Last month, a special reunion was held in Greenville, South Carolina, of members and artists from Mark V Recording Studios. One of the most important contributors to the history of gospel music, Mark V Studios housed the sessions of such artists as Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, the Blackwood Brothers, Speer Family, The Inspirations, The Sheltons, Blue Ridge Quartet, and numerous others. Perhaps no group was more integral to its early success than Greenville’s own Trav’lers Quartet. The Trav’lers were the first artist to record with Mark V Studios. They remain among gospel quartet music’s most underrated singing groups, yet they were lauded a “quartet’s quartet” among their peers.
A recent visit with longtime member of the Trav’lers, Wayne Shuford, conjured up some stories about The Trav’lers that I had never heard, and I have attempted to place some of those stories in this month’s article. The Trav’lers retired permanently around five years ago, and 2017 marks fifty years since the recording of their hit, “If Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow“. Therefore I feel that it is time for another look into the life and history of one of the finest singing groups to grace the stage.
Formed in Greenville in 1961, The Trav’lers were soon regulars on the coast-to-coast Bob Poole’s Gospel Favorites television show. And it was no small wonder. This quartet of young men ranging from high school age to mid twenties were mastering intricate harmonies that many groups twice their age in both years and experience would not even begin to tackle. Baritone and manager Tom Brown, tenor Bobby Edwards, and then-19 year old pianist Otis Forrest were all excellent arrangers, each with a wealth of musical knowledge. Joel Duncan was a strong and gifted vocalist from a long line of bass singers, blessed with an innate ability to hear even the most difficult vocal parts. 20 year old lead vocalist Carl Whitman was the quartet’s “veteran”, having sung professionally since his early teenage years, most recently with Bill Baker and the Melodyaires.
The Trav’lers released their first album with Mark V in 1962, “Songs You’ve Requested”, but were also very busy in other avenues of the endeavors of Mark V. In addition to their full time touring schedule, they were Mark V’s unofficial “staff quartet”, recording television and radio spots, commercial jingles, as well as background vocals for numerous artists, including popular bass singer Bob Thacker and songwriter Marshall Pack. Their involvement with Mark V was extensive enough to the point that it brought about their first membership change in 1965, when Otis Forrest departed to join the Mark V staff full time as studio pianist. Forrest later served a short stint as pianist for the Blue Ridge Quartet, and has produced countless studio recordings and orchestrations since. Replacing Forrest was another very young and soon-to-be-legendary producer, Tony Brown.
It wasn’t long before Uncle Sam began impacting the Trav’lers. With the Vietnam War now in full swing, both Carl Whitman and Bobby Edwards received their draft notices and relocated to Florida. Fortunately for them and the gospel singing world, they both remained at home in the states, serving with the National Guard. Whitman would soon return to the Trav’lers, and Bobby Edwards would go on to The Plainsmen. The Trav’lers made the difficult decision at this time to disband the quartet. Joel Duncan joined the Pine Ridge Boys, replacing their bass singer Ray Dean Reese, who had left to join the Kingsmen. Joel was a Trav’ler at heart, however, and soon began planning a reunion with his singing comrades. Pine Ridge Boys tenor Wayne Shuford was feeling led to make a professional move as well. Therefore, in 1967, the Trav’lers re-emerged with Duncan, Brown, Whitman, Shuford, and pianist/emcee Don Frazier. The Trav’lers resumed their singing schedule, now as “weekend warriors”, and under heavy demand. While the men of the Trav’lers worked regular jobs, they still found themselves performing three and four concert dates weekly.
The quartet soon released their benchmark album, “If Not Today, Then Maybe Tomorrow“. Songwriter Deaver Husky pitched them the heartfelt title cut, a ballad specially tailored for the group’s signature harmonies and Carl Whitman’s commanding lead voice. A great lyric of anticipation for the second coming of Christ, it became the quartet’s signature song. To this writer’s knowledge, no other professional group has mastered, let alone even tackled this classic song. Deaver Husky said that he had written the song especially for The Trav’lers, and he wasn’t kidding.
The vocal lineup of Duncan, Brown, Whitman, and Shuford traveled together for many years. Don Frazier left the quartet in 1970, and was replaced by another multi-talented pianist, Mitch Humphries. Humphries would remain with the Trav’lers through 1975. Once again as like his predecessors, Humphries would later move on to a career of legendary proportions, lending his talents to country superstars such as Dolly Parton, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Humphries died young, passing on September 3, 2007, at age 56.
Further changes took place for the Trav’lers in the 1970s. Art Bain (yet another future studio legend) assumed the piano duties following the departure of Mitch Humphries. Eventually, Bain became engulfed with studio commitments of his own, and the Trav’lers began using soundtracks arranged by Bain and Otis Forrest whenever they were without a pianist. Having such immense piano talents as Bain, Forrest, Brown, Frazier, and Humphries ultimately presented a problem. The Trav’lers would perform primarily with soundtracks for the remainder of their career, not due to lack of available musicians, but more because of the caliber of musicians that had passed through the Trav’lers organization through their early years. Shuford said it best; The Trav’lers had become spoiled. Who settles for less once they’ve had the best of the best?
When Joel Duncan joined Rosie Rozell and the Searchers in the early 70s, he handpicked Richard Sanders to take his place. Duncan would never be too far away, though, as he later joined another legendary South Carolina quartet, Palmetto State, and stepped in with the Trav’lers when his busy schedule would allow. Carl Whitman moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1980, to manage a successful tupperware distribution company. Another former Pine Ridge Boy, C.J. Burns, assumed the lead position.
Although the Trav’lers had significantly lightened their touring schedule by the late 70s, they remained in demand as studio vocalists. A particularly interesting collectors find is an album of Mosie Lister songs entitled “Take Me to the Fountain”, one of many collections of standard group/choral/ensemble arrangements assembled by Lister and distributed to music stores across the country. Any collector that finds this album finds a treasure, for the group performing the songs on this record is none other than The Trav’lers. Wayne Shuford, Carl Whitman, Tom Brown, and bass vocalist Mike Burdette lent their voices to some very beautiful arrangements, particularly the Lister classic, “Gentle Stranger”. Shuford, Whitman, and Brown continued on a limited schedule as a trio during the 80s and early 90s.
By 1995, Joel Duncan had retired from the Palmetto State Quartet, and was ready to join his friends once again. The Trav’lers revamped with Duncan, Brown, Shuford, and former Palmetto State/Dixie Echoes tenor Eddie Broome assuming the lead vocals. This lineup of the Trav’lers released some of the finest albums in gospel music over the next decade, and once again secured another TV spot, this time as regulars on America’s Gospel Favorites, which aired across Gospel Music Television and several other Christian television markets spanning from 1997 until 2003. The lineup with Eddie Broome remained together for fourteen years.
In 2009 at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion, the Trav’lers announced their retirement from gospel music. Eddie Broome joined the Florida Boys as tenor singer, where he would remain for the next seven years. The many fans and friends of the Trav’lers begged for more appearances if possible. Over the next two years, the Trav’lers bid gospel music fans a fond farewell as their health and personal schedules allowed, with Carl Whitman returning to the lead spot.
Tom Brown was the only baritone singer the Trav’lers ever had. Wayne Shuford devoted over forty years of his musical career to the same group. And Joel Duncan and Carl Whitman each had collectively more than two decades as Trav’lers. With three of the four original vocalists there for the quartet’s final appearances, plus veteran tenor Shuford, it can safely be said that much of the Trav’lers legendary career ended just as it began.
Tom Brown entered into permanent retirement from music, while Joel Duncan and Wayne Shuford would each be bitten by the quartet bug once again, as Duncan joined the Melodyaires and Shuford returned to the Pine Ridge Boys. Carl Whitman passed away following a battle with cancer on February 4, 2016. The Trav’lers have a beautiful legacy, but sadly, in a view that tends to be blocked by singing artists hardly worthy of carrying their sound equipment. Yet those who know the Trav’lers know that the men of this group in their modesty would never make any such claims. With their supreme musical abilities came a sincerity and humility paralleled by very few. They represented class, dignity, professionalism, and ministry in its finest form. Any lover of gospel quartet music would no doubt agree that The Trav’lers Quartet had no equal.