Jimmy Blackwood: Remembering Tragedy, Carrying on the Legacy
by Rebekah Speer
Blackwood. If you have just dipped your toe into the pool of Southern Gospel music, then it won’t long before the Blackwood name rings a bell. James Blackwood Sr., Doyle Blackwood, Roy Blackwood, and nephew, RW Blackwood, are the original members of The Blackwood Brothers Quartet, starting in 1934 in Choctaw County, MS. They were so popular they became “The Best-Known Name in Gospel Music History.”
Fast forward to 1969, James Blackwood’s oldest son, James “Jimmy” Blackwood, Jr., took over as the main lead singer for the group. Jimmy began his singing career in 1962 with the Junior Blackwood Brothers, then moved on to singing baritone with J.D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet by 1965.
I can recall precisely the first time I learned of the Blackwoods. It was February of 2002, and I was over at Miggie Lewis’s (The Lewis Family) in
Lincolnton, GA. She received the call that Jimmy’s father, James, had just passed away. I was new to the southern gospel scene in some respects, and I recall trying to figure out who was exactly the father, “James” or “Jimmy.” Of course, Miggie set me on the correct path and then also told me about the tragic plane crash in 1954, two weeks after they had just won the Arthur Godfrey talent scout T.V. show. The crash claimed the lives of RW Blackwood and Bill Lyles.
A few years after being schooled by Miggie, I would find myself with Ben Speer. I attended the National Quartet Convention with him in 2010 when I first met Jimmy without knowing it until after. I say met… He was really talking to Ben. I asked Ben who he was talking to, and he told me, Jimmy Blackwood. I would later actually meet and talk to Jimmy a few years later after Faye Speer’s funeral. Years have gone by, and I can now say Jimmy has become one of my dearest friends.
I learned more about the Blackwood legacy and heard many road stories of his time on the road. I managed to drag him kicking and screaming out of retirement, and he sings on my first single from my Bluegrass Gospel album, Somebody Loves Me.
On July 31, 1943, Jimmy was born in National City, CA. The family moved to Iowa in 1945 and eventually landed in Memphis, Tenn., in 1950. He has five Grammys and a Singing News Fan Award for Favorite Lead Singer. Jimmy left the quartet and began a solo career in 1986. After his father died, Jimmy went back to singing lead with the quartet retiring in October 2012.
Rebekah: So, tell the world what it is like being the son of James “Mr. Gospel Music” Blackwood.
Jimmy: I didn’t realize how famous my dad and his brothers were in my earlier days. I always called him “Daddy” and was proud to be named after him. When I was about five years old, I remember thinking that everybody’s daddy sang in a quartet. Later, I figured out that I had an exceptionally gifted family.
Rebekah: When did you realize you were a singer?
Jimmy: I became interested in singing when I was 20. Mr. Verle Pilant and his wife, Marge, were involved in their local church’s music program, and they also taught music. He organized several quartet kids to sing in a quartet with him as the tenor, my cousin Winston Blackwood as the lead singer, me on baritone, Bill Lyles, Jr singing bass, and Marge playing the piano. That was my introduction to singing and traveling.
Rebekah: Do you miss the road?
Jimmy: I traveled for about 49 years, singing in quartets and solo music. The traveling was enjoyable, but the miles can take a toll on your body. I learned to sing when I had a cold and my voice was gone, learned to keep going when I was sick or tired and learned to smile when I didn’t feel like smiling. It’s not an act; it’s just finding strength when you feel like you can’t take another step. Over the years, I’ve seen my daddy hold on to a microphone stand for support because he was almost too weak to be able to stand on stage and sing. I had a great example.
Rebekah: What was your favorite line-up of the quartet?
Jimmy: I sang with some of the greatest Gospel singers there have ever been, but I enjoyed the bass singers most. I sang with J.D. Sumner, London Parris, Ken Turner, and Butch Owens. Any of those guys could shake the foundation with their low voices.
Rebekah: Can you tell a bit about the plane crash and how that affected you?
Jimmy: I was only 11 years old when the plane crash happened in Clanton, Alabama, but I knew it was a turning point in our family. My cousin R.W. was the pilot, and Bill Lyles was the co-pilot.
They were doing a few practice take-offs and landings, and a local friend, Johnny Ogborn, had joined them for the exercises. On the final approach, the plane crashed, and all three died on the runway. There is a monument to them at the airport in Clanton. All the later events in our lives referred to happening before or after the crash. We never really got over that tragedy.
Rebekah: Is there anything you would like to add?
Jimmy: I am grateful for my heritage and the opportunities to travel the world and experience many wonderful things. I have met many prominent leaders, entertainers, and politicians. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people, from farmers to bankers, mechanics to athletes, musicians, doctors, teachers, and people from all walks of life. I have eaten food from the streets of Hong Kong to the cornfields of the Midwest. It has been an amazing life.
Jimmy Blackwood, Tim Reid, Rebekah Speer, Gene McDonald