The case for the Cathedrals’ greatness (III of III)

I remember Ernie Haase at the quartet convention’s Catherdals reunion a few years back, describing what George said to him once when he, Haase, complained about having to sing “Oh What A Savior” night after night: “George told me,” Haase said, “’some singers go their whole career without having even one song to call their own. ‘You should be thankful,’ he said to me, ‘that you have that tune.’” Remarkable. Unbelievable brilliance, not just from George Younce (a genius to be sure), but in a way, a summation of the ethos behind the group’s success. The Cats went out night after night for most of the last three decades of the twentieth century with nothing but a keyboard, a bass and four voices. No stack tracks (at least not many), no DAT bands, no dubbed choirs (at least only a few now and then). Just them. And they sang, most of time (except those few years there toward the end of the Funderburk era that weren’t so swell, Funderburk being at the time so out of shape vocally and all) with a degree of expertise and mastery that astounds me even now. Some groups lurch about for years, decades constantly reinventing themselves (”We sing the classic quartet music of the 50s and 60s;” “We’re the ones with clever, reliable stunts;” “Look, over here … we’ve got a flag corps and a petition you can sign”). Which is to say, some groups, to adapt George’s line, are lucky ever to find one stable style of their own. But with discipline and diligence, the Cats patiently tilled the fertile ground that George and Glenn staked out for the group from the beginning. The pricey clothes and the classy stage presence, the snazzy bus, the posh island at the convention exhibit hall, the glossy PR - these things didn’t pave the way for their success but proceeded from them and the elegance embodied in that wonderful name, Cathedral. Their first worry was not so much their look, or their signature stunt, or a trick to set them apart, but the sound, THEIR sound. Not the sound of their voices with DAT tracks and voiceovers and dubbing, but their voices, alone, and whether or not they could stand, vocally and instrumentally, on their own if the power went out. They could, of course, and the plan worked … famously well. The class and the elegance came later, maybe naturally, from the graceful, skilled way they did their music. The first-rate emcee work, the tasteful, right-on comedy, the balance of two old codgers and three young guys - all that came later. What propelled the Cathedrals’ success and enabled their unforgettable music, and what sustained their unrivaled dominance of southern gospel music was that delicate cocktail of style, real style: a sound that is easy to recognize, difficult to describe, and impossible to imitate.

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