Clip of the day

Longtime reader NG brought this clip to my attention. It’s Josh Garner, Jonathan Sawrie, Scoot Shelnut, and Gerald Williams doing “Standing by the River” at the 2007 GOGR:

The vocals are not without flaws and the recording quality is close to horrendous. And, too, regular readers will know that I would have preferred that Andrew Ishee had been cropped out of the clip: alas though he kicks the tune off well enough, it doesn’t take long for him to remind me why I’ve never missed his presence since he left the road.

All this notwithstanding, I’m pretty smitten with the clip  - not just despite but even because of its flaws. Maybe it’s just that I’m sick of hearing flawlessly facile karaoke concerts with vocal stacks so high that oxygen masks drop down from the ceiling. But this clip contains the kind of music - of surpassing immediacy and classically curatorial expertise - in which the flaws are deeply humanizing. They remind us that the sound is not just live, but alive, living, worth sticking with because you don’t know what might happen … for worse in places, yes .. but also and more often for better. Sure, Garner blows his lines in a few places, but that trio of the three upper voices leaves me gobsmacked all the same.

I have no special brief for the classic quartet sound, as many of you know, and even to me Garner’s voice stands out as the genuine article in a field full of imitation tenors who try to pretend that screeching nasality is the same thing as the rounded sculpted head-tones that, at his best, Garner uses here. Similarly, Sawrie and Shelnut and Williams turn in what I assume are more or less impromptu and largely unrehearsed performances of great mastery. The fact that they mostly just stand there and sing isn’t by itself dispositive proof of anything, but it suggests a lot of what I’m trying to get at here. It’s all a reminder of what it means to say an ensemble sound is greater than the sum of the parts.

The shorter version: any four voices in gospel music that can convey that wonderful sound of light even under such crappy reproduction quality are worth taking the time to listen to. More than once even.

Update: Daniel Mount points out that Garner sang lead for eight years with the Florida Boys and is about to do so again with the Blackwoods. “He isn’t even really a tenor,” Mount says. But this is precisely my point. Who says he ain’t a tenor? Because he can’t engage in the novelty-act squealing that passes for tenor singing these days? Somewhere along the line, any obligation for tenors to produce pleasant sounding tones got leeched out of the job description in sg and “tenor” became synonymous with “sings really really high notes no matter what.” For ages groups have arranged around higher and lower leads but very few groups make a point of rearranging their sound downward to accommodate the tenor who may not have a dog-whistle range on the high end. Instead they push the tenor up, up, up and ultimately out of the group if/when the punishing ranges in which most “classic” tenors are required to sing finally ruins their voices. But what Garner reminds us here that it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine what would happen if this song had actually been arranged for a second-tenor range like Garner’s.

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  1. Gayla wrote:

    I am so pleased that you chose to post this Avery. I have literally posted it all over the Internet. I absolutely love it! In my opinion Gerald Williams is one of the most over looked and underrated bass vocalists in Gospel Music. This clip expertly converys exactly why so many of us love and treasure the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion! Garner, Sawrie, Shelnut, and Williams truly know and understand the elements of Quality Quartet Music.

  2. GH wrote:

    Did he almost admit to liking something?

  3. Iwuzdere wrote:

    This was arguably the best impromptu quartet of the entire 07 GOGR. In this clip Garner reminds me somewhat of Jim Hill during his tenure witht he Stamps. While not a tenor by the classic definition he provided that big, round, full sound that a quartet can use to drive the sound to the back wall of a venue and you have no choice but to ride that wave in your seat. Outstanding performance!

  4. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    The funny thing, Doug (as I think you’re aware), is that Josh Garner isn’t actually a tenor himself. He sang lead with the Florida Boys for ~8 years and will be singing lead with the Blackwood Quartet starting this year.

  5. Brett wrote:

    Give me a mixed group with fine looking ladies anyday day over 4 males. I don’t see what is so great about male quartets anyway in SG, definetly Ernie Haase & the like are over inflated with ego not with standing.

  6. Dean Adkins wrote:

    One can see that the guys are really enjoying themselves too. Scoot appears to be having a blast.

  7. abk wrote:

    This group was a scrap iron, totally unrehearsed quartet performing at the Late Nite Jam Session at Grand Ole Gospel. I think Josh may have gotten a little more than he bargained for on the tenor end (hehe), as the song is pretty high, but this all around performance nonetheless is pretty remarkable.

    Impromptu happenings like this are what has made the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion special for 20+ years.

  8. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    Outstanding performance!

  9. TERRY wrote:

    Bret, I love those mixed groups also,but there are a few good male quartets around. I especailly like those who can still do that 50’s music. Heard the Nelons a few weeks ago , they were still great. That Amber has made a fine singer!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Mike McIlwain wrote:

    I totally agree with Doug about arranging voices parts to fit the range of the singers. While I can appreciate the “squeaky” tenor on a limited basis, I would rather hear a full-voiced tenor such as Jim Murray, David Phelps (when he was with GVB), or Bill Shaw.

    I don’t remember the name of the tenor who sang with the Vanguards (David Ingalls’ group), but their sound did not consist of a low bass or a very high tenor. This group just sang very pleasing harmonies and used some modern harmony for the bass singer. Must that is arranged well and sung well sounds much better than singing out of tune. As my friend Ben Harris’ has said before, “Southern gospel is not screaming to the top of your lungs out of tune.”

  11. quartet-man wrote:

    That is fun. One of the posts mentioned Jim Hill Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys told about how Jim Hill was an inspiration to his tenor singing. He said something like that Jim would turn red and veins pop to crank out a G or Ab, but did so with power.

    When I sang tenor in a mens quartet I would stick no more at a G or A on endings (Bb maybe on occasion, but tried to do the power thing instead of the thin, nasally, shrill tenor stuff. Now, I admire singers like Phelps, Funderburk, Baize who can belt out high C’s or higher and sound great. I also can love the chipmunks on helium sound at the end of some songs when the tenor would belt out a G, Ab or A above high C and the bass would hit the same note under low C. Each has its place. However, when I first listened to SG, what got me to listen to the Cathedrals initially was not George’s great bass, Glen’s great lead, Roger’s great fills, or Trammell’s great baritone, it was Funderburk’s high Db tenor on the end of This Old House. Finally a make tenor who sounded like a man on the high notes. I loved it and still do. Now, I had already listened to the Gaither Vocal Band for a few years and Larnelle had a nice sound and I had listened to the Oaks even longer and Joe blared out the tenor notes, but I hadn’t heard a southern gospel group at that point who had the power and high notes together with a good sound until then.

  12. John wrote:

    I was also there that evening.

    Gayla was responsible for that song being sung. Several of us were running around trying to find a tenor who could sing that song as it was intended to be sung. Garner fit the role perfectly.

    For those of you who are familiar with the Plainsmen, this is very close to their arrangement, and like abk stated, they just went on stage and sang it impromptu. If I remember correctly, their rehearsal consisted of nothing more than “Hey, ya’ll know what key the Plainsmen sang this song in?”"

    I know . . . poor grammar, but accurate!

  13. Mike McIlwain wrote:

    Another thought concerning Doug’s update on this topic is that if the Cathedrals had adjusted some of the keys on their songs to fit Kurt Young’s range they would have sounded better than they did during the Ernie Haas era. I’m not an Ernie hater, but I think he was one of the weaker tenors that the group ever had. Kurt had a nice tone. He just couldn’t hit the very high notes consistently.

  14. John wrote:

    Regarding post #13 . . .

    I recently heard an entire Cathedral Quartet concert with Kurt Young. I was rather impressed with their sound with this gentleman. I’ve never really cared for Funderburke’s voice, and I thought Kurt voice fit the group rather well . . . at least in that hour of concert footage.

  15. abk wrote:

    Going along with John…I don’t know of anybody that would have been better fit to sing that song than Josh, Jonathan, Scoot, and Gerald. Those guys each know more gospel songs off the top of their head than members of some quartets put together.

  16. thom wrote:

    very enjoyable clip - thanks

  17. quartet-man wrote:

    I had thought about Kurt Young too. He would have done better following Kirk Talley. I don’t know that he would have been a power tenor even with lower keys, but on the softer, more laid back material he would have done much better. Unfortunately the type of tenor they were looking for after Funderburk was not the type that Kurt was or could’ve been.

  18. Wade wrote:

    What ever happen to Kurt after the Cathedrals???

  19. burt wrote:

    You like this……but hate almost everything Gaither does???

  20. Irishlad wrote:

    Yea,and i was taken to task awhile back by some numbnut for having the audacity to call a lead(2nd tenor)a tenor. Think this proves me right.

  21. quartet-man wrote:

    #20 I don’t know if this proves you right, but you were right. 2nd. Tenor (Tenor II.) is techinically the correct term, but you haven’t heard that term used so much in SG for a long time. I have been taken to task on wikipedia for calling Duane Allen the lead singer, so I corrected their “correction” of what I typed more than once. They said all of the Oaks sang lead. True, but Duane is still known as the lead singer. That is his position as was Don Reid’s in the Statlers. The difference is Phil (like the baritones in the Cathedrals) often sang higher than the lead. (William Lee does this some, but not as much as the aforementioned groups.) When the tenor takes melody, I don’t know if Don ever took a second tenor part. He always took the baritone and Phil took second tenor. The Cathedrals did that at least from around the eighties on as best I recall.

  22. Irishlad wrote:

    YerQMan,Scott F is a good example of a lead/2nd tenor singing baritone. In this case to keep the continuity and the fans happy Glen kept his place as lead. Having said that; Glen would’ve made a better baritone(anytime in his career)than SF.I say that notwithstanding Glen’s excellent lead contribution.

  23. Irishlad wrote:

    Yes QMan,Scott F is a good example of a lead/2nd tenor singing baritone(when he shouldn’t be).However in this case to keep the continuity and the fans happy Glen kept his place as lead. Having said that Glen would’ve made a better baritone(anytime in his career)than SF.I say that because Glen could honestly pull both parts off to a degree of unquestionable natural ability and discipline unlike too many of todays crop. I’ll shut up before i turn in to Roy Pauley GFBD.

  24. quartet-man wrote:

    #22 Glen actually won a Singing News award for favorite baritone back in I think the early eighties. It was funny that it slipped in there and no one caught it. Sure, he sang the baritone part when the tenor had lead, but he was still classified as the lead singer and I am surprised no one there caught it. :)

  25. quartet-man wrote:

    By the way, the song is in Eb and the tenor ending goes to a C on the word “and” in the phrase “with my friends and loved ones.” Garner has to hit a lot of Ab’s and Bb’s to sing the tenor on this one and did a respectful job and did so powerfully. I realize someone like Penrod hits notes that high and English did in that area early on, but I think Garner deserves some kudos for doing that. :)

  26. bravo wrote:

    I love the little old lady with a Pentecostal hair do bun on her head that walked in front of the camera at the beginning. LoL

  27. Cliff Cerce wrote:


    I think American Idol has had a somewhat adverse effect on our Industry. Since their emergence several years ago, there has been more and more attention and demand for proper technique and utter perfection in a performance. We have all become “Simons” - often focusing more on what is wrong with a performance than on what is right with it.

    That may sound OK at first, but I believe the influence of AI has caused us to accept technical perfection (or near-perfection) as a substitute for the elements of our music that have historically made it stand out as a genre.

    Singers used to sing with all of their heart, used to be able to play with the lyric or the pitch or the rhythm. Now, the music is becoming antiseptically clean - and sterile in many cases.

    The Blackwood Brothers, Statesmen and others were not as perfect in their singing as this new standard demands - but they filled the seats in the auditoriums night after night with their emotional singing. Today we have perfection - and empty auditoriums.

    This clip illustrates what is right about our music, when the artificial and stringent new requirements are put aside. Four men - clearly having a ball - while creating a sound. Their singing is wrong enough to be right.

    Of course, technical perfection should be a goal, but not at the expense of the “feel or groove” of a song - or in a way that fails to connect with the audience in an emotional way.

    And, as the comments on this thread reveal, this kind of spontaneous “from the heart” singing is just as contagious and enjoyable today as it was 40 - 50 years ago.

  28. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    By the way, in the early days of The Cathedral Trio and Quartet, Baritone Danny Koker often sang a harmony part higher than Lead Glen Payne on many of their songs. Danny could sing a very thin tone, while Glen’s voice was more broad - and this combination (with Danny higher) created a different kind of blend on some songs than on others when Glen was higher - and this additional “sound” added to the group’s versatility.

    When Danny left and George Amon Webster came, George did not sing in the same range as his predecessor, Danny, and the quartet generally stayed with the more traditional sound of Glen singing on top of the baritone part. Many became acquainted with the quartet after Danny Koker left, and were unaware of how Glen and Danny often switched ranges.

    But, when Roy Tremble came to the group (originally as the baritone), and Mark Trammell came later, the group reverted back to many songs with the baritone over Glen, a style they continued with Scott Fowler, who followed Mark.

    So, it was common for Glen to often sing the lower part during most of the versions of the group, with the exception of the two different stints George Amon Webster had with the group.

  29. Ben Harris wrote:

    The late years of the Cats, Glen was primarily the baritone, even though he was ontroduced as their lead. Scott Fowler sang most of the lead parts when the group was doing 4 part arrangements. Having the melody (lead line) down low with two harmony parts above puts the 5th on top. A sound I am not at all fond of. Someone mentioned putting the tenor on top….in that case the lead singer is singing the baritone note, and the baritone is singing the tenor an octave down. (3rd on bottom)

  30. Kyle wrote:

    Steve Lee had a similar range to Amon, which is not surprising, considering he followed Amon the second time around.

  31. quartet-man wrote:

    “29 Exactly. I don’t much care for the fifth on top either. I prefer the tenor to have the third and the baritone to have the fifth beneath the root. I do disagree that Scott did most of the lead parts in that he didn’t sing the melody. He did most of the the second tenor parts. The melody just happened to be beneath the second tenor. I am sure that is what you meant Ben, but it sounded like you meant Scott took the melody in the way you said the first part.

    When the tenor takes the lead the baritone does indeed takes what would have been the tenor part, but down an octave. In that case the second tenor takes what would have been the baritone part in the same octave as it would have been.

    When singing baritone, I like singing beneath the lead at least most the time. Singing over the lead (as if a tenor part) is okay, but when singing tenor I don’t particularly like singing the fifth although I like doing it an octave down beneath the lead. Same thing with the baritone part when the tenor has the lead. I like singing the tenor an octave down, but when singing second tenor I don’t like singing the what was previously the baritone part between the melody and the baritone (now taking the tenor an octave down.)

    So, it depends on the placement of the parts in how much I like to sing them, :-) (except for tenor when it is a third over melody. In that case I don’t mind singing it over the lead or an octave down as a baritone unless perhaps the key is so low it gets muddy an octave down.) Maybe that is why I like baritone. No matter how the part falls, I like it. A third over the lead, beneath the lead taking the fifth, the traditional tenor part down an octave. It’s all good. :-)

    On the Oak Ridge Boys version of Where The Soul Never Dies, Duane Allen sings the “baritone” part when William Lee takes the lead. Then when Joe takes the lead on top, Duane takes second tenor which turns out to be the same part he sang as baritone, but up an octave. This goes with what we are talking about of course, but it is interesting that Duane sings “baritone” and then jumps to second tenor. Not unique I am sure, but of interest.

  32. quartet-man wrote:

    As Kyle knows, I love the song “Yesterday” that the Cathedrals did on the Reunion CD / Video. When Tremble takes the lead on top, Glen takes second tenor and George stays on Baritone.

    Steve Lee has a baritone voice that is a true baritone in sound from what I have heard. I would place people like Scott Howard, Jeff Steele and Mark Lanier in this category. Too many baritones in gospel quartets are closer to choir tenors and quartet tenors are more like altos in range. Now, I like groups that can sing this high, but I also like to hear the lower harmonies at times. The Gaither Vocal Band is one that has had people who can do both.

  33. Bob M. wrote:

    #27, Cliff, is right on.
    Having sung in church and performed in plays since the age of 16 (I’m 43 now), I find myself playing the role of critic as well. I catch myself doing it quite a bit. Especially for me, stage plays. My wife points this out to me frequently. I suppose its just human nature. But because of blogs, we all now feel that not only is our opinion the only correct one, but it is our duty to post it for all the world to see. God forgive us.

  34. Steve wrote:

    Major announcement from Bill Gaither:

    Should have replaced himself with Gene McDonald.

  35. Grigs wrote:

    If I catch a baritone in my quartet having a fifth, he’s fired!

    LOL…reminds me of once at NQC when a few friends of mine and I were taking a break in the food court and another friend approached the table and asked what we were talking about.

    “Discussing the lowest tenor and highest bass,” I replied.

    “Don’t ya mean highest tenor and lowest bass?”

    I had to tell my friend that we weren’t discussing singing.

  36. Gear Hound wrote:

    It’s nice to hear “real” singing in this video. And guys having fun doing it. I miss seeing this.

    The video — blurred though it is — is almost a metaphor. We now have to look back through opaque memories of past concert moments to remember those magical moments because there has been far more than simply “stylistic” changes in Southern Gospel music. When the instrumentation is on tape there are no variances in meter or dynamics from night to night.

    Does anyone remember what it was like to hear the Cathedrals in concert when they were at the end of a tour. There was nothing like hearing them on the night before they were returning home to Stow (let’s say, when they were returning from the West coast) — everyone was “loose,” having a good time. I swear, the piano playing was faster, and guys tried things vocally they wouldn’t normally do, because they knew they’d have a few days to rest it off.

    Now with vocal stacks, the singers are doing the rope-a-dope at the end of a tour, barely singing with any energy on the choruses. Why should they? The track will cover them.

    I’m sick of DisneyWorld Southern Gospel! Give me real…warts and all. That’s right, they can PhotoShop those out now…

  37. Irishlad wrote:

    Speaking of baritones,my all time top ten in no particular order.Doy Ott,Eldridge Fox,Ed Hill,Tony Peace,Mark Trammell,Glen Aldred,Jon McBroom,Jonathon Parker,Tony Gore(yes a baritone) and last but not least,Squire Parsons.

  38. quartet-man wrote:

    #37, I think Ed Enoch was a superb baritone in the Stamps. The group with Baize, Sumner, Enoch, Sterban and Sumner on occasion was my favorite version. What a Super Group! It would have only been better I think if Richard had been even lower and fuller like he was a few years later. :) Nonetheless, it was a great, modern sound with great voices.

  39. TERRY wrote:

    quartet man, i agree that stamps group was one of the best ever!!!!!!!!!

  40. Irishlad wrote:

    Yes QT,i’ve a coupla LP’s with particular line-up…i agree.

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