A while ago, I started a series of articles on My Top 10 Quartets of All Time, starting at the bottom with Perfect Heart as my #10 group. You can read that article here. I have ranked and re-ranked these groups time & time again, and have been quite conflicted about how to rank these groups. But I believe I have finally settled on an order that I believe is accurate. So after a lengthy absence, we pick up our countdown once again! Coming in at #9 is one of the most exciting quartets to ever come along in Southern Gospel Music, the Prophets Quartet of Knoxville, TN.
The origins of the group trace back to St. Louis, MO in the late 1950’s and a group called The King’s Men Quartet (no relation to the Kingsmen from Asheville, NC).This young quartet included a talented lead singer named Jay Berry and a smooth baritone named Ed Hill. This group had lots of potential, and wowed the crowd at the 1958 National Quartet Convention. Elated by this experience, HIll & Berry decided to relocate the group and base themselves out of Knoxville.
Along with Berry & Hill, a vital member of the Prophets was a young tenor named Lew Garrison. “Big Lew” would prove to be an essential piece of the puzzle for the Prophets, and his high tenor vocals would push the groups vocal arrangements for years to come. 1959 saw the group release their debut album, The Gospel Songs. It was released on a pop music label, Coral Records, and is a very collectible album today.
In 1960, veteran pianist/arranger/quartet man “Smilin” Joe Roper joined the group, and they recorded their only release on the Blackwoods/Statesmen owned Skylite label, “Glory, Glory, Amen” . The group was comprised of Garrison/Berry/Hill and bass Jim Boatman, with Roper at piano. This is one of the groups finest recordings, and features some of the finest singing in the groups history.
1962 would bring change to the Prophets (changes in personnel would be something the group would battle constantly). Roper would be replaced by Joe Moscheo, the New York-native who was hailed as the first full blooded Italian in Gospel Music. Moscheo’s showmanship, and knack for arranging would be critical to the groups success. The Prophets joined the talented roster of artists on the Lefevres Sing label, and would release , in my opinion, some of their finest albums during these years. They were also a fixture of the Singing Caravan Tour, with the Blue Ridge Quartet, Johnson Sisters, and Lefevres.
After releasing 2 fine albums (Packing Up and self-titled The Prophets), in 1963 Jay Berry would depart the group he helped start, and join the Rebels Quartet of Tampa, FL. Berry was replaced for a short time by a young lead singer from Alabama, Jack Toney, whose stay with the group was not long. Filling the position would be another fine lead singer, and one of the all time greats, Roy McNeal. Roy was one of the most dynamic vocalists of his time, with a seemingly endless vocal range and power to boot. McNeal’s first recording with the group, Relax, would be the only Prophets album to feature Jay Simmons at bass.
In 1964, Dave Rogers replaced Simmons at bass, and this lineup (Garrison, McNeal, Hill, Rogers, Moscheo) would be one of the groups most stable & well known configurations. Two of their albums, Gospel Rhythm & I Gotta Tell It, are classics that any quartet lover should have in their collection. In ‘65, Hill came off the road for a little while and was replaced at baritone by a friend of Rogers, Duane Allen. The groups recorded 2 fine projects with Allen (Vital & Vibrant & Beauty, Power, and Peace) before Hill returned to the group in 66. Allen would go on to join the Oak Ridge Boys as their lead singer, and the rest is history.
With Hill back in the fold, McNeal would leave briefly, to be replaced by Jim Wesson. With Wesson the group recorded another one of my favorite albums, Love Like The Sun. The calypso inspired title track, written by a young Lari Goss, is one of the most unique songs recorded by the group.
1966 & 1967 would see the departure of Moscheo as he would join Jake Hess & The Imperials. It would also bring the return of McNeal and Everett Reese was hired to play the piano. This group would record 2 projects (A Joyful Sound & Upward & Onward) before both Reese & McNeal would leave the group again. Several pianists, including Danny Churchwell and Bob McCollum, would take their turn at the piano bench.
Talented singers such as a young Dean Brown (whose voice & range was bore a striking resemblence to McNeal), Donnie Seabolt, and Carl Sanders all spent time filling the position of lead vocalist for the group. Even though the changes were numerous, the group retained their trademark sound with Garrison & Hill in the mix.
However, change was on the way in 1972, when Lew Garrison would leave the group, after 12 years of service. Although the group survived many changes, thanks to the strong leadership and management of Hill, and his ability to find talented individuals, losing “Big Lew” was a blow that I don’t think the group would ever recover from. Grady “Chico” Nix was hired as the groups new tenor, and was a solid tenor. The Prophets would record 3 more albums, before they disbanded in 1973.
All the members would go on, the most notable of them being Ed Hill. After Hill disbanded the group, he joined J.D. Sumner & The Stamps as their “temporary” baritone. He would remain “the temporary guy” from 1973 to the groups disbandment after Sumner’s death in 1998. Hill also had a couple brief stints in the Statesmen & Masters Five, but would play a crucial role in the success of the Singing Americans, whom he joined in 1981. He would mold the talent of some of Southern Gospel’s legendary talent such as Danny Funderburk, Ivan Parker, Michael English, Clayton Inman, Rick Strickland, Jeff Easter, Mike Lefevre, and Mark Fain.
Although the Prophets would reform in 2006, with Bill Baize at tenor, Paul Jackson at lead, Hill at baritone, Mike Allen at lead, and Eddie Crook accompanying the group on piano, it would be short-lived. Hill today is the baritone for the Songfellows Quartet (with Rick Strickland at tenor). Roy McNeal lives in Tennessee today. Garrison & Rogers have both passed away, and Jay Berry lives in the St. Louis area.
Although the Prophets career was short, compared to their contemporaries (Statesmen, Blackwoods, Stamps), they were one of the greatest quartets to ever stand on a stage. Many of their arrangements (Sweeter As The Days Go By, I’ve Found A Hiding Place) have been dubbed as the difinitive arrangements of those classic songs. One could only imagine how different things could have been for the group if they had more stability in their members tenure. Regardless, The Prophets are still one of the greatest quartets of all time, and their music is still influencing new generations of Gospel Music fans who are spinning their records on the turntable for the first time!
Stay tuned for more posts from my Top 10 Quartets of all time! As always, I look forward to reading your comments and feedback.