Three Saviors

David Bruce Murray has posted what he calls “three generations” of “What A Savior.” First up is Ernie Haase a few weeks after he joined the Cathedrals. Then there’s Charles Billingsley at Thomas Road Baptist Church. And finally Rosie Rozell with the Masters V. They’re worth checking out (especially the Masters V, if for nothing else than Jim Bakker’s intro in all its PTLness).

DBM is curious about which is the best of the three, which is as fun as it is unanswerable in any definitive way. Of course that won’t stop me from weighing in, and I’ll get to that, but first, some quibbling.

To some extent, DBM has put his thumb on the scale a little by posting one of the earliest  clips of Haase before he had really trademarked the song and solidified his performance of it. He’s vocally still very tender and underwhelming in this clip and far less charismatic as a showman than he would become. On top of that, the quality of the instrumentation, arrangement, and recording is suboptimal at best, especially compared with the Cathedrals late work.

So even though it would have screwed with his three generations theme (Haase represents the twentysomethings in DBM’s geneology), the fairer representation of Haase’s performance of the song would have been from Alive: Deep In the Heart of Texas album.

Conversely, the Masters V in the 80s had a certain kitschy old-guy mystique to them ( honestly: check out those smokey lenses Hovie and Rosie are wearing!), and the trio from the voices beneath Rozell is still in fine form. But Rozell himself, not so much. By this time, and no matter how great he had been, his pitch placement was pretty sketchy, his voice was quavery, and the once sparkling, piercing tone had gone flabby, settling into something like a warble. Nostalgia helps Rozell pull it off, even now (as one commenter over at musicscribe put it: “Rozie with the Original Statesmen will always *own* that song to me”). But it’s still sort of a mess.

Which leaves Billingsley, in his vocal prime, being digitally recorded and backed up by a full orchestra and choir. You see where this is going.

So anyway, back to the original issue: which one is “best.” Well, if I had to choose on musicality and performance without any substitutions of the provided clips, I’d have to go with Billingsley, who (in addition to singing the song in the wiser keys of D-flat/D) outsings both Rozell (he really  had no business at his age, in that shape, trying to sing this song in F) and Haase, and Billingsley has a better sounding voice to boot.

You are now free to disagree.

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  1. quartet-man wrote:

    I too thought that the Cathedrals clip was far from their best. Ernie even did it better on the first video he did with them and that was still within his beginning with them. What might be a good sequel is to put the early Cathedrals clip, perhaps another, one of the last Cathedrals clip and maybe a Signature Sound one. However, many might vote for Signature Sound because they are so hot now, but I would vote for his latter years with the Cathedrals (Alive Deep In The Heart In Texas would probably be good by memory.) Ernie started signing that song with the Cathedrals in G (I can’t recall what key it was on his solo tape, but I didn’t like the arrangement as well) He did it in F# on Nashville Now at least, and then it went to F as I recall.

  2. quartet-man wrote:

    By the way, J.D. made a comment in one of his books that the Master’s Five was mostly FOR nostalgia. J.D. had wanted to choose Connor Hall, but Hovie wouldn’t join without Rosie. J.D. admitted that Rosie was a better tenor at the time and made some sort of quip that had he been going for quality, he would have chosen Younce for bass. (I think Younce was his choice.)

  3. charley rushing wrote:

    There has never been a more over-performed, scripturally incorrect, self-serving song ever! Second only to “I Bowed On My Knees And Cried Holy”

    Deliver us Lord!

  4. Lead1 wrote:

    #3 Tell us what you really think….

  5. jonathan edwards wrote:

    Ok one line is incorrect in Oh What A Savior but as my dad told me never base your theology amd doctrine on music. Please tell me what is wrong with I Bowed On My Knees.

  6. oldtimer wrote:

    Here we go again. It seems that everytime this song is brought up that people who base their theology off song lyrics and Jim Hamil/George Younce/Ronnie Hinson song intros get their self worked into a tizzy over the “they searched through heaven” line in Oh what a savior. So here we go one more time -

    Revelation 5 : 2 - 5 : “And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ But no one in heaven or on Earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of judah , the Root of David has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

    You may not like the song or the arrangement or some other trivial aspect of this discussion, but Revelation 5 does give credence to the line “they searched through heaven and found a savior.” But then again one would have to consult the scriptures to know that - and I guess for many people that would be a hassle.

    By the way - Billingsley is by far the best singer but I like Hovie on the piano and the Younce/Payne/Trammell bunch for the back up. So here would be my choice -a quartet made up of Younce, Payne, Tramell and Billingsley accompanied by Hovie.


  7. oldtimer wrote:

    One more note - I think Lead1 (#3) was absolutely spot on with his “over performed” and “self-serving” comments. It is simply a standing ovation in a can - like partiotic songs for getting people to stand or mama songs for getting people to cry. If was truly only about the message and the lyric then the now standard fantastic second verse explosion would be unneccessary. So let’s be honest - I think it is a good song - but the arrangement and performance is generally geared to make the audience say “O What a Singer” - not “O what a savior.”


  8. Clarence Coffey wrote:

    I have this song by the Songfellows when Shaun Nielsen was singing with them and I can assure you he could out sing any of the aforementioned tenors.

  9. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    I could have used Ernie as the middle-age version, but I really wanted to get Billingsley’s into the mix for the sake of variety.

    25-year-old Ernie’s performance fails to surpass Billingsley’s not because he’s young or inexperienced or even because he’s new on the job. It doesn’t measure up because he’s singing Rozell’s version note for note.

    The version he does these days with Signature Sound is more impressive, because he has tweaked it to suit his strengths.

  10. Wade wrote:

    Like my Momma used to say… some of you wold not be happy with a Gold Butthole if it was lined with diamonds and rubys.

  11. Jake wrote:

    Wade -(# 10) — did your momma really used to say that? LOL

  12. CG wrote:

    I realize everyone has their favorite version, but in my (humble) opinion, none of these three outshine the late great Johnny Cook. This version was recorded when he was about the same age as Ernie is in his posted version:

    I LOVE EH&SS, but Ernie can’t touch early (HGF days) Johnny Cook!

  13. Wade wrote:

    Hey Jake… yeppers she did while listening to patriotic songs by Rosie Rozell & Michael English!!!

  14. GM wrote:

    Charles is Minister of Music at Thomas Road Baptist in Lynchburg, VA but the clip was taken from First Baptist in Jacksonville, FL. This was Charle’s home church growing up and he visits once or twice a year.

  15. Aaron Swain wrote:

    Nerves probably didn’t help in the Ernie clip, either. Somebody said Ernie told them that clip was from his second or third week with The Cathedrals.

  16. Nate Stainbrook wrote:

    12. I have to agree it is hard to beat Johnny Cook on any song. May he rest in peace, just another SG great that was taken before his time.

  17. mab wrote:

    I wonder has Larry Ford ever done this song.

  18. Scot Eaves wrote:

    Nate (#15): You are correct. Ernie told me that when I gave him a DVD copy of all of my old Cathedrals videos that I recorded from TV over the years.

  19. charley rushing wrote:

    Sorry to all the “Oh What” and “I Bowed” fans I may have offended. My family group has performed both songs, but that was a long time ago. These two have the same problem that so many SG favorites have. The focus is almost always about the singer, what he gets and who he will see and what he will do. Me, me and all I will see. The way I read it, none of that will have any importance in the afterlife, so why hype it to oblivion?

    Forget all that though. Rehashing the same old songs with the same storylines with the same old cliche’ sure is tired.

    And #17 - Don’t give Larry any ideas . . . we have enough versions to last through this life and the next, plus one!

  20. tusk molarr wrote:

    too late. #19– Larry Ford has already sung it on a Gaither video. He took the second verse (the “O what a singer” part) after Larry Gatlin sang first verse and chorus.

  21. tusk molarr wrote:

    oops– I can only find Larry Ford singing it with Squire Parsons on Youtube. I still remember him doing it with Mr Gatlin too.

  22. cdguy wrote:

    quartet-man, Ernie did that song in G on his solo project.
    Or at least the band did. Ernie was probably somewhere between F# an G.

  23. Ben Harris wrote:

    If it had not ben for Rosie Rosell and his original version of the song, the song would have gone away and be forgotten a long time ago. Rosie made the song famoust for tenors, not only with the arrangement (which Doy Ott did) but also with the soulfulness he sang the song with. All others are still trying to capture some of that spark that he created with what is otherwise a very average song. It is not a matter of who is better among these particular clips, it is a matter of why this song tenors are still inclined to perform. And who caused this to be such a classic? Rosie Rosell!

  24. Oldtimer wrote:

    cdguy (#22) - best post of the year - made me laugh out loud and cringe a little at the same time!

  25. Delton Frost wrote:

    You said it well, Ben. This song was Rosie’s trademark song. The passion with which he always sang this great song makes the difference, also.

  26. Jim Gerdes wrote:

    It is nice to hear the good comments about Charles Billingsley who I admire even though he isn’t Southern Gospel. I see him each Sunday via satellite at Thomas Road. Now if you want to hear a great rendition of “I bowed on my knees and cried holy”, find one of Charles singing it. I used to think Michael English was great in his prime singing it, however Charles is “one up” on this song.

  27. J wrote:

    If you have sat in an auditorium along with thousands of other people and listened to Rosie bring all of them to their feet you would be saying Ernie who?. It always kind of ticked me off that Georoge never made reference to Rose when they first started to sing OWS. I realize I’m old and will probably be scoffed at but Rose could get the job done like no other.

  28. Grigs wrote:

    I did the best version of this song that I have ever heard in the shower one night in 1996. Sadly, I have never been able to duplicate what I did that night. Thankfully for us all, there is no video available.

  29. newcomer wrote:

    This is ironic as I “discovered” this song a couple of weeks ago daisy chaining on YouTube.(It all began with Susan Boyle!) Also discovered this blog. For Charley, millions of Christians have never heard this song and don’t even know it exists.

    I’m not even a casual fan of sg although I did go to a Martins+Hoppers concert 8 or 9 years ago and the Bill Gaither Homecoming show that same year; bought a few of the Homecoming videos. I vaguely recall seeing Gold City a LONG time ago. Anyway, the version of O What a Saviour I first watched on YouTube was with EHSSQ and it blows these three out of the water as far as I’m concerned. . . not even a contest. (One woman’s opinion). Let’s just say it was good enough that I would fork out big bucks to see them in concert the next time they’re within a couple of hundred miles of me.

  30. Jim Bradley wrote:

    #26 Jim Gerdes….just ask and you shall rteceive:

  31. Jim Bradley wrote:

    #21 tusk molarr…….here you go: In an appearance in the “James Blackwood Quartet”:

  32. Jason Hunter wrote:

    I think the Master’s V clip is the best. Rosie could still belt it out. I was a little disappointed in the clip of Larry Ford singing it that #31 posted.

  33. Deron Johnson wrote:

    I grew up listening to the Cathedrals and Ernie’s version. For a while, that was the only one I ever had heard. But, Charles Billingsley came to my church for a concert and we purchased a live album that he had recorded at the Pastor’s Conference at First Baptist Jacksonville. It included the same arrangement of “Oh What A Savior” that was in the video. At first, I was surprised that the song was included; the only person I had ever heard sing it was Ernie Haase.

    Everything about it was infinitely more pleasing to me. I felt it fit Charles’ voice better because of the lower keys, it was a better arrangement of the song, and he was also backed up with a ginormous choir and orchestra. Overall, of these three, Charles’s is the best. Hands down. You might not like him because he is not exclusively SG, but you have to admit he is an amazing vocalist, and he just sounds good.

  34. DMP wrote:

    I think Phelps would do this song proud…

  35. RF wrote:

    Billingsley benefits from digital processing and a full orchestra a choir on both clips seen here–something that Bill Gaither is a master at. The Cathedrals clip benefits from good sound while the Masters V clip is only piano and singers. That said, none of these tenors are chopped liver. Ernie does a good job as does Billingsley and Rosell. Larry Ford has such good diction that I like it too.

    Many folks take shots at Haase because they don’t like his hair or makeup or whatever else (maybe his group’s success?), but the truth is, his version with SSQ is pretty good, as is Rosie’s, Larry’s and Billingsley’s. It’s matter of taste. The fact that Billlingsley’s was put into this mess is simply to highlight the difference between seeing a group live without enhancement live. I once heard Mercy’s Mark live and was underwhelmed. Why? Because there studio projects were so polished that any live performance was a comedown. Billingsley in concert with a choir and orchestra compared to Rosie with a piano and Ernie with a group of three singers is unfair, but don’t let that get in the way with your opinions.

  36. Wade wrote:

    cdguy- YES Great line and that is from some one who makes money making ppl laugh!!! lol:-)))

    newcomer- welcome!!

  37. Irishlad wrote:

    Anyone know how and when Jonny Cook passed on?

  38. Hummingbird wrote:

    #34 I’ve always wondered about hearing him (David Phelps) sing that song since I prefer his tenor sound better than the others mentioned…but I imagine he’d end up changing parts of the arrangement enough to sound different from the others that have sung it before him.

  39. Nate Stainbrook wrote:

    37. Irishlad Johnny died on May 14th of 2000. He died from Kidney failure, while in the hospital in Huntsville Alabama.

  40. Aaron Swain wrote:

    #37: Cancer. Not sure when, but it was a few years ago.

  41. burt wrote:

    With a Phelps’ arrangement, only dogs and a handful of marine life would be able to hear the song.

  42. Nate Stainbrook wrote:

    I also really like Brian Free’s version of “Savior”. I got to hear it live last summer, and I was blown away.

  43. CG wrote:

    Johnny Cook did not die of cancer, he passed in May 2000 of kidney and liver failure.

  44. mab wrote:

    #7). Isn’t any song done by any entertainer/performer (yes, SG not exempt from the fact that it is a marketable business) by definition intended to show their talents in the best way possible? The audience did not come to hear ‘the song’. I’m sure each set list is driven by response analysis, ditto the ‘way’ its done. Comes down to a matter of taste, which there is ‘no accounting for’ and there are plenty of choices. IMHO.

  45. quartet-man wrote:

    #44 I agree. Why would people not do their best (whatever that is) on a song? Otherwise, why not just read the lyrics to ourselves, have them read in monotone, or sing them offkey in a Gregorian Chant?

  46. Aaron Swain wrote:

    #43: Got it. My mistake.

  47. Derek wrote:

    I am a Brian Free fan…but I was actually a little disappointed in the recording of OWS by BFA (haven’t heard it live)…Brian was a bit too smooth for me for that song…a little too “controlled” in his voice. It just didn’t seem like he was belting it. I know that sounds weird…but it was almost “too good” for me. I like to hear ‘em scream I guess! LOL

  48. DMP wrote:

    True burt….so true.

  49. Wade wrote:

    Nate… I agree when I heard Brian do it alive I thought Rosie is proud up in heaven and that Ernie should carry Brian’s bag around and maybe learn something!!!

    Believe me Derek he BELTS it out in person but I know what you mean and there has been even a discussion or 2 here on AVERYFINELINE about how some of the stuff just sounds TOOO SLICK!!!

  50. Irishlad wrote:

    #39 et al ,Johnny must have been quite young,nearly 10 years dead.Was that him on an early Gaither tape doing a version of the Statesmen with Jake playfully lifting him by the shirt when stretching for a high note?

  51. CG wrote:

    #50, Johnny Cook was 51 or 52(?) when he passed. Yes, that is him being lifted by Jake on “What A Time”. The closest tenor (in terms of range) presently to Johnny is David Phelps. While I am a HUGE fan of JC’s voice, I must admit, I give DP a slight edge over him.

  52. Nate Stainbrook wrote:

    50. Yes he was 51 when he died. And Derek I agree, that Brian is a little to controlled on the studio version of “Savior”. But when he sings it live WOW does he ever “Belt” it.

  53. Bob wrote:

    Stinkin southern gospel fans….

    It’s all about the bass going really low and the tenor screaming his lungs out….

    Forget about quality….

    Everyone needs to wake up - this is why our GENRE HAS DIED!

    Stop with the elementary idolizing of high and low - focus on quality.

    You’ll never find a CCM group out there pulling all this kind of crazy nonsense…let’s get it together.

  54. Bryce wrote:

    Thanks for the info on Johnny Cook, CG and Nate.

    Kidney and/or liver failure is usually the result of some pre-existing condition. Can anyone enlighten us as to what caused the deterioration of Cook’s health at such a young age?

  55. bdl wrote:

    Here is a link to Brian Free’s version of the song. He is amazing especially on the second verse.

  56. cdguy wrote:

    Wade - #36 — Thanks for the affirmation. I, too make a little money making people laugh, so that was nice.

  57. Irishlad wrote:

    #53, the group Acapella always showcased the high tenor low bass,nothing can be said about the undoubtable quality of their stuff.

  58. Blake Edmondson wrote:

    Revelation 5 never mentions a “search”. The angel was asking who in “heaven, earth, nor under the earth(paradise)” was worthy. The answer was no, except the lamb. There was never a search because the triune Godhead had a plan for the lamb to be slain “before the foundation of the world.” In fact, who would be doing the searching? God, is God, besides him there is no other, and he is omniscient. Did it ever occur to you that nothing ever occurred to God?

    As for the song, Jerry Martin of the Dove Brothers nails this song better than any of these three and Brian Free. JMHO…God Bless!!!

  59. Wade wrote:

    cdguy… Wish you would write me on facebook or on my regular email…

    My sense of humor is pretty warped. I am trying to work cleaner, even in clubs because that is where all the BIG MONEY is at and it would make me feel better.

    If you do Christian or Clean Comedy I would like to meet or know you.

    I feel a great call to be a positive minster of laughter… but realize all ppl have a warped sense of humor if they are honest with themselves.

    I was with Henry Cho last night who is TOTALLY CLEAN with out ANY MESSAGE just good clean humor.

    I pray all the time the Good Lord will give me that type of HUMOR so I CAN be a positive message giver.

    There are many ppl on here that have written me at my address or on facebook and I have never given any of them up and would make you that same pledge!!

    So you think EH is always a little flat but never sharp??? ;-)))))

  60. j-mo wrote:

    Wade, are you a loan doctor or a fun doctor? I’m confused.

  61. Wade wrote:

    j-mo… was a loan dr when doing loans was a viable way to make a living in this country.

    When that ceased to be true, a friend of mine said I should be the fun doctor since producing events & parties, DJ & MC Events and doing Stand Up Comedy is what I do now.

    The loandr email address is one I have had for a LONG TIME. I still use it. Although I do have a fundoctor email addy too.

    Hope that clears it up for ya!!!

  62. rngfreckles wrote:

    #28 - That’s just too bad. It could have been your big break!

    My favorite performer on this song is none of the choices you listed! My mother, Deborah, has been singing that song since I was little. It has become her trademark song. Everywhere we go, we are always asked that she close the service with it. (Okay, and maybe I’m a little prejudice… =+)

    She also had a problem with the wording in the first verse (I don’t, she does). So, she sings, “Then God in Heaven sent down a Savior,” rather than, “They searched through Heaven, and they found a Savior.” She changed the wording about 3 years ago, and no one has said if they like it that way or not. It’s still our #1 requested song.

  63. j-mo wrote:

    I’m happy for you Wade. It was my childhood dream to become a fun doctor, but I didn’t have the patience for eight years of college.

    I have a friend who got his masters in tomfoolery, but he’s having trouble finding work in that industry. I told him he should have gone for shenanigans instead.

  64. Casual Observer wrote:

    Am I the only one that noticed the wrong note that Charles Billingsley sang at the end of that clip? The last three words he sang were “You and Me” - he sang a B natural on the word “and” while the orchestra and choir were on a B flat. It’s a G minor chord and he apparently thought it was going to be a G Major chord. He sounded great and he did it with gusto, but wow - that hurt me!

  65. Extra Ink wrote:

    Billingsley, hands down.

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