The Statesmen Quartet was a Southern Gospel Music group founded in 1948 by Hovie Lister. Along with the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen Quartet was considered the most successful and influential gospel quartet of the 1950s.
During the first years, the group underwent several member changes, and included singers like James “Big Chief” Wetherington, Denver Crumpler, Jake Hess, Doy Ott, Hovie Lister, Rosie Rozell, and Jack Toney.
Their hits spanned many decades, they were the first Gospel artist to receive endorsement deals, they made television commercials, appeared on TV shows and they were signed to RCA Victor before launching their own label with the Blackwood Brothers.
The Statesmen Quartet was founded in 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia by piano player Hovie Lister, a Baptist minister and convention-style piano player with a flair for showmanship. Lister constructed the quartet as a hand-picked group of the best singing voices in order to secure a prime time-slot on the new WCON radio station. The initial line-up included lead singer Mosie Lister from Atlanta, Gordon Hill on bass, Bervin Kendrick from Birmingham singing baritone and Bobby Strickland of Albertiville singing the tenor. The group’s name was lifted from the title of a newsletter published by Herman Talmadge, Governor of Georgia, with Talmadge’s permission. The quartet made their debut on WCON in Atlanta in October, 1948.
From 1948 to 1952, the group underwent several personnel changes. In 1953, Lister’s vision of the premiere lineup was realized with the addition of Denver Crumpler as tenor. Crumpler joined Jake Hess (lead), Doy Ott (baritone), and James ‘Big Chief’ Wetherington (bass), with Lister on piano and master of ceremonies. During the next years, The Statesmen Quartet achieved fame as one of the premiere groups of Southern Gospel music.
In 1952, the Statesmen entered into a business partnership with The Blackwood Brothers Quartet. The “Stateswood” team would dominate Southern Gospel music for the next two decades.
The popular Cat Freeman, a native of Fyffe, Alabama was replaced by the great Irish tenor Denver Crumpler. With this lineup, the Statesmen began recording for RCA Victor and began starring in the Nabisco Hour national TV show. Popular songs of this period include “Get Away Jordan” and “Happy Rhythm”. As early as 1950, the Statesmen used the phrase “Rockin’ and rollin'” in a song, and Hovie Lister’s frantic boogie woogie piano, piano bench acrobatics, and hair shaken down in his eyes predated Jerry Lee Lewis’ use of the same tricks by a good five years.
During this period, the quartet had offices at the Briarcliff Hotel at Ponce and N. Highland in Virginia Highland, Atlanta. Business manager Don Butler and tenor Roland “Rosie” Rozell partnered to open the King & Prince Restaurant inside the hotel.
On 4 July 1955, the Blackwood/Statesmen team traveled to Texas for an engagement that would feature several secular artists on the same program. Among them was Elvis Presley. Elvis was planning to sing his rock hits, but refrained out of respect of his gospel idols, the Statesmen and Blackwoods. The Statesmen exerted a powerful influence on young Elvis, who idolized and imitated Jake Hess’ vocal stylings and Big Chief’s leg shaking. In an interview with songwriter Bill Gaither, Hess remembered seeing young Elvis coming to Statesmen shows in Tupelo when Presley was only nine or ten. Hess said that the serious young Elvis would ask him, “How do you make a record?” or “How many suits you got?” On the Gaither Homecoming video “Oh My Glory”, Jake Hess tells about Elvis coming to Statesmen concerts and being invited up onstage to sing lead in place of Jake on a song or two.
In 1957, Denver Crumpler died in diabetic shock when his symptoms were misdiagnosed as a heart attack. Cat Freeman came back briefly, followed by lyric tenor Roland ‘Rosie’ Rozell, a soulful singer and former policeman from Oklahoma. The Rosie-Hess-Ott-Chief lineup recorded such classics as “Faith Unlocks The Door” and Rosie’s signature tune “Oh What A Savior” and “There’s Room at the Cross”
In 1963, Jake Hess left the Statesmen to form his own quartet, Jake Hess and The Imperials.
Hovie tapped young, debonair Jack Toney from Boaz, Alabama to replace Hess. Before long, Toney’s movie-idol looks and powerful voice helped the Statesmen to soldier on without missing a beat. Ironically, Jack Toney would replace Jake Hess on five different occasions in three different decades with the Statesmen and the Masters V.
Bass singer “Big Chief” Wetherington died of a massive heart attack on October 3, 1973, while attending the National Quartet Convention in Nashville. He is buried in a small cemetery just outside Atlanta, Georgia.
Later incarnations of the Statesmen would include tenors Sherrill ‘Shaun’ Nielson, Willie Wynn, and Johnny Cook; lead singers Roy McNeil and Jim Hill; baritones Chris Hess (Jake’s son), Biney English and Rick Fair; and bass singers Ray Burdette, Bob Caldwell and Doug Young. Over the years, Jake Hess, Jack Toney, Doy Ott and Rosie Rozell would rejoin the Statesmen at various times, most notably a couple years after Chief’s death when Lister brought back Rozell, Jake Hess, and Doy Ott as “The Statesmen” sans bass. A comical pairing of this classic Statesmen “trio” with longtime Blackwood Brothers/Stamps Quartet bass singer J.D. Sumner at the 1977 National Quartet Convention in Nashville was the birth of the Masters V Quartet, which would include, in its classic lineup, Rosie Rozell, James Blackwood, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, and Hovie Lister. The Statesmen’s influence lives on in some of today’s most popular quartets, such as The Dove Brothers, and Ernie Haase and Signature Sound.