‘Lord I get so weary…on this rough old road’ no one sang this line so superb as Gary McSpadden. This is the opening line of the great song “At Last”, that McSpadden recorded with The Oak Ridge Quartet. The Oak Ridge were; McSpadden on baritone, Smitty Gatlin lead, Herman Harper bass and the incomparable Willie Wynn on tenor. One of my kids walked on in me…while I was listening to Willie sing “Help me not to complain”…and asked politely “how old is that woman singing? And before I could answer she said “she’s probably already dead too! I tried to tell her that the old woman was the most distinctive singer in any field…and no tenor made a Quartet prettier in the blend. Tried to add that Willie was a guy, and was alive and well. Not that my little princess cared, she was in the other room on her phone texting some BFF of hers that her father listened to crap music. Music no one listens to…at least not in my neck of the woods. Oh Lord help me not to complain.
But this song, with which opening line, I opened this entry….“At Last”. I know Hovie Lister mentioned the writer of this wonderful song on an old live recording of the Statesmen Quartet but that I forgot..I’m thinking Vep Ellis but am not sure. Anyway Jake Hess sang it and did a fine job…but not like Gary and Smitty sing this one! What a quartet….the very best lead singer ever….had he have had a more ‘commercial’ look, and the desire to go solo, and secular…he would have become one of the nation’s great singers. To me he is…like Glen Payne one of the finest singers to ever walk…in all of music. No one in popular music back then could hold a candle to Gatlin when it came to his phrasing, his tone, diction and amazing control. Changing gears…high to low, low to high….seamlessy!
McSpadden proves here why he was such an amazing addition to this quartet….able to sing Gatlin’s swooning crooning style. Great ability, a wonderful voice, with a faint hint of rawness on those velvet smooth parts…unique! Exceptional in the blend…Gary McSpadden one of the finest baritones…that rank up there with guys like Delmar Tillman, Mark Trammell, Doy Ott, George Amon Webster, Ron Page and some others. As I get older I realize that the Oak Ridge Quartet is probably my favorite quartet. Herman Harper the best heavy bass there was….and a spot on soloist…one of the classier bass singers in my opinion. I know a lot of people love J.D.Sumner, George Younce, Chief, Tim Riley and some of the other usual suspects. And I love ’em all dearly. But Herman Harper like Big John Hall, Armond Morales, Big Chief and Lee Gaines do….keeps on inspiring, and continuous to move me.
So when you have guys like Harper hooking up with the likes like Gatlin, McSpadden, and Wynn…how can you lose? You can’t! And to top it off…they add a piano player that gave them that sound! Tommy Fairchild…who played with them from 1957 till 1972…with a hiatus in the early sixties I believe. Great player who went on to play for the Blackwood Brothers and gave them a sound too! So let it be established and I’m going on record there was never a better (all male) quartet when Harper, Wynn and Gatlin was with them. No matter what talented baritone they had with them at any given time, whether it was Jim Hamill, Ron Page or Golden….they were always superb! I always found it quite ironic that the most important part there is, the one that gives flight to harmony…the baritone part…is also the most interchangeable part. When a baritone leaves it usually doesn’t do much for the superficial sound of a quartet. Unless you are following in the footsteps of a good baritone of course! You know one that is just the worst to single out in the harmony. Basically you are pretty much doing a good job when your voice isn’t heard in the blend. That is what it basically boils down to. Guys like Mark Trammell, Mark Lowry and Doy Ott had such great voices they could sing your tax-return form for all you care they are that good as a soloist! But there’s a lot of baritones who are not to pleasant to listen to in a solo setting….not gonna name them…but those are the real heroes! One that doesn’t belong to that type of baritones is one I recently discovered. A guy named Delmar Tillman featured on a live recording by The Dixie Melody Boys. Tillman the baritone for the group sang the ultimate southern gospel song “I Never Knew How it Felt”. What a singer….a true song salesman! Delmar could sell a song, the boy could flat-out sing!
One of my other favorite baritones is Hugh Bryant. Bryant sang with The Delta Rhythm Boys an African-American quartet….to me the finest of them all. But Bryant is another example of a guy who could make your tax-return read like a beautiful poem. If one of you discovers him through this entry I have made a new disciple for the Bryant cult I’m starting. Long story short…..wonderful singing is wonderful singing…no matter how I look at it.