The Blackwood Brothers are an American southern gospel quartet. They are eight-time Grammy Award-winning pioneers of the Christian music industry.
The Blackwood Brothers Quartet was formed in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression when preacher Roy Blackwood (1900–71) moved his family back home to Choctaw County, Mississippi. His brothers, Doyle Blackwood (1911–74) and 15-year-old James Blackwood (1919–2002), already had some experience singing with Vardaman Ray and Gene Catledge. After adding Roy’s 13-year-old son, R.W. Blackwood (1921–54), to sing baritone, the brothers began to travel and sing locally. By 1940, they were affiliated with Stamps-Baxter to sell songbooks and were appearing on 50,000-watt radio station KMA (AM) in Shenandoah, Iowa.
Doyle left in 1942 and was replaced with Don Smith. After Doyle left, The Quartet relocated to Memphis, Tennessee in 1950. The move proved to be successful for the group as they began to appear on television station WMCT in coming years. After the move, Roy left and was replaced with Calvin Newton, who was replaced with Cat Freeman, and after Freeman left, Alden Toney was hired to sing tenor. In 1951, Alden Toney and Don Smith left and were replaced with Dan Huskey and Bill Lyles.
In 1952, Dan Huskey left and was replaced with Bill Shaw. On June 14, 1954, the Blackwood Brothers lineup of Bill Shaw (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), R.W. Blackwood (baritone), Bill Lyles (bass), and Jackie Marshall (piano), won the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts competition on national television with their rendition of “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs?” The excitement was short lived however, when a plane crash took the lives of R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, and Johnny Ogburn, a local friend of the Blackwood Brothers. The survivors, James Blackwood, Bill Shaw, and Jackie Marshall soldiered on. R.W.’s little brother Cecil Blackwood (1934–2000) took over as baritone and J.D. Sumner replaced Bill Lyles at the bass position.
In the following years, he and James Blackwood put a number of innovative ideas into play. They were the first to customize a bus for group travel and are the founders of the National Quartet Convention. Sumner also contributed to the group as a songwriter, sometimes writing all the songs for a music album.
The Blackwood Brothers were also setting new standards in the studio. Their RCA Victor recordings from this time period are now prized collectors’ items. The lineup with Bill Shaw, James, Cecil, and J.D. Sumner (who for many years was unchallenged as the Guinness World Record holder for having the lowest human voice on record) is considered the classic version of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, with Jackie Marshall or Wally Varner on piano. The Blackwood Brothers Quartet came up with the idea to customize the first bus to make travel spacious and comfortable for entertainers thereby inventing the customized “Tour Bus”. Elvis Presley saw their bus and went straight out and had one made for him. A replica of the bus can be seen at the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
The Blackwood Brothers formed a partnership with the Statesmen Quartet to tour as a team in the 1950s. This dominance lasted for about a decade until the rise of gospel television shows in the late 1960s began to give competing groups wider exposure. The Stateswood team also started independent record label Skylite Records. At one time, the Skylite roster included The Blackwood Brothers, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, Jake Hess and the Imperials, the Speer Family, the Florida Boys, the Couriers Quartet, the Kingsmen Quartet, the Calvarymen Quartet, the Calvary Quartet, the Kingdom Heirs Quartet, the Statesmen Quartet, the Prophets Quartet, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Jordanaires, the Southernairs Quartet and the Rebels Quartet.
The Blackwood Brothers were still a major force in the industry at the end of the 1960s. In 1969, they collected nearly 200,000 signatures on a “God And Country” petition in retaliation to the banning of prayer in school. In 1969, James Blackwood’s oldest son, James “Jimmy” Blackwood, Jr. (born 1943), stepped up as the main lead singer for the group. Jimmy was a member of the Junior Blackwood Brothers and the Stamps Quartet. From 1969 to 1980, Jimmy sang the lead for most of each concert, but James would come in at the end of the concert and do a rousing set that many considered the highlight of the night.
James left the Blackwood Brothers in 1980 when he and other former members of the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet formed The Masters V. During the post-Sumner era the Blackwood Brothers quartet included bass singers John Hall, Conley “London” Parris, and Ken Turner, and tenors including John Cox, Steve Warren, Pat Hoffmaster and Robert Crawford. The 1970s and 1980s lineup with Pat Hoffmaster, Jimmy Blackwood, Cecil Blackwood, Ken Turner and Tommy Fairchild had the Blackwood Brothers’ biggest hit with “Learning To Lean.” This song holds the record in the “gospel music world” for being No. 1 on the national radio charts longer than any other song in gospel music history.
The Blackwood Brothers have recorded over 200 albums and sold over 50 million records. They have won eight Grammy Awards, four Dove Awards, and have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Association (GMA) Hall Of Fame, the Southern Gospel Music Association (SGMA) Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Cecil Blackwood died in November 2000, and James Blackwood in effect retired the Blackwood Brothers name. Mark Blackwood continued the heritage in grand style with “Mark Blackwood and the Blackwood Gospel Quartet,” eventually hiring tenor Wayne Little and bass singer Randy Byrd. In late 2004, Jimmy Blackwood joined Mark, and together they resurrected the Blackwood Brothers. However, Mark left in 2005, reforming his Blackwood Gospel Quartet, and was replaced with Brad White. Jimmy Blackwood, Wayne Little, Brad White, and Randy Byrd appeared on the Gaither Homecoming video Rock of Ages (2008). Soon after, White left and was replaced with Jimmy’s youngest brother, Billy. In 2012, Byrd was replaced with Butch Owens. Also in 2012, Jimmy Blackwood retired and was replaced by Michael Helwig.
The Blackwood Brothers can be heard singing on the radio towards the beginning of the movie Walk the Line (2005)—when Johnny Cash (played by 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. The Blackwood Brothers were also among Elvis Presley’s favorite musical groups, which led to The Blackwoods and Elvis to form an enduring friendship. The Blackwood Brothers have performed with many well-known artists over the years.