Album Review: Introducing the Cathedral Trio (Cathedral Trio)

This post starts a series of Cathedral Quartet album reviews with an ultimate goal of an in-depth review of every recording (excluding compilations) recorded by the Cathedrals, from their start as a trio in 1963 through their retirement in 1999.

Since the Cathedrals came out of the Weatherfords, their immediate prehistory can be traced back to Glen Payne joining the Weatherfords in about 1956. He came to them from the Stamps-Ozark Quartet; it was a huge step up for Payne, as the platform provided by Rex Humbard’s Cathedral of Tomorrow (in Akron, Ohio) made them one of the most popular groups of their era. Besides, a steady paycheck and the ability to sing in one location much of the time made a position with the Weatherfords about as attractive as a position with the Kingdom Heirs is today.

Though Lily Fern Weatherford has sung with the Weatherfords for most of the years they have been on the road, she came off the road in the 1960s for several years to raise two children Earl and Lily had adopted. So the Weatherfords had a male tenor for several years. In 1962, tenor James Hopkins left the group, and Earl invited Bobby Clark to move to Akron and fill the vacant position. He accepted, partly due to his respect for and desire to work with Henry Slaughter, the group’s pianist at the time.

However, six weeks after Clark joined, Slaughter left the Weatherfords to accept the position of choir director at the Cathedral of Tomorrow. Even though Slaughter was still working for the same ministry, the time constraints of the choir director position would not permit him to remain a performing and touring member of the Weatherfords. Earl Weatherford called Danny Koker, who had previously played for the Weatherfords, and invited him to return. Koker, who was a music director for a church Rex Humbard’s brother Clem Humbard was pastoring in Youngstown, Ohio, accepted and returned. Thus the nucleus of the first Cathedrals lineup was formed.

This lineup soon received so many invitations for personal appearances that they sang at concerts on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, appeared at all-night sings on Saturdays, performed for Rex Humbard’s Cathedral of Tomorrow program on Sundays, and appeared on his television show tapings on Mondays.

In 1963, Earl Weatherford decided that he wanted his wife Lily Fern to return to the road, replacing Clark at the tenor / alto position. He told Rex Humbard about this plan, but Humbard vetoed the idea. As Bobby Clark later recalled, “He stated that the quartet was the best he had ever heard and that he would not allow it to be changed.” At this point, Weatherford informed Humbard that he would leave the Cathedral of Tomorrow. Earl and Lily Weatherford moved to California and established a new lineup there.

Meanwhile, Weatherfords bass singer Armond Morales had been contemplating a job offer from Jake Hess, who was leaving the Statesmen to start an all-star group he was going to call the Imperials. Morales decided to accept.

This left Clark, Payne, and Koker. They approached Rex Humbard and asked if they could remain and sing as a trio. He told that them if they could make their own living till fall, he would put them on the Cathedral of Tomorrow payroll. They were confident that they would meet the challenge, so they selected “The Cathedral Trio” as their name.

So Introducing the Cathedral Trio, and possibly their second (and only other) trio album, When the Saints Go Marching In, are as much a job audition as an album for the fans.

It is worth noting, though, that the liner notes seem to tell a somewhat different story. Rex Humbard introduces the album—and the group—in these words:

Although the Cathedral Trio is a comparatively new name in gospel singing circles, the three personable young men who make up the Trio are known for their great talents and, above all, their love of God. The Trio is seen and heard weekly on all the television and radio programs broadcast from the beautiful Cathedral of Tomorrow located in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Besides their appearances on television, at evangelistic rallies and concerts, they are employed by the Cathedral in three specific positions on the Cathedral staff. The songs found recorded in this album are the ones most frequently used by the Trio. They convey the love, mercy, and salvation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We hope this album will prove to be a continuous blessing to all who hear it.

The instrumentation throughout the album is fairly simple, as was customary for albums of the day; besides the piano, which is evidently by group baritone / pianist / arranger Danny Koker, session musicians included Rex Humbard’s sister Leona Jones on upright bass and his brother, the Reverend Clem Humbard, on banjo and guitar. Humbard, Rex’s brother, was the Youngstown pastor for whom Danny Koker had worked prior to Koker rejoining the Weatherfords. In The Cathedral Quartet: The Early Years, tenor Bobby Clark recalled that Vic Clay actually played lead and rhythm guitars, despite not being credited in the liner notes.

1. When I Looked Up. There is no solo, but tenor Bobby Clark takes the step-out lines. It’s a midtempo song (about 90 beats per minute), delivered in a straight-ahead convention style.

This song was written by Albert E. Brumley, and copyrighted in 1955 by the Stamps-Baxter Music Company in their songbook Gospel Light. The first known recorded version was by the Chuck Wagon Gang in 1957, on Sacred Songs. (They were the first to introduce many of Brumley’s songs, including “I’ll Fly Away.”) The Chuck Wagon Gang has recorded it several times since; other groups to record the song have included the Blue Ridge Quartet (~1960s), Blackwood Brothers (1973), and the Hoppers (1980).

2. Open Your Heart. Trio harmonies deliver the first verse and chorus, before Glen Payne takes a solo. A delightful unison line at 2:08 gives way to a line with trio harmonies, which is followed by two solo lines, with Bobby Clark and Danny Koker singing backup “ahs.” A tag with tight cascading harmonies brings the song to a close.

The song was written by country/western legend Tim Spencer, who was born in 1908 and was a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1933. Spencer became a Christian in 1949, and began to focus his efforts into Gospel Music. He led the religious record division at RCA Victor and went on to found Manna Music in 1955 (where he introduced talent like Audrey Mieir and Doris Akers). Spencer also wrote “Great Big Wonderful God” and “Cowboy Campmeetin’.” Spencer, who died in 1974, has been inducted into the GMA’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK. Other Southern Gospel versions of the song include a 1961 cut by the Gospel Harmony Boys and 1967 and 1972 versions by the Blackwood Brothers.

3. On the Wings of a Dove. The song starts slowly, with an arpeggiated piano fill, and a slow, almost a cappella delivery of the last two lines of the chorus. But on the final word, “dove,” the piano, bass, and Clem Humbard’s chord banjo form an uptempo groove that is carried through the remainder of the song. Glen Payne has the solo, and the step-out lines in the chorus.

In one of those weird coincidences of history, the Blue Ridge Quartet, with George Younce at the bass position, cut the song the same year. They had initially recorded it in 1961, but did it again in a live 1963 concert recording, Live in Miami. Any number of other groups have also cut the song, including the LeFevres, the Dixie Echoes (three times), Harvesters, Florida Boys, Chuck Wagon Gang, Kingsmen, Melody Boys Quartet, and Dove Brothers. The Cathedrals themselves would later cut it again (in 1978, on Oh, What a Love). The song was written by Bob Ferguson, and was published in 1959. At the time of writing the song, Ferguson was working for the Tennessee Fish and Game Administration. Its remarkable success—BMI recognized the song in 1987 for having reached a million air plays—enabled Ferguson to go into the music business full-time, where he became a major player in country music and was instrumental in developing what has since become known as the “Nashville Sound.” Ferguson, who was born in 1927, died in 2001 of cancer.

4. In the Sweet Bye and Bye. This familiar hymn features trio harmonies throughout. The Cathedrals only sing the first verse, and then the chorus (twice), but the tempo is so slow that the song still clocks in at 3:26. A soothing piano and (plucked acoustic) bass provide the only accompaniment.

The song was written by pharmacist Sanford Bennett and musician Joseph Webster in 1867 or 1868, in Bennett’s drugstore. The lyrics and music were composed in about thirty minutes. Since that time, most Southern Gospel groups have put the song on a hymns project at some point or another; the arrangement here is essentially the same as Glen Payne cut with the Weatherfords (Lily / Glen / Earl / Armond Morales / Henry Slaughter) several years before, on The Weatherford Quartet Sings. The Cathedrals would revisit the song in 1976, on For Keeps, with George Younce adding a brief bass recitation.

5. Is Your Name Written There? This uptempo song starts off with a chorus, with unison vocals on the first line, breaking into parts for the second (and the remainder of the chorus). Though there’s no solo, Payne takes the lead step-out lines on the first chorus, Koker on the second, and Clark on the third.

Piano, bass, and guitar provide the accompaniment for most of the song; Clem Humbard joins on banjo for the final verse and choruses, rather prominently in the mix, offering some nice licks. This song was penned by James “Big Chief” Weatherington, bass singer for the Statesmen. It seems the song’s first recorded version may be on his 1962 album Big Chief of the Statesmen and his Golden Stairs Choir; the Statesmen cut it the next year, on A Gospel Concert. A number of other groups (the Kingsmen, Dixie Echoes, and LeFevres) also cut it right around this time.

6. Just a Closer Walk With Thee. After an opening chorus, Bobby Clark has the solo on the verse. He takes the melody through the second and final chorus, while Payne and Koker sing the answer-back part from the arrangement in vogue at the time.

The song’s authorship is anonymous; it came to prominence as a spiritual in the 1930s, crossing over to white Gospel in the 1940s. Virtually every quartet of the era, and many groups since, have performed the song. One prominent rendition a few years before the Cathedrals’ was the Blackwood Brothers’ 1959 version on Give the World A Smile; they did sing the answer-back arrangement that the Cathedrals did here.

7. It Is No Secret. The group sings the first two lines of the verse in unison before breaking into parts. On the line “Do not be disheartened,” they switch back to unison, before returning to harmony for the remainder of the verse and chorus. Glen Payne solos on the second verse, with Clark and Koker providing harmony parts on answer-back repeats. On the line “Take Him at His Promise,” parallel to the point where they sang unison in the first chorus, they go to unison again, splitting back into parts for the final chorus. They return to unision on the tag, using an arpeggiated harmony to return to parts for the close.

This would be the first of several Stuart Hamblen songs that the Cathedrals would cut over the years. In another of those odd coincidences of history, George Younce had recorded the song the year before, in 1962, on A Session with the Blue Ridge Quartet. The Cathedrals—this time with Younce—would revisit the song in 1975, on For Keeps. Hamblen had written the song eleven years before, in 1951, two years after his conversion at a Billy Graham Crusade, and this is another of the songs that virtually every Gospel group on the all-night-singing circuit cut at one point or another.

8. Then the Answer Came. Clem Humbard’s banjo kicks this mid-tempo song off, leading the band throughout. Danny Koker has step-out lines on the first chorus, but hands the solo over to Glen Payne for the verse. On the chorus, Bobby Clark takes the melody up into tenor regions for the remainder of the song.

The song was written by former Weatherfords pianist Henry Slaughter, and had been recorded by the Weatherford Quartet on Great Gospel Songs. The Dixie Echoes, Imperials, and Prophets are a few of the many other groups who cut the song in the early- to mid-1960s.

9. Let God Abide. Bobby Clark smoothly transitions between chest and head voice registers throughout this tenor feature. Payne and Koker provide some backups throughout, primarily on “oohs” and “aahs” in the verses, and singing the lyrics in harmony on the choruses. Payne steps up after a modulation at 3:00, and Clark moves to a high tenor harmony through the end of the song. It’s a mid-tempo song, featuring an uncredited guitar, probably a Hawaiian guitar, prominently in the mix.

On the LP, the song is credited to a “Scarbrough”; no first name is given. No song with this name and author appears in the ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC databases. The Couriers and Florida Boys both cut a song called “Let God Abide,” in 1963 and 1967, respectively, but it was a separate song by the same title.

10. Old Fashioned Meeting. The song starts off slowly, with Danny Koker singing the first verse solo, to a light arpeggiated piano accompaniment. On the chorus, Payne, Clark, and the band (bass and banjo) join in. Glen Payne sings the second verse. Bobby Clark takes the melody up on the second and third choruses, and Payne and Clark sing back-up answer-back parts.

The song was written by Herbert Buffum (1879-1939) in 1922; he is incorrectly credited on the LP as “Buffin,” suggesting that the copy was dictated orally. Buffum was an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, and toured as a holiness / Pentecostal evangelist. He wrote 10,000 songs, of which 1,000 were published.

11. Saviour Gently Take Me Home. This is a slow song, featuring Glen Payne until a modulation after the final verse, where the melody moves up to the tenor regions, and Bobby Clark takes it through to the big ending.

The song was written by Mosie Lister, and was recorded in 1958 by the Oak Ridge Quartet and in 1960 by the Blackwoood Brothers. The Happy Goodmans did the song (with Vestal taking the solo) several years later, in 1968.

12. Room at the Cross. A light piano-and-bass accompaniment sets a meditative tone for this closing song. Bobby Clark is featured on the verse.

The song was written by Ira Stanphill in 1946 and has been recorded by dozens of Gospel groups, notably the Statesmen in 1960’s On Stage. The Cathedrals revisited the song twenty-five years later, on their landmark release Symphony of Praise.

At least eleven of the twelve songs—”Let God Abide” is the possible exception—had been previously recorded. The Cathedrals would revisit four of the songs on later project—two (“It is No Secret” and “Sweet Bye and Bye”) in 1975, on For Keeps, one (“On the Wings of a Dove”) in 1978, on Oh, What a Love, and one (“Room at the Cross”) in 1987 on Symphony of Praise. This would be the only time they would record “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Old Fashioned Meeting.”

Introducing the Cathedral Trio is a fascinating glimpse at of three young men who didn’t have the faintest clue what would become of what they were starting. They certainly couldn’t have been thinking about the fact that, nearly fifty years later, the project would still merit a serious in-depth reexamination.

They sang mostly familiar songs—as they would also do for the next number of years. The accompaniment seems to have mostly been what was easily accessible; a banjo certainly wasn’t an obvious or common instrument to include at the time, but with Koker’s friendship with Clem Humbard, it was available. (In all fairness, it was incorporated quite well, unobtrusively where it needed to be unobtrusive.)

Honestly, on first listen, a new fan only accustomed to the last two decades of the Cathedrals repertoire might not be that impressed. Everything is delivered professionally, but subdued songs dominate the check-list. But the foreshadowing of greatness is clearly present—it’s merely that it’s subtle.

During their Weatherfords years, Clark, Payne, and Koker laid a solid foundation of paying attention to detail in working on matching vocal placement, and arranging harmony parts, to bring out the best possible blend. It would be nineteen years from the release of this project till “Step Into the Water” came out, and a full twenty before Live in Atlanta‘s “We Shall See Jesus.” During these two decades, particularly for the first half, the Cathedrals would be less known for the songs they introduced and more for the way they delivered familiar songs. This attention to vocal arrangements, particularly under Danny Koker’s eye for the first few years, laid the foundation for what would become the Cathedrals Sound that future lineups would carry into the stratosphere.

Song list: When I Looked Up; Open Your Heart; On the Wings of a Dove; In the Sweet Bye and Bye; Is Your Name Written There; Just a Closer Walk With Thee; It Is No Secret; Then the Answer Came; Let God Abide; Old Fashioned Meeting; Savior Gently Take Me Home; Room at the Cross. • Group members: Bobby Clark, Glen Payne, Danny Koker. • Out of print.

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