Bill and Gloria Gaither who celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, will also have birthdays next month with Gloria having her 70th birthday on March 4 and Bill observing his 76th birthday on March 28.
They were part of the Bill Gaither Trio and they collaborated on writing many well-known songs, in both the contemporary and southern gospel genres including He Touched Me, Because He Lives, The King is Coming and too many other songs to mention them all.
Bill and 17 other singers have sung with the Gaither Vocal Band over the years. It was after a Gaither Vocal Band recording session in 1991 that some of the southern gospel greats, who had been recording an album got together to sing as a group and it was recorded on a video camera.
Videos Released Yearly Since 1991
It would be the first of many homecoming videos, with some being homecoming reunions and some being concerts across the country and also abroad. There were at least two videos released every year starting in 1992.
The concerts were very successful as Pollstar which reported more ticket sales for the homecoming concerts, than for such well-known singers as Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and Rod Stewart.
Southern Gospel, Contemporary Singers Benefited
One of the benefits of the video series was that singers like Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Cathedral Quartet, James Blackwood and Ben and Brock Speer, became known to a whole new generation of fans and the exposure had to help in record sales and concert bookings.
However, Gaither didn’t just feature the southern gospel greats of the past. He also started the careers of many contemporary singers and groups who were seen in the videos.
Gospel Greats Dying Over The Years
As the years went by homecoming fans begin to notice singers in past videos missing, since they had passed on. This list is of some of the more prominent singers and musicians who have died since the video series started in alphabetical order by first name.
Anthony Burger – Died on February 22, 2006 at the age of 44. He was playing “Hear My Song, Lord” on a Gaither cruise, when he collapsed and died 45 minutes later after CPR efforts failed.
Bob Cain – Died on August 30, 2000 at the age of 61. Appeared in 10 of the Gaither videos.
Brock Speer – Died on May 29, 1999 at the age of 78. I can still remember on one video, that it was announced that Brock Speer had died and the rest of the Speer Family sang together knowing that Brock had just died. It was a very emotional moment to say the least.
Danny Gaither – Died April 6, 2001 at the age of 62 dying of lymphoma cancer. He had battled the disease for five years and I will never forget him visiting during a filming and the singers singing When God Is So Near. I think that was his last appearance on the video series before his death. Bill Gaither later paid tribute to his brother, as it showed Danny over the years, as O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.
Doris Akers – Died July 26, 1995 of spinal cancer at the age of 72. She was most well-known for writing Sweet, Sweet, Spirit.
Eva Mae LeFevre – Died on May 18, 2009 at the age of 91. She was part of the LeFevres who started the Gospel Singing Caravan in the 60′s televised on Sunday mornings.
George Younce – Died April 11, 2005 at the age of 75. He had both heart trouble and was undergoing kidney dialysis. He is remembered for his Should You Go First recitation which he recited, while Beyond the Sunset was being played.
Glen Payne – Died on October 15, 1999 at the age of 72 from cancer. I will never forget him singing from a hospital bed in a television hook-up as he appeared at the 1999 National Quartet Convention. He sang I Won’t Have To Cross Jordan Alone and he would die the next month, but he touched a lot of hearts that night he sang from the hospital.
Hovie Lister – Died December 28, 2001 at the age of 75. He formed the Statesman Quartet in 1948 and his enthusiastic style of singing and playing the piano was a big part of the success of the quartet.
Howard Goodman – Died November 30, 2002 at the age of 81. I can still see him playing Lifeboat on Gospel Singing Jubilee as he pounded the keyboard and raising his hands high in the air before hitting the keys.
J.D. Sumner – Died November 16, 1998 at the age of 73 three days before his 74th birthday. He had one of the lowest bass voices in southern gospel history, if not the lowest and once hit a note so low it was two notes lower than the last key on the keyboard. He was with the Blackwood Brothers and sang with Elvis Presley in concerts as part of J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. He was also a songwriter having written the southern gospel classic The Old Country Church.
Jack Toney – Died April 15, 2004 at the age of 73 after a massive heart attack. He was a member of the Statesman Quartet.
Jake Hess – Died January 4, 2004 at the age of 76. He had many health problems over the years, but appeared on 38 of the Gaither videos. He was not only known for being a member of the Statesman Quartet, but also for forming the Imperials who backed Elvis Presley on his concert tours. He was a big part of the success of the Gaither videos.
James Blackwood – Died February 3, 2002 at the age of 82 from a stroke. He sang with Blackwood Brothers for many years. The highlight of his Gaither video appearances to me, was when he sang the second verse ofSheltered in the Arms of God.Saw James sing many times in person over the years and his vocals will never be forgotten.
Jessy Dixon – Died December 26, 2011 at the age of 73 after battling cancer for two years. He appeared in 45 Gaither videos, which was more than any other one performer, except for Bill Gaither himself. My favorite song to hear him sing was Wait Till You See My Brand New Home. His energetic and soulful singing was the reason he was asked to appear on so many of the videos, because he had a likeability factor, that was off the charts.
Rex Nelon – Died on January 24, 2000 at the age of 68, while on tour with the Gaither homecoming series. He appeared in the videos as a member of the Nelons, for whom he sang bass and was also the emcee.
Roger Bennett – Died on March 17, 2007 at the age of 48 from leukemia. He had leukemia for the last 12 years of his life and the cancer treatments caused him to have some different forms of cancer. He is best known for being the pianist for the Cathedrals. Then he sang as lead singer during the farewell tour of the Cathedrals, following the death of Glen Payne.
Rosie Rozell – Died February 28, 1995 at the age of 56. He only appeared in the Gaither videos in 1995, the same year he died, but he was such a major part of southern gospel music, that he needed to be included in this list. He will never be forgotten for his rendition of Oh What A Savior while singing with the Statesman.
Vestal Goodman - Died December 27, 2003 at the age of 74 from influenza. Her husband Howard had preceded her in death by only 13 months having died in November of 2002. Vestal was a favorite of the homecoming fans and she was as good on her last homecoming video as she was on her first. Who can forget seeing Vestal holding her trademark handkerchief, while singing with so much emotion? Surprisingly she appeared in 38 homecoming videos but her husband Howard only appeared in 17. I remember well the many times they sat together on the front row, but apparently didn’t notice there were so many videos, in which Howard never made an appearance.
Wally Varner – Died on December 28, 2004 from myelofibrosis at the age of 78. He didn’t appear in many of the videos, but he made a lasting impression on the other homecoming friends and the viewers when he played Goodbye World Goodbye, a song tailor-made to showcase his keyboard wizardry and that is exactly what he did.
The list of singers appearing in the Gaither videos at the Wikipedia website is not all-inclusive as I notice that Jimmy Jones who died in 2006 is not included in the list. I can recall him reciting a poem in one of the videos, but not sure what the name of it was.
There are other names not on the list like Jay Parrack who sang with Gold City on at least one video, in which he sang In Time, On Time, Everytime.
The Gaither homecoming video series has been a source of spiritual encouragement for those who are shut-in. They can watch one of the videos and forget for an hour-and-a-half that they are shut-ins while enjoying the videos.
This list shows which singers have appeared in at least 30 of the Gaither homecoming videos:
Ben Speer 35
David Phelps 30
Gaither Vocal Band 53
Guy Penrod 37
The Isaacs 37
Ivan Parker 31
Jake Hess 38
Jeff and Sheri Easter 30
Jessy Dixon 45
Joy Gardner 40
Mark Lowry 35
Reggie Smith 30
Stephen Hill 30
Terry Blackwood 31
Vestal Goodman 38
Wesley Pritchard 36
Southern gospel fans, artists, promoters, record companies all owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Gaither. I can testify that I personally have been touched by the videos. Then the videos have caused me to buy the albums of the singers shown on the videos and see the concerts of the singers shown on the videos.
This has been a tremendous undertaking on the part of Bill Gaither and his associates. I am sure it isn’t easy to choose who will appear on a particular video. Some well-known artists and groups have never been in the videos. I have never seen the Dixie Echoes in one of the videos. I would have thought they would be shown on at least one of the videos, knowing they are a huge part of the heritage of southern gospel’s earlier days.
It has to be a challenge for Bill Gaither to work in new singers, as the older singers are dying. Ben Speer is one of the few of the old-timers remaining.
The main thing is to say to Bill Gaither….Thanks for the memories and keep the memories coming in the future.