In Memoriam James D. Walbert

As I noted a while back, James D. Walbert, grandson of James Vaughan and accomplished gospel pianist, died recently. Yesterday I received a note from a friend who attended Walbert’s memorial service, and I asked him to pass along a report he had written for another online forum and for his permission to re-post here. He graciously agreed.

TO: Those who might not have heard this otherwise.

I wrote this originally for a list of persons who don’t know much about southern gospel, so that should explain some of the info I included.

Stephen Shearon


This message is about a southern gospel legend.

A memorial service for James D. Walbert, grandson of James D. Vaughan and extraordinary pianist, was held yesterday, Sunday, August 2, at 2:00 P.M. in the James D. Vaughan Memorial Church of the Nazarene in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.  Born in 1918, Walbert died in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 7 of this year and is buried in the Vaughan family plot in Lawrenceburg’s Mimosa Cemetery.  If you know little or nothing about him, consult the websites accessible via the links below.  (There are plenty of others besides.)  “Peace Like A River,” perhaps his best-known song, and for which his father W. B. Walbert wrote the words, was performed during the service, as were others.  He’s also known among the southern gospel folk for his piano arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”  And there is much, much more.

Attendance was quite low: 30-40 people, I’d guess.  The service consisted of performances of songs by Walbert and Vaughan, reminiscences, and a little bit of congregational singing.  Some of that was quite interesting, but most interesting was a video showing a rather informal concert Walbert did in 1991, when he was ca. 73 years old.  I had already known that the man had a prodigious piano technique (most southern gospel pianists who know his artistry hold him in the very highest regard), and this video reinforced that knowledge.  But what also came roaring through was a keen intelligence.  Each of the family members (daughter, son, wife) responded strongly in turn when I referred to his intellect.  It apparently was an important part of his personality, and one they valued highly.

One bit of information I learned that I had not heard before: Walbert contracted polio in his early 30s, shortly before Salk developed his polio vaccine.  This apparently had a devastating impact on him.  But he seemed to overcome it.  He showed a physical toughness then that he was to show again during his seven years in a Birmingham nursing home prior to his death.

A collection of some of his recordings, _James D. Walbert: The Piano_ (2003 Vaughan) can be obtained from the James D. Vaughan Museum (

Walbert grew up immersed in the midst of a thriving music culture, a culture based primarily in the South, that most Americans know little or nothing about today.  That should be of special interest to those of you who receive this.

Stephen Shearon

I guess I’m a little surprised by the low attendance. I realize the singing-convention and singing-school culture with which Walbert was mainly identified has declined substantially in the past forty years or so, but during the same time, important segments of professional southern gospel appropriated the Vaughan name and legend in an effort to present the increasingly commercialized world of southern gospel as a sanctified tradition descended from the Lawrenceburg tribe. Walbert  was an actual  descendant of that line, and a fine exponent of its music. One wonders at the lack of interest in his passing among many of those who have capitalized on his family’s name.

RIP, James D. Walbert.

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  1. cdguy wrote:

    I would gather the size of the crowd (or lack thereof) had more to do with his advanced age, the amount of time he’d been gone from Lawrenceburg, and possibly the lack of promotion within the SGM community, rather than anything else.

    Frankly, although I am familiar with Vaughan and his contribution to this genre, I was not familiar with Walbert’s name and work. And I’ve been immersed in SGM my entire life. Even if I’d seen and announcement, without the full story, like posted above, I’d have probably said, “Who?”

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    I tried to view the link on the Vaughn Museum site, but could not get through. Did anyone else have this problem?

  3. Wade wrote:

    Who did he ever play with???

  4. rr wrote:

    I worked several years as a quartet pianist. My long-time teacher was a student of Walbert’s, so I would have to say that my piano work was influenced by this man. In turn, I have taught a few people along the way, and some of them are now teachers. I am sure I am just one of many who could say the same, so his artistry will continue to live.

  5. lfan wrote:

    I took piano lessons from James D. Walbert between 1966 and 1970 in person and through correspondence. He was a true genius. He could write out a full song arrangement in 30 minutes (not with the number system, but with actual music notes on the scale), while talking to me. He was truly a master of the piano and of music theory, as well as a wonderful person.

  6. ABK wrote:

    The deaths of early pioneers like James D. Walbert, as well as Loy Hooker of the early Stamps Quartet, have both went literally unnoticed by our industry this year. It’s a shame that today’s singers and industry leaders pay such little attention to the folks who have helped to bring them where they are today.

  7. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    In the 1930s, Walbert first became known for his work as pianist for the Vaughan Radio Quartet.

  8. Irishlad wrote:

    Brought up in N.Ireland and seemingly a million miles away from the States both in culture and distance,the name James D.Walbert is instantly recognizable.I’ve seen the name on hymn books and various publications during my life time.

  9. Wade wrote:

    Thanks David Bruce M & IrishLaddy… I will get the Old Red Book out and see what i can find!!

    IrishLaddy… added another Northern Ireland person to facebook… I am sure you will know him. you were a mutual friend!!

  10. AnnD wrote:

    James D. Walbert has had an immense influence on my life’s music. It’s all a part of my heritage that I’m soooo grateful for.

  11. Stephen Shearon wrote:

    To Michael McIlwain: Yes, some others have had trouble getting through. Google “james d vaughan museum.”

    Walbert’s personal website is at According to his biography, his piano students included Fay Jennings Thompson (Author of “Shape Notes”), Derrell Stewart (The Florida Boys), Gordon Stoker (The Jordonaires), Edsel Bourland and Jackie Marshall.

    To Wade: Jim Walbert did write some well-known songs and piano arrangements. But his greater impact, it seems to me, came more from
    1) his virtuosity at the keyboard (especially when accompanying fine SG singing);
    2) his skill at blending the styles (some might say “genres”) of American pop, jazz, and standard church music to create a relatively unique personal style that has since become foundational in SG pianists;
    3) his rock-solid knowledge of music theory (he grew up around singing schools and singing-school teachers, after all); and
    4) his iconic status as a member of the Vaughan family, as one who came of age in the midst of a thriving creative and educational business that was central to the development of SG.

    He was inducted into the SGMA Hall of Fame in 2004. Hopefully you can access his bio there at

  12. Randall E. Murphree wrote:

    I regret I could not go to his memorial due to having a bad disk in my back. I know several others who wanted to go, but couldn’t due to their age and health. I studied back in the late ’70’s from Jim. He and his wife were some of the nicest people you would ever meet. He always encouraged his students to develope their own technique. He not only taught Southern Gospel, but also classical, jazz, and popular music as well. He was an accomplished writer. He was definitely a genius. I will never forget his kindnest to me.

  13. Wade wrote:

    Thanks Stephen!!!

  14. Michael McIlwain wrote:

    Thanks for the info, Stephen. I saw a section for cds and dvds. There were some listed but no way to buy any. Does anyone know where one can buy Mr. Walbert’s recordings?

  15. rr wrote:

    He probably was one of the first teachers to jot down what he was playing, instead of just demonstrating it to his students. That tradition was handed down to the student of his who subsequently taught me, and I even used it from time to time with my own students. That way the student didn’t have to memorize and later recall everything heard and seen in the lesson - the written version was always there.

  16. David Walbert wrote:

    I just noticed this site, and appreciate all the warm comments about my father.
    I did notice an error concerning the nursing home, and want everyone to know that my dad never spent a day in a nursing home. He lived from 1949 until the day he died in 2009 at [edit] Drive in Birmingham, Alabama.

  17. R Cook wrote:

    Mr. Walbert taught both I and my brother during the late 60’s early 70’s at Street Music on 8th Ave. in Nashville. He commuted there weekly to teach students in the Nashville area. He was truly as inspirational as everyone beforehand has mentioned. His ability to write music arrangements was an awesome thing to behold. I still have many of his arrangements to this day and enjoy playing them all. I am glad to read all these kind words, for he was truly a great man with a gentle heart.

  18. bsummers wrote:

    Took piano lessons from Mr. James D. in the late 50’s in Birmingham. He was a great guy and teacher.

  19. Greg Ferguson wrote:

    James Walbert traveled to Smyrna, Ga. (suburb of Atlanta) on Saturdays, one summer during the mid 1960s. I took lessons for an amazing, memorable, special 3 months. How I wish I could have taken 3 year instead! How can we get sheet music of his piano arrangements?

  20. David Walbert wrote:

    Thanks again to all of you for the warm comments. Those interested in my father’s 600-700 handwritten arrangements or recordings can contact me at the above email address.

  21. Delton Frost wrote:

    James D. Walbert was the greatest piano player that I have ever known. Jack Marshall being the next. He was a great musician and gospel song writer. His father, in my opinion, was instrumental in the growth of Vaughan Music Publishing. His name was W.B. Walbert and I knew him very well. Sad at the low turnout at James D’s memorial but that was due to his advanced age and lack of publicity.

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