J.D. Sumner: 1922 to 1998
J.D. Sumner — who died November 16, just three days shy of his 74th birthday — was a giant of Southern gospel music, and not just because he stood an imposing 6’5″ or because his bass singing voice was so powerful and low that you could actually feel it rumbling in your chest.
Born John Daniel Sumner in 1922, J.D. was best known for his work with Elvis Presley. In the ’50s, when Sumner was a member of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, he would sneak a young and strapped-for-cash Presley in the back door of the group’s “all-night sings” in Memphis. Later, from 1972-77, Sumner and his group the Stamps Quartet were regular features both on Presley’s studio recordings and in his live performances. Most famously, Sumner provided the prominent bass part for Presley’s 1977 pop and country hit “Way Down”, and his lead vocal on “Why Me Lord?” was a regular feature of Elvis’ final concerts.
But long before helping Elvis preach the (Southern) gospel to a pop audience, Sumner had made a significant contribution to the white gospel field. Over his 50-year career, he wrote some 500 gospel songs recorded by the Blackwoods or other groups. In 1955, he convinced his partners in the Blackwood Brothers to pay for the music industry’s first customized touring bus, and a few years later, he began the National Quartet Convention, a gathering that remains Southern gospel’s major musical event to this day. Sumner was also a co-founder of the first Southern-gospel-only record label, Skylite Recordings.
But mainly there was that rumbling voice. Even in a style of singing built upon the contrasting limits of the human voice — highs higher than heaven, lows solid as the rock of ages — Sumner’s voice (the lowest ever, according to the Guinness Book), not to mention his control over it, always stood out. Fans long thrilled to his rhythmic, elastic vocal bass lines, as well as his trademark sliding-into-the-basement bass runs at each song’s end. Whether as a member of the Sunshine Boys, the Blackwood Brothers, Southern gospel super group the Masters Five, or his own J.D. Sumner & the Stamps, Sumner proclaimed his faith and sang the Lord’s praises with an instrument so low, so deep-down, it seemed nothing could ever shake it, even as its bone-rattling vibrations shook listeners to their very souls.