The Founder Of Southern Gospel Music

If It Wasn’t James Vaughan…

A few days ago, I proposed that the person who most shaped the Southern Gospel we know today came after James D. Vaughan. There are several reasons, but two are key.

  1. Vaughan never lived to see the genre called Southern Gospel. In his day, Christian music was called “sacred.” Of course, this was due to the content of the lyrics rather than the style. Even in the recordings of the 1960s, you’ll see the popular groups referred to as “sacred singers.” It’s a rather big stretch to say a person started something sixty years before it was properly identified with a distinct name.

  2. The most popular current artists like Jason Crabb, Booth Brothers, Triumphant, Gaither Vocal Band, Isaacs, Gold City, Hoppers and Greater Vision barely resemble the early Vaughan and Stamps-Baxter Quartets. Even nostalgic groups like the Dixie Echoes and the Chuck Wagon Gang who sing in “the old style” take advantage of high powered sound systems and other modern technologies in the recording studio. I realize that styles change, but other traditional genres like Bluegrass and Blues have remained relatively constant. Also, it’s worth noting that very few groups today sell songbooks of their own music. Even less offer general collections in hymnbook format, but in Vaughan’s day, selling printed songbooks was their bread and butter.

Of course, neither of these points should diminish James D. Vaughan’s list of significant contributions. His title should actually be more general and wide-sweeping than “Founder Of Southern Gospel Music.”

Really, what Vaughan should be credited for starting is the Christian music business.

Vaughan’s publishing company was formed in 1902. He put a professional quartet on the road singing and selling songbooks in 1910, launched a music school in 1911, started a periodical in 1912, and started one of the first gospel radio stations in 1922. He was also a songwriter with several titles to his credit that have endured the test of time.

Prior to Vaughan, people did not approach sacred music with a career in mind. After Vaughan, they did. What Vaughan started was less about Southern Gospel and more about the general commercialization of gospel music.

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…Then Who Was It?

So, what one person contributed the most to the Southern Gospel industry we have today?

It would have to be the person who was most directly involved in putting many significant parts of the Southern Gospel machine in place. Today, the characteristics that define Southern Gospel artists include a certain range of musical styles; groups typically travel in buses; sing with tracks; pitch their products for sale from the stage; depend on major concert events for survival; etc.

Of course, the sum total that we have today comes from a combined effort of many people over the years, but one person must have been more innovative and out front leading the way on a repeated, consistent basis and on a number of fronts.

Some might argue in favor of Bill Gaither, or perhaps people like James Blackwood, Les Beasley, Claude Hopper, and James G Whitfield.

When all things are considered fairly, though, I don’t see anyone who did more to define the genre than J D Sumner.

Sumner was a leader in almost every area of the industry. He was one of the first gospel singers to appear in the movies and on television. He was a songwriter, a group owner and the owner of a talent agency. He was a comedian and a master of the record pitch. He started the National Quartet Convention. He bought one of the most popular brand names in the industry, the Stamps, and made that brand more famous than they had ever been. This was no small feat, because the Stamps-Baxter quartets…multiple groups co-existing…had already set the standard for popularity quite high in the years before the name was owned exclusively by Sumner.

Through Sumner’s association with Elvis Presley, he introduced millions of people to Southern Gospel music who would never have heard about it otherwise. Because Presley was so generous in allowing J D Sumner & The Stamps to be featured at his concerts, Sumner himself became an international star. No individual in Southern Gospel music before or since has been as famous as J D Sumner was across multiple genres during the 1970s and the years following Presley’s death.

Behind the scenes, Sumner helped form the Gospel Music Association and later the Southern Gospel Music Association. The term “Southern Gospel” had already been used for over a decade when the SGMA formed in 1994, but forming the association essentially gave the genre’s name a stamp of approval.

Sumner led the way and others followed for most of his life, but he wasn’t bull-headed. He knew a good thing when he saw it and he knew a trend when he saw it. These are evident respectively in his participation with Bill Gaither’s Homecoming videos from the very beginning and with using pre-recorded performance tracks in the last few years of J D Sumner & The Stamps.

Every significant group in Southern Gospel today has been affected by some past act of J D Sumner. They continue to place a high priority on his contributions whether they want to or not. Any time an artist sings on the stage at NQC, steps on a tour bus, sings a Sumner song or simply aspires to sing in front of a massive audience, they testify that J D Sumner was the Father Of Southern Gospel Music.

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David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both and David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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  1. Reply May 07, 14:30 #1 quartet-man

    I am not sure I would call him “founder” as I think it was already started already to some degree, but he certainly made tons of contributions and made the industry what it is. In that case, your arguments are great. I am not sure he gets the credit he has due to him. In some ways your argument makes more sense than Vaughn although I do think he got the ball rolling.

    Gaither has done a lot to revive and expand the music for sure, but he isn’t the founder. Nonetheless, he gave a huge shot in the arm to many careers and the industry which helped expose a lot of people to it. He also helped with the quality (although some would argue in doing so he has too much control. What I mean is his way is one way of doing it, but it is good there are other ways so the music doesn’t lose something. Nonetheless, he sort of has a Midas touch in that he does things the best he can and expects others too as well I think. Before him, too many (not all) would settle for less.

    • Reply May 07, 15:39 admin Author

      Perhaps a better descriptor for Sumner is that he “shaped” modern Southern Gospel.

      If you think about it, though, almost every person credited with being the originator of a musical style actually took existing, fairly popular trends, did new things with them, and reached new heights of popularity. That is precisely what Sumner did.

      There were numerous songbook publishers before James D. Vaughan, for example, and they were publishing the same type of music. A friend of mine recently gave me about six songbooks from the early 1900s. One is from 1899, two years before Vaughan started his company, and it’s the same sort of music we’d now call “convention style.”

  2. Reply May 07, 14:31 #2 Brandon Coomer

    I’m not the biggest fan of J.D.’s singing, but when I read your post from Saturday, I finished it thinking J.D. Sumner is probably the father of modern southern gospel music. So, even without presenting the evidence above, you had me convinced.

  3. Reply May 07, 14:36 #3 Brian

    You convinced me!

  4. Reply May 07, 15:37 #4 yankeegospelgirl

    Could it be that there is no one single father of Southern Gospel, just handful of men like J. D. who each made generous contributions?

    Maybe it’s like the discovery of the 1st and 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. There were several scientists over a period of decades in the 19th century who all made important steps and discoveries, but no one who stands out as “the father of thermodynamics.”

    • Reply May 07, 15:46 admin Author

      Well, obviously, no one person did it all, but Sumner’s contributions appear to exceed the contributions of everyone else by a rather substantial margin. Most of the other contenders were famous for other reasons.

      James Blackwood was a great advertiser.

      Gaither is a great summarizer and a great uniter and a great lover of history.

      But, Sumner was an actual innovator.

      • Reply May 07, 16:10 quartet-man

        If it comes down to one person who shaped (that is a great description) the industry itself, you are correct on J.D. I don’t know of anyone else who has had such an effect in so many areas of it.

        J.D. took it to a whole other level and is a pioneer. Others might have created the art form and made contributions in setting things up for what it was to become, but J.D. took the ball and ran with it.

        He was a visionary in thinking of so many things that established it, grew it, and so on. He could have possibly made much more money had that been his goal, but he wanted to further SG and he did. Granted, James Blackwood in particular had to go along with it, provide money and such for quite a bit, but J.D. was the firecracker and dreamer. He saw what it could be and what things were needed to take it further.

        I guess in some ways you could compare it to a child. Of course obviously, God created the child as He did the materials used that made up SG. Then you have the biological parent. But sometimes the biological passes away, gives up the child or whatever and you have a parent who raises the child. J.D. would be the latter. Without God’s creation or the biological father, the child as he is wouldn’t have existed, but then the parent raising the child, providing for the child, training the child etc. can make a huge difference once the child does exist.

        • Reply May 07, 20:14 yankeegospelgirl

          I like the analogy!

          I think Southern Gospel has never reached the same level of popular acceptance that it had when Elvis and J. D. came together and made it cool. I don’t know if that’s necessarily BAD (after all, popular acceptance shouldn’t be our main goal), but still, it would be nice if it were taken a BIT more seriously outside its small niche.

  5. Reply May 08, 11:47 #5 Deep

    JD Sumner was a trailblazer no doubt.

    He had the obvious talent and draw all on his own. That draw made a way to capitaize on making it a business and he did that well. That said, JD wasn’t known as much for his real compassion towards his hurting fellow man. I have been privileged to hear many stories that told of a far more gentle and compassionate man than he may have seemed to come off on stage. For me, he was not perfect by any stretch, but he exhibited a more Christ Like example than I have seen in most SG artists today, including myself.

    I think J.D. certainly was the leading force taking Southern Gospel Music to it’s highest heights than it ever will be again.

  6. Reply May 08, 14:52 #6 John Crenshaw

    When I started reading this article, I thought, “Well, I gotta disagree with DBM on this one!”

    Got to the end and saw you were talking about JD, and you’ve almost convinced me.

    Other than possibly Bill Gaither, I’d say JD is probably the most famous gospel artist outside of the gospel music domain.

    • Reply May 15, 00:42 admin Author

      Gaither is probably the most famous Southern Gospel artist if you limit the circle to all forms of Christian music.

      Sumner’s fame was not as great as Gaither’s within Christian music, but he also had a considerable base of secular music fans who knew him due to his connections with Presley.

      There’s two pretty large circles of name recognition, with a substantial area of overlap. It would be difficult to determine which circle was bigger.

  7. Reply July 14, 10:37 #7 Cupcake

    I have always love the southern gospel style of singing, because of the message in songs and the four part harmony.
    It is a music you can understand without trying really to understand. It is simple.
    Though I am not a fan of progressive southern gospel music, because it leaves its roots.
    Yes there are some good progressive sounding southern groups and individuals.
    I am not an entertainment southern gospel fan.
    I don’t like a singer trying to impress us with his vocal abilities, because that takes away from the message of the song and it brings glory to oneself, which is a type of pride.
    J. D. Sumner was a good bass singer, but he didn’t impress me with the fact that he was the lowest singing bass singer. I was more impressed with some of his recitations than I was his singing.
    Yes I do agree that JD should be credited as the FATHER of SGM..
    This was a good article.

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