Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.

In memoriam, 2013

The pieces I least like writing, yet to me are the most important, are what I call “appreciations.” The New York Times does them, too, but mine are a little different.

Mine are little tributes to artists or other important figures who have died—important, that is, to me, and knowledgeable people I know or can reach quickly for quote. Not obituaries, they’re pretty much comments as to these late luminaries’ significance, strung together in a context that is illustrative, though not first-person personal.

But I’ll get a little personal and definitely first-person here in going through the list of names I wrote appreciations on this past year, if in fact I have something personal to add.

Starting form the beginning, I was a fan of Patti Page and the Andrews Sisters’ Patty Andrews, but I didn’t know them personally. The Troggs’ Reg Presley, on the other hand—and to use a couple words from the chorus of “Wild Thing”—did indeed “move me” in person.

I saw the original Troggs perform at least once—not sure if the original band was intact the second time, at a Cavestomp! garage rock show, after which I got to hang a bit with Reg, who sounded great and was the nicest guy. What always amazes me so much, though, is that besides such a crude sound on “Wild Thing” and other hits, The Troggs somehow yielded one of the most beautiful ballads of the 1960s in “Love Is All Around.”

Sadly, I never met George “Shadow” Morton, but of course I worshiped the records he made, besides the Shangri-Las’ classic hits, The New York Dolls’ second album Too Much Too Soon and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” I didn’t know The Bottom Line’s Stanley Snadowsky like I know his partner Allan Pepper, but no one hung out at their club more than me.

Phil Ramone, however, I knew very well and for a very long time. We served on committees together, worked on projects together. He was every bit the national treasure everyone said he was.

Although I never met Annette Funicello, like any other guy my age I was in love with her. The great music documentary maker Les Blank, I met several times in Eunice, Louisiana, with Marc and Ann Savoy and the kids, whom he documented in Marc And Ann (1991).

Jonathan Winters goes without saying. I met George Beverly Shea, and saw him perform at Gaither Homecoming shows and Billy Graham Crusades.

The great English rock album graphic designer Storm Thorgerson I didn’t know, but legendary Australian rocker Christina Amphlett I knew well, and loved deeply—from the moment I saw her on The Divinyls’ first U.S. tour. Such a special artist, and I still ache thinking about her.

I met Richie Havens a few times—such a nice guy. I knew George Jones a bit, and always like to tell how I was the one who was drunk when he actually did show up sober in the late ‘70s, at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, and did a whale of a show before a handful of people, and how I grabbed him backstage after and told him about this incredible “new wave” singer-songwriter in England, Elvis Costello, who in one of his only interviews, said that he was one of his favorite singers. George said that, “what was his name? Elvis?” had sent him a song that was on his desk in Nashville, but that he hadn’t listened to it.

“George!” I shook him more emphatically, being totally smashed. “You must listen to that song, record it—and get Elvis to sing it with you!”

Which is exactly what happened, that song being “Stranger In The House.” Of course, whether or not it happened because of me, I can’t really say, except that when I first met Nick Lowe–again after a show at Bunky’s–and told him this story, he said, “You’re probably the reason he did the song!” And many years later, in Nashville at a Columbia Records luncheon for media radio and retail accounts during Fan Fair, I went up to George and recounted it for him, sure that he wouldn’t remember. But before the end of the lunch, he came back over to me and leaned over and said, “You know, I kind of do remember! If you have any more songs, send them over!”

Turns out I did have a song that I did send to George, but I don’t know that he ever got it: New York Doll David Johansen’s “Heart Of Gold.” Would have been perfect for him. And while I’m at it, I sent Hank, Jr. The Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” which, Bocephus, you really still should do.

And speaking of The Doors, I knew Ray Manzarek a bit, too. Wonderful guy, full of energy and genius. “Fifth Ramone” Arturo Vega of course I knew, having written the first book on The Ramones.

But Chet Flippo’s death really hit home. He was my music journalist role model, ever since I discovered that he was also a fan of both Dolly Parton and the Rolling Stones. And he was kind enough to respond to a fan letter I sent him from Madison, and sit down with me at the Rolling Stone office when I came to New York on a vacation. I was never luckier that I became friends with him and even got to work with him when he ran Billboard’s Nashville office. He’ll always be my role model—and hero.

I was lucky, too, to have met Slim Whitman—and see him perform. If I remember correctly, I gave up backstage passes for Bruce Springsteen at the Dane County Coliseum and drove to Milwaukee to see Slim at the Performing Arts Center. If so, it was one of the smartest choices I ever made, as close to hearing heaven on earth as any of us will ever get.

Bobby (Blue) Bland I didn’t know—besides his classic records. I knew the great guitarist/songwriter J.J. Cale a little, more so legendary country music man “Cowboy” Jack Clementmainly through another late and dear, dear friend, Steve Popovich, who brought us both to Cleveland for a polka music festival.

Eydie Gorme I didn’t know—but sure wish I did. Met Beatles’ promoter Sid Bernstein a few times, but didn’t really know him. And I was so lucky again to know Lou Reed as a friend, mainly because we both loved Doc Pomus and trained in martial arts—both of which he loved to talk about.

That leaves Ray Price, whom I didn’t know but revered—and was lucky to see perform with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Asleep At The Wheel during the 2007 The Last Of The Breed tour—and porn king Al Goldstein, whom I also revered, knew closely, and will miss always.

[For more on Al, hit the link, and also see the piece I did on him on this site.]