This week’s article is about one of the legendary groups in Southern Gospel Music and also a group, which was based in the upstate of South Carolina. The group I am referring to is The Blue Ridge Quartet and this month one the original members of the group will be inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall Of Fame, none other than Elmo Fagg. A year or so ago I had the honor of spending the afternoon with one of the longtime members of the quartet, Bill Crowe (no relation as far as we know) who is a nephew of Elmo Fagg. Let’s began with a little background to set the stage for what would be one of the most successful groups to come along in gospel music.
Elmo Fagg, as I have already stated, was Bill’s uncle – they were from Alcoa, Tennessee. Elmo’s father went to churches and schools in the area to teach weeklong music schools. As Bill told me, by the end of the week Mr. Fagg would have given enough training to his pupils so that they could sing by shape notes. Bill and his family would go to these schools and sing. This was not only the beginning of Bill’s musical career but also a prelude to Elmo’s start to be a full-time singer. Bill told me that it was at one of these singing schools that he earned his first salary as a singer. As he recalls the pay was just a few dollars. Being from a musical family, Bill had the desire to sing in his blood and although he had a few other jobs music was never far away from his mind.
Elmo Fagg spent several years in military before joining a quartet out of Raleigh called the Lone Star Quartet. This group was on a radio station WRAL. From there the group moved to Burlington, North Carolina, to another radio station WDBB. Then in 1948 this group moved to Spartanburg and changed the name to Stamps- Blue Ridge Quartet and began to appear on WSPA radio. During these years there was no TV and if you were on the radio each program was recorded live. One of the first programs that the group appeared on was the Farmer Gray Show. Will anyone admit to being old enough to remember this program? I did. Also, the reason that Stamps was a part of the name was that the Stamps music company had groups around the country for the purpose of selling their song books and, as Bill related, this made up a big part of the group’s income.
When the group moved to Spartanburg there was a young man by the name of Kenny Gates who was just finishing high school, from Lincolnton, North Carolina. Kenny joined the Blue Ridge as pianist and also sings baritone. Without question Kenny was and is one of the legends of Southern Gospel music not only for his ability to sing and play but also his ability to arrange songs. The Blue Ridge was able to get the attention of America in part because of Kenny’s ability to be forward-thinking in song arrangements. By the way Kenny makes his home in the upstate.
Bill Crowe’s dream was to sing with the Blue Ridge Quartet but, as he stated, thought that his dream would not ever come to be since he sang the same part as Elmo. So Bill sang with several groups from Georgia to Virginia and in 1959 landed a job with The Foggy River Boys. After about a year this group was very successful. One night Bill received a call from Elmo stating that the quartet had met and decided that Kenny would no longer sing and play but would continue to play. This created an opening for another singer and the group wanted Bill to full that spot, so as they say the rest is history. Bill joined the group in October 1960 not only as a singer but also as part owner along with the other four members.
As you might imagine there were personnel changes through the years. One such change was George Younce left the group in 1965 and was replaced by one of the original members who had left prior to George’s coming by the name of Burl Strevel. He at the time was with the Sunshine Boys. Not long after that another of the Sunshine Boys joined the group – his name was Fred Daniels. The Sunshine Boys had sung all over the country and Burl and Fred were able to take the Blue Ridge to these same areas and give them a jump start in the Northern part of the country.
It was along about this time that television began to tape the shows. This allowed the group to travel and still have a local TV program. Bill stated that the Blue Ridge Quartet not only had good singers but also good businessmen. So someone came up with the idea to buy the tape and when the program aired on WSPA-TV then the tape would belong to the group. This tape was then carried to other stations and at one time the Blue Ridge Quartet appeared on 50 different stations each week. This increased their concert dates to the point that Bill said that sometimes the group would leave Spartanburg in the spring and not be back home until the season had changed. Usually the group would sing every night to a packed house. I am sure you recall the “all night singing” in Spartanburg and how the house would be full and running over. Also the group came up with the idea to have their records produced in the off season so as to get them at a reduced rate. This not only allowed them to sell more but also at a reduced cost. For a time the Blue Ridge traveled the fair circuit and continued to be one of the most successful groups of their day.
By the ‘80’s Burl and Bill were the only two of the old timers left-some had passed away and others had retired. In 1981 tragedy struck the group, Burl had a heart attack and died leaving Bill with the task of keeping the group together, which he did for another five years. Bill had always planned to retire at 50 in order to spend time with his family. So in 1986 Bill decided to stay at home ending nearly 40 years of Blue Ridge Quartet singing.
As mentioned in an earlier article, Elmo Fagg will be honored in the South Carolina Gospel Music Association’s induction ceremony. This event will be held on October 9th at Blue Ridge Baptist Church. The activities will begin at 7pm with the Trav’lers singing as well as some of the inductees. After the induction of this year’s class the Trav’lers will close the program with another round of songs.
There will be a Love Offering taken to offset the cost of the event. You call me for additional information at (864) 979-9626 or (864) 895-1287. Also I will be on night line this Thursday with more information from 8 until 9:30pm. Hope to see you at this year’s event.