It's More Than the Music

Life Lessons on Friends, Faith, and What Matters Most


By Bill Gaither

By Ken Abraham

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Bill Gaither shares the amazing story of his life revealing triumph and tragedies that everyone can learn from.


Copyright © 2003 by The Gaither Charitable Foundation, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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First eBook Edition: October 2003

ISBN 978-0-446-55034-5



IT SEEMED AS THOUGH THE big days of my career were over; I could see the handwriting on the wall and it wasn't pretty. I was fifty-five years of age, and after enjoying a successful career writing and performing music for more than three decades, in 1991 the music world was about to pass me by.

I had been a composer and a musician most of my adult life. Making music was all I had ever known; it was all I'd ever dreamed of doing, all I'd ever wanted to do, and now, like the heavy wooden lid coming down on a grand piano, I could see, feel, and hear the music coming to an end.

I was discouraged and slightly depressed as I considered my options, but I wasn't upset. In the music business, change, and making adjustments to it, is the norm. I was accustomed to seeing one aspect of my career wind down while another area of opportunity opened up. Granted, the line between the end and the beginning is sometimes hard to discern, like the line separating the sand from the sea. They seem to run together for a while, and what we think is an ending often becomes a new beginning.

Besides, my wife, Gloria, and I had achieved many of our goals musically, and we were beginning to think about backing off a bit anyhow, slowing down, and living a seminormal life. Oh, we still planned to be involved in music, but more as mentors rather than as performers. We still planned to write and publish music, discover and promote new artists, and even host a few concert events ourselves, but we had been in the spotlight long enough. It was time for us to step offstage and encourage the next generation of writers, musicians, and singers.

One day I told Gloria, "It seems that the Gaither Vocal Band is winding down, but before we quit, we'd like to record a southern gospel classic. I've always loved that style of music, so I'd like to have all my old heroes come in and sing on one song, something we all know. It might be fun, and besides, I'd like to honor some of those people who first got me excited about gospel music when I was a kid."

I called some friends and invited them to join the Gaither Vocal Band—at the time comprised of Mark Lowry, Jim Murray, Michael English, and me—for the recording session to be held at Master's Touch studio in Nashville. One of the first people I called was Hovie Lister, the inimitable leader of the famous Statesmen Quartet, one of the first gospel quartets I had ever heard as a young boy.

Hovie had long since retired and was living in Atlanta, but he was just as energetic as always when I talked to him by phone.

"Hovie, I want to get some friends together to help me out in the studio on an old song. Think you might be interested?"

"I'll be there," Hovie replied. "Just tell me when and where."

"Well, the Vocal Band is recording a new album—I think we're going to call it Homecoming or something like that—and we want to include some of the grand old gospel songs. We got to thinking about it and said, 'Wouldn't it be fun to invite some of our friends to sing a song—some of the great gospel singers who influenced us when we first started out in music so many years ago?' We're going to be recording in Nashville, and I'd be thrilled if you could come and help us out on the song, 'Where Could I Go but to the Lord?' We're planning to shoot a video of that song, too. Think you can make it?"

"I wouldn't miss it!" Hovie replied in his usual upbeat style.

"I'm not sure who all is going to show up, but I'm going to ask several other friends, some of the old-timers like Glen Payne and George Younce of the Cathedrals, J.D. Sumner and some members of the Stamps, James Blackwood, and of course, Jake Hess."

"Jake's gonna be there?" Hovie asked excitedly.

"I hope so. You know he hasn't been feeling so well lately, but I'm going to ask him."

"Oh, I sure hope he can come," Hovie answered. Hovie and Jake had worked together for fifteen years as part of the Statesmen, as far back as the late 1940s. Later, Jake left the Statesmen to start a new "cutting edge" group known as the Imperials. It would be a thrill for me to have them in the same studio again.

"I'm going to invite the Speers and the Rambos, too," I told Hovie, "and who knows who else. We'll just have an old-friends party."

"Sounds good to me," Hovie said. "I can't wait! Where are you going to do this?"

I gave Hovie the details regarding the time and location of the recording session, and he assured me again that he'd be there.

I was off to a good start. I continued contacting a group of gospel music legends including those I had mentioned to Hovie as well as Buck Rambo, Howard and Vestal Goodman of the Happy Goodman Family, the jolly, heavyset couple known for the size of their hearts as well as the size of their physical frames. Eva Mae LeFevre, of the family group by that name, said that she could come, as did several members of the famous Speer Family. My friends Larry and Rudy Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers heard about the session and said they might drop by as well. Everyone seemed genuinely excited about the idea and willing to help.

These old-time gospel artists were legends to me. They had been the hottest, most popular groups on the circuit when I was growing up. As a young boy, I became obsessed with their music and with them. Now, however, many of the singers were retired, or at least inactive. Some had fallen on hard times. Others were struggling with poor health. For many of them, the tour buses, recording contracts, standing ovations, and deeply moving spiritual moments were fading memories. Although a few of the artists were still able to travel and sing and keep their datebooks relatively full, it was obvious that with each passing year their fans were dwindling. They'd been passed by, ignored by the music industry they had helped to create, and for a number of years now they had been set on the shelf in obscurity. Some had retired comfortably, but others were struggling to survive after pouring their hearts and lives into the music and ministry. Many gospel legends were barely eking out a subsistence living as fewer congregations invited them to sing in their communities. I had hoped that, if nothing else, our recording get-together might remind these heroes that they were not totally forgotten.

On the day of the recording session, we were scheduled to begin rolling tape around ten o'clock to record "Where Could I Go but to the Lord?," a classic written by James B. Coats. For some strange reason, when I booked the studio time, I had reserved it all day simply to record one song. As it turned out, that booking proved to be providential.

By noon, the foyer of the Master's Touch studio in Nashville was already abuzz with activity. It was like walking into a class reunion. The room was crowded with the friendly faces of people who had sung on shows together all around the country for decades, but in recent years they had hardly seen or talked with one another. There were my dear friends Rosa Nell, Mary-Tom, Faye and Brock, and Ben Speer of the Speer Family. The Speers were one of the first gospel groups I'd ever heard, and in 1960 Ben Speer published the first song I had written, "I've Been to Calvary." Since then the Speers had sung many of Gloria's and my songs, including "Let's Just Praise the Lord," "The Family of God," "The King Is Coming," and "There's Something about That Name." The Speers were singing Bill and Gloria Gaither songs long before anyone else had even heard of us. I was especially glad that they could be here on this occasion.

In another part of the room was Buck Rambo of the Singing Rambos, another family group, and Eva Mae LeFevre, a founding member of one of the most popular gospel singing groups in America for decades. Looking around the room, I saw two of my dearest friends, Glen Payne and George Younce of the Cathedrals. Glen and George had experienced a wonderful resurgence in their careers in the mid-eighties when the younger generation of music artists discovered that "those two old guys can really sing!"

James Blackwood was there, too. James was on the program the first night I ever sat in the world-famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, in 1948. He and his family formed the nucleus of the famed Blackwood Brothers Quartet and were true pioneers in this kind of music. James, too, had been sick recently, and I was glad he could make it to the taping.

I was especially excited to see Jim Hill. Jim had sung with the Golden Keys and was the first professional singer to whom I'd ever "pitched" one of my songs. He sang "I've Been to Calvary" shortly after I had written it, and thanks to Jim and the Golden Keys, Ben Speer heard the song, and both groups recorded it. Later, my younger brother, Danny, had sung with Jim as part of the Golden Keys. Jim's own composition, "What a Day That Will Be," had been sung and recorded by hundreds of groups and was already a classic in this genre of music.

Staying close to the coffeepot was J.D. Sumner of the Stamps Quartet, the renowned gospel singers who backed up Elvis Presley during the last few years of his life. The country music artists Larry and Rudy Gatlin did indeed drop by the studio. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Gatlin Brothers had risen to superstardom in country music, and their song "All the Gold (in California)" had even topped the pop charts, catapulting the Gatlin Brothers to performing in Las Vegas, on NBC's Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and in many other places where traditional country music had not yet made significant inroads. The Gatlins' close family harmonies were a pleasant reprieve for many music lovers who didn't care for the heavier rock sounds that dominated radio airwaves at the time. The Gatlin Brothers' rich voices took them around the world to some of the biggest and best music venues of the day. They had grown up listening to gospel music, though, and the brothers had never forgotten their roots.

The atmosphere in the foyer was electric. Everyone was talking, laughing, hugging, and catching up on what each friend had been doing. For years, these folks had seen each other almost every week in concerts around the country. They had worked together so often, most people in the room knew each other's songs by heart. Often, if one group was doing an encore, the other groups on the program would join them onstage for the finale. Frequently, musicians from various groups joined in the fun. It was like one big musical family . . . and now they were together again, in the same room.

I hated to break up the party, but when I noticed the time, I thought, Hey, this is great, but we have some work to do here. I held open the large studio door and said, "Let's go in and sing awhile," motioning toward the inner studio. The party eased into the room, and when everyone had assembled I prayed a brief prayer, thanking God for allowing us to be together and asking Him to bless our efforts. Everyone said amen, and I went to work positioning the singers at various places in the oak-paneled studio. Overhead microphones were strategically placed throughout the room, allowing some of our old-timers the luxury of remaining seated while singing.

I explained that a camera crew was on hand to get some footage that we might use for "clips" in the Gaither Vocal Band video of the song. Camera crew was probably a grandiose term for the video production team. They had only one videocamera!

"Don't even pay attention to the camera," I said. "Let's just have fun and sing."

We had asked several artists, including Larry Gatlin, Vestal Goodman, and Michael English, to sing solos at certain points, so the three of them gathered around a large Neumann microphone near the center of the room. The only instrument in the studio was a grand piano. I had already recorded the instrumental tracks, which the singers could hear in their headphones as they sang. We waited for the red light to go on in the studio, indicating that we were recording. The excitement was almost palpable, but we weren't really sure what to expect once the tape started rolling. We had assembled a few of the greatest gospel singers in history, but some of the men and women in the studio that day hadn't sung a note in public for several years, much less tried to harmonize with other singers. Worse yet, it suddenly occurred to me that although these artists had performed in hundreds of concerts together around the country, except for the rousing "anything goes" encore numbers, they'd never really sung together seriously. I sure hope this works, I thought as the red light came on.

It quickly became clear that my biggest problem was not getting this chorus to sing—my problem was getting it to stop! Everyone was so excited to be together, and was having such a wonderful time, the enthusiasm just kept bubbling up and overflowing! All the singers in the room that day were professionals; they all knew that under ordinary recording circumstances we were to be quiet before the red light was illuminated as the song began, and until the light went out after the song was over, indicating that the recorder in the control room was turned off. And of course, everyone knew that in most recording situations, one was not to give in to any extraneous expressions of praise or worship, no matter how spiritually moved a person might become during a song.

We all knew how to behave in a professional recording session. But these were not ordinary recording circumstances. And it became obvious after about ten minutes that this was not going to be an ordinary recording. Everyone could sense the Spirit of the Lord was in that studio.

Jake Hess had to sing for a funeral earlier that day so he arrived late for the session, and we were all thrilled to see him, especially Hovie Lister. Hovie nearly wept as the two men embraced in the studio. Jake's smooth-as-velvet voice was the lofty standard that aspiring gospel singers of my generation hoped to emulate.

As Jake listened to the music, he, too, immediately recognized that something unusual was going on. Always the quintessential gentleman, Jake looked over at Vestal Goodman and spoke quietly and reverently, "Something special is happening here. I've never felt such a strong presence of the Spirit in a room in my entire life."

Jake was right. We could all sense it, even if we couldn't describe or control it. Something was happening! Somebody other than Bill Gaither was in charge of this session!

We recorded the chorus, and then Vestal, Larry, and Michael sang their solos. It was awesome! The soloists recorded their parts perfectly, and the choir of old-timers sang as though it was their debut. This is even better than I'd hoped for! I thought. It was so good, before the bouncing red needles on the recording console had time to lie still, I was gathering everyone together again. "Let's do another take," I said. "That's just too good!"

It wasn't that anyone had sung his or her parts incorrectly or that the recording engineer had made a mistake. I just wanted to hear these people sing some more!

We recorded the song again and "stacked" the vocals—singing the song again and again, putting several "layers" of the same singers' voices on tape, making the chorus sound even larger than it was. While the group sang, the camera guys continued videotaping the entire event—including the comments and expressions between takes.

After a few more takes, we completed the recording, and there was really no reason to prolong things any further, but nobody wanted to leave! Everyone wanted to stay right there and bask in the Presence that had permeated the studio.

We had arranged for a photographer to take a group photo at the close of the session to commemorate our getting together, and possibly to use on the album cover or insert. The entire group gathered around the studio piano for the photo. When the photographer had clicked off his last shot, Larry Gatlin looked over at Eva Mae LeFevre and said, "Eva Mae, play something. Let's sing."

Well into her seventies, Eva Mae could still tickle the ivories like few piano players could. She played the old song "I'll Meet You in the Morning," and her playing was infectious. In a matter of moments, we were all singing along. At the end of the song, Eva Mae stood up and the group gave her a round of applause. "Let's do another!" someone called.

Ben Speer moved over to the grand piano and started playing another favorite old gospel song. With no provocation from me or anyone else, the group spontaneously joined in. Then someone called out, "Hey, what about 'I'll Fly Away'?"

So we sang the old Albert Brumley classic.

"Let's do 'The Eastern Gate,'" someone else suggested. I couldn't help thinking back to a thousand concerts when I'd heard Vestal Goodman or James Blackwood transport an audience to just outside heaven's gates by singing that song. Now, here they were singing it together in the studio, and I got to sing along!

On and on it went, with no preplanned or orchestrated arrangement of who was going to sing what, or even what song we were going to do next. We simply moved from one great gospel number to another.

"Hey, remember that old song . . . let's sing that one!"

"How about that one the Speers used to do? Remember that one?"

"I've got an idea. Let's try this."

Whoever was closest to the piano (and could remember how to play the song) jumped in and began playing. Sometimes the person who used to sing the solo in concerts stood up next to the piano and did so again, just as he or she might have done it years before. The music still carried an unusual power, but this was more than music.

Larry Gatlin leaned over to the cameraman and said, "You better make sure that you're getting this!" The cameraman nodded knowingly.

Most of us had no trouble remembering the words to the songs. An amazing reservoir of spiritual truth was resident in the lyrics of those classics, and with the slightest tug of the Spirit, we were soon reliving old memories while making new ones. We sang the old Stamps-Baxter songs. We sang the old Vaughn Music Company songs. We sang gospel favorites as well as the old hymns.

At one point, almost on a whim, I asked Howard Goodman to recite a reading that he used to do with the Happy Goodman Family. It was a long composition entitled "I Don't Regret a Mile (That I've Traveled for the Lord)." With no advance preparation, Howard movingly recited every word of the poignant poem.

Tears began to flow freely as members of the group recalled the goodness of God and how He had used the words and melodies of our songs to minister to so many people—including us—over the years. One of the singers raised his hand at the end of a song and said, "I want to say something." He then proceeded to give a testimony, telling what God had done in his life recently. He admitted his failures and said something like, "I wish the messages of these songs would have gripped me earlier in life like they do today."

Everyone in the room, including me, could relate. None of us claimed to be perfect Christians. It was only through the love and the grace of God that He put up with any of us! We all could identify with and rejoice over our brother's words . . . and we did!

We had no script, plan, or agenda for anything that we said, did, or sang that day, other than the arrangement we had for "Where Could I Go but to the Lord"? Everything else that happened was totally spontaneous. But the singers in that room possessed a wealth of stories and voluminous experiences with God, not to mention a vast repertoire of great gospel songs. When things got quiet in the studio, it was only a matter of moments before someone spoke up with a testimony of God's goodness and faithfulness. When one person couldn't remember the lyrics to a song, someone else would prompt him. Nobody seemed concerned about the camera that was still in the room. In fact, most of us were oblivious to its presence.

All the while, the recording crew kept the audio and videotape rolling. When someone eventually realized that the tape was on and pointed it out to me, I said, "Just let the tape roll, guys. There's too much good stuff here. Let's get it all."

I really had no idea what we had on tape, but I was glad we had it. I've always been a fan of southern gospel music. I love the music and the people who have performed it over the years. I love delving into the history of the genre. To have these heroes of mine in the studio singing informally around the piano and getting it on tape was a priceless experience I'd treasure for the rest of my life! What a great souvenir I'm going to have of this day, I thought. None of us in the studio that day could have imagined just what a role that tape was going to play in all of our lives.

The camera issue settled, we were soon back to singing. Eva Mae sat down at the piano again, and we began singing some of the old LeFevre songs. Someone suggested a Gaither favorite, so I slipped onto the piano bench. Next it was Rosa Nell Speer's turn at the piano, as we all joined in singing some classic Speer Family numbers. Some of the songs we sang that day were slow, soft, and deeply moving. Others were rousing camp-meeting numbers, the foot-tapping style of songs that these artists had grown up singing literally in church, camp meetings, and gospel concerts all around the country.

It felt almost—I'm reluctant to say it, but it really is true—heavenly, as the Gaither Vocal Band and the old-timers sang together. We sang for more than three hours! We were still going strong with no signs that anyone wanted to quit.

We had ordered some food for everyone so we could have lunch right there at the studio, so we took a short break to eat. Fried-chicken-wielding singers were all over the studio and still singing. No doubt the engineers and studio manager were worried sick that their expensive recording equipment might receive an unintentional grease job, but nobody said anything. We were all having too much fun. Larry Gatlin looked over at me with a grin and said, "Gaither, getting us together was a great idea. The only thing that ticks me off, Bill, is that you beat me to it!"

In between songs, we talked about some of the old-timers who were not there. Some had already gone on to be with the Lord; several were ill, so we prayed for them. We sang some more, praised the Lord, and prayed for each other.

Larry Gatlin had recently come out of a rehabilitation center, where he had won a major victory over an addiction problem. He had made a fresh commitment to God and was doing well, but he was scheduled to undergo surgery on his throat to remove nodules from his vocal cords—every singer's nightmare. He didn't know whether he'd be able to sing again when he came out from the operation.

Vestal Goodman had known Larry all his life. "Well, I used to change your diapers," she quipped to him. "Let's just gather around and pray." We all joined in, asking that God would heal Larry completely and give him strength. A sweet Spirit permeated the place, and we knew in our hearts that Larry would sing again.

Jake Hess had been battling ill health for so long he'd almost forgotten what it was like to feel well. His weight had dropped to around 140 pounds, and he had moved to Columbus, Georgia, to be near family when he died. Jake's body was weak that day, but his faith was strong as we all gathered around and prayed for him. Nobody wanted to leave the studio, as everyone was aware that God was doing something extremely special.

One of the most moving moments came when Michael En-glish sang the old favorite "I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy." By the time Michael got to the emotionally gripping climax of the song, "I want to see Jesus!" tears were flowing freely down the faces of almost everyone in the studio. It was the heartcry of each of us.

Another highlight for me personally took place when Jim Hill, now in his sixties but still strong of voice, stood up to sing a song I wish I had written: his own composition "What a Day That Will Be." The lyrics talk about heaven, and it was clear by the expressions on the faces in the studio that heaven seemed a lot closer for many of us that day. Memories washed over my mind as I recalled hearing Jim sing that song for the first time back home in Indiana. In those days I started writing music myself and taking my songs to Jim, hoping that he and his group, the Golden Keys, might like them.

At one point in the day, God's presence in the place was so powerful that Larry Gatlin sat down crossed-legged on the studio floor. As various members of the group shared what this day had meant to them, Larry listened in awe. Finally he spoke up and said, "This is the most amazing experience I've ever had!" Then he added, "I was sitting here thinking a while ago, Lord, please don't let anything happen to the people in this room, because if it does, I'll lose all my heroes."

I felt the same way.

It was dark outside by the time our troupe finally sang itself out. As we left the studio, hugging each other and reluctantly calling out our good-byes, we were tired and our throats were nearly raw from singing so long, but we were exuberant. God's Spirit had been with us in an unusual way all day long. It had been a powerful spiritual experience, and like most of the artists in the studio that day, I was deeply moved.

From a practical aspect, I was certain that the video company had plenty of good material from which to choose some special moments. When the producer of the video said he definitely had all the video that he needed, I asked, "What are you going to do with the leftover raw footage?"

"We'll probably just throw it away," he replied.

"In that case, I'd like to have it," I said. I hadn't seen the video footage yet, and I certainly had no plans to release it to the world. But I knew there were two or three hours' worth of my heroes on tape, and if nothing else I wanted to keep it in my own archives.

That night, I called Gloria from Nashville and told her, "Something unusual happened in the studio today. It was almost like a revival. A camera crew caught some of it on tape, and if they have even a fraction of what I experienced, it has to be really special."

When I got home a few days later, I sat down to view the videotape and to relive that special afternoon. As I watched the film, I was astounded. I was absolutely mesmerized by the music, and even more amazed at the supernatural power that seemed to accompany it. Although the music wasn't technically "tight," with people singing whatever melodies and harmonies they wanted, and the camera shots lacked variety and professional lighting effects—we had used only one videocamera and no special lighting—an overwhelming love and emotion came through on the tape. I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen for a moment while the tape was playing. "We've got ahold of something good here," I said aloud, as I continued to watch. "We've got to do this thing right."


On Sale
Nov 15, 2008
Page Count
320 pages

Bill Gaither

About the Author

Ken Abraham is a New York Times best-selling author. Fifteen books on which Ken has collaborated have appeared on the New York Times bestsellers lists, with three of Ken’s works reaching the number one position. Ken wrote the New York Times bestseller, WALK TO BEAUTIFUL, with country music artist Jimmy Wayne, a former foster child who walked 1,700 miles across America to raise awareness about foster kids. Ken’s most recent New York Times bestsellers include NO DREAM IS TOO HIGH, with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and MORE THAN RIVALS, a gripping story of racial conflict and reconciliation, based on actual events. At present, Ken has more than twelve million books in print.

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