Blackwood Brothers & Elvis (2022)

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Blackwood Brothers & Elvis (1)

The Blackwood Brothers

Roy Blackwood, age 34, oldest brother in the Blackwood Family, formed the Blackwood Brothers Quartet in 1934 in Choctaw County, Mississippi. Roy Blackwood, Doyle Blackwood (26), their youngest brother James (16), along with Roy's oldest son R.W. Blackwood (13), comprised the original quartet.

R.W. Blackwood, baritone singer from 1934 to 1954, and Bill Lyles, bass singer, were killed in an airplane crash on June 30, 1954 in Clanton, Alabama. Following the plane crash, the Blackwoods returned, with Cecil Blackwood singing baritone and J.D. Sumner singing bass.

While J.D. was with the group they were the first quartet to travel in a customized bus. The Blackwood Brothers organized the National Quartet Convention in 1956. They also helped charter the Gospel Music Association, were founders of the Skylite Record Company, owned the Stamps Music Company and other music companies.

The Blackwoods recorded with RCA for 21 years, won eight Grammy awards and sung on Barbara Mandrell's Grammy Award-winning gospel album. They were two-time winners on the Arthur Godfrey television program and have appeared on TV with Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford. They also co-hosted the syndicated TV program "Singing Time in Dixie."

Through the years the group's personnel included piano greats Jack Marshall, Wally Varner and Tommy Fairchild, Jimmy Blackwood followed his father's footsteps in singing lead for quartet for 16 years. The bass singing of "Big" John Hall, London Parris and Ken Turner and the tenor voice of Pat Hoffmaster have also played important parts in the Blackwood Brothers' long history.

Blackwood Brothers & Elvis (2)

Backstage at a gospel music convention at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis.
Elvis joins the Blackwood Brothers (left to right: James Blackwood, Hovie Lister and J.D. Sumner)
for an impromtu rendition of "How Great Thou Art."

The Southern Gospel Connection.

Cecil Stamps Blackwood, only the second baritone in the sixty-three-year history of the southern gospel's famed Blackwood Brothers Quartet,became one of Elvis Presley's best friends when the two were sixteen-year-old high schoolers in Memphis.

The lifelong friendship started in the teen Sunday school class at the First Assembly of God church on Memphis's McLemore Avenue in 1951,several years before Elvis became a gyrating rock 'n' roll sensation.

"He came in late," recalls Blackwood on his initial sighting of Elvis Presley," and everybody was staring at him because he was dressed a littledifferently. His hair was different. He had long sideburns, and he was wearing second hand clothes, bright and loud, a red coat, white shoes. I got totalking to him and we became friends.

"Elvis loved Gospel Music and had been going to see the Blackwood Brothers concerts. He was an admirer of my brother, R. W. Blackwood,"says Cecil, who has captured the "Best Baritone" honors numerous times from the Singing News Award. Now the sole owner of the BlackwoodBrothers Quartet, Cecil and his singers have won nine Grammy Awards and seventeen Dove Awards.

He comes by his vocal talents honestly. The Blackwood Brothers originated in 1934 in Choctaw County, Mississippi, when evangelist RoyBlackwood formed the quartet with his two brothers, Doyle and James, Roy's oldest son, R.W.

When Cecil's father, brother, and two uncles were performing across the United States in the 1950s, the teen had formed his own church quartetthere at the First Assembly Of God. They went by the name of the Songfellows.

"The pastor's son was in the group, and so we were singing around trying to get started. We had a radio program," Cecil recalls. "Elvis had a '41Lincoln and I had a '48 Studebaker. We became the two most popular guys in class because when it was time to go eat we were the only two withcars."

"Elvis wanted to be a member of the Songfellows, but we didn't have an opening. We would ride around in my Studebaker. We would sing in thecar and practice and were good friends, and we would go out to eat at night after church.

"I remember one night we went to Leonard's Barbecue and Elvis and I each had thirteen passengers in our cars. We couldn't go around this onesharp curve because the weight had the springs touching the tires. Everybody had to get out of the cars, so we could get rolling."

As for Elvis's favorite eats as a teen, Cecil says, "His favorite thing was cheeseburgers, always cheeseburgers. We all liked to eat at Leonard'sBarbecue on Bellevue and K Barbecue on Crump Boulevard. Those were our two favorite eating spots."

Eventually it appeared the Elvis would be in the Songfellows as one of the members went off to college, but the not-so-studious student quicklygot kicked out of school and thus came back to Memphis and the quartet. Elvis was content to wait in the wings and drive along for the fun of it.

Then , on June 30, 1954, tragedy struck the Blackwood Brothers Quartet when an airplane crash in Clanton, Alabama, took the life of Cecil's bigbrother, R.W.

"After my brother's death I took his place with the Blackwood Brothers, so Elvis came in to sing my part with the Songfellows. This went on forseveral weeks, but Elvis and Jimmy Hamill, the pastor's son, had several disagreements. Jimmy wanted Elvis to shave his sideburns and hewouldn't. And Jimmy said Elvis couldn't sing harmony.

Well one day Elvis came over to my place and had a guitar strapped on his back and he was hot and sweaty, and he said to me, ' I want you totell Hamill something. Tell him I have signed a contract to sing the blues.' I said "Okay I'll tell him."

"So Elvis didn't sing with the Songfellows very long. Meanwhile, we were having concerts at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, and as I would walkthrough the venue I would see him behind the counter selling Cokes. We would stop and visit.

"Time rocked on," says Cecil, "and all of a sudden Elvis started becoming famous and more famous. We stayed in touch. He would still come tothe auditorium to hear us. Whenever we would have a concert he would come backstage with ten or twelve of his entourage. He would come out andsing with us or the Statesmen. Finally he said, "I can't do it this time. Col. Tom (Parker) said I can't sing unless I am being paid but I can sit backhere and listen.' So he would come back and listen and step out and take a bow and the crowd would go crazy.

"Elvis went off in the Army and then his mother died. We were in South Carolina and he sent an airplane to pick us up and bring us to Memphisso that we could sing at her funeral. We sang about ten of her favorite hymns. He cried on our shoulders and we visited for awhile.

"Later, after he returned from the Army, there were a number of times we went to visit Graceland and sang way into the night. Over the years hewould continue to appear at our concerts. We just stayed friends all the way through," says Cecil with a melancholy tinge to his voice.

"Elvis loved the Blackwood Brothers. We were his favorite singers and gospel was his favorite music. He was completely different from whatthey played up in the magazines. He was very kind and gentle, soft-spoken as a rule. He always said 'Mr. Blackwood' to James, and 'yes sir and nosir.' He called me Cecil because we were the same age. We didn't know any bad side of Elvis, only the good side."

There is a single incident that has been a thorn in Cecil's side for many years, and for once would like to set the record straight.

"After Elvis became pretty popular, he would come to church on Sunday nights but would sit up in the balcony out of the way. Photoplaymagazine came out and interviewed Reverend Hamill, because at the time there was some real controversy about so many church's not liking rock'n' roll music.

"Reverend Hamill said that Jimmy Hamill and I fired Elvis from the Songfellows because he couldn't sing. That was not the way it was. Jimmyhad simply said that Elvis could not sing harmony. Elvis laughed about it, but it's something I've never been able to shake. He was a great leadsinger, but the misquote was given and we've had to live with it the rest of our lives."

Still, Cecil Blackwood considers those early years with his gospel music-loving friend Elvis Presley to be among his most precious memories.


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