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 joined the Navy.
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep,
O, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!”
—”The Hymn of the U.S. Navy”
Frankly, being a hymn singer didn’t cut much rank in the U.S. Navy. I did hold membership in the Bluejacket Choir, but there were too many opera singers and famous vocalists for a Texas fundamentalist to hang on very long. Once, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed a comeback. The Secretary of the Navy died, and the captain ordered a memorial service—with one day’s assembly time. A chaplain’s assistant, also named Greene, who later starred at Westminster Choir College, called me at midnight, asked me if my story of singing bass on the radio was a lie, and ordered me to report at 0700 to form the Navy Quartet and practice for feature presentation that afternoon. We sang the Navy hymn while the chaplain intoned “Crossing the Bar,” and it was so successful that station WCAU recorded it and played it several times that evening. I thought I had it made as a singing swabbie. A week later I was shipped out to the U.S. Marine Corps, and for two years the only hymn I sang was “The Marines’ Hymn” (“First to fight for right and freedom/And to keep our honor clean”).
When the war was over I returned to college and, despite the GI bill, the need for extra income arose. Fred, of course, was gone, and during the war my friend Doc Mead had become not only a big shot in the bakery business but a millionaire. Both he and I had deserted the little church where I starred as boy bass, and I wasn’t sure of my reception by this important figure, whose bread empire now spread over West Texas, the Panhandle, eastern New Mexico, and western Oklahoma.
But Doc remained approachable, the same sweet, tin-eared guy. He appointed me to reorganize the quartet, took out half a page in the newspaper to announce it—and paid us $15 a week.
I put together the group: Norman was back; also Jimmy, the first tenor; Big Jim, another radio golden-throat, was our baritone; and I was the bass. Big Jim directed us, and I wrote the scripts, which consisted of brief spoken introductions to the hymns, things like “From the little church just around the corner of your heart comes . . .”
We changed the opening song to the lovely old Dutch hymn “We Gather Together,” but we loosened up the format, so to speak, and worked in lots of things like “Precious Memories” as well as marching songs: “Marching to Zion,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “Revive Us Again.” We cut big, fifteen-minute, hill-and-dale ETs (electronic transcriptions) that were shipped to three other radio stations across West Texas. The requests poured in, sometimes with the titles spelled phonetically: “And please play Father Alone,’ first chance you get” or “Dead Mead’s Quartet: Will you please sing Blessed Insurance’ for my sister who has just lost her husband. Mrs. Claude M., Baird, Texas.”
Although Mead’s Quartet never reached the point of commanding a fee for public performances, it was in demand for revivals, special appearances, and funerals. We relished these performances, since Mead’s bakery paid us for such off-air advertising. Doc was a lay preacher, and he often took us with him when he addressed a church in some town like Nugent or Lueders.
Funerals became an almost weekly ritual. How many times have I walked slowly by an open grave, singing “Alseep in Jesus” while crumbling a clod of red dirt over the deceased? Funerals always brought out the worst in us. A tenor named Tommy sometimes substituted for Jimmy, and during one funeral somewhere south of Putnam, Tommy slipped and almost fell into the grave—he couldn’t seem to walk and sing at the same time. On another occasion—the funeral of the father of a friend of mine—Tommy got off on the wrong key to begin with (the organist was unfamiliar with our style) and started positively whimpering instead of singing. One by one the rest got tickled and had to drop out, the organist quit playing, and I found myself, the bass, doing a solo on “Some Time We’ll Understand,” while my bereaved friend looked on with bafflement. I hate to admit, even at this distance, that I brazenly pretended it was grief choking us up.
Although we were careful to avoid any denominational taint in our music, some of the revivals at which we sang tested our religious backgrounds. One large Holy Roller congregation booked us and told me there wouldn’t be any need for us to be there before 10 p.m. because things didn’t really get started until then. As we arived, we could hear the service going on two blocks from the church house. Our guide for the night met us and slipped us in through the back door, seating us on the front row of the choir. And what a choir! To my left was a French horn, behind me was a street drum, and on Norman’s right were two saxophones, one a soprano. Every hymn was handled like a symphony—and I don’t mean to imply that the horn, drum, and saxes were the only instruments; I didn’t dare turn and stare, but I know I heard a banjo, strings, at least two cornets (because they tried to harmonize), something mysterious that a GI had brought back from Japan, and a set of snares rigged for marching.
We were announced in proper fashion, to a burst of enthusiastic applause, then we launched into the liveliest set we had: “We Shall See the King Someday,” “At the Cross,” “Give Me That Old-time Religion,” Gipsy Smith’s “Jesus Saves,” with, you may be sure, full symphonic accompaniment. In fact, the orchestra didn’t want to quit. When the quartet gave up after “Kneel at the Cross,” the band played on—to the clapping of the crowd. Our guide whispered to us that sometimes the service went on until pretty late and we might want to leave. He suggested we do it during the prayer. When it started I saw why. Everyone prayed individually and out loud. As we were slipping around the corner of the choir, Norman (a dignified sort who became a professor) led the way, and just as he drew even with a tall, praying woman she looked him right in the eye, threw up her hands, and shouted, “Thank you , Jesus”—and Norman shook hands with her.
God be with you till we meet again!
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again!
—”God Be With You”
Closing theme of Mead’s Quartet
We broke up my senior year. Big Jim took an announcer’s job in Lubbock, Jimmy transferred to some Oklahoma college, Norman graduated and went to New York to work on his M.A. And Tommy—I wonder what did happen to Tommy? I night-managed a drive-in cafe right up to the week before graduation.
I never sang much after I got out of college. I left the fundamentalists years and years gone by and became a Presbyterian in a big church with a paid choir whose members would die of embarrassment if you suggested they sing something as awful as “Power in the Blood” or “Whispering Hope.” Sure, a lot of the hymns we sang were composed by people like Handel, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Weber: “We would see Jesus, for the shadows lengthen/Across the little landscape of our life,” “My Jesus, as Thou wilt, tho’ seen through many a tear,/Let not my star of hope grow dim, or disappear.” But subtle and lovely as those are, the ones I remember with greatest fondness are the passionate old blood-boilers, the ones that had to do more with tears and toil than balm and bliss. And what will be remembered of the high-flying anthems and hundred-voice-choir pieces of today? Anything?
Once, a dozen years ago, a bunch of us even made an LP of some old gospel swingers. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “The Great Speckled Bird,” and “Farther Along” got a fair amount of air time on a New York gospel station. We used some great female voices, white and black. Had professional backup: steel, drums, amped lead and bass, acoustic rhythm, Autoharp, and an absolutely wonderful Baptist Sunday school piano. And I did a couple of bars on harmonica. But it wasn’t the same. We were too good.
Mead’s Quartet didn’t need all that support system. When we wanted to bring em to their knees, we did “The Old Rugged Cross.” We sang the first verse in close harmony, with just a little piano (“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross”). The crowd got quiet. On the second verse Jimmy did a solo over our humming (“Oh, that old rugged cross so despised by the world,/Has a wondrous attraction for me”), and the last verse we did a cappella, phrasing it tightly, bring the piano back in for the chorus. I tell you, not a dry eye in the house. It never failed.
Do they still sing “The Old Rugged Cross”?