James Blackwood: 1919 to 2002
James Blackwood, the legendary Southern gospel vocalist, died February 3 at age 82, completing a career that spanned the genre’s history. Like so many Southerners of his generation, Blackwood learned four-part harmonies in a traveling singing school. James teamed with his brothers Roy and Doyle and his nephew R.W. in the original Blackwoods lineup in 1934. The group’s lead vocalist, James sang in a high, elegant tenor, albeit one with a surprisingly low bottom.
In 1954, after numerous line-up changes and a sponsorship by the Stamps-Baxter Music Co., the Blackwoods won the televised “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” contest. Just two weeks later, R.W. and bass singer Bill Lyles died in a plane crash. J.D. Sumner and another of James’ nephews, Cecil Blackwood, became the group’s new bass and baritone, respectively. With this lineup, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet remained (along with RCA Victor labelmate the Statesmen Quartet) Southern gospel’s biggest stars for the next two decades, inspiring both Elvis Presley and a new generation of quartets.
James retired from the Blackwoods in 1970 but continued to record and perform. Throughout the 1980s, he sang with the Masters V, comprised of former Statesmen and Blackwoods. In the past decade he cut several albums with the Light Crust Doughboys, including last year’s Grammy-nominated God Is Love (where he backed singer/actress Ann-Margaret).
Blackwood was often cited as the genre’s finest lead singer, a vocalist with an unsurpassed poignancy of tone. “You may ask me how I know my Lord is real,” he sings on the group’s 1954 version of “His Hand In Mine”. “You may doubt the things I say and doubt the way I feel.” There is no way, though, that anyone could’ve doubted Blackwood’s aspiring tenor: It sounded like you’d imagine an angel’s, perhaps, mighty yet forgiving and high without the lonesome; it sounded like peace.