon finding himself singing lead vocals alongside Mark Blackwood, Tim Williams, and once again, Butch Owens, in the Blackwood Quartet. By this point, his mastering of all three upper vocal parts was clear to the industry, and he continued honing these talents as tenor vocalist with the Dixie Echoes beginning in 2011.
“I’m thankful for the time I spent with the Dixie Echoes and I’m thankful that Mike was there with me. He is a consummate professional and his range and vocal strength is uncanny. he was also a pretty good mechanic but a horrible driver! Kind of ironic considering his deep love for Nascar. I wasn’t sure what to think of Mike at first. I was a southern gospel singer from Maryland but compared to Mike- I was southerner. I always appreciated him taking that pressure off of me! I’m blessed to know Mike and most of the Helwig family. He was fun to travel with, sing with, and hang out with, and he is continually in our prayers. The only complaint is had about Mike is he’s a little heavy on the Aqua Velva.” -Mike Jennings, Dixie Echoes
“One of my absolute favorite singers was Roy Tremble of the Cathedrals. He sang all three upper parts with such ease. I place Michael Helwig in that same class. Great singer who can sing everything from baritone to tenor with that very same ease.” – Junior Shelton, Dixie Echoes
I mentioned in a past article that Jimmy Blackwood had a clearly daunting task ahead of him when it came to filling the shoes of his legendary father, James Blackwood, in 1970. Yet Jimmy mastered his father’s same vocal touch, and the unique sound of the original Blackwoods continued. Jimmy Blackwood was clearly the only man for the job when it came to replacing James Blackwood. In 2004, Jimmy revived the quartet name and helped bring the classic Blackwood songs and harmonies to the forefront of gospel music once again. Jimmy’s retirement in 2012 could have ended the Blackwood Brothers’ momentum completely, but fortunately Michael Helwig was only a phone call away.
Mike’s greatest stamp on gospel music began as he accepted the unenviable task of replacing the vocal center of the modern-day Blackwood Brothers. As only Jimmy Blackwood could have replaced his father, only Mike Helwig could have replaced his Blackwood predecessors. Any doubts and fears for the Blackwoods were put to rest quickly, as Michael brought much of James and Jimmy’s vocal qualities into the mix, without compromising his own individuality. The first time I heard the Blackwood Brothers with Michael was in 2013 at the Memphis Quartet Show, and it was immediately clear that the sound, excitement, and professionalism that had been identified with this legendary name for eight decades had continued so seemlessly through what could have been a very difficult adjustment period.
“One of the most daunting tasks anyone could face in Gospel Music would probably be trying to take the place of a Blackwood–you know, James, Jimmy, or Billy. From a singing standpoint, Michael is that one unique individual who could slide right into that role. But he brings another element to the table that you just can’t teach: he connects with the audience through his genuine personality. And as good as his singing is, that ever-positive winning attitude is what endears him to everyone.” – Danny Jones, Singing News
“Mike is a real man of integrity with a kind heart and a strong Christian grounding. Among one of Mike’s many strong traits, is his sense of duty to his family. A wonderful singer, and a strong Christian example of what a man should be.” – Wayne Little, Blackwood Brothers
Quite literally upon his recording the Blackwoods’ recent song, “I Know In Whom I Have Believed”, Mike spent the following days practically living the lyrics, “I will give my all for Him who gave His all for me, for I know in Whom I have believed”. In June 2015, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Several months later, he received further devastating news as his diagnosis was changed to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. While many would have called it quits under such circumstances, Mike boarded the Blackwood Brothers’ bus and continued singing for another fourteen months. As news of his condition spread through the gospel music industry and fanbase, Mike’s resolve seemingly grew larger to all who watched him with each time he took the stage. More than just providing continued great singing, he became an inspiration to all watching.
“I have spent the last four-and-a-half years singing next to one of the greatest singers to ever sing a gospel song, Michael Helwig. For the last year I have watched him go from a young man in his late 30’s, dancing on and off the platform, singing his heart out, to a young man at 40 confined to a wheelchair having lost the use of his legs. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this experience has been to witness how Mike has handled this devastating disease with unbelievable grace and dignity. Witnessing the progression of this disease is difficult. Watching how Mike is handling it is inspiring. Every night that we sing I watch him and listen as he belts out his high notes, knowing that, because he has lost the use of his diaphragm muscle that singers use to support their tone, he has had to learn a new way of singing just to get the notes out. And he does it to such perfection that no one would know he has made such a major adjustment.” – Billy Blackwood, Blackwood Brothers
“What an excellent example of blooming where you’re planted.” – Arthur Rice, Kingdom Heirs
“I have always thought of Mike Helwig as one of the best lead singers in gospel music. The last time we worked with the Blackwood Brothers he told me that he liked my watch so I took it off and gave it to him. He didn’t know what to say. I admire him for singing as long as he did. I know it must have been hard on him and he certainly will be missed in gospel music. Susan and I send our love and prayers!” – Phil Barker, Jordan’s Bridge/Singing Americans
“Michael is a person who has handled his diagnosis with ALS like no other I have known. His determination to continue traveling, long after others would have thrown in the towel, is a testament to his determination and will to do his best, no matter what. The rest of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet are to be praised for all they’ve done the past 14 months, especially Butch Owens – who neither wants, or expects any regonition….Butch is just a great man, and a servant. “Moments” don’t happen a lot at concerts, but, I can tell you there was a huge moment at the 2016 Memphis Quartet Show, when Michael performed, to perfection, ‘The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power’. Ask anyone that was there….one word, POWERFUL!” – Duane Garren, Memphis Quartet Show
The inevitable moment that no one wanted to see happen came last month as Mike announced that he was leaving the road. One of Mike’s final performances with the quartet was recorded live at Lake Gibson Church of the Nazarene. It was clear that Mike was physically exhausted, but it was never evidenced by his singing. His vocal consistency and clarity has remained, even as his health has challenged his abilities.
The last thing this writer would ever want to do is make this article sound like a “pre-eulogy”, for it certainly is not. This monthly column is dedicated to the history makers of gospel music, and Mike Helwig is certainly that. And if I may quote from last month’s subject, Jimmy Jones, “I believe in giving roses while you’re alive.” Michael now enters a phase of his life that I would not call retirement, but rather “reassignment”. He has made it clear to his fans and friends that he still has songs left in him, and although I am saddened to see him step down from the full-time scene, I am happy to see him spending the majority of his days ahead with his beautiful family, hopefully getting some deserved rest, and of course, singing. He recently appeared and sang “I’d Rather Have Jesus” at the We Love Our Southern Gospel Music History Convention, and will continue appearing with the Blackwood Brothers at some of gospel music’s upcoming larger concert venues, including Memphis Quartet Show, NQC, and others.
Thank you Mike Helwig, for your tireless contributions to our music. Your impact is far greater than you realize. Our continued prayers for life, love, healing, and yes, more music. We’ll see you down the road!
A special thanks to Butch Owens, Jack Howell, Danny Jones, Elaine Wilburn, Duane Garren, Billy Blackwood, Wayne Little, Andy Stringfield, Royce Taylor, Jon Hisey, Mike Jennings, Junior Shelton, Phil Barker, and Arthur Rice for your contributions to this article. If you have any further questions or comments, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit me at www.alankendallmusic.com. See you next month!