Bill Gaither in History

Apropos our discussion of the Gaither Trio discographical madness, the ever insightful CVH writes:

What I’d like to see, aside from all the Gaither/Homecoming product released today, would be an extensive compilation, like a boxed set, of all the earlier recordings, with outtakes, alternate versions, etc. and extensive liner notes. Bill would have to write them since MacKenzie and Bob Benson are gone but additional comments by Bill Grine (photographer), Bob McConnell (graphic designer), some of the engineers or players could be insightful. I doubt there would be a market for it, but as a collector who was influenced by BG’s music and a fan of that era of recording and publishing gospel music in general, it would help fill in some of the gaps and provide a comprehensive overview of the earliest years of one of the most significant groups in the genre.

I heartily second all this (read his whole comment; it’s worth it).

Judging by some of your comments, I’m more surprised than most of you that Gaither is no more actively involved in curating the history of his own career than he is. Perhaps a Gaither partisan would argue that this disinterest in certain parts of his own personal history reflects Gaither’s selfless concern with just being a blessing and letting the rest of the chips fall where they may. But I think that’s pretty clearly naïve, and wrong.

Both of his autobiographies are in some ways extensive attempts to carefully manage the relationship between history and his professional image (and like I said, it’s not like he’s averse to copiously annotated lists, as evidenced by the fairly exhaustive recitations of awards that cap off each book). The few times I’ve talked to him, he has spoken at length about Christian music history. Again, this may be Bill Gaither playing the part of Bill Gaither, but even so, that would only seem to deepen the puzzle. Wouldn’t a commitment to music history include carefully preserving your own if the early part of that work helped bring about a sea change in Christian music and entertainment?

My own sense is that Gaither is intellectually and imaginatively restless, that his eye is constantly darting hither and yon, trying to look for and alight upon whatever is just on the horizon, whatever the next thing is for him and his musical career. Partly this is good bidness, but reading his books, I get the sense this restlessness may also be a symptom of a deep-set anxiety Gaither has about losing his edge – or, perhaps more important, about being perceived to have lost his edge, gone soft creatively, or sold out ethically or spiritually.

Both books go on at some length about a “attack” in the early 70s on his integrity and authenticity from a close friend. The assault devastates Gaither, as he tells it, and sends him into a year-long depression and creative dry spell that he doesn’t reemerge from until the arrival of his third child, whose birth inspired “Because He Lives.” When I first read the books, the amount of attention and energy Gaither expends on this episode seemed strange to me: what his friend says is indeed mean, but I originally had a hard time imagining that what really amounts to an outburst of rudeness from a jealous friend could have surprised Gaither that much.

But on rereading the books this time, I got the feeling that Gaither is deeply concerned that his motives be perceived as pure and that his success be understood as a testament to his purity of heart. I don’t mean that Gaither is insecure. Just the opposite, in fact. If anything, he often comes across in the books as put-out that he has to explain how or why he and his wife made the business decisions they did. It’s as if to him, the patent proof of their business wisdom and ministerial acumen invalidates all need for explanation, that his story matters not for its explanatory value but because it provides a glimpse into the origins of their current success and contextualizes his reflective insights on life and Christian art.

In this light, history would seem to matter to Gaither only insofar as it affects the present. This would explain why he spends so much time constructing and reconstructing autobiographical narratives about the past, while evincing little interest in creating a coherent discographical record of his early years. Those old albums matter because they succeeded, individually and collectively. Why care about anything else?

There’s a bit of the historical fallacy in this kind of thinking. Moreover, it results in a pretty astounding gap in our understanding of American Protestant Christian music and cultural history. But aside from all that, as a practical matter, I find it difficult to believe a collector’s edition release of The Gaither Trio: the Early Years (from the earliest custom stuff to, say, 1975 or so) wouldn’t sell quite well, and not just among old timers like CVH.

The Homecoming phenomenon has (d)evolved to a point now where Gaither has nothing to risk by reminding people of his contemporary and inspo roots. In fact, many of his Homecoming fans would probably relish the chance to invest in the nostalgic prehistory of their favorite gospel music impresario. Everybody wins, especially BG: rereleasing the old stuff puts money in the bank, and reinforces his image as a trans-stylistic master of Christian music.

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  1. BUICK wrote:

    Reserve one of the boxed sets for me! I’d love to hear the early BGT tracks re-mastered and burned to CDs. I so miss Danny’s voice. I love the simplicity of the arrangements and accompaniment of those first recordings. I have several on cassette and I keep going back to them. The chord progressions have a freshness that has stood the test of time–and those chords are not lost in the clutter of over-orchestrated tracks.

    Yes, just the way you’d described (liner notes, etc.): burn ‘em, box ‘em & I’ll buy ‘em.

  2. cdguy wrote:

    There could be practical hinderance to re-packaging those oldest recordings. Knowing how sloppy some in the Christian music bid were in those days, those earliest masters may have been lost, what with all the buying and selling of the Benson company over the years. First to Mac and Zondervan, then to other investors, then to Zomba (via VanHook, who was not a huge fan of BG, on a personal level). And what masters still exist may be tied up in probate somewhere. Who knows?

    Many of the old masters have been re-packaged and re-released, but nothing in the way of a definitive collection. And that’s a shame. I’d buy one, too.

  3. Norm Graham wrote:

    Maybe Gaither thinks he can sell more product — CDs, DVDs — if people don’t know exactly when they were made.

    Here’s an example: In the mid-90s Benson Special Products put out a series of CDs called “20 Favorites.” Different groups were featured on each disk which contained old songs released on earlier projects. The ones in the series I have by the Cathedrals, Kingsmen, Oaks and Speers list the album on which each song first appeared and the year of the album release.

    However, a disk by the Gaither Trio (identified as Bill and Gloria Gaither with no reference to the trio) has no information on where the songs first appeared or what year they were released.

  4. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    “Judging by some of your comments, I’m more surprised than most of you that Gaither is no more actively involved in curating the history of his own career than he is.”

    I’m not shocked at all. Bill Gaither is the master when it comes to recording the same songs over and over with slight variations and improvements. If you were Bill Gaither, would you rather have people buying your latest Homecoming and GVB recordings, or would you prefer that they buy and collect used Gaither Trio LPs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s?

    It’s the old Doritos catch phrase…”we’ll make more”…with a dual meaning on “more,” if you catch my drift.

  5. Chris wrote:

    I recently viewed his video documentary, “Because He Lives.” It had a lot of the BGT on it, which was very cool. I also openned my eyes to the fact that Bill is man like you and me. For years I’ve seen him as the mega-Swaggert who dominates the industry and chokes out all competition. But this video really showed him as an everyday guy who writes good songs and has good ideas and has bad days like me. He gets up in the morning, has coffee, eats cereal, has his servants bathe him…

  6. Marlin R. Taylor wrote:

    XM’s enLighten34 presents a four-hour aural biography of Bill and Gloria, through a conversation with Daniel Britt recorded in Alexandria a few weeks ago.

    To be heard in two two-hour segments on Daniel’s program the weeks of March 31st and April 7th.

    For times and details: - on H. P.

  7. BUICK wrote:

    #6, I love the slip (if it was) about the “aural” biography. I assume you meant “oral”. Aural is defined as: “of or pertaining to an aura”. So it may be an “aural biography” if it concentrates on the B&GG aura - - which is as real and pervasive as the Aurora Boriealis.

  8. quartet-man wrote:

    I wish they would do more with the Gaither Vocal Band too (a reunion comes to mind) as well as reissuing old GVB and trio stuff on DVD as well as Praise Gatherings. There was supposed to be a video released that had some songs from the GVB OneX1 and maybe some trio songs too. I think it had four songs by the GVB (going strictly by memory.) It seems like Fools For Lesser Things, Look Up Lamb Of God (maybe) and one other. I would love to find that, but have not.

    I also hate the choices sometimes they make as far as Gaither Homecoming accompaniment tracks released. They overlook better songs, more popular songs, and what I think would sell better in favor of songs published by Gaithers company such as God Loves New York City, New York City Have We Got A Song For You etc. I mean, other than directly after 09/11 and by New Yorkers themselves, just how many would buy and sing this in church? There are other examples. Gaither is a great businessman, but I can’t understand some of these decisions although he doesn’t need me telling him how to be successful. To me though, it seems that selling 3 times as much tracks at say 95% profit beats getting the whole pie, but only selling 1/3.

    Now, I want to say I admire Bill, love a lot of his music and know he has done great things. He also has helped several and seems to love doing so often putting their success over his as far as featuring the stronger singers (even though he knows they all succeed when one wins.) Other examples are in encouraging Sandi Patty, Michael English etc. to further their solo careers instead of selfishly hanging on because they helped him be more successful. That is selfless.

    One thing I don’t like though, is misinformation out there. Bill himself claims the GVB started a year later than they did. The proof is a live album the year before by the Gaither Trio (Live Across America) that has the GVB (but not named) doing “First Day In Heaven” much as described in their history. I understand that he has a bad memory and is more concerned in the now and later, but I would think that they have records (the paper or computer kind) and people who would keep up with this.

    Sure, I am nitpicking, but I like accurate information out there. :)

  9. quartet-man wrote:

    I failed to mention that I believe Bill did and does love SG. I have and have read both books and I don’t think the second was rewriting history as it was sharing points of your life that perhaps many of the fans reading the first book wouldn’t care about, but the ones who he gained after Homemoming would. Also, remember his love and support of SG in the seventies and eighties as well as the fact the first song the GVB (a male quartet) sang was First Day In Heaven.

  10. w. w. wrote:

    Quartet Man said . . .
    “. . . better in favor of songs published by Gaithers company such as God Loves New York City, New York City Have We Got A Song For You etc.”

    Trying not to take that too personally. . . but since those are my songs, I don’t have a choice! (Insert Laughter!) I co-published the first title you mentioned with Gaither Music, and the second one, I published 100%, so that is not why they released them. I am thankful for the exposure. Almost all the songs released on the Homecoming programs are available. Perhaps you have not been contacting the right source. Many bookstores don’t order them all, but if you contact Gaither Family Resources in Alexandria, you will find more Homecoming Tracks available than you could ever use, including those two “worthless” songs!

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    Woody, I certainly never meant they were worthless and I apologize that it sounded that way. I am sure that they were useful in New York, after 09/11. I was simply using those as examples from a commercial standpoint. You have written some great songs that I love, but I stand by the fact that I don’t really see those as being in high demand for performances in a church setting.

    Let’s just say I have checked online for tracks in places such as christianbbok and other places, local bookstores, and even Gaither himself. He carries more, but not aot of songs, I have been to Gaithers once, but don’t recall a lot of tracks. By the way, didn’t you write the new(er) theme song for Phipps Gospel Sing? It wouldn’t be one I would sing in church either, but I do like it. :)

  12. quartet-man wrote:

    By the way, Woody, although you put “worthless” in quotes, I never used worthless at all. You used that. I mentioned your two songs because they came to mind as ones I saw in bookstores and ones that I thought weren’t commercial enough for in church needs. Great for the troupe when they sang in New York, but surely you would have to agree that they would have limited applications outside of New York.

    I do hope you understand that I didn’t attack the quality of your writing or equate them with the only two songs that I thought wouldn’t sell as well as others. For the record, several of my favorite Homecoming tracks are not released (from what I can tell.) Some have been, but you are certainly in good company. Different strokes for different folks. For instance, I preferred the version of Night Before Easter with Donnie Sumner instead of Jessie Dixion. I wanted Joy In My Heart, The Robe Of Calvary, and Lord, Feed Your Children. There are several others, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head. Ones I really like they did release were ones such as “This World Is Not Home”, Canaanland Is Just In Sight, The Haven Of Rest, Glorious Freedom, Hear My Song Lord, O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing, Master Of the Wind, The Statue Of Liberty, Child Of The King (although I wish they had done the version with only Younce) and some others.

  13. cdguy wrote:

    Woody, not just to contradict, but most of the recent Homecoming releases have NOT had tracks released. Now, if GFR can sell you a custom-made cd, that’s a different story. But the Gaither organization has not released tracks to retail for at least the last 3 or 4 projects (Picnic, Campfire, and Together, to be specific).

    If your local Christian does not have a track for the song you’re looking for, and if they don’t offer to check, ask them to call New Day Christian Distributors, as they are now the primary source for both Daywind and Gaither accompaniment tracks.

    Hope this helps someone.

  14. quartet-man wrote:

    I guess I had even more to say, Woody. :)Thanks for the tip about Resources. I might compile a list and see if they carry them (even if they are not on Gaither’s site.) I might be in the minority here, but on the Homecomings I prefer the performances by the individual groups (makeshift or not) more than the ones with the choir or mostly with the choir. At least many I like that do utilize the choir more, but I like, use soloists that make them stand out.

  15. Mike Fyfe wrote:

    Bill gaither has done videos and d,v,d.s..on many of his home comeing friends. im suggesting he do a special on donnie sumner the greatest gospel singer ever who sings with heart felt passion and what a gospel concert he puts on. Come on Mr Gaither with the elvis connection and being J, Ds. nephew and his testimony it would make agreat homecomeing video. As youve probably gathered im a donnie sumner fan and do not think Mr Gaither uses him enough on his homecomeing videos he never seems tio get a whole song to sing only the chosen ones get that that privilige start useing the old ones Mr Gaither thats what made your videos special.

  16. quartet-man wrote:

    I had the opportunity last night to need something to read for a while, and I pulled out “I Almost Missed The Sunset.” Very close to the beginning he mentions listening to SG quartets such as the Blackwoods and Dixie Four while growing up, and also mentions others including when he started pitching songs. So, that is evidence that he has a genuine love for it.

    While we are doing a wish list, I wish the GVB would tour more. Perhaps they are some now with Sig Sound, I haven’t kept up with their schedule, however, for the most part since Homecoming (and even early on), the GVB has been underutilzed in favor of all of the Homecoming artists and earlier the Gaither Trio. Here we have one of the top groups, and you can generally only get a few songs from them.

    I was blessed enough to hear them in a full concert before the Homecoming stuff took off as much as it did. This was with Murray, English, and Lowry, but at the time the way he introduced Murray, Murray might have already been gone and was back filling in. I could be wrong, but it sure sounded like Murray was helping out. This was before Franklin though.

  17. sockpuppet wrote:

    Mike, #15
    At the risk of encouraging you, Donnie Sumner will be featured on the song “Then I Met the Master” on the upcoming “Rock of Ages” Gaither project due out in a couple of weeks.
    Apropos to another thread on this blog, Classic Imperials will also have a cut “The Love of God”

  18. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    This blogger likes reading one the books about Bill Gaither:

  19. CVH wrote:

    Avery said, “…and not just among old timers like CVH.”

    Gee, being an ‘old timer’, it took me a couple days to get back to this thread; then I had to find my reading glasses and put the magnifier in front of the monitor, lol.

    I guess everything’s relative. I’m 53. I think of ‘old timers’ as people in their 70’s or 80’s. And I regularly throw out the membership offers I get in the mail from the AARP. Maybe I’m just in denial.

    Oops, gotta go…Lawrence Welk is on tv and my large print Reader’s Digest just came in the mail…

  20. cdguy wrote:

    Mike — Although Donnie Sumner was part of the Stamps during the Elvis days, and JD’s nephew, he really hold no other prominent part of gospel music history. He was not a front man, never had a large presence as a soloist, even within the Stamps group.

    He was an excellent singer, and wrote a few significant songs, I don’t think he had a big enough presence for Bill to warrant a tribute. Fortunately, he has had solos on several Homecoming projects.

    I’m afraid Donnie will be not much more than a footnote in sg history.

  21. Payton wrote:

    Am I the only one on here who is just about “Gaithered out”? I know there are so many other things in SG other than Bill Gaither that we could be discussing….

  22. Joan Boelema wrote:

    I have Bill & Gloria’s “He touched me” collection of their songs published in 1969. My question is - how can I find out if they had ever done a concert in Grand Rapids, MI way, way back in years. I have a friend that says she had attended such a concert and I think it was held at the Godwin High School auditorium.
    Do you have any such info?
    Thanks - Joan

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