Bill Gaither: Still carving out new audiences for gospel music
So, with his dream of singing Southern gospel music seemingly out of reach, Gaither went home and began writing. More than 500 songs and dozens of popular videos later, Gaither and his wife, Gloria, were named Christian Songwriters of the Century in 2000.
"I became a teacher because I was not good enough to do gospel music," said Gaither, who taught high school English in his hometown of Alexandria, Ind. "There were piano players and singers better than me. So I started writing songs. I never realized it would become this popular. Writing came naturally to me."
The Gospel Music Hall of Famers together penned songs that are mainstays in hymnals around the world. Those songs include "The King Is Coming," "Because He Lives" and "He Touched Me" -- the song that catapulted him into the national spotlight in 1969 when Elvis Presley recorded it. He, Gloria and his brother Danny founded the Bill Gaither Trio in the 1970s, and later he formed the award-winning Gaither Vocal Band in which he still sings bass.
In recent years, the Gaithers have been best known by their popular "Homecoming Series" videos and concerts. What has become an international phenomenon actually started with an impromptu taping in a Nashville studio in 1991. The Gaither Vocal Band was wrapping up a recording session that had included several legendary Southern gospel music artists, including The Speer Family, The Cathedral Quartet and the Happy Goodmans.
After the planned session ended, the artists lingered and gathered around the piano, singing, swapping stories from the old days and sharing a few laughs and tears.
The video camera was still rolling. Gaither knew he had something special.
That spontaneous sing-along became the first "Homecoming" video released in 1992. The response to that video was so overwhelming that Gaither decided to reassemble the artists and try to reproduce the spontaneous style, fearing it might not work. He had no need to worry. The artists forgot about the cameras as they sang and shared stories. Today, there are Homecoming concerts in just about every major venue in the country, and the videos -- which have sold more than 7.5 million copies -- consistently rank in the top 10 on the Billboard video charts.
Gaither, though, takes it all with characteristic humility. "Whatever I did, I couldn't do without them [the artists]," he said. "I'm like the turtle on the fencepost -- I didn't get there by myself. All I did was expose them; I let people see them and hear them sing."
Gaither is credited with rejuvenating Southern gospel music and the careers of many legendary singers as well as launching the careers of many others.
Tim Riley, bass for the 2003 Male Quartet of the Year, Gold City, said, "Bill Gaither has done so much for gospel music. He quickened peoples' spirit. They heard songs on the radio and saw the videos. They had to come see the groups in person. It gets into your blood."
Gospel music has gotten into the blood of Becky Wittrock and her daughter, Tricia Alberts, both of Holts Summit, Mo., and members of Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City. For years, the two have traveled together to Gaither Homecoming concerts and to the Gaithers' annual Praise Gathering in October in Indiana.
"It all began when my grandpa had a stroke, and we used the Gaither videos to keep him occupied during the day and night," Alberts recalled. "So then my mom and I got to go our first concert, and we have made it a family tradition to go to the ones in Missouri. Our husbands go occasionally, but most of all, it's special for mom and me. Gospel music is the one thing we found we liked in common, and it has really grown into a friendship."
Wittrock said gospel music is more than just music -- it's ministry. "The songs touch me deeply," she said. "If I'm having a bad day, listening to gospel music lifts me up and keeps me focused on Christ."
She has had cause to have more than one bad day in the past year. On Dec. 13, 2002, doctors diagnosed Wittrock with breast cancer. It was the same day she was planning to attend a Gaither Homecoming concert in St. Louis.
"I never considered not going," she said. "Being with thousands of other Christians, singing and praising the Lord was good medicine. It also gave me strength to face the reality of what I was going to have to go through. The concert helped to calm some of my fears and reminded me God was in control."
During the next several months, though, she said she had a hard time finding comfort even in gospel music -- until she saw a couple of the Gaithers' latest videos which focused on the themes of "heaven" and "going home."
"When the doctors tell you that you have stage two or three cancer, who doesn't start thinking about heaven and going home?" Wittrock asked. "I believe my name is on those two videos because they blessed me so much, and finally I had peace of mind. Once I found that peace, I could deal with the doctors and treatment, and I got through it fine."
Gaither's music not only ministers to the hurting, it also appeals to younger generations. "Listen to the most recent form of Southern gospel music before you pass judgment," Alberts, 31, said, noting many of her friends say she listens to "old-fashioned" music. "Check out David Phelps and Guy Penrod [of the Gaither Vocal Band] -- they're not bad for 'old men.'"
Penrod said today's gospel music is blending the sound of the old 1940s and '50s quartets and pop groups with the technology of the current generation. "Kids are starting to hear that and say that's cool," he said. "We're growing a new generation in gospel music, and Bill is helping to do that with the concerts and videos."
And he shows no sign of slowing down. In his mid-60s, Gaither keeps an active schedule with his Gaither Vocal Band, Homecoming concerts, the annual Praise Gathering and the management of everything in between. "I work together as a team with Gloria," he said. "We have no long-range plans for retirement; we never have. We just walked through the doors God has opened."
Fans can read more about the Gaithers and their journey into gospel music history in Bill's new autobiography, "It's More Than the Music" (Warner Faith) now in bookstores nationwide.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BANDING TOGETHER and HEALING HOMECOMING.