August has become a strange time for me, as there is no longer a Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in Greenville, SC, left to anticipate. Memories flood my mind of music, laughter, stories, Let’s Make a Deal, jam sessions, meeting heroes, walking the streets of Greenville, the smells of popcorn and hot dogs at the old Memorial Auditorium, eating at Fuddruckers, and visiting (but rarely resting) at the Hyatt Regency.
I owe much of my love and knowledge of gospel music to Charlie Waller. Perhaps no promoter has been more gifted at putting a program together than he, and his dedication to the legends of gospel music has been and remains unparalleled. I figured that for the month of August, it would only be appropriate to share a handful of random memories from 28 annual concerts devoted to the music and heritage of gospel music history. Thanks to the foresight of Waller capturing these moments on video through the years, plus the help of Chris Unthank with this month’s article, I am able to not only share the stories, but some video footage as well. I am more than thankful to have grown up witnessing every one of these moments in person. Maybe some of you will remember a few of these as well.
Rosie Rozell and “O What A Savior”
Rosie quite literally ended his singing days at the GOGR. While his health had broken down severely during his later years, his innate ability at thrilling a crowd never waned. In the early years, it quickly became tradition for the Original Masters V to close each installment of the reunion. And why not? Who follows Rosie, James, Jake, JD, and Hovie on this classic? The answer, nobody.
Sunshine Boys – Stories and classics
Whenever Ace Richman, Eddie Wallace, JD Sumner, and Fred Daniel took the stage, the audience was sure to be all smiles by the end of their performance. Since the Sunshine Boys had had a varied career in TV and western movies, they often reprised some of their secular classics at GOGR, in addition to their rhythmic spirituals. The Sunshine Boys were no preaching group, but their joy radiated a spirit that could only be found at events like GOGR.
Charlie and Eva Mae
Anyone who attended GOGR from 1988 through 2007 no doubt remembers the banter between Waller and the Queen of Gospel Music. Between Waller and LeFevre was a loving friendship that only took moments for gospel music fans to take note of. Waller’s irreverent sense of humor mixed with Eva Mae’s signature laugh and quick wit made for a great comedy team. In 2003, unbeknowing to LeFevre, Waller took an offering to offset the expenses of her recent heart surgery, and the result was a bag of over $1000 that left her in tears. Such was an example of Waller’s giving heart and LeFevre’s endearment to her many fans and friends. In 2002, a running gag of Melody Boys baritone Jeremy Raines parodying Verizon Wireless’s “Can you hear me now” commercial at different points through the weekend was taken to a different level when Eva Mae got involved.
Wally Varner and Jeff Stice Duet
At the 1991 Grand Ole Gospel Reunion, the hottest new quartet was Perfect Heart. Waller talked his buddy Jeff Stice into what Stice thought would simply be a nostalgic tribute to one of his heroes. Little did Stice know that Waller had legendary Blackwood pianist Wally Varner on the sidelines, ready to surprise his protoget. The result was an unforgettable moment for the 3000-plus fans in the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, as well as for Stice and Varner themselves.
Booth Brothers Debut at GOGR
At GOGR 1994, a virtually unknown father-sons trio from Tampa, Florida, took the stage, sang “I Just Feel Like Something Good Is About to Happen”, and immediately stole the hearts of the reunion attendees. For some reason, the southern gospel music industry has always been relatively difficult for new artists to break into. Waller never resisted the gamble of placing promising new talent on the stage with his legendary guests. The rest is history for one of the most beloved southern gospel groups of the last quarter century.
Original Cathedrals Reunite
Another unforgettable moment for this eleven year old gospel music fan was at the 1994 GOGR when George Younce, Glen Payne, Danny Koker, and Bobby Clark reunited as the Cathedral Quartet for the first time in more than 25 years. The electricity was evermore there. These four incredible talents hadn’t lost a thing. Naturally, George and Glen picked at each other as their fans had seen them do numerous times. And by the end of their performance, in a moment of pure class, George turned to Danny Koker and said, “Danny, you were the original emcee for the quartet, why don’t you take over.” Koker shared his testimony, and gave an incredibly moving introduction of “Teach Me Lord to Wait” that I will never forget. Their performance at GOGR ended up being the only recorded reunion of the Original Cathedrals.
Hovie & the Dove Brothers
In continuing with his trend of giving time to new artists, Waller welcomed the Dove Brothers to the 1998 GOGR for their concert debut. Within months, the Dove Brothers were the hottest new quartet in the business. Anyone during this era that had the chance to witness McCray Dove, Eric Dove, John Rulapaugh, Burman Porter, and Richard Simmons in action knew that something “never before, never again” was taking place. Fresh on everyone’s minds at the 1999 GOGR was their newly-recorded version of the Statesmen classic, “Get Away Jordan”. The Dove Brothers had a top ten hit on their hands, and the attention of Hovie Lister himself. Sure enough, Hovie joined McCray Dove on the classic, and the crowd response is one of the most enthusiastic I can remember. Hovie joined the Dove Brothers again at GOGR 2000 on another Statesmen sugar stick, “Amen”, to equal enthusiasm from the fans. The comparisons between John Rulapaugh and Rosie Rozell had begun.
Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet
Waller’s surprise quartets were always a centerpiece of the Reunion. In 2001, Waller introduced simply “My Grand Ole Gospel Reunion Quartet”. Hovie Lister took the stage and rolled the legendary arpeggio for “Hide Thou Me”. One by one, John Rulapaugh, Jack Toney, Buddy Burton, and Roy Pauley entered the stage to resounding applause. The crowd screamed enthusiastically as they revived several Statesmen favorites, and as Hovie seemed to be taken back to the time when the Statesmen were in their hey day. Hovie himself hollered for joy and said, “Sounds like old times!” Four months later, the GOGR Quartet entered the studio for a new collection of Statesmen standards. Hovie had just been notified that his cancer had turned to leukemia, and that his time on earth was short. Weak and weighing perhaps no more than 90 pounds, Hovie entered the studio and completed twelve songs in one day. Less than three weeks later, Mr. Gospel Music entered eternity.
“The Five Blind Boys”
This moment was probably not for the politically correct, but nonetheless, was part of what made GOGR so unique. Waller took his wild imagination to the stage as he pictured an out-of-control group of blind vocalists taking the stage, swaying and moving to the music, and haphazardly leaving the stage. Waller chose Gene McDonald, Buddy Burton, Stewart Varnado, Jonathan Sawrie, and Mike Franklin to portray this scenario. It took literally as long for the group to enter and leave the stage as it did for them to perform their song, complete with Varnado walking off of the stage into the audience. A handful of people took issue with this presentation, but those already familiar with Waller’s willingness to place himself on the receiving end of his own (or Eva Mae’s) jokes knew that this was all in lighthearted fun.
The Un-original Masters V
Moments of hilarity, class, and poignance all within around ten minutes. Waller once again envisioned something unique from his promoter contemporaries as he hand-picked five fans of the Original Masters V to portray their magical performances. Harold Gilley was the natural choice to portray his friend JD Sumner; Ben Harris had some of Jake Hess’s vocal placements down quite well; John Rulapaugh, as mentioned above, had already made a name for himself as an heir-apparent to Rosie Rozell’s signature performance style; Jonathan Sawrie had the walk, mannerisms, expression, and piano touch of Hovie Lister; and to quote Waller, “Ishee can’t sing, but he can talk and sell records like James Blackwood”. What began as a fun tribute soon turned into a spiritually moving environment as John Rulapaugh rendered Rozell’s arrangement of “O What a Savior”. Prior to their performance, the men of this quartet had been apprehensive about their performance, but by the end, they could hardly leave the stage.
“Standing by the River”
The GOGR Jam Sessions always provided many impromptu highlights for the fans. One moment in particular, captured by fan Standley Taylor, turned into a popular youtube video in 2007. Gerald Williams, Scoot Shelnut, Jonathan Sawrie, Josh Garner, and Andrew Ishee gathered offstage and said, “Why don’t we sing ‘Standing by the River’ like the old Plainsmen used to do it?” Ishee asked what key to play it in, the quartet walked on stage with no rehearsal whatsoever, and NAILED the arrangement.
Last but not least, most fondly remembered are the friendships. A large bulk of my friends in gospel music were made at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. Friendships that are far more than acquaintances, but people who have become part of each others’ immediate families. I often labeled GOGR as the family reunion I actually wanted to attend, and it most certainly was that. The reunion family was just that, a family.
Thank you Charlie Waller, for your idea and your vision. Those of us that were blessed enough to attend this event are forever changed and forever grateful for your work. And to all my friends that I have missed for the last couple years, I hope to see you soon.
Please feel free to email me with any questions or stories at email@example.com, and you can visit my website at www.alankendallmusic.com. I will return next month with some memories of NQC!