Society for American Music

Bulletin, Volume XXV, no. 3 (Fall 1999)

"Give the World a Smile" : A Professional Gospel Quartet of All-Stars, 1927-1932

By Rebecca L. Folsom, William Jewell College

When James D. Vaughan of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, owner of one of the largest and most successful gospel music publishing companies in the South, introduced the first professional white gospel quartet in 1910, he began a long line of hired professional singers whose services were used to promote the Vaughan interest.1 Their first appearance at the meeting of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dickson, Tennessee, convinced Vaughan of the publicity value of performing quartets.2 The formation of this first group ushered in the age of performing quartets who promoted the sale of gospel music on their tours.

Following Vaughan's example, V.O. Stamps, a former employee of the Vaughan enterprise, and his brother Frank opened a publishing company in 1924. The Stamps Music Company of Jacksonville, Texas, began as a small business that eventually grew into one of the leading publishers of southern gospel music. V.O. ran the office and edited their first songbook, and Frank formed the quartet to promote the music. One of the four singers played the piano for the group. Often, their travels took them to local singings and concerts. In 1926, V.O. collaborated with J.R. Baxter, Jr. to form the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, based in Dallas, Texas. Because of this move, Frank's original quartet first changed personnel and then disbanded.3

In 1927, Frank Stamps reorganized his quartet completely, adding a fifth man to play the piano. The quartet was originally called the Stamps Quartet, but soon changed their name to the All-Star Quartet. This group included Palmer Wheeler, first tenor, Roy Wheeler, second tenor, Otis Echols, baritone, Frank Stamps, bass, and the fifth man, Dwight Brock, who became one of the first "rhythm piano" players in gospel music. The addition of an accompanist as the fifth member of the group was part of a trend in gospel quartets, and the "five-man quartet" soon became the standard performing ensemble.

While V.O. operated the music publishing company in Dallas, Frank based his quartet in Chattanooga, Tennessee. From there, they traveled throughout the South making personal appearances at concerts and church gatherings. In their concerts, they not only sang gospel songs, but also performed some of the popular music of the day.4 Each member of the quartet performed his own "specialty" number, such as "Charlie My Boy," "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," and other popular songs.5

After the formation of the All-Star Quartet, the members found themselves traveling constantly. They were out of town for months at a time. Sometimes the quartet traveled during the week and returned home on the weekend. The men usually traveled together in a five-passenger automobile over roads that were, according to Brock, "nothing to write home about."6 Automobile travel during the 1920s was not always comfortable.

Monetary rewards for quartet members during the late 1920s were practically non-existent. The members of The All-Star Quartet were paid by two indirect methods. One involved the purchasing and selling of the company's songbooks, two of which were published each year. The company sold several books to each quartet member before a concert, who then, at intermission and after the concert, marketed them. A quartet member was allowed to keep the profit from these sales, which might only amount to enough for a meal that day.7 The All-Star Quartet's first tenor Palmer Wheeler recalled, "Those were the days, going from town to town. Sometimes we ate hamburger, and sometimes we ate steak. We had our oatmeal, cornmeal, and miss-a-meal."8

Occasionally, the quartet also charged admission to the concerts. Brock stated, "We just split the income from our concerts. One part went for the car upkeep, and we split the rest."9 Although the quartet's small income did not limit their travels, at times they struggled to survive and stay on the road. By the end of the summer 1927, the group was close to disbanding. Their decision to perservere led to a pivotal event in the following months.

Because of their growing popularity from concerts and personal appearances, The Stamps All-Star Quartet was approached by a talent scout from the Victor Recording Company in fall of 1927. The scout offered the quartet a recording contract for fifteen hundred dollars. On 20 October 1927, the group recorded their first songs for Victor in a temporary studio set up at the Grady Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. The two songs, George A. Minor's "Bringing in the Sheaves" and Fanny Crosby's "Rescue the Pershing" were requested by Ralph Peer, who was supervising the sessions for Victor.10 After recording those two numbers, Frank Stamps asked Peer if the group could record two more songs. Peer agreed, and "Give the World a Smile" and "Love Leads the Way" were recorded.11 The record containing both these songs became so popular that, according to Tommy Wheeler, it was the first gospel recording to sell over one million copies.12 In turn, "Give the World a Smile" became the theme song for The All-Star Quartet as well as later Stamps quartets.

Written in 1925, with music by M.L. Yandell and lyrics by Otis Deaton, "Give the World a Smile" was a rhythmically dynamic song with a bass lead in the chorus. While the bass sang the strong melody, the upper three parts sang on the after-beat. On the repeat chorus, the men sang "boom, boom, ping, pang" in an imitation of a rhythm guitar. It was most likely this rather novel singing style, either related to the fa-so-la solfeggio of the shape-note tradition or an adaption of "scat" singing so popular in jazz of the day, along with Brock's rhythmic piano playing that appealed to the public.

When Yandell and Deaton collaborated on "Give the World a Smile," neither man had premonitions that it would gain such popularity. In an article about the song, Deaton recalled, Although they did not profit excessively from this particular song, Yandell and Deaton eventually became two of the leading composers of gospel music in the 1920s and 30s.

At the time of the Victor taping the men of the Stamps All-Star Quintet were not familiar with the method of making recordings. As with any recording session, when the group finished singing the pieces the sound technician played the material back to them. Original All-Star member Otis Echols recalled, "When we heard those songs played back to us in the same microphone we had just sung into, we country boys were thrilled. My hair stood straight on end and Palmer Wheeler jumped nearly fourteen feet in the air."14

Their first recording was distributed to music stores on 16 December 1927. According to Brock, Throughout 1928, the quartet continued to make records for Victor, using recording studios in Memphis and Bristol, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia.

By the end of 1928, changes in personnel were frequent and common for the quartet. The first change occurred on 1 November 1928, when Frank Stamps took a "leave of abscence," and was replaced by Mike O'Byrne on bass.16 This group recorded six songs for Victor. The second change in personnel was quite significant. Palmer Wheeler, Roy Wheeler, and Otis Echols all left the group to pursue other singing activities. Brock was unhappy to see his colleagues move on because he respected their talents and cherished their mutual experience. In his words, "We had many good times, and Palmer Wheeler was my favorite first tenor."17

Andy Hughes, first tenor; Henry Long, second tenor; and E.T. Burgess, baritone, filled the vacancies. Frank Stamps returned as the bass, and Brock remained as pianist. This new "All-Star" quartet made their first recording on 25 November 1929. During the following depression years of 1930-31, the quartet performed as many concerts as was financially possible. Recording sessions were less frequent, and most of the men in the group found other ways to support their families. Brock remembered, "The Depression affected our concerts. Admissions were down as well as record sales. It drove us off the road for a while."18 During the time, four of the quartet members worked as composers, editors, and shipping clerks for the Stamps-Baxter Company.

In 1932, the All-Star Quartet reassembled to complete recording contract obligations to Victor Records. By this time, the personnel of the All-Star Quaret had changed again. Otis McCoy sang first tenor, J.R. Baxter sang second tenor, Brock sang baritone, Frank Stamps sang bass, and at the piano was Frank's new bride, Sally Stamps. Although Brock had always had inhibitions about singing, Stamps needed the former pianist to sing in order to complete the quartet's contract. The group made the required recordings on 15-16 February 1932, and after this recording session, was disbanded.19

There were, however, further attemps to bring the group back together. In 1937, Palmer Wheeler, Roy Wheeler, Otis Echols, and Frank Stamps began to sing together again. The one original quartet member missing was the pianist, Brock. These men re-structured the group with pianist Lawrence Ivey and performed in concerts and on radio shows, but did not record. In 1938, Otis Echols and Palmer Wheeler again found other opportunities and left the group. Frank replaced the two men and continued his efforts until the death of V.O. Stamps in 1941. With this event, Frank disbanded the quartet and moved back to Dallas. Because of the quartet's success, no other Stamps-Baxter singing groupo was referred to as the All-Star Quartet.

The perserverance and originality of this first Stamps quartet enabled the gospel industry to drastically increase in popularity. They were the first white gospel group to record for a major recording label and, in turn, their success with the selling of "Give the World a Smile" opened recording opportunities for other quartets. This quartet's promotion of an important gospel publishing company allowed for the creation of new businesses and livelihoods for many, including the employees of the Stamps-Baxter Company. Many gospel musicians followed their example and created other publishing firms, and subsequently other promotional quartets. As the twentieth century progressed, the industry changed and the promotion of white gospel music by the traveling quartet lost its viability as a marketing strategy. Although quartet style has evolved with time, the work of these early pioneeers paved the road for future creativity in the field of white gospel music. Although the members of the quartet never became rich from their efforts, certainly the All-Star Quartet "gave the world a smile."

1. Jo Lee Fleming, "James D. Vaughan, Music Publisher, Lawrenceburg, Tennessee: 1912-1964" (d.S.M. diss., Union Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, 1972), 55.

2. Ibid.

3. Tommy Wheeler, interview with the author, 25 July 1996, tape recording.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Dwight Brock, "Here and There," Gospel Music News 41 (April 1973): 3.

7. Wheeler.

8. The Stamps All-Star Quartet Reunion, Spring 1973, Dallas, Tex., Cassette recording from the personal collection of Tommy Wheeler, Desoto, Tex.

9. Dwight Brock, Interview by George Draper, 24 May 1987, Dallas, Tex., Transcript, 3.

10. Wheeler.

11. Wheeler. A minor discrepancy exists in the fact that the Victor recording log for the session lists "Give the World a Smile" first. According to Tommy Wheeler, the matrix on the log does not indicate the recording order, but rather the release order. In addition, Tommy recalls his father, Otis Echols, and Ralph Peer (manager of Victor at the time) as stating that "Give the World" was recorded after 'Bringing in the Sheaves" and "Rescue the Perishing." Tommy's recollection is reinforced by the fact that the recording contract was based "Bringing" and "Rescue," the pieces were requested by Peer when he approached the group in Fall 1927. It is certain that all four songs were recorded on 20 October 1927.

12. Ibid.

13. Otis Deaton, "Give the World a Smile," Gospel Music Hi-Lites (August 1966): 12.

14. All-Star Quartet Reunion tape.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Brock interview.

18. Ibid.

19. Wheeler interview.

Rebecca L. Folsom received both a Doctor of Musical Arts degree and a Master of Music degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas city. A classically trained singer, Dr. Folsom has roots in the White Southern Gospel tradition. Her grandfather, Dwight Brock, was the original pianist for the Stamps All-Star Quartet, a composer for the Stamps-Baxter Music company, and eventually President of that publishing firm. Dr. Folsom is Assistant Professor of Music at William Jewell College where she teaches vocal pedagogy, vocal literature, Italian diction, applied voice and other voice related subjects.

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Updated 12/15/99