Ira David Sankey (28 August 1840 – 13 August 1908)
It was in his time that all songs pertaining to spirituality and Christian beliefs were categorized as “Gospel.” For veteran musicians though, they make a distinction between “hymns” and “gospel.” In “Hymns,” you talk to God while in “gospel” you talk to people. Therefore, all religious songs with themes of praises, worship, thanksgiving, Christ’s Lordship, the Holy Spirit, and God as Creator and mankind’s Father are “hymns.” Songs about Christ’s sacrifice, God’s judgments, and steadfastness in faith are all “gospel.”
Back to Mr. Sankey, it is imperative that we do not miss mentioning him as he’s one of our key figures. Partnering with D.L Moody (the late 1800’s prominent evangelist), Sankey serves as the pioneer to mass evangelism through music.
His Musical Beginning
As a boy, he’d had the pleasure of a family tradition where they gather around the fireplace and sing hymns. Though born in a Methodist home, the authentic spiritual conviction came in 1856 at the age of 16. The next year, his family relocated to Newcastle where he utilized his musical talents as the choir director. All that, on top of his other ministry commitments.
As much as he loved singing hymns before a multitude, he did not aspire to pursue a career in music. In fact, he wholeheartedly renders his services without compensation. Even the sales of his compositions were used to fund a YMCA building in Newcastle. As for his singing, he had made quite a reputation with a resonant voice. Soon, it became the talk throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio. Hence, he’d received many invitations to sing at various musical events and gatherings.
Meeting Dwight L. Moody (June 1870)
YMCA sent him as a delegate to the International Convention in Indianapolis. There, he met D.L Moody in person. He had the privilege to lead the congregation in singing “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” prior to Moody’s message. After the service, the two men talked. For eight years, the famed evangelist had been looking for Sankey and persuaded him to join him in his crusades. Though interested, Sankey opted to defer his decision.
The next day, they met at a busy street corner. Moody asked Sankey to sing. Without hesitation, he complied and sang “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.” His singing drew a large crowd. Moody followed with street-preaching. After Moody’s speech, they moved the meeting to the Opera House where Sankey again led a congregational singing of “Shall We Gather at the River?”
Six months later, Sankey spent a week with Moody in Chicago where they attended another mass meeting. The gathering again concluded with Sankey’s singing of “Come Home, Prodigal Child.” Having realized his new found role in furthering God’s work, Sankey resigned from his secular job and started his work with Moody in 1871. This dynamic duo labored daily. Hand in hand, they spread God’s message through songs and preaching.
A Test for Steadfastness
On October 8, 1871, the great Chicago fire caused a great devastation. It happened while Sankey was in the middle of singing. Everyone sought for survival including Sankey. Seeing the fire could not be stopped, he fled through Lake Michigan. He rowed a small boat and saw the whole city engulfed in flames.
After the tragedy, he went home to Pennsylvania. Moody sent him a telegram inviting him to return. Since ministry must continue, a crude meeting place was put up until there was enough fund to reconstruct the church. The fire may have consumed their tabernacle, but not the fervor in their spirits. Moody and Sankey’s working relationship even got better.
Singing the Gospel
1870’s could also be attributed to the decade of revivals. Trips to the British Isles have proved faithful. Not discounting the importance of preaching the gospel, God would likewise use songs to convict people of their sins that they may repent. Reportedly, a young man got converted while Mr. Sankey sang “Come Home, O Prodigal, Come Home.” Witnessing that must have been glorious!
Naturally, “Gospel singing” had become a necessity in all the crusades they went to. They’d made a great impact on many places. Among them were several cities in the British Isles, Canada, Mexico and parts of the US.
Among the notable songs he’d been known to use were the following: “Sweet By and By,” Christ Arose,” Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By,” “Hold the Fort,” “The Ninety and Nine,” “The Cross of Jesus,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” “Onward and Upward,” “There’ll Be No Dark Valley,” “Call Them Now,” “A Little While,” “Room For Thee,” “A Shelter in the Time of Storm,” “Tell It Out,” “When the Mists Have Rolled Away,” “While the Days Are Going By” and “Hiding in Thee,”
The Conclusion of a Well-Spent Life
D.L Moody went home ahead on December 22, 1899, in Northfield, Massachusetts. Prior to that, the two faithful servants had spent the Sunday together at a Brooklyn church in New York.
Sankey continued the good work he began since youth until glaucoma afflicted him in 1903. As someone who had walked with God for years, Sankey did not wallow in despair during his last years. He became friends with another prolific hymn writer, Fanny Crosby. Their physical blindness did not impair their faith as they rejoiced in songs, prayers, and fellowships. They both looked forward to their reunion with D.L Moody and their loved ones.
Having maintained a sweet spirit, the Lord determined for Sankey to breathe his last in his sleep. In his funeral, several of his songs were sung. He was only 67.
Around 1980, he’s listed in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame for his valuable contribution of about 1200 hymns. Also, he’s been dubbed as “The Sweet Singer of Methodism.”
Here’s a rare voice recording of Ira Sankey singing hymns which we can all recognize today. Be forewarned though that you’ll hear some crackling sounds at the onset of the clip, but will eventually get better.
Hymn Medley by Ira Sankey
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama
Alternative Names: The Happy Land Jubilee Singers, Happy Land Gospel Singers, Blind Boys of Alabama
Founding Members: Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Fields, George Scott, Velma Bozman Traylor, Alice Thomas, and sighted member J.T. Hutton
Current Members: Eric McKinney, Billy Bowers, Jimmy Carter, Joey Williams, and Donald Dillion.
Having reached a seven-decade career span, The Blind Boys of Alabama are among the still living legends of gospel music today. Material success and various opportunities for cross-overs did not sway them from their true calling– gospel singing. Hence, they’re blessed with longevity both in life and in their career.
Their Beginning (1939-1940s)
It started with six friends who met at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talladega. Reputedly, they would sneak off campus to military camps and there sing gospel songs. At that time, they used the name Happy Land Jubilee Singers.
Come 1945, they made a bold move of quitting school that they may concentrate on their new-found calling. Hence, they started touring and performing.
Tragedy struck when in 1947, lead singer Velma Bozman Traylor died of a gunshot. Despite their loss, the group carried on. In their tours, they were always warmly received by the audience.
The rest of the late 1940’s were a series of live concerts and singing competition with other musical groups from neighboring states like Mississippi.
Their rise to stardom (1950’s-1960s)
With one member gone, the group changed their name to The Blind Boys of Alabama. After a long period of being on the road, the Boys stepped up their game by making records. They’ve recorded for various labels including Newark-based Coleman Records, Art Rupe’s California-based Specialty, and Vee-Jay.
Soon enough, they’ve become a leading singing group for the gospel genre. Among their hits in that decade were “Oh, Lord Stand By Me” and “I Can See Everybody’s Mother But I Can’t See Mine.”
At the close of the decade, Clarence Fountain left and went solo. After a decade of independence, he rejoined the group.
Broadways, Musicals, and TV Appearances (1980s-1990s)
With Clarence Fountain back, the Blind Boys of Alabama re-grouped. They began performing on Broadways and musicals including “The Gospel at Colonus.” This led to a rekindling of their past success. They were consistently booked in theaters and churches. Their fame was widespread that their singing also brought them to Europe.
Some time in the 90’s, they’ve also had cameo appearances on TV like “Black Entertainment Television’s On Jazz” and in “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Their Light Undiminished (2000-Present)
At the turn of the century, The Blind Boys of Alabama have already established not just their band’s name but their distinction in gospel singing. They’ve created their own hard-driving gospel sound in their recent albums. Still, they kept paying homage to their traditional roots.
To date, their gospel songs transcend racial barriers and their appeal is multicultural. All their temporal achievements aside, the group has accomplished something greater. That is in bringing the good word of the Lord out to many places so more people would hear and know the gospel.
Awards and Recognitions
Grammy Awards: Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2009), Best Traditional Gospel Album (1971, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2003,2004, 2008, and 2009)
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Gospel Artist (2005)
Inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2002)
White House Performances: 2010, 2018
Here’ s their rendition of “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms”
The Cathedral Quartet
Like The Blind Boys of Alabama, this Southern Gospel Quartet had also been privileged to sing gospel nationwide and overseas.
Alternative Name: The Cathedrals
Founding Members: Ernie Haase, Scott Fowler, Glen Payne, George Younce, Roger Bennett
Career Span: 1963- December 1999
First, there was the trio – Bobby Clark, Glen Payne, and Danny Koker. Their group was the fruit of Earl and Lily Weatherford’s ministry at the Cathedral for Tomorrow in Akron, Ohio in 1963. Later that year, the Weatherfords decided to relocate to California.
In 1964, bass Goerge Younce joined. The quartet then traveled and performed with evangelist Rex Humbard for the following years until Glen Payne and George Younce decided to turn it into a career.
That plan initially backfired for the group as they had difficulty in stabilizing the members. Several singers and instrumentalist briefly stayed and soon left. With their future seemingly looking bleak, they still persevered. In the early 70’s, they’ve managed to have hits, got radio airplay for their songs and won awards.
They gained a wider audience in the late 70’s when Bill Gaither had them perform in Praise Gathering events.
1979- Tremble, Webster, and Lorne Matthews left and were replaced by Kirk Talley (tenor) and Steve Lee (baritone, piano).
1980- Steve Lee left and replaced by Mark Trammell (vocalist, bass guitarist). Also, Roger Bennett joined (pianist).
1983 – Kirk Talley formed his own group, “The Talleys.” Danny Funderburk came (tenor).
The 1990s- Danny Funderburk left, Ernie Haase joined in. Mark Trammel had to also part with the group and replaced by Scott Fowler.
For the rest of the 90’s, the known Cathedral Quartet continued their road tours. Due to the health issues of founding member, George Younce, the group decided to retire. Unfortunately for Glen Payne, he wasn’t able to finish their farewell tour as he died of cancer on October 15, 1999. Roger Bennett stepped in his stead as the lead singer for their final concert.
Awards and Recognitions
1st Grammy for Best Gospel Performance (1977, 1978, 1979,1982)
Grammy for Best Gospel Performance (1977)
1st Southern gospel group to record in England (1988)
Named “Group of the Year” by Gospel Music Voice (1989)
These on top of the many awards bestowed on each singer from Glen Payne & George Younce, to Roger Bennett and Ernie Haase.
“Step Into the Water,” “Can He, Could He, Would He,” and “I’ve Just Started Living.”
Glen Payne must be having a “Wonderful Time Up There.”
Dottie Rambo (1934-2008)
Hailed as “The Gospel Writer,” this woman’s story is one that deserves special mentions.
Her Humble Beginning
Born Joyce Reba Luttrell March 2, 1934, in Madisonville, Kentuck.
Growing up in poverty due to the Great Depression, Dottie sought solace by turning to the radio, listening to the songs from the Grand Ole Opry. She had an ear for music and learned to play guitar on her own. Naturally gifted, she started writing songs at age eight. She’d often be seen writing on a creek bank near their home.
At age ten, she started singing country tunes for a local radio program. When she reached twelve, she made a turnabout by making a commitment to only write and sing Gospel tunes. That was the natural result of her Christian conversion. However, it caused dissension in her relationship with her father. He opposed her decision and that forced her to leave home for some time.
The Gospel Echoes (the 1960s)
She married Buck Rambo in the 1950’s. Soon, they started a trio called “The Gospel Echoes.” A string of various singers filled the third member of the trio until their daughter Reba stepped in. Though still twelve-years-old, Reba toured and sang with her parents.
In 1964, they renamed their group to “The Singing Rambos” then to “The Rambos.”
Buck Rambo’s countrified vocals blend well with Dottie Rambo’s “mountain-style black soul music.” Hence, their style of singing captured many ears including the Warner Brothers Records. They offered The Rambos a record-deal which they have to decline as the label wanted them to do folk or rhythm & blues instead of Gospel.
So for the following years, The Rambos toured across the nation. In 1967, they traveled to Vietnam to minister to the troupes. When they’re not performing on stage, they go to medical tents to sing and pray for the wounded and hurting.
Setting a Gospel Trend (Late 1960s-Early 1980s)
Dottie’s versatility earned her countless wins and established her songwriting career. Many of her songs were recorded by many distinguished artists including Elvis Presley, Barbara Mandrell, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Whitney Houston, Vince Gill, Dottie West, Pat Boone, Sandi Patty, and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Though her songs were widely distributed for other artists to record, her own recordings were at par and were found on charts.
Her Spirit Advancing Despite Her Declining Health (Late 1980s-2000s)
Sadly, the Rambo couple split up in 1994. Five years prior, Dottie had a ruptured disc and caused her to suffer back pains. Emotional strain from the divorce and surgeries, however, could not extinguish the fiery spirit of Dottie.
That momentary setback in her life sparked her will to inspire people to be strong. So for the rest of the decade, she went on tours and also performed on TV.
In 2008, news of her death shocked the entire nation. She and six of her members sustained serious injuries from the road accident. The members were saved but Dottie didn’t make it.
They held her wake at Christ Church in Nashville, Tennessee and almost the whole Christian Music world mourned for her. Hence, tributes were made.
Awards and Recognitions
1968 – Best Gospel Album, It’s The Soul of Me
1994- Songwriter of the Century Award from the Christian Country Music Association
2000- Lifetime Achievement Award from ASCAP
In September 2009, a posthumous CD of her songs was released. Included in it was the song “Sheltered in the Arms of God.” Here’s a clip of Dottie giving a testimony on how the song came to her.
For similar readings, click one of the tags below. Next feature would be about radios and TV programs that were great proponents of Gospel music.