"With him, everybody could sing"
The story of Johnny Whittaker and the Twenty-First Century Singers, foundational players in the construction of Nashville's contemporary Gospel Sound.
To view my conversation with the surviving Twenty-First Century Singers (Charles Miller, Frankie Henry, Everett Drake and Robin (Johnson) Grace), click the video above!
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For every icon who establishes a long term career, there are artists just below the surface who generated the work that inspired the icons. These said artists occasionally have bursts of acknowledgement, but, for whatever reason, fail to attain or maintain the success of their pupils. Their sound becomes a standard, but they are never credited with being the innovators of that sound because the generations that follow aren’t privy to their existence. The Twenty-First Century Singers is one of those groups.
In the early 1970’s, Nashville was not yet a mecca for launching national artists in the Black gospel arena. While the city, indeed, had a vibrant community of singers and musicians, and even had the advantage of being home to Nashboro Records, the city had yet to find an artist or group that was a bona fide national success. Groups like Morgan Babb’s Radio Four and The Fairfield Four were two of the most successful Nashville acts who recorded for the label formed in 1951, but Nashboro’s larger success was with artists from other states, like Brother Joe May, Edna Gallmon Cooke and the Angelic Gospel Singers who attained a broader notoriety in the United States.
In 1966, Nashboro was purchased by The Crescent Company and a young talent, Shannon Williams, who had worked for one of Nashboro’s subsidiary companies, was installed as Vice-President in charge of production. The Nashboro building also housed the Woodland Sound Studio, the newest of the modern studios according to a 1968 Record World feature, placing Nashboro in the center of Nashville’s musical action. Artists and musicians from every genre passed through Woodland and Williams knew to take advantage of that.
In 1969, Williams launched the Creed Records imprint, a move to rebrand Nashboro and expand the sounds that they were known for. Two of the first groups signed to Creed were choirs on different ends of the spectrum: One was a newly formed choir on the East Coast, the New York (City) Community Choir, whose sound was pouring over with the fire and enthusiasm of the Spiritual Church, but was youthful and, in every way, on the cutting edge.
The other choir was Nashville’s BC&M Mass Choir (which stood for Baptist, Catholic and Methodist), organized by Dewitt Johnson, who wrote the bulk of their material and served as pianist. Their mission to bridge denominational divides made them innovators in a city where such distinctions upheld firm separations. Their music itself showcased just how much talent Nashville had hidden away. Lead singers on BC&M’s early albums include the very young Regina McCrary, who led the choir’s massive hit, “I Made a Vow,” and her sister, Ann (of the McCrary Sisters, the daughters of the Fairfield Four’s Sam McCrary). The choir was directed by Velma Smith and Johnny Whittaker.
Whittaker’s few leads on the BC&M albums up to that point reveal nothing that would distinguish him from any of the other formidable singers in the choir (he shares lead with Ann McCrary on “Oh Happy Day” and sings as part of a trio on “Follow the Lamb”), but he was already known in the city as a church wrecker and someone to watch. “Johnny started singing when he was three,” his younger sister Linda recalls. “My uncles would take him to the juke joints and put him on top of the bar and he would sing the music off of the jukebox. That’s when they discovered he had a voice. Then my grandmother tapped in and made it a church thing.”
Raised in Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church, Linda says that a young Whittaker was the first to introduce gospel music to their congregation which was accustomed to only singing hymns and anthems. “He was so small,” remembers cousin Theresa Comer, “they would have to put him on a chair to direct the choir! These were not professional singers by any stretch of the imagination. These were just regular people who had normal jobs.” Directing became the place that he honed the skill of training voices to achieve the sound he was looking for.
He made a name for himself through the city singing as a soloist at various gospel programs as a teenager. In the late 60’s when Dewitt Johnson formed the BC&M Mass Choir, Johnny and many of his classmates joined. Linda says, “A lot of the people who sang from BC&M were from the neighborhood of Cameron High School which was where a lot of the Black youth [in the city] went.” (Cameron High School did not desegregate until the fall of 1971).
BC&M’s recording agreement with Creed introduced Johnny and Shannon Williams. They quickly became friends and collaborators. In his own 1995 essay on the group, Williams wrote that Whittaker “was taking note of all this flurry of activity in the gospel world and decided to leave a group he had been associated with for several years as a choir director and lead singer,” referring to the choir. Whittaker placed an advertisement on a local gospel radio station seeking singers for a new group. He selected sixteen voices to form the first incarnation of what a Nashboro secretary would name The Twenty-First Century Singers, in Williams’ words, because “they were the most modern and progressive that she had heard and thus deserved a futuristic name.”
Velma Smith, who was one of Johnny’s classmates at Cameron and with whom he’d directed BC&M, was an original member of the group’s initial large aggregation. She remembers the group conducting fundraisers to gather the funds for dresses and tuxedos (which they would wear on the front cover of their first album) for their debut performance at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville.
The first opportunity the public had to hear the newly formed group was on 1972’s Essence, the final full-length release by the matriarch of gospel pop, Clara Ward. The album brings together elements that had been missing in her prior decade of recording, which had taken her down a road of show tunes, inspirational standards and overly-orchestrated hymns that stripped her of the, for lack of a better word, essence that made her early works with the original Ward Singers so exciting. The ten songs on Essence were written by Charles May, son of gospel legend Brother Joe May, who, like Ward, lived in Los Angeles and had been dabbling in secular music as well as maintaining grounding in gospel. He wrote all ten tunes on Essence and they brilliantly fused pop and gospel, making room for Clara to do some of the best singing she’d put on wax in years. Williams brought Ward to Nashville to record and paired her with Woodland’s session players and select singers from the BC&M Mass Choir and the Twenty-First Century Singers. Williams wrote that Ward told him she “considered the recording to be one of her best.” Whittaker would tell a reporter years afterwards that Ward was “the woman whose music they loved most.”
Essence seems to have given the Twenty-First Century Singers a place to begin in terms of a direction for their own self-titled debut album, which was released in 1973. Los Angeles Community Choir leader, Harrison Johnson, provided four songs, laying the same pop-gospel bridge that Charles May gave to Clara. Johnny’s Cameron High School classmate Gerry Jones, who was also organist for BC&M Mass Choir, provided a tune and the group gospelized Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” led by Rosa Ann Dotson.
It’s the selection of an obscure Aretha Franklin B-side (which would be popularized a few years later by Melba Moore), written by Van McCoy, “Lean On Me,” that reveals the depths of Whittaker’s musical well. Led by Velma Smith, with gospelized lyrics by group member Margaret Joiner, the song, which served as the group’s first single, exemplifies the kind of listener Whittaker was. Robin Johnson (now Grace), who would join the group in 1978, describes him as a “historian” who listened deeply and would talk about “how we got here.” His brand of gospel was informed by groups like The Sweet Inspirations, Sisters Love and, of course, the Queen of Soul, who all took Clara Ward’s vision a step further by venturing out beyond the walls and sounds of the church.
By 1974, the group had downsized to ten members and accepted a booking for an European tour with Rev. Isaac Douglas and The Stars of Faith. They performed at the Montreux Jazz and Blues Festival, the Rainbow Theatre in London, and made stops in Paris, Rome and Geneva. Record World wrote of their performance: “The 21st Century Singers’ solo spots demonstrated where tomorrow’s soul talent is likely to come from. Johnny Whittaker, a latter day Jackie Wilson-to-be, is a particular name and voice to watch.”
That year the group was paired with Rev. Isaac Douglas who had recently dissolved his original Isaac Douglas Singers (Bennie Diggs, Arthur Freeman and Wilbur Johnson) and was exploring new territory. Shannon Williams’ pairing of Douglas with the group was wise. Where Douglas previously relied on both Freeman and Johnson’s respective alto and soprano to push him to higher heights, Johnny picked up where they left off, aiding in making “Do You Know Him” (a James Cleveland composition, the title track from Douglas’ 1974 release) a hit for Douglas. Johnny’s solo track on the album, however, “All He Wants Is You,” stands out, making one wonder why Nashboro would, in a sense, throw away such a golden moment for Twenty-First Century on what was, ultimately, a filler track on Isaac Douglas’ album. Originally recorded by James Cleveland and The Gospel Girls on their 1969 release, Johnny changes little about the pacing and arrangement, but he amplifies the song’s melodic dynamics and color in a way that Cleveland could not.
The group’s performance at Montreux was recorded and released a year later on their 1975 release, The Storm Is Passing Over, a half-studio, half-live album that began a new chapter for the group. By the time the album was released, the group had been chiseled down to three members: Johnny, Lula Jordan and Charles Miller. The album’s liner notes cites the “high traveling costs of a group that size plus a decline in the popularity of choirs and choral groups throughout the country.”
Miller had been, like Whittaker, a child prodigy in Nashville’s gospel scene. Marva Starks, of Nashville’s Gospel Chords, remembers Charles singing in the neighborhood as a child and being taken to programs by gospel radio personalities like Lucille Barbee. Charles says sometime in his pre-teens, he had a chance encounter with local gospel singer and promoter Brother Henry Edwards who was putting up posters on Nashville’s storied Jefferson Street. “I walked up to him and told him I could sing. The rest is history.” Miller was added to The Henry Edwards Specials and by the age of fourteen, The Specials recorded an album for Nashville’s Chalice Records. They performed at high profile events in the city which kept them in The Tennessean, the city’s largest newspaper. It was through his work in The Specials that Johnny and Charles first encountered one another, singing on many of the same local gospel programs.
Charles became a part of Bishop Jonathan Grier’s Pentecostal Tabernacle and sang with select choir members on Dottie Rambo’s historic recording for her Grammy-winning It’s The Soul Of Me album in 1968. In his liner notes for The Storm Is Passing Over, Anthony Heilbut describes Miller as “a showman in the great tradition of James Cleveland and Nashboro Records’ own Rev. Isaac Douglas.” The difference between Miller and Cleveland and Douglas, however, is the malleability of his own voice. Miller wasn’t just a hard-driving church singer. His take on “Gonna Build a Mountain” (originally from the 1961 Broadway musical Stop the World—I Want to Get Off) puts his own interpretive skills on full display. One wonders what might have been had Miller pursued a Broadway career.
Lula Jordan, who had also gone to Cameron High School, had initially chosen a different musical path than Whittaker and Miller. While she grew up in Lake Providence Baptist Church which frequently fellowshipped with Mt. Pisgah, Twenty-First Century Singers marked her first professional foray into gospel. She’d toured with the Paul Kelly Band and done background work with other groups prior to Whittaker’s ensemble. In Twenty-First Century, she took the alto part with her darker, huskier tone putting some bottom under Johnny’s lilting soprano.
Boiling the group down to a trio accentuated just how dynamic the three singers were. Johnny, who operated in the group as the soprano, had a love for The Sweet Inspirations and studied, in particular, the group’s leader, Cissy Houston. But when he sang lead, it was clear that he loved Roger Roberts of The Cleveland Singers (who Linda says Johnny would befriend during the Creed years), Delois Barrett Campbell of the Barrett Sisters, Mildred Means of the Clara Ward Singers and Mildred Miller Howard of The Gospel Harmonettes. To be clear, though, Johnny was not imitating them. No. Johnny Whittaker was an original and he was integrating their influence with his own individuality.
Male sopranos are always situated in a unique place in gospel music. They are beloved and scorned for many of the same reasons. They pay a price for an unspoken transgression of gender. Whittaker’s sound was not patterned after the falsettos in the quartets or guy groups. Johnny’s voice transcended gender which produces a kind of confusion for a binary-trained listener. But much like another gospel-trained soprano, Sylvester, Johnny made deep connections with his audience. His gift made room for him. “Johnny was just Johnny,” says his sister Linda. “People just said, ‘That’s just Johnny.’ They didn’t allow people to walk on benches in the church, but Johnny could walk on the benches and sing and nobody said anything, because that was just Johnny.”
The Storm Is Passing Over continued to expand the group’s opportunities, both locally in Nashville and internationally. Aside from the session work they were doing for country artists like Donna Fargo, Ray Stevens, Floyd Cramer and others, they’d also worked on the set of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, teaching Lily Tomlin how to sing and dance. “The Storm Is Passing Over,” the single, began to receive airplay on secular radio stations and then, to the group’s surprise, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Soul Gospel Performance category. They were nominated alongside Andrae Crouch & The Disciples’ classic Take Me Back and three different James Cleveland recordings (the full length God Has Smiled On Me and To The Glory of God albums and the “Jesus Is The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” single). Ultimately, Crouch would win the trophy, but the nomination raised the group’s profile and the quality of their bookings, even if it did not yet make music their full-time profession. Johnny was a college student and both Lula and Charles maintained jobs outside of music. The February 1976 Tennessean article says, “All three look forward to the day they can go full time in music.”
A February 1976 interview with The Tennessean reveals Whittaker’s tenacity and clarity of vision, inherited from Clara Ward’s own career path.
“I hope it [the Grammy nomination] enables us to go into other areas outside of the church circuit. We have adapted ourselves as entertainers. When people pay four or five dollars to see you perform, they don’t want you to save their soul. They can get their soul saved in church for free. They pay to be entertained.”
Their 1976 release, Guilty of Loving God, featured Charles Barnett (of the James Cleveland Singers) on piano and as the primary songwriter. Famed Nashville orchestrator Jack Williams who’d also worked the group’s first two albums (who also did arrangements on Reba Rambo’s Dove Award-winning album Lady, also released that year) aided in making the group’s sound larger than many of their peers who recorded for Savoy, in particular, whose studio could not accommodate high scale production. Anthony Heilbut wrote that “their special asset is their remarkable harmonic blend, one of the best in recent years...they can harmonize with unearthly purity and charm.”
In December of 1976, the group would be the first guests on The Nashville Gospel Show, the city’s first Black-produced and hosted musical program on a Nashville station. Created by Dr. Bobby Jones, Teresa Hannah and Tommie Lewis, the innovative program put Nashville’s talent front and center with an aspiration to bridge the gap between the white world of CCM and Black gospel. “We were very excited to have them,” Teresa Hannah says. “They were just sweethearts! Johnnie stood out when he was singing and sharing about the Most High, it was an awesome experience. If I could go back to that time and see that today, I’d love to!”
Guilty of Loving God also began to open doors for them in the world of contemporary Christian music, a genre that made very little space for Black artists. They (as well as the Johnson Ensemble) performed on a televised telethon for the Gospel Music Association in January of 1977 on Nashville’s WZTV alongside groups like The Downings, The Hemphills, Dogwood and Randy Matthews. Later that year, they performed at another Gospel Music Association-sponsored event with Cynthia Clawson, one of the leading women in the world of CCM at the time.
Mid-way through 1977, they added a fourth member, Frankie Henry, to help fill in the sound. Henry had come from Dewitt Johnson’s Johnson Ensemble and had worked for many years as a church musician. She was having a second chapter in her own life, having spent the sixties deeply entrenched in civil rights work, integrating Nashville’s lunch counters with John Lewis. “I’m at least ten years older than them and I always wanted to be a part of the group. I was so proud to be a part of the young folks!”
One of Henry’s early performances with the group was at another ground-breaking event that put Waylon Jennings, B.B. King and Twenty-First Century Singers on the same bill at Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium. The pairing of gospel, blues and country on one combined bill was not lost on Jennings, who told the audience, “The biggest part of country music had to come from their music and now it’s coming back together.”
In 1978, the group recorded background vocals with Rev. Morgan Babb on his massive hit “Pray For Me,” a song one could arguably say that they lead with Rev. Babb. While the group members were credited individually on the back cover of the album, they were not credited as a group on either the album or the single. The tune’s success, had they been adequately credited, might have been the thing that put them in the gospel world’s consciousness as a force to be contended with. Miller, who maintains “Pray For Me” as his favorite Twenty-First Century tune, says “To this day, people say ‘I don’t know who’s singing those backgrounds….but they singin’ them!’”
Like The Sweet Inspirations, the Twenty-First Century sound was accompanying and benefiting other artists and bringing the group itself regional success, but a breakthrough on gospel’s main stage was alluding them. The project in the works was their edgiest yet—a brand of gospel that fused disco with the traditional gospel feel that had always undergirded their sound. The same year, two of gospel’s best-selling artists dipped their toes in a sea of disco-gospel fusion to mixed success: Shirley Caesar and the Mighty Clouds of Joy released incredibly progressive albums within the year (Caesar’s First Lady and the Clouds’ Truth Is The Power) that received positive reviews and non-gospel airplay while simultaneously being disregarded by their gospel fanbase. But that had been the point—to reach the non-gospel audience. Both artists included songs that wandered outside of the typical gospel storyline—Caesar covered Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” (including the “transcendental meditation can ease your mind” line) and the Clouds’ tackled more inspirational fare like “There’s Love in the World” and “I’ll Keep a Light In My Window.” Twenty-First Century’s approach, however, would not follow the same formula.
Johnny, Lula, Charles and Frankie had been working on a new album that was near completion when Robin Johnson and Everett Drake were added to the group’s lineup.
Johnson was a student at Fisk University who had first heard the group at her church in New Jersey in 1976. “I had never heard a man sing as high as Johnny. He’s got a high E flat on record! That was mesmerizing to me.” Robin, unlike the other members of the group, had not been raised on gospel music. “My introduction to gospel was ‘Oh Happy Day.’ My mother had Aretha’s Amazing Grace, but that was it. As a fifteen-year-old, I was invited to church by Derrick Lee. It wasn’t until I got to Nashville and got involved with Twenty-First Century that I started to get a sense of what it was that we were doing. It was almost like information overload. Johnny and Shannon would talk with such admiration about who did what.”
Drake had been a director, writer and singer in the Dewitt Johnson’s Johnson Ensemble. He was longtime friends with Whittaker and had been entrenched in Nashville’s gospel community since his childhood. Both Drake and Johnson remember adding vocals to just a few of the songs for the album that would be released as Sunday Night Fever.
Sunday Night Fever was both daring and confounding with its almost space age cover image. To a linear listener, the album might seem to not be what the cover told them it was. In some ways that’s true, but gospel music is always looking back and ahead at the same time. It’s the album’s uptempo tunes that provide the disco motif the cover indicates. The group deconstructs The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and rebuilds it as “I Want To Be Ready,” an idea that the song’s lead vocalist, Charles Miller, believes came from producer, Shannon Williams. The group keeps the drive and structure of the Gibb Brothers’ composition, but so fully re-imagines the lyrics and melody line that it’s hard to see “I Want To Be Ready” as a gospelization of “Stayin’ Alive.” It may have served as inspiration, but the group did, indeed, make something new (It’s important to note, however, they singularly credit the Gibbs as the writers).
But Sunday Night Fever really shouldn’t be broken up into bits, separating the disco tunes from the rest of the album. It’s Sunday Night Fever for a reason. While “I Want To Be Ready” and the Rare Earth-inspired “Celebrate” open and close the first side, respectively, sandwiched between the songs are “If You Wait” ‘and “The Solid Rock,” two churchy-as-hell ballads. Charles steps up as a Baptist preacher narrating “If You Wait,” with Johnny delivering one of his most impassioned solos on record. “The Solid Rock” takes the often-covered hymn “On Christ The Solid Rock” and transforms it into a contemporary ballad that puts all of the colors of Johnny’s soprano front and center.
As with Guilty of Loving God, Charles Barnett served as primary songwriter, bringing five compositions and/or arrangements to the table, as well as playing piano on the project. Harrison Johnson once again played piano and organ, while Kenny Lupper, organist on Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, delivered cutting edge synthesizer fills. New to the mix was Derrick Lee, a young pianist and student at Fisk University, who had begun working with the group two weeks after moving to Nashville to start college.
Released towards the end of 1978, Cash Box wrote that the album was “a treasure of good singing and unique arrangements,” urging readers to “ignore the disco nature of the title—its contents are pure gospel gold.” It would even land on one of the Village Voice critics’ Best of 1978 list (the only gospel album included), but Sunday Night Fever was between a rock and a hard place. Racism would keep them off of the CCM airwaves that wouldn’t have minded the contemporary nature of the album and traditionalism, based on the response to artists like New York Community Choir who dared to venture into disco, deterred gospel radio from spinning it. There was no real vehicle for promoting contemporary Black gospel in a viable way in that era. Nashboro did not have the marketing budget or cache of their larger competitors like Light Records to give the group that same kind of push that Andrae Crouch and the Hawkins Family received. Cousin Theresa Comer managed the group during this period and cites both the limitations of gospel radio and Nashboro’s limitations as a label as factors in the album’s quick fade. “Do I think the distribution was lacking? Yes. It more or less died on the shelf.”
The group simply carried on after the album’s release. Yet another variation of the group went into the studio with Johnny Cash in 1979 to do background vocals on a good portion of his A Believer Sings The Truth album. Johnny gathered Rosa Ann Dotson, Ann Grizzard, Millicent Alexander, and Robin Johnson to sing on tunes by Dorothy Love Coates and Rosetta Tharpe.
Johnny would corral his choir at Mt. Pisgah (filled in with Twenty-First Century Singers) for sessions that year as well—most notably on Donna Fargo’s “Preacher Berry” from her Just For You album. “Preacher Berry,” written by Fargo, articulates a prophetic gospel message that seems to answer Twenty-First Century’s overarching message in their own recordings such as “He Said He Would and He Did” and their transformative interpretation of “Blessed Assurance.” Fargo’s tune shifts from country story-song about a fire and brimstone preacher who struggled with alcoholism into a congregational song that recalls his last sermon after having an epiphany about the nature of grace:
I’ve been a-beating you down, but I’ve been wrong, bless Jesus
It talks right here about reconciliation
It was God in Christ reconciling and restoring
The world to Himself and forgiving us all
Ain’t that shouting ground, shout it, people, hallelujah
A-begging and a-pleading ain’t no way to praise the Lord
Let loose and let him love you, hallelujah
Don’t you know He loves you and He died for us all
While the choir maintains the call and response with Fargo, it’s Johnny who emerges as the witness, squalling in his glorious soprano, pushing the song to it’s climax. “Preacher Berry” is the marriage of the two worlds Whittaker and his singers had been navigating for the past decade. Fargo’s summation of a liberatory gospel and the masterful weaving, thanks to Whittaker’s vocal arrangement, of that message into two traditional musical forms rooted in theologies that had largely not embraced this particular understanding of grace is, indeed, radical.
But Sunday Night Fever marked an end of sorts. Charles Miller would leave the group within a year of its release and by 1981 would join Bobby Jones’ New Life, which had a weekly presence on Nashville television via Bobby Jones Gospel.
The Twenty-First Century Singers would return in 1981 with their final album, the spectacular Triumphant, written and produced by Derrick Lee. Whittaker, Jordan and Johnson would be joined by Shirley Settles to make an album that was once again a few years ahead of the curve. The Tennessean’s review, however, gives one an idea of the battle a pioneering group like Twenty-First Century was facing in the public’s consciousness: “The high public profile of Bobby Jones and New Life makes it easy to forget there are other quality gospel acts in Nashville.”
By 1985, Thomas Whitfield’s production work on Keith Pringle’s Perfect Peace (which Lula and Robin sang background vocals on) and Vanessa Bell Armstrong’s Chosen (which included a cover of Twenty-First Century’s “There’s a Better Day” retitled “Brighter Day” on Armstrong’s album) would bring a similar sound to the frontline of gospel music, but Triumphant, one of the last Nashboro releases, would already be out of print by then. In fact, by 1985, the group had dissolved and Derrick Lee was now musical director for the New Life band with Whittaker and Johnson joining Miller in Dr. Jones’ New Life Singers.
The Twenty-First Century sound lived on through New Life. Whittaker stayed in the group through 1988 with he and Johnson serving as the group’s sopranos. He trained Angela Primm who would ultimately become the singular soprano in New Life when Johnny left the group. “Johnny Whittaker was a nurturer,” she says. “He was the soprano…and I had to hit all of his highs! He said ‘Baby, hit that, hit that!’ He took me through all of it!”
Johnny continued his work as Director of Nursing at a retirement home in the Nashville area, raised his son, Gianni, and maintained his life as a choir director and a soloist after leaving New Life. He used his voice to raise money for organizations and churches, to bring music to the incarcerated and continued to help others find their voices.
“Johnny never got the ‘big head,’ Theresa Comer reflects. “He never thought ‘I’m just this fabulous singer.’ He was always trying to help other people. I remember there was one girl who was tone deaf who wanted to join the church choir. Johnny was on his hands and knees trying to help her sing on key. With him, everybody could sing.”
Robin Johnson affirms, “Johnny was so instrumental in making music happen in so many different ways and in pulling so many people together, opening doors and causing people to have opportunities to hone and practice their skills. That amount of interaction is just invaluable. What I loved about him was that he had a yes in his heart.”
Johnny died in 1997, just a year after Triumphant was reissued on compact disc along with some of his greatest moments from the Twenty-First Century years. Shannon Williams wrote in the album’s liner notes as Bobby Jones Gospel was at its creative peak, “As a performing unit, they did not make it to the year 2000, but their sound is still very much alive and will undoubtedly make it into the twenty-first century. If you do not believe this is true, just tune in any Sunday, then compare what you see and hear with the sound on these recordings.”
Lula Jordan died in 2014.
The Twenty-First Century sound does, indeed, live on in a variety of ways. Most directly through the surviving members. Charles Miller continues to perform. Everett Drake released his first solo album, Amen Goes Right There, in 2011, produced by Derrick Lee. Bobby Jones’ New Life Singers, though disbanded, maintain to this day a loyal fanbase who, whether they recognize it or not, are studying (via the New Life albums and YouTube clips), the Twenty-First Century sound. His sister, Linda, maintains the Johnny Whittaker Foundation, which continues the kind of community work, specifically with youth, that Johnny exercised in his lifetime.
The presence of gospel singers providing backing vocals as tour and studio support for country artists is a direct result of The Twenty-First Century Singers’ work. Their work in the early 70s cleared the path for artists like Donna McElroy, Kim Fleming, Bob Bailey and Bobby Jones and New Life, who, in the late 70s, emerged as leading session singers. Popular culture’s short term memory may not have brought Twenty-First Century Singers into the dominant narrative, but they certainly should be acknowledged as frontrunners in the lineage of vocal craftsmen who helped pave the way for another generation of singers through their own innovative albums and collaborative body of work in support of other artists.
Robin Johnson, Charles Miller and Johnny Whittaker (with Emily Harris and Francine Smith) in Bobby Jones & New Life circa 1985.
Special thanks to Linda Whittaker, Everett Drake, Charles Miller, Frankie Henry, Robin Johnson, Angela Primm, Velma Smith, Derrick Lee, Theresa Comer, Teresa Hannah, Marva Starks, Novella Williams and Anthony Heilbut who all shared their experience with and/or memories of Johnny Whittaker and the Twenty-First Century Singers with me for this article.
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