Atlanta's piano-pounding, head-shaking Hovie Lister put Indiana farm boy Bill Gaither on the gospel road in the 1950s.
It has been a good trip for Gaither, whose shelves bend under the weight of five Grammy Awards, 29 Dove Awards (from the gospel music industry0 and other recognitions for the songs and lyrics he has written and recorded with his wife, Gloria.
Gaither said listening to Lister changed him. The Georgian was one of those trailblazers who brought together different musical styles and generations.
Georgians will get a chance to hear Gaither and a lineup of other gospel singers Dec. 3 at Gwinnett Arena.
Lister, a Baptist preacher, and his Statesmen Quartet first got Gaither's attention on a crackling radio. Lister bridged two worlds for Gaither, deeply felt faith and the excitement of pop sounds.
"This was the early '50s, and in the early '50s in the pop field the top sounds were all quartets – the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, the Four Lads. They all had hit tunes with four guys," Gaither said by phone.
"So when Hovie Lister came along in the '50s, these guys were ahead of their time in the field of gospel music. They were on RCA Victor, they were recording in New York City, on the Arthur Godfrey show. And church folks were criticizing them like crazy because they were singing worldly music. They were singing gospel lyrics to pop sounds. And they were cool," he said.
Lister, when not singing on Atlanta radio stations or performing on the road, preached at Mount Zion Baptist Church near Marietta.
The Saturday Evening Post said Lister "put rhythm into religion." One of the Statesmen, Jake Hess, was the man Elvis Presley said he wanted to sing like. Lister was not shy about adopting rock ‘n' roll stylings that predated Jerry Lee Lewis.
Lister, who died in 2001, said in response to the criticism from church folk, "If it takes shaking my hair down, beating a piano like Liberace or Piano Red to keep these young people out of beer joints or the rear seats of automobiles, I'll do it. The devil's got his kind of entertainment. We've got ours."
Church members were not shy about drubbing Gaither either for bringing "the devil's music" into God's house. He grew up to form and sing in his own quartets and trios and was influenced by the pop sounds of the day. He wrote "He Touched Me," whose music would fit on any easy listening radio station and which Elvis recorded on his 1972 Grammy-winning gospel album of the same name.
Gaither often mixed and matched sounds on his tours, bringing traditional gospel singers along with younger singers sporting current styles. Amy Grant toured with him. She hit the contemporary Christian music scene in the 1980s and had a few crossover hits on mainstream radio.
The criticism has not bothered or slowed Gaither. He said the same has been going on since the days of 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, who wedded beer hall tunes to religious lyrics and came up with songs still sung today, such as "A Mighty Fortress is My God." People love the music they grow up with and adapt it to their needs, he said.
Now 73 years old, Gaither said he learned to appreciate rock music from his children and grandchildren through the 1980s. The music of the 1990s and particularly urban sounds such as rap, he does not quit get, he admitted, though Christians have adopted those forms of music, as well.
"A lot of stuff is being thrown at it, but very little will stick to the wall," Gaither said. "Fannie Crosby wrote 4,000 or 5,000 hymns. We still sing four or five of them. That's the way it goes. After I and Gloria are gone, hopefully somebody will still sing ‘Because He Lives' or ‘He Touched Me.' "
Like Lister, he hopes he will be remembered as someone who brought old and new together.
"I do consider myself a bridge between traditional and contemporary. I'd like to claim that title," he said. "I do think I've tried to work hard at bringing people together."
Gaither will bring his Christmas Homecoming Tour to the Gwinnett Arena at 7 p.m. Dec. 3. Tickets $29.50 to $42.50. Information www.gwinnettcenter.com/Home.6.0.html
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