While the LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge bustled with activity of the National Quartet Convention, another celebration of gospel music was featured at the Smoky Mountain Opry. The first family of gospel music, the Blackwood family, celebrated 80 years.
The Blackwood family’s musical heritage began in 1899 when R.W. Blackwood Jr.’s great-grandfather, Emmitt Blackwood and his siblings began playing in a string band.
“They didn’t tour in those days,” said R.W. Jr. “There were no cars or buses, only horses and wagons so few people got to hear them.”
From those humble beginnings started a family tradition that evolved into a dynasty of gospel music encompassing six generations.
In 1934, four brothers, all descendants of Emmitt, began performing on the radio and in music halls. The quartet included Roy, James, Doyle and R.W. Blackwood Sr. who was 13 years old at the time.
Doyle left in 1942 and was replaced by Don Smith. After Doyle’s departure, the Quartet relocated in 1950 to Memphis. The move proved to be successful as they began to appear on television station WMCT.
Over the course of the next four years, the quartet went through a few changes in personnel but remained committed to their gospel roots and a loyal fan base.
On June 14, 1954, the Blackwood Brothers lineup of Bill Shaw, James Blackwood, R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles, and Jackie Marshall, won the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts competition on national television with their rendition of “Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs?”
“That was really big,” said R.W. Jr. “Arthur Godfrey’s Show was like the American Idol of the day.”
As the popularity of the quartet grew, the members realized they needed a more efficient mode of transportation to make the number of engagements they were getting from across the nation. The quartet invested in an airplane.
The family’s success was short-lived. On June 30, 1954, the Blackwood’s airplane crashed in Clanton, Alabama. R.W. Blackwood Sr., Bill Lyles, and Johnny Ogburn died in the crash.
The survivors, James Blackwood, Bill Shaw, and Jackie Marshall soldiered on. R.W. Sr.’s younger brother, Cecil Blackwood, took over as baritone and J.D. Sumner replaced Bill Lyles on bass. The new Blackwoods reformed within 30 days after the tragedy.
By the time he was 10-years-of-age, R. W. Jr. had begun performing with his famous relatives. In the 1960’s, he was performing with the Junior Blackwood Brothers. The group was soon to experience another name change, one that would prove most fortuitous for R.W. Jr.
In 1965, R.W. Jr. married Donna Drew, who he had met in Houston. She had sung with evangelist James Robinson. In 1967, he received a call from his tenor, Dean Brown, who informed him he was in love and was quitting the band. Donna joined the group, and the Junior Blackwoods became the Blackwood Singers.
Donna and R.W. Jr. married within the year, and the two started a family beginning the sixth generation of Blackwood singers. Their son, Robby, performs with Billy Dean. Daughter Andrea works as a marriage counselor and has performed on occasion.
R.W. Jr. and Donna moved to Pigeon Forge in 2001 and went to work at the Louise Mandrell Theater. Two years later the Blackwoods started working for Fee-Hedrick Entertainment in a morning show.
The Blackwoods have won eight Grammy Awards, Four Dove Awards and were recently inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Last week the family celebrated the anniversary with special shows at the Smoky Mountain Opry Theater featuring numerous performers that had performed with the group. Billy Dean joined the celebration and performed gospel favorites along with several of his hits that propelled him to stardom, backed on drums by Robby Blackwood, the sixth generation of performing Blackwoods.
Video tributes from friends of the family were played on the theater’s screens. Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers congratulated the family. The Oak Ridge Boys also expressed their appreciation for the family that influenced their own music.
Terry Blackwood, cousin of R.W. Blackwood, Jr. joined his cousin on stage for the first time.
“Terry frequently performs in Europe and tours the U.S.” said R.W. Jr. “This is the first time ever we have had a chance to perform together.”
After the show fans and friends met the family in the lobby to wish them well and continued success.