How "The Blackwood Brothers"influenced Elvis

In an earlier part of this series I examined the influence of black spiritual music on the future King of Rock and Roll. In this article I will further examine the influence of religious music on Elvis, but this time the music of the great ‘white’ gospel group the Blackwood Brothers.

Growing up in Tupelo and Memphis the young Elvis was exposed to the music of a rich cross-section of styles and beats. One of these was the barbershop or ‘four-part harmony’ (quartet) style of white gospel groups. Primary among these were the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen (Quartet) although it was the Blackwoods with whom Elvis had particularly strong ties.


It is widely accepted that Elvis was raised in an environment saturated by gospel music. His family avidly listened to gospel and it formed an integral part of the First Assembly of God church he and his parents attended every week. In the early 1950s the most popular white gospel quartet in Memphis and the US was the Blackwood Brothers.

Starting out as a ‘family’ singing group in 1934 the original members were brothers Roy, James (nicknamed "Mr Gospel Music") and Doyle Blackwood and Roy’s son R.W. Their initial exposure was via KWKH radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana and WJDX in Jackson, Mississippi. As noted by Charles Wolfe in his excellent essay "Presley and the Gospel Tradition” their music was not unlike many barbershop quartets - songs were performed unaccompanied and with each singer taking a different harmonic level.

Signed up by the influential Stamps-Baxter company in the late 1930s the Blackwoods underwent several personnel changes over the years and in 1950 moved to Memphis. Members over the years included Pat Hoffmaster, Ken Turner, Tommy Fairchild and Bill Shaw. A major recording contract with RCA Victor in 1951 was the turning point for the Blackwood’s and a nationwide hit The Man Upstairs soon followed.

In 1954 they won 1st prize on a popular TV show which would later reject one Elvis Aaron Presley - the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show. As celebrities, the Blackwoods lived an exciting and colourful life. They were made honorary Tennessee Colonel’s by Governor Frank Clement in 1954 and the entire quartet became staff members of Mississippi Governor Coleman who maintained they were his cousins.

Charles Wolfe notes that compared "to the pabalum being dished out in the popular music of the day - crooning by Perry Como and innocuous ditties by Patti Page - the Blackwood’s music was lively, fresh and exciting; and furthermore, young aspiring singers of the time could easily look upon it as the epitome of commercial success and respectability".

Apart from this, what undoubtedly also drew Elvis to the music of groups such as the Blackwoods was the underlying rhythm of the white quartets, a rhythm learnt from their black quartet counterparts. Another link between Elvis and the Blackwoods involved J.D. Sumner who led the Stamps Quartet, the group who backed the King during the 1970s.

J.D. with his powerful bass voice joined The Blackwoods in 1954 following the death of R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles in a plane crash. The stature of the Blackwoods as local folk heroes meant this tragedy was hard felt across America and as noted in Peter Whitmer’s ‘The Inner Elvis’, Elvis was strongly affected by the deaths. Both he and then girlfriend Dixie Locke attended the funeral in a packed Ellis Auditorium on Friday, the 2nd of July. The crowd was so large that both sides of the auditorium were filled up...To Elvis it was as if this was an omen. Certainly it felt like a member of the family had been lost, and from their ashes he seemed to gain inspiration and the ability to shake off his paralyzing ambivalence about singing, and particularly about singing songs in a style the church might not approve of.

J.D. Sumner has placed it on the record that he used to sneak Elvis in the back of the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis to see the Blackwood’s perform. Apart from attending their concerts, during his lunchtime Elvis listened to the Blackwoods on a country and gospel hour broadcast on WMPS. Another of Elvis’s high school friends, Guy Harris, confirmed to prominent Elvis author, Bill E. Burk, that "He (Elvis) was really high on the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet".

It was also around the mid 50s that Elvis auditioned to sing with Cecil Blackwood’s gospel quartet the Songfellows. Elvis was unsuccessful as the singer he would have replaced decided to remain with the group. Meanwhile, Cecil Blackwood would later join the Blackwood Brothers as its lead singer. And it was J.D. Sumner and James Blackwood who, in 1963, purchased the Stamps Quartet Music Company, one of the oldest and most prestigious gospel publishing houses.

In 1965 J.D. left the Blackwoods to become manager and lead singer with the Stamps Quartet. J.D. is also quoted as saying that as a mark of his love and respect for gospel music Elvis seriously considered an invitation to join an unspecified but major gospel quartet after he became an international star in 1956. Elvis’s cousin Edie Hand has provided strong insights into his love for the Blackwoods. She said "To Elvis, being a Blackwood was something wonderful. He saw other entertainers as having as much or more talent than he did and he never lost that childlike awe of people he thought had so much talent".

Interestingly, when Edie was 19 she dated a gospel singer named Aubrey. Elvis manoeuvred for her to date Cecil Blackwood instead, although Edie’s mother Nash decided Cecil was not right for her. When Edie told Elvis she and Cecil were no longer dating he looked at her and said "But he’s a Blackwood!".

Anyone listeniong to Elvis’s concerts in the 1970s will be struck by the increasing importance that gospel music played in his repertoire. Lord, You Gave Me A Mountain, Why Me, Lord, Help Me and the superlative How Great Thou Art became standard inclusions in an Elvis show. Moreover, Elvis would regularly call upon J.D. Sumner, Sherill Neilsen and the Stamps to sing solo.

During his lifetime Elvis recorded three gospel albums: His Hand In Mine, How Great Thou Art and He Touched Me. In addition, he released a number of religious singles, usually at Easter time. Among these, Crying In The Chapel is by far the best known, although Where Did They Go, Lord/Only Believe, His Hand In Mine and We Call On Him also achieved respectable sales.

The fact that all three Grammy Awards won by Elvis were for gospel recordings arguably symbolises the importance of this music to him. Those Grammy Awards were for the How Great Thou Art LP (Best Sacred Performance of 1967), He Touched Me LP (Best Inspirational Performance of 1972) and How Great Thou Art (Best Inspirational Performance, 1974, taken from the LP Elvis, Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis).

The Blackwood Brothers were also Gladys Presley’s favourite gospel group, and at her funeral on August 15, 1958 they were to sing three songs. As stated by J.D. Sumner "We wound up singing twelve." Two of the songs were Rock of Ages and Precious Memories. At Elvis’s funeral, James Blackwood and the Stamps sang How Great Thou Art.


  • A Revolutionary Sexual Persona by Jon Michael Spencer in ‘In Search Of Elvis’, Vernon Chadwick (ed.)
  • Early Elvis The Tupelo Years by Bill E. Burk
  • Elvis His Life From A to Z by Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius
  • Elvis: Precious Memories by Donna Presley Early and Edie Hand with Lynn Edge Presley
  • Gospel Tradition in ‘Elvis: Images and Fancies’, Jac L. Tharpe editor
  • The Inner Elvis by Peter Whitmer, Ph.D.
  • The Ultimate Elvis (Elvis Presley Day By Day) by Patricia Jobe Pierce
  • With A Song On My Lips (And A Prayer In My Heart), The Blackwood Brothers Quartet, CD release by BMG/RCA

This article was prepared by Nigel Patterson and first appeared in ‘Elvis Monthly’ as part of the author’s fourteen part series, Influences On A Legend. ©1998, 2002

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