Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ReWind Wednesdays: Southern Gospel in Canada

Southern Gospel is Alive and Well in the Frozen North

Southern Gospel music has gained an audience all around the globe to places far beyond its humble beginnings in America. Before it was even known as “Southern Gospel”, the now-familiar harmonies and tempos of legendary quartets and family groups were gradually working their way north to Canada and being embraced by the Ontario audiences.

Though hampered by meager airplay on radio and television, this type of Christian music worked its way into the hearts of Canadians, imported from the States by the likes of the Cathedral Quartet and the Blue Ridge Quartet, and later on by the Songmen of the South and the Dixie Melody Boys. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, various promoters in Ontario began to host concerts featuring top US groups along with the best of Ontario’s Gospel artists. Gold City, The Singing Americans and the Nelons graced the larger stages in cities like Toronto, Hamilton, London and Niagara Falls. They were joined by some of the favorite Ontario groups from that time period: the Chrystalaires, the Sellwoods, The Proverbs, and the Snider Family. Several members from these groups still sing today, and often will appear at different concerts throughout the province.

One of Ontario’s first groups to travel and sing gospel music was the Proverbs. Beginning in 1967, this family group began with two brothers, Dave and Frank Daw, and their cousin Ken Harnden. They recorded an album in 1968 before traveling to the Stamps School of Music in Texas. They soon began touring up to 200 dates a year, coast to coast in both Canada and the United States. Still touring today as a family group, Dave and his wife Kathy also run “Summit Sound”, a studio they opened in 1974. Having produced over a thousand gospel albums, Dave is reluctant to use the label “Southern” Gospel for their type of music.

“…At the time the Proverbs began... and several years later when the CGMA [Canadian Gospel Music Association] began, I am certain that the term “southern gospel” had never even been invented. Our group traveled a great deal in the south starting around 1969 when we attended the Stamps School of Music in Texas...and later representing Canada at the International Festival of Gospel Song in Nashville (at the invitation of the Oak Ridge Boys) where we were made honorary citizens of the state of Tennessee in 1973... During that entire time, we never encountered anyone who used the term “southern” gospel,” Dave explains. Around the time that term began to be used in the late 1970’s, Dave had joined the newly formed “Canadian Gospel Music Association”, which at the time consisted of a few groups including the Hisey Family, the Viscounts, and the Watchmen. Dave became active in the Association, acting as President for many years, publishing the CGMA newspaper, and producing annual CGMA showcase albums featuring top Ontario artists. The CGMA is still going strong today.

“From the moment I joined the board of the CGMA (in its second year) we struggled to ensure that our CDN association did not promote any one musical style over another (like GMA had done in the USA) and that we did not discriminate against any valid Christian musical style. Our CGMA events always featured a variety of artists from traditional, black gospel to contemporary, although this did get us in trouble with some fans who thought we should be one dimensional. Our awards always recognized traditional gospel, ethic categories (including French language and black gospel) and contemporary Christian, which included rock, pop, and later, urban, hip hop, rap, alternative etc. The CGMA has continued and is currently under the capable leadership of President Dr. Gary Dix, who was my vice president before I left the board.”

When mentioning “Southern Gospel”, Dave says: “Never during my 23 year tenure on the board did we have awards labeled “southern gospel” since the executive believed this was a contradiction of terms - with the CGMA being located in Canada – far from the south. We did joke about having a “northern gospel” award, but never actually used that label either. Personally I have always enjoyed most styles of gospel music.”

Dave and Kathy Daw currently travel with Karen and Neil Prins, as the Proverbs’ ministry continues in its fourth decade, and details about their group can be found at . Having been around in the formative stages of Canadian-styled Southern Gospel, Dave doesn’t see himself as being the epitome of all northern gospel music knowledge. “…The one thing I can legitimately claim is that I am older then many of the folks who currently perform in the Gaither Homecoming videos... Of course Bill Gaither is much older, (smarter and thus infinitely richer) than me... but I’m getting up there with the old-timers”.

Another artist who will also admit this is Mike Moran, one of the original members of the Torchmen Quartet. The Torchmen were formed in 1969, as a male quartet that is currently one of the best in Canada. Appearing regularly at the National Quartet Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the Torchmen have been favorites across Canada and the States for many years. Mike is the baritone, and he has seen many singers move through the ranks of the Torchmen as the group changed into the current dynamic lineup they have today. Last year, their tenor Mike Helwigg joined the Wilburns based in Carthage TN. In December, their lead singer Steve Ash was replaced by Dave Randall, an Ontario artist who won the soloist category at the NQC Talent Contest this past September. When commenting on the personnel changes, Mike says, “I still find it hard to believe how God continues to fill the holes in the Torchmen. It always confirms to me that God is still blessing the ministry of our group”.

Based out of the Niagara Peninsula area of Southern Ontario, the Torchmen have enjoyed several honors bestowed on them such as Favorite Male Quartet (for ten years!) by the CGMA, a Grammy award nomination in 1995, and appearances with the Gaither Homecoming artists in Toronto. They have toured Haiti and performed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. They record with Tradition Records in Nashville, and also host the Hamilton Gospel Sings which promote major concerts in Southern Ontario.

Mike has a positive attitude when it comes to the trials of traveling, and life in general. “…Even at my senior age I have discovered that life seems to get harder, rather than easier. So what do I do you ask? I quote to myself from of all people Mark Lowery. He says his favorite bible verse is "It came to pass (not to stay)", but I have learned that all you have is here and now. That's the only thing you can control. Both good and bad is there, and you concentrate on the good!” You can read more on the Torchmen and their ministry at

Another group synonymous with Southern Gospel’s beginnings in Ontario is the Watchmen Quartet. According to their website at , this male quartet began in 1968 when four teenagers joined together to enter a local talent contest. Still traveling part-time today, this group has over 20 recordings to their credit, including both solo and quartet projects. Their travel time is limited as two members are full-time pastors. One of these pastors, Tim Harden, tenor for the group, comments on the challenges of being a gospel music singer in Southern Ontario.

“Canada is in a post-Christian era. According to some pollsters, less than 4% of Canadians attend evangelical churches on a regular basis. The Southern Gospel music crowd tends to be from the Evangelical churches. (Of course there are exceptions to that) So, our audience base is not all it could be, and then add that to the geographics of Canada and it means lots of travel if you are doing lots of singing. Another challenge is getting people to commit to concerts ahead of time. Now I'm speaking more on behalf or the concert promoters. It used to be in the glory years of the all night sings, if you didn't get your tickets early, you didn't get them at all. Now it is often a real nail-biter for the promoters right up to the end because people tend to defer their decision as what they are going to do longer. On the plus side, Gaither and Friends have been a great help to SGM in both Canada and the USA and have drawn many new fans into the southern gospel genre of music, which has been good for all of us. New radio stations that have Southern Gospel programming has also been good (for artists in Ontario).”

Another veteran of many favorite groups including The Chrystalaires, The Viscounts, and The Torchmen, is Don Frost. A fixture in Canadian Gospel Music, Don’s low bass voice now blends with the Middle Cross Quartet, a male quartet based out of Midhurst Ontario. Don was also involved with the CGMA, voted in as president for a term in the early 1980’s. Middle Cross has been active for a number of years, and had the privilege of having Nick Succi play for them before he joined the Kingsmen Quartet out of Asheville NC. You can find Middle Cross online at .

Several other male quartets make the circuit in Southern Ontario, many of them boasting over 20 years each in Southern Gospel. The Master’s Four travel part-time while holding down full-time jobs, and were honored to have Nick Bruno produce their last two albums in Nashville. A mix of southern and inspiration, these guys have shared the stage with the likes of the Booth Brothers and Greater Vision. Check them out at .

Triumphant Sound was formed 25 years ago as a male quartet, and currently travels as a trio. They currently book approximately 30 dates a year, but member Bryan Nelson says, “We are trusting the Lord to open more doors for us to walk through this year. We are open to go where and when He opens the door…”. From their history to their mission statement on their website, this trio’s purpose is to minister. Singing songs that have a strong message, this group definitely adds a Canadian flare to the Southern material they record. You can hear some samples at:

The Ontario Gospel scene hosts many mixed groups as well. One of the most-loved and enduring is the Chapelaires from London. Started in 1970 by Dave Jackson, this part-time group has had 29 members minister with them, among them Joan Walker, a talented pianist and vocalist. Sheila Jackson, Dave’s wife sings the alto part, and they are joined by Paul Mackay and Myrna Long. Myrna has been a part of several well-known Ontario groups including: The Singing Canadians, The Viscounts, and Promise. This wealth of talent and experience is showcased on their website which provides a page of song clips as well as information about the present members. Their itinerary has always had a mix of venues from across Ontario. Sheila states, “One of our biggest challenges is to balance time between ministry, work and family commitments. Winter travel is also a challenge for Canadian Gospel Groups. More bookings in the south would be great!!”

This desire to be in a warmer climate is echoed by all the groups that travel through the ice and snow to their various winter appearances. Sure Foundation is a mixed group from Windsor, a border town next to Detroit MI. Manager Grant Snary, remarks: “We travel roughly 80 dates a year in Ontario and Michigan with some dates in Ohio, Kentucky and North Carolina. We are planning a tour to Florida in 06….The travel is a challenge being on a border city. We have had to get visas in order to cross the border freely even though the US singers don't when traveling this way.” Sure Foundation is also involved in promoting concerts in Southwestern Ontario. You can check out their site at .

Another popular Ontario group, the Parker Trio, recently relocated to Nashville TN. Traveling extensively across the United States and Canada, this mixed trio is on the road 260 days a year. Having won several awards from the CGMA, their ministry has grown tremendously in the last few years. You can read about them at .

Several artists have begun their careers in groups, only to find the Lord leading them into a solo career. Among these are some artists from Ontario that have found their paths heading stateside as well as across Canada.

Starting as a tenor in two male quartets, Kevin Pauls from Waterloo sang with The Torchmen and Sonshine City for several years. Beginning his full-time solo ministry over two years ago was a step of faith for Kevin, as the lack of radio and television stations make it difficult for new artists – especially soloists- to be heard. Averaging 120 dates a year, he has plans to travel to Europe and Australia in 2006. “My goal is simple”, says Kevin. “ people to worship and create an atmosphere to allow the Holy Spirit to move. I also want to create an action for our Christianity. I will always align myself with groups like World Vision so that we can tangibly put our faith into action.” Kevin has formed a praise and worship band that now travel with him called “Beyond the Veil”. All of the Veil members are former quartet boys and that experience shapes their vocal styling even while the type of music is no longer southern. Kevin has had the privilege of traveling with the Gaither tour across Canada, as well as sharing the stage with Michael English. His website includes a personal blog and can be found at .

One of the most powerful southern gospel family groups in the 80’s was The Elliott Family. Joan and her children Marlene and Todd sang a blend of black/southern/soul music that was unique and unequalled in the Ontario concert circuit. For the last 17 years, Marlene Elliot O’Neil has made a name for herself as she travels and sings solo throughout Canada, the United States and even as far as Zambia, Africa. A strong, down-to-earth wife, mother, and woman of God, Marlene uses her gifts to reach out to all audiences. She has a few comments on Southern Gospel in Canada: “I think that the line separating SG music from others has become some-what blurred over the last few years. Saying that, SG is not as wide spread here in Canada as it is in our sister country of United States. Therefore, I think it is so well-received and appreciated here for the specific fans of this specific kind of music. If a promoter is looking for a professional 'southern gospel artist' there are only a select few to choose from. As an artist, however, it is important to me to exercise my vocal music gift fully and record several different styles of gospel music. Therefore, appealing to a wider audience, yet staying true to my calling.” In response to this desire, Marlene is working on her 7th solo CD which she says will reflect her roots of “Old Black Gospel”. You can find out more about Marlene’s ministry at .

Andrew Martin began his singing adventure in much the same way, by being a part of southern gospel groups in his formative years. However, he started by playing the drums and singing back-up. Then he was called to a solo ministry in 1998. In the last three years he has done 500 concerts and recorded six CD’s. Andrew has a unique and interesting story: “My main goal for ministry is sharing the Love of Christ with as many people as I can. I love sharing my testimony of battling with Bi-Polar Manic Depression and all of the ups and downs that the disease had on my life. I share from the diagnosis, through the medication, learning about the disease and what triggered it the most in my life, all the way to May of 2001 when sitting at a stop light in Belleville, Ontario, Canada God completely healed me and I have been free ever since. I love telling people that God truly cares for them and no matter what they are facing that God is there. The enemy loves to help us focus on the problems in our lives so that keeps us from having an intimate relationship with our heavenly father. I try to encourage people to stop looking at the problem and start focusing only on God for I know that He will take care of the problem. I wrote a song from that stand point that says "I Know My God Cares For Me". He shares more of his testimony in his website at .

Andrew’s views of Canadian SGM reflect what many of the artists have shared: “There are many challenges and advantages of anything that we do. One of the main challenges I think that all Canadian Southern Gospel Artists have is the fact of very few Christian Radio Stations in Canada. When there is a station it is usually Contemporary with a 1 or 2 hour Southern Gospel program on Saturday night or Sunday. So that makes it very challenging to have people know who you are if they can't hear you. The advantage to that is that you have to go to many cities and many churches to get people to know who you are and because of that you are sharing your testimony and God's love with more people and that is most definitely an advantage.”

There are many more artists that make up just the Ontario scene of Canadian Southern Gospel Music. Many of these you will never see or hear, yet they still travel many miles to countless little churches in the cities and towns sprawled across this large province. Yet the sounds of Southern Gospel are alive and well, even with the unique challenges that such a diverse culture and terrain provides. Artists are striving for excellence and doing it for the love of the Lord, as large venues are few and flats notoriously small out of necessity. Where there is little chance for advertising, and roots that are only a few decades deep, the southern gospel circuit is still building slowly. However, the fans that do catch onto this music are devoted and faithful, forever optimistic that this type of music will continue to grow in Southern Ontario.

By Lorraine Walker
First published 2005 used by permission

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