An Interview with Joe Brown

I recently had the opportunity to interview Joe Brown, bass singer for the Diplomats Quartet.

DJM: How did you get interested in Southern Gospel?
Joseph: I started as a kid listening to the old quartets and the Gospel Singing Jubilee. Growing up in my church was like going to a Southern Gospel concert with preaching. I knew the parts, and sang a little in the choir, but I never realized how much I loved it until I got into it.

When I was about 17, my brother was playing bass guitar and my sister-in-law was singing with a group called the Gospel Travelers out of Rockmart, Georgia. I went over to visit one day and found out that they were looking for a bass singer. The manager asked if I could sing bass; I said, “Man, I can sing anything.”

DJM: What other groups did you sing with before the Diplomats?
Joseph: There were only three. After starting with the Gospel Travelers, I stayed out of it for a long time. But later I sang with the Blue Sky Quartet out of Carrollton, Georgia. I actually turned down an offer to move to Arkansas and sing with the Arkansas Boys, with Jerry Trammell, Mark Trammell, and Vaughn Thacker. They were starting a trio and wanted to make it a quartet, but I didn’t want to move to Arkansas. Sometimes I just wonder what would have happened if I’d said yes.

Then Pam Atcheson, a lady I sang with, from the Gospel Travelers, started a group called “Enlisted”, also out of Rockmart, Georgia. Pam & my best friend Rick Best, my beautiful wife and Mama’s prayers, actually got me back into Southern Gospel Music. I stayed with Enlisted for almost two years. Then Jimmy Pearson of the Diplomats called, and I felt like the Lord was leading me that way. I’ve been singing with them two years this month; Aug 11 was my two-year anniversary.

DJM: What can we expect from an average Diplomats concert? What percentage of new songs to classics?
Joseph: Energetic. A Diplomats concert will always be energetic.

We throw the songs out there really hard, but we also have a ministry side when we get close to the end of the program, which is sometimes the best part for us. Jimmy Pearson writes a lot of the songs we sing.

We’ll also do the old classics that everyone wants to hear. I think we have a good mix of original and classic songs in concert. We have a Happy Goodman kind of a sound, so we can go back and grab some of those older songs and do them well. Diplomat style!

DJM: What makes the Diplomats unique?
Joseph: I think what makes us different is that we have so much versatility in the group. Jimmy has spent 47 years in gospel music and can read a crowd as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. He knows what they want to hear. It’s a different program every time we sing. He sang with Calvin Runion and the Dips in the 70s—that’s where he got the Dips name. (He also sang with the Americans & Lancers.)

Rita’s strong voice fills any concert hall with her rich, anointed singing. One promoter told us “If Mama ain’t on the bus, y’all can just stay home.” Versatility is one of our strong points. Besides being mostly a mixed group, we also do some male quartet music; Corey Pearson moves up to tenor, Jimmy to lead, and our pianist sings baritone. We do “Lonesome Road” as a male quartet and a few other standards.

Corey arranges all the music we perform and record. Corey is a musical genius (I call him a NUT) and plays on a lot of major recording for other groups. He plays just about anything he picks up and plays it well. Jimmy having all the experience anyone could ask for and Corey being somewhat new school musically, we have the best of both worlds. I just sit back and think of how blessed I am to be doing this.

DJM: Who are your greatest influences as a bass? Who do you most want to sing like?
Joseph: There are so many that I’ve just kind of blended them all into trying to be a little unique myself. My influences were J.D. Sumner the low man, George Younce—the bass singer for all time, Tim Riley the best tone guy, and great London Parris. I was also influenced by Paul Downing because of his singing with a mixed group, and the register he had. He brought a good mixture of higher mixed-group bass singing with a lot of deep way down there bass singing.

I never wanted to be labeled for one style, because I’ve sung with all male and mixed groups. Paul Downing could have done either one. Paul was my biggest singing influences. George was “the man,” no doubt. Then J.D.’s charisma on stage, Tim’s tones, I put all those guys together, with what I do and created “Ole Joe Brown.”

DJM: Were you singing bass from your teens on, or did your voice shift down later?
Joseph: Actually, my voice changed when I was 13 or 14. Not to the register it is now—age changes a lot of things. I had a fairly good tone, and studied a lot how to keep the tones when I was a kid.  Since I’ve gotten a little older, it’s so much easier to sing the low notes, to hit the bottom then come up.

DJM: Are there any vocal exercises you’ve done to expand your range—anything you’d recommend to any readers who may be bass singers?
Joseph: The first thing a bass singer needs to understand is that he needs to be a good singer first—he needs to have a pleasant singing voice. A good bass singer is a lead singer who sings at a lower register. Pat Barker of the Dixie Echoes is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Vocally, technically, he’s right there. He used to sing for the Diplomats before becoming a Minister of Music for several years. He sang in a higher register then—he can sing all four parts. Now he’s getting his range back down. On “Not in a Million Years” (one of his feature songs on the Dixie Echoes’ new release, So Many Reasons), he’s hitting a low G at the very end. On “How Big is God,” there’s also a good low note at the very end.

I use a lot of techniques. One of the old masters was Lee Roy Abernathy; he taught a lot of techniques about using certain head tones in your voice. One of the things I did was just listen to good bass singers, copy the  good tones, copy how they sang. That’s the best advice—listen to someone good, and find and copy those tones.

DJM: If you weren’t a bass singer, what part would you want to sing, and who would you want to sing it like?
Joseph: Well, as they say, every bass singer would want to be a tenor. I would probably honestly be a tenor singer. And probably one of my favorite tenor singers is Steve Ladd.    Lead would have to be Michael English or Corey Pearson…

DJM: If you could do one thing to improve Southern Gospel, what would it be?
Joseph: If I had the opportunity, I’d share it with more of the secular world, as far as TV, magazines, and other secular media. Southern Gospel has always got like a second-rate position in that secular world. CCM is kinda going in, but it’s not the same. Southern Gospel is in a ballpark all by itself. I would probably try to get it more into secular media than what it is now.

DJM: In your opinion, what makes Southern Gospel music Southern Gospel?At what point does a group cross the line between being Southern Gospel and contemporary?
Joseph: I think there’s so much ministry connected with Southern Gospel that anyone in any kind of relationship, life, or situation can relate to it. It’s more of a ministry-based music, and I think people are really hungry for ministry right now. We’ve got enough of everything else, but I’ve seen churches that are hungry for ministry. That’s what makes Southern Gospel different, the ministry part of the music.

DJM: Any other thoughts or comments?
Joseph: I love talking about Southern Gospel. I’ve loved it all my life, but until you enter it in the way I am now, getting to see a lot of the other groups, it’s not the same. I love the fellowship, I love talking about it. Can you tell?

DJM: Yes! I’m really enjoying this. Speaking of talking to you, if the readers would like to talk to you at NQC, what is the Diplomats’ booth number?
Joseph: #932 and #934.

DJM: Will you be in any showcases?
Joseph: Sat. East Hall—Exhibit Hall A-B, 12:00 am. [DJM: Noon.]

DJM: Any closing thoughts or comments—and any new projects?
Joseph: I cut my first record in 1972 with the Gospel Travelers. It was in a rock studio in Atlanta on a 2-track reel-to-reel. Any time anyone made a mistake we had to start over. And nobody’s perfect, so we were there for a year…not really, it just felt like it..

Auto-tuning right now has cut out all of that, but it can be over-used. Groups like the Dixie Echoes and Blackwood Brothers that are using little or no tuning, they’re producing some of the most pure quartet singing out there today.

We are working on a new project, not titled yet. Friends like Nick Trammell, Joe Haberdank, Rebecca Peck, Daniel Mount and several others have been sending us songs to listen to. Jimmy (Pearson) has many original songs as well. We’ll hopefully have it out by our New Year’s Eve event. We also do an annual Christmas tour with the Mark Trammell Trio. (Check our web site for dates). The first part of the concert is a traditional Southern Gospel concert, the second is Christmas music. Les Beasley is going with us this year. He is such a nice guy, and has a world of knowledge concerning southern gospel music and the business that goes with it. He’s one of the best quartet managers ever in Southern Gospel. My boss Jim Pearson is the best. I really mean that Jimmy.

My Last Thought for the Day……Most bass singers can hit a low note from time to time, but that’s not what I want to be be known for. Just hitting the low notes. I want to be known for being a good singer—like George Younce or Tim Riley; a singer first, and a bass singer second.

DJM: Thank you!
Joseph: Thank you Daniel for giving me opportunity to do this with you. God Bless!