Blackwood Brothers (1934-2000; 2004-present)
The Blackwood Brothers came from a large and musically gifted family. At least one photo of the family exists from 1899 that shows the Blackwood String Band. In that group were Emmitt Blackwood (father to Roy, Doyle, and James), and seven other aunts and uncles.
The Blackwood Brothers formed in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression after preacher Roy Blackwood moved his family back to their home in Mississippi. His brothers Doyle and James (only 15 at the time) already had some experience singing with Vardaman Ray and Gene Catledge. Adding Roy’s 13-year-old son R. W. to sing tenor, the brothers began to travel and sing locally. They were originally billed as the Choctaw County Jubilee Singers, but it wasn't long before the name was changed to the Blackwood Brothers. By 1939, they were singing on WJDX radio in the state capitol, Jackson, Mississippi. A year or so later, they relocated to Shenandoah, Iowa to sing on KMA radio, a 50,000 watt station. By this point, they were also affiliated with Stamp-Baxter selling songbooks. Doyle left the group in the early 1940s, opening the door for bass singer Don Smith, the first non-family member, to sing with the group. Smith would be replaced by Bill Lyles after a few years.
The quartet relocated to Memphis, Tennessee in 1950. Roy had been retired from the tenor position a couple of years earlier, leaving James and R.W. as the remaining family members. Several tenors passed through the group in quick succession until Bill Shaw was hired in 1952. Shaw would stick with the Blackwood Brothers for the next 21 years.
The move to Memphis in 1950 proved to be profitable for the Blackwood Brothers as they began to appear on television station WMCT. In 1951, they signed an exclusive recording contract with RCA. On June 14, 1954, the Blackwood Brothers won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts competition on national television with their rendition of “Have You Talked To The Man Upstairs?” The excitement was short lived however, when a fatal plane crashed claimed the lives of original baritone R W Blackwood and bass singer Bill Lyles just 16 days later in Clanton, AL. The popularity of the group was so strong at this point that 5000 people attended the joint funeral.
After such a tragedy, there was some question as to whether the Blackwood Brothers would continue. Ultimately, Cecil Blackwood replaced his brother at the baritone position, and J D Sumner was brought in to sing bass. With James Blackwood at lead and Bill Shaw at tenor, the vocal line-up of the Blackwood Brothers was set for the next eleven years. Those eleven years are widely considered to be the peak years for the Blackwood Brothers. The four vocalists were complimented by Jack Marshall at piano though 1958 followed by the flashy Wally Varner for the next few years.
While working together, J D Sumner and James Blackwood put a number of innovative ideas into play. A tour bus is now the standard mode of travel for the vast majority of traveling musicians in most genres of music, not just Southern Gospel. Sumner and Blackwood were the first to customize a bus for group travel. They also launched the National Quartet Convention. Sumner also contributed to the Blackwood Brothers as a songwriter. The group set new standards in the recording studio.
During the 1950s, the Blackwood Brothers had formed a partnership with the Statesmen to travel as a team. Due to their popularity, this team had a great deal of clout with concert promoters. The dominance of the Statesmen/Blackwood combination on the concert circuit lasted for about a decade until the rise of gospel music television shows in the 1960s began to give some of their competing groups wider exposure. At this point in history, the industry had moved away from the songbook sales model to a ticketed concert model supplemented by record album sales.
The Blackwood Brothers were still a major force in the industry at the end of the 1960s. In 1969, they collected nearly 200,000 signatures on a “God And Country” petition in retaliation to the banning of prayer in school.
In 1970, the Blackwood Brothers shared a number one song on the Singing News chart with the Stamps Quartet, "The Night Before Easter." Their biggest success on the chart would come six years later. From August of 1976 to October of 1977, "Learning To Lean" was the number one song on the Singing News chart for an unprecedented 15 months in a row. These were the only two songs that ever reached number one for the group, but it’s safe to say they would have had quite a few more if a national gospel chart had been published during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1971, the Blackwood Brothers were at the center of a scandal that led to the Dove Awards being nullified for that year. An extraordinary number of Gospel Music Association memberships had been sold by the Blackwood Brothers the previous year, which skewed the final results of the Dove Awards in their favor (and in favor of groups they recommended to their fans). James Blackwood, who was on the GMA's board of directors at the time, issued an apology to the industry on behalf of the Blackwood Brothers.
James Blackwood left the Blackwood Brothers to join the Masters V in 1981. His son Jimmy took over the lead singing role full-time at this point. Jimmy had been splitting lead singing duties with his father for several years. By the mid-1980s, R W Blackwood Jr had replaced Jimmy at the lead spot. The Blackwood Brothers, now managed by baritone Cecil Blackwood, continued with various members coming and going until the end the 20th century. The group disbanded after the death of Cecil Blackwood in 2000. At that point, James announced on behalf of the Blackwood family that the Blackwood Brothers name was to be retired. However, his son Jimmy put the name back to use in 2004. (James had passed away in 2002.)
2009 was a big year for the Blackwood Brothers. In August, they announced their next CD would be released on the Daywind Records label. It had been quite a few years since the group had a major label's support behind one of their recordings. In December of that same year, the group announced that Jimmy's brother Billy Blackwood would be re-joining the group to sing baritone. It had been several decades since two actual Blackwood brothers had been members of the group at the same time. Three years later, Jimmy left the group and turned the lead singing role over to Michael Helwig.
In early 2021, the Blackwood Brothers announced they would no longer be traveling on a full-time schedule. At the same time, the group announced lead singer Jonathan Mattingly (who replaced Helwig in 2017) would also be making appearances with the trio Avenue. A few weeks later, the group announced the departure of 8-year veteran bass singer Butch Owens.
Other Blackwood Groups
Over the years, various members of the Blackwood family have managed groups that were billed with some variation of the family name. Some of those groups include the Blackwood Boys, the Junior Blackwood Brothers, the Blackwood Singers, the Blackwood Gospel Quartet, the Ron Blackwood Quartet, the Blackwood Quartet and Andrus, Blackwood & Company. Some family members have sung in more than one of these groups.
James Blackwood also had a separate group for several years in the 1990s that was billed as the James Blackwood Quartet.
GMA Hall Of Fame (1998)
Due to the large number of projects recorded by the Blackwood Brothers, the discography page has been divided into separate pages by decade. This allows for easier loading and viewing. Please click one of the links below for the decade you wish to view.
1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s