WHEN UPON LIFE’S BILLOWS you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost …
Count your many blessings, ev’ry doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.
— “Count Your Blessings”
My first check as a radio gospel singer on KRBC in Abilene was for $6 and was signed by Elliott Roosevelt. His signature on the check didn’t mean that FDR’s son had been “born again.” He controlled the station I sang for. And don’t laugh at the size of the check. Without that $6 each week I couldn’t have gone to college.
In fact, as September 1940 approached I faced zero possibilities of advanced schooling. True, I had been given a work concession by Abilene Christian College, where I was enrolled, but it was for only $20, which not only didn’t cover tuition but didn’t cover food, shelter, clothing, or bus fare. So it was an answer to prayer—my mother’s prayer—when E. P. “Doc” Mead pulled me aside after church one Sunday and asked if I would like to sing in Mead’s Quartet. I had never taken voice lessons and did not plan on becoming a music professional, but I sang a pretty fair country bass and blended well. When the young people’s class offered special music at the little church we attended (it had no choir), I was always the bass.
Doc Mead owned Mead’s Fine Bread bakery, and Mead’s Quartet sang on KRBC for fifteen minutes at noon on weekdays. The regular bass—a “grown man,” as I thought of it—had been transferred out of town, and someone had to fill in quick. Doc admitted he had a tin ear, but since he paid the freight, his recommendation wrote the ticket.
Sick bucks a week. But I looked at it as $4.80 an hour. That was fabulous pay for a sixteen-year-old college freshman. Count your blessings!
There’s within my heart a melody;
Jesus whispers sweet and low …
Fills my ev’ry longing,
Keeps me singing as I go.
—”He Keeps Me Singing”
The radio studios were atop the Hilton Hotel, twelfth floor. I had to hitchhike from the college to downtown because I couldn’t afford a dime for the bus. A car was out of the question. Of the 711 students enrolled in the school, 4 had their own cars.
Our theme song was bouncy: “There’s within my heart a melody …” The announcer’s wife played the piano, and he sang baritone. He was a true golden-throat. Before we went on the air he would hold his nose and mutter things like “How now, brown cow” in order to get his voice tone down. After he left our station he became famous for making one of the classic radio bloopers of all time. Doing a bread spot, he said, “For the breast in bed … try Mrs. Baird’s.” Or was that a legend? At any rate, his wife, our accompanist, hated hymns, especially our theme song. The last day she played, as we finished the program she slammed down a violent chord and screamed, “There, you goddamn bunch of musical maniacs,” and the mike was still open. And that was no legend.
The director of Mead’s Quartet was a big blond guy named Fred, who worked in a downtown office. He thought I didn’t have a good voice, because I couldn’t take that bass lead in “Give the World a Smile Each Day” the way the Stamps-Baxter Quartet bass did. The next autumn, the quartet regrouped (it had disbanded for the summer), and Fred asked the a cappella director at the college to please send him down a good bass. The director, who had never heard Mead’s Quartet and didn’t approve of radio gospel hymn singing in the first place, sent me. Fred nearly cried when I walked into the studio. But he was a good sport. I promised I had developed enough during the summer so that I could handle bass leads on “Seeking the Lost” and “Lead Me Gently Home,” and I could. He upped my wages to $7.50.
Telephone to Glory, oh, what joy divine!
I can feel the current moving down the line.
—”Telephone to Glory”
We took requests, although most of the cards and letters asked for the jingly kind of quartet songs, which Fred disapproved of. We finally persuaded him to let us do such radio standards as “Telephone to Glory” and “Life’s Railway to Heaven” (“Keep your hand upon the throttle,/And your eye upon the rail”). Because it had a bass lead, he even let us do “Have a Little Talk With Jesus,” and with his high tenor, Fred got to swinging the song more than any of us.
I don’t want to leave the impression that Mead’s Quartet was irreverent or cynical, or that I was. My moral code today is based as much on my hymn singing as on my churchgoing (“Yield not to temptation, For yielding is sin;/Each vict’ry will help you Some other to win”). Music has always had more effect on my emotions than the spoken word. We had some touching arrangements for the lovelier songs—I broke up many a time as we hummed under a tenor solo (“Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer,/Thy wings shall my petition bear”) or sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
So many of those old hymns were laboring songs: “Work for the Night Is Coming,” “To the work! To the work! We are servants of God,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “We’ll Work Till Jesus Comes,” “Far and near the fields are teeming, with the waves of ripened grain,” “Take your lives in your hand, to the work while tis the day—Speed Away!”
I had worked my way up to my own special solo, “Only in Thee” (“Pleasures of earth, so seemingly sweet,/Fail at the last my longings to meet”), when World War II broke up Mead’s Quartet. Fred joined the Air Force (and died in the service), and Norman, our second tenor, became an airman too. A few weeks later I