In Memory of Gary McSpadden; by Philip Mayabb
As Christians, we often wonder why bad things happen to good people...why it is that men and women who have served God for so many years suddenly find themselves in peril. The answer is simple, as Romans 2:11 explains, for there is no respect of persons with God. Sad as it may seem, children of God must face trials, tribulations, and yes even death, just as those folks who reject Him as their savior.
The Christian music community lost a titan on April 15 2020, although many fans are probably not completely aware of the significance he had. Over a 60 year career in ministry, Gary McSpadden sang with five different singing groups who have been enshrined in the Gospel Music Association Hall Of Fame, an accomplishment that I am unable to think of anyone else who can match. After a brief stint filling in for the legendary Jake Hess with the Statesmen Quartet, McSpadden was hired by Smitty Gatlin to be the baritone for the Oak Ridge Quartet (the name was changed to The Oak Ridge Boys during McSpadden's tenure with the group), where he would remain until 1963. It was during that year that Jake Hess came calling on Gary with an offer...Jake was leaving the Statesmen, and putting together what he called a premium quartet of singers, each handpicked to fill the specific parts. It was in early 1964 that the group was on the road, and it consisted of lead singer Hess, McSpadden as the baritone, Sherrill Nielsen at tenor, Armond Morales singing bass, and Henry Slaughter playing the piano. Billed as Jake Hess & The Imperials, this group would turn the southern gospel quartet circuit on its ear.
The Imperials would release an unprecedented 12 albums in four years. Think about this for a moment...that means that they had a new record out about every four months. During those first four years, Gary held down the baritone position with one of the smoothest voices in southern gospel music. In 1966, The Imperials began a six year working relationship with none other than the King Of Rock And Roll, Elvis Presley, when they sang background vocals on Elvis' award winning gospel album How Great Thou Art. Even though Elvis had been a longtime fan of Jake Hess, he was also impressed with McSpadden's work as well, eventually offering Gary a spot as a double in one of his upcoming films (the offer was declined). It was also around that time that Gary McSpadden was beginning to have issues with the change in the direction that The Imperials' music was taking. Although the skin tight, four part harmony was still the focal point of the group's presentation, the music was beginning to change - away from the country influenced southern gospel that they had performed since inception, and was now taking a more pop oriented sound. After much thought and prayer (and most likely helped along by the sudden retirement of Jake Hess due to health problems), Gary McSpadden left The Imperials in 1967, and of course we all know what happened to them from there...
That's the first three of the five Hall Of Fame groups, now onto number four...after staying out of the spotlight for several years, one of the biggest names in Christian music would beckon the man with the golden voice. In 1977, some ten years after his run with The Imperials came to an end, Gary McSpadden would receive a phone call with yet another offer, this time from Bill and Gloria Gaither. After Bill's brother Danny resigned from the Bill Gaither Trio to pursue a solo career, they were in need of a new lead singer, and after a lot of thought and consideration, Bill and Gloria chose McSpadden to fill the vacant slot in the legendary group's lineup. In 1978, the BGT released their first album with Gary at the helm and thus began a 12 year run for Gary with the Gaithers. In 1980, Bill decided to add something extra to the Trio's concerts, a quartet that consisted of himself and McSpadden along with Steve Green and Lee Young, who sang tenor and bass respectively for the trio's backup group. Although probably not intended to be a long term entity, this quartet was met with standing ovations all over the country, including at St. Louis, where I had the extreme privilege of hearing them. This created an extra musical piece for the Gaithers' already potent arsenal, so being the sharp businessman that he is, Bill decided to parlay the quartet's unexpected reception into a studio album. After shopping around for a record deal, DaySpring Records (who also had The Imperials at the time), decided to sign Bill's new musical venture, and in early 1981, The New Gaither Vocal Band (the name was devised by Steve Green, it was a takeoff on The Starland Vocal Band, who hit the pop charts with Afternoon Delight) released its eponymous debut album. Produced by Chris Christian, the album was a hit on CCM radio, and a legend was born. Despite numerous personnel changes (it actually took the Gaither Vocal Band 10 years to release two consecutive albums with the same lineup in place), McSpadden's voice graced the first five albums the GVB would release. He sang lead from 1980 to 1985, then moved to baritone, when Bill stepped over to sing bass. In 1989, Gary McSpadden left the Gaithers, turning all of his vocal duties over to a young man named Michael English, and thus compiling the five Hall Of Fame groups on his resume...quite a feat!!
It was also during his years with The Gaithers, that Gary released a total of five solo albums (one of which was a greatest hits compilation), and the second of those, an album from 1981 called It Was Enough, is the album we will be listening to this week on a very special tribute edition of CCM Classic's Vinyl Revival. Since we have already covered a lot of historical content on Gary, I'm not going to keep you with a long review of the album, however I do want to mention a few facts about some of the songs on this album. The song that leads off the album is titled He Is The King, and it was Gary's biggest chart single as a solo artist, landing at #8 on the CCM Magazine Adult Contemporary chart, in fact it was his only top ten single. A great song, it fits Gary's voice to a T, and you might even remember it as you listen in this week. The second song on the album, called I Am, is interesting, because it was written by two young men named Wayne Hilliard, who went on to be an ace southern gospel record producer with the Benson Company, and a writer named Michael Whittaker Smith (pre Amy Grant days). This is not only one of the very first songs that Smitty had recorded, it was inspired by the very popular poster from the early 80s, which listed many of the names that the Lord is called in the Bible. On the second side of the record, there is a track called He Gave Me Music, that was written by a couple of folks that all of you have heard of, their names are Dony McGuire and Reba Rambo. Finally, there are two songs on that second side that were co-written by a new writer (also a part of the Gaither organization) named Billy Smiley. We Teach The Children was written by Billy and Gary (Gary was apparently a major mentor to Mr. Smiley),and finally Jesus Is The Rock, which again was written by Gary and Billy, along with another young man named Dann Huff. Of course, the following year, Billy and Dann would team up with several other Gaither musicians to form a new band, called WhiteHeart. I've pointed out these things, mostly to drive home the point as to how much of a CCM giant Gary McSpadden really was, despite the fact that he is seldom given credit for being so.
There are a lot of singers in every musical genre who in my humble opinion, can't sing to save their life...Gary McSpadden was anything but. Blessed with an amazing voice, he was a class act all the way. I had the honor of speaking to Gary when I was but a young lad in the early 80s, after a pair of BGT concerts, and found him to be a very humble man, with a very sweet disposition. Many of the accounts and comments that I have read about Gary in the days since his passing have spoken to how Godly of a man he was, and how he would go above and beyond the call to mentor young, upcoming musicians and singers in Christian music. In his autobiography The Prodigal Comes Home, Michael English credits Gary with a statement that was one of the deciding factors in his joining the Gaither Vocal Band. He quotes Gary as saying Mike, it's up to you whether you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.* Still being on the fence about whether to leave southern gospel (Michael was with the Singing Americans at the time), Gary's wisdom seemed to give the incentive to try a new style of music, and we all know what happened as a result.
Even after he left the Gaithers, Gary McSpadden wasn't quite done with music...a singer HAS to sing. After a few more solo projects, Gary fronted his first, and only singing group, a southern gospel trio called Gary McSpadden & Chosen. They would release only one project, called Southern Gospel Classics in 2000. In later years of his life, Gary would make an occasional appearance on a Gaither Homecoming video (he and his wife Carol remained very close to the Gaithers), was a fixture in Branson, Missouri, hosting a southern gospel concert series at Silver Dollar City, and took the pastorate of the non denominational Faith And Wisdom church in Branson, marking a complete circle of ministry for this amazing gentleman.
It's been said that God only loans us individuals for a short period of time, but in the end, we all belong to Him. What that means is that when our Heavenly Father, in all His righteous wisdom, calls our name, it's time to go - no matter what we may be doing, no matter what fold of the ministry our calling is, once He calls, our time on this earth must come to an end. At 8:40 AM (CST) on April 15, 2020, God called another soldier home, and this one crossed the finish line to receive a crown with an untold amount of stars in it. There is absolutely no way to know how many people were reached for the kingdom by the voice of one Gary Michael McSpadden, or how many musicians and singers were guided by his years of wisdom...one thing we do know, the Bible states that Ye shall know them by their fruits (Mt. 7:16 KJV), and Gary McSpadden left an entire orchard behind. Rest in peace soldier, your battle is over, you fought the fight, and kept the faith.
RIP Gary McSpadden (1943-2020)
Side 1 -
1. He Is The King (Gary McSpadden & Billy Smiley)
2. I Am (Wayne Hilliard & Michael W. Smith)
3. Imagine (Dennis Loewen)
4. In This Very Room (Ron Harris)
Side 2 -
1. He Gave Me Music (Reba Rambo & Dony McGuire)
2. We Teach The Children (Gary McSpadden & Billy Smiley)
3. It Was Enough (Larry Bryant)
4. Jesus Is The Rock (Gary McSpadden, Billy Smiley & Dann Huff)
5. There Is A Light (Greg Nelson, Scott Roley & Tom Douglas)
* page 63, The Prodigal Comes Home by Michael English with Larry Vincent
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