Religion

Gospel group's roots trace back to 1934

For nearly 50 years, Ron Blackwood of the Blackwood Quartet has been mesmerizing audiences with the harmonies of “He Teaches Me,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and other gospel favorites. He knew Elvis Presley, he’s performed with big names and notyet-big names and he likes to relax by watching Bill O’Reilly.

The oldest child of the late R.W. Blackwood Sr., one of the founders of the Blackwood Brothers, Ron Blackwood says he’s having as much fun in his career as ever.

“I’m telling you, I’m as excited and thrilled as I was when I was 20 years old,” Blackwood said in a phone interview this week from east Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and family.

Blackwood and his quartet will perform a free concert at 6 p.m. Sunday at First Baptist Church. The quartet’s “Super Tour” is keeping a full schedule, performing after Columbus in Kentucky, Indiana and Alabama.

Ron Blackwood’s musical roots began in 1934 in Mississippi. His father R.W. began singing baritone with the group as a 13-year-old. The Blackwood Brothers were Doyle, James and Roy Blackwood. Vardaman Ray and Gene Cartledge rounded out the group, which would evolve into a famous singing family. The quartet moved to Memphis in 1950. Four years later, the Blackwood Brothers lineup of Bill Shaw, James Blackwood, R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, with Jackie Marshall on piano, won a national talent competition.

But tragedy struck just 16 days after the award. Ron’s father died in a plane crash in Clanton, Ala., along with Lyles and a friend who wasn’t in the quartet. Ron had a difficult time for many years following. He was 13 at the time of the crash.

“I hated the world,” he said. “I hated God. Daddy was my hero. I had all that anger. I was unruly,” he said.

Soon after, Ron said, he turned back to God. And turned to another gospel great in his family’s circle, J.D. Sumner.

“He took my daddy’s place when he died. I was an idiot back then. J.D. said to me, ‘I love you no matter what you do; I’m here for you.’ It was a turning point. Time has really helped.”

Sumner took over Lyles’ bass part in the quartet, and R.W. Sr.’s brother Cecil did the baritone part. In the following years, Sumner and James Blackwood became the first to customize a bus for group travel and are the also founders of the National Quartet Convention. Sumner, as well, contributed to the Blackwood Brothers as a songwriter.

Elvis Presley was inspired by the group’s bus. Upon seeing it, he went out and had one made for him. A replica of the early Blackwood bus can be seen at the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Ron Blackwood remembers Elvis with affection. While recognizing the late singer’s problems with prescription drugs, he counted him among his friends.

“One time he looked at me and he said, ‘I’d give anything to sing with the Blackwood Brothers.’ Sometime later we were in Vegas and I saw him and said, ‘Elvis, if you sang with the Blackwood Brothers, no one would know who you are.’

“Elvis was a good man.”

Award winners

The Blackwood Brothers teamed up with the Statesmen in the 1960s to form a record label called Skylite. In 1969, they collected nearly 200,000 signatures on a “God And Country” petition in retaliation to the outlawing of prayer in school. They would go on to win Grammy awards (eight), as recently as 1982. They earned another nomination in 2004. James Blackwood won the male vocalist of the year seven times from the Gospel Music Association. (James died in 2002.) The quartet has 27 Dove Awards to its name.

Last summer, Ron and R.W. Jr. were named “Living Legends” by the Music City Gospel Showcase.

Ron Blackwood said he’s frequently asked if his old-style gospel sound, and that of his family, is on the way out — due in part to the rise in recent decades of contemporary Christian music.

“Churches have gone to praise and worship but the pendulum has swung so far. I’m thinking (worship music) is coming back more to a balance,” he said. “I have a saying: ‘No one likes (gospel) but the people.’ ”

Ron Blackwood said he kicks back in a couple of ways: by reading the Bible and by watching Bill O’Reilly.

“I like what he says.” Another hobby is work. He’s been a manager for the late Billy Walker, Hank Williams Jr., and the Stamps Quartet. On Tuesday, he and his group will appear on a national TV concert with Barbara Mandrell, who is being honored in Nashville. They just found out Monday.

In addition to Ron Blackwood, other members of the Blackwood family also use the family banner musically. James Blackwood also had a group late in his life, called the James Blackwood Quartet. Other descendents of the original group also have groups including R. W. Jr., who has the Blackwood Brothers Quartet.

About a year ago, Ron and R.W. Jr., split off into their separate groups but still sing regularly for family specials in the Smoky Mountains.

Terry Blackwood does solo engagements and dates with The Imperials. Mark Blackwood leads the Blackwood Gospel Quartet.

The Blackwood Brothers Quartet can be heard singing on the radio in the beginning of the movie “Walk The Line” about Johnny Cash when Johnny (actor Joaquin Phoenix) was in Memphis. The Blackwood family, Johnny Cash and the Cash family established a friendship that led to appearing together through the years on both recordings and live performances.

Ron Blackwood and his wife, Shelley, have eight children and seven grandchildren between them. Yet the musical genres sometimes compete, even in his own family.

“I just took two of them (ages 15 and 16) to see a Christian rock band,” he said.

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