The Blackwood Brothers are one of the most famous quartets in the history of gospel music. The group was formed in 1934 by brothers Roy Blackwood (1900–1971), singing second tenor; Doyle Blackwood (1911–74), singing bass; and James Blackwood (1919–2002), singing baritone; along with Roy Blackwood’s oldest son, R. W. Blackwood (1921–54), singing first tenor. Sons of sharecroppers Carrie and Emmett Blackwood, the three brothers were born and raised in rural Choctaw County, Mississippi. Devout Christians, Carrie and Emmett helped develop their sons’ devotion to Christ with daily readings from their family Bible that always concluded with song and prayer. The quartet’s first official performance was on their local radio station, WHEF, in Kosciusko. Initially scheduled to perform for fifteen minutes, their airtime was extended a full hour longer and won the boys a weekly show. Along with their radio appearances, the quartet built a fan base by touring throughout the Southeast and performing at churches and schools. During the pre–World War II era the quartet hosted radio shows on WJDX in Jackson, Mississippi, and KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana.
In 1952 the Blackwood Brothers signed a contract with RCA/Victor, making them one of the first gospel quartets signed by a major record label. When their first album, Favorite Gospel Songs and Spirituals, was recorded in January 1952, members included Dan Huskey, singing first tenor; James Blackwood, singing second tenor; R. W. Blackwood, singing baritone; and Bill Lyles, singing bass, with Jackie Marshall playing piano. The Blackwood Quartet gained further success in 1954 when they appeared on a national television show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, winning first place with a rendition of “The Man Upstairs.” At the pinnacle of their career, they were one of RCA’s Top 10 sellers and were considered the most famous quartet in gospel music. On 30 June 1954, two weeks after appearing on Godfrey’s show, however, R. W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles died in a plane crash in Clanton, Alabama.
The Blackwood Brothers returned to Clanton on 5 August. Cecil Blackwood (1934–2000) replaced R. W., and renowned gospel songwriter J. D. Sumner replaced Lyles. In 1956 the Blackwood Brothers established the National Quartet Convention, an annual gathering of gospel musicians that has continued to the present day. The Blackwood Brothers introduced the first customized tour bus, designed and built by Cecil Blackwood and Sumner. During the 1950s the Blackwood Brothers befriended a young admirer from Tupelo, Elvis Presley, who became so close to them that he asked them to sing at his mother’s funeral in 1958.
With various lineups, the Blackwood Brothers stayed at the top of gospel music well into the 1960s and 1970s. Cecil Blackwood’s death in 2000 prompted James Blackwood to decide that the group’s name should be laid to rest as well. However, Jimmy Blackwood, James’s son and member of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet from 1969 to 1986, resuscitated the name after James’s death in 2002.
- Paul Davis, The Legacy of the Blackwood Brothers: Authorized Biographies of Cecil Blackwood and James Blackwood (2000)