Classics Corner: Friends IV – One Voice
February 12, 2013 10 Comments
I’ve harped and harped on this group pretty much from the first day I started this blog. I’m finally biting the bullet and doing a Classics Corner review on one of their CDs. One Voice was released by Friends IV in 1999. Group members are Chuck Sullivan – Tenor, Terry Blackwood – Lead, Larry Orrell – Baritone, and Stephen Wright – Baritone. The 2 baritone sound really gives this album a distinctive flair.
- I Still Believe In The Church – I featured this as a hidden gem many moons ago. These comments are still very much valid. This is a great start to the album. The Booth Brothers recorded this song recently on their critically acclaimed album, Declaration, but as good as it is, it still doesn’t match the version here by Friends IV.
- In The Arms Of Jesus – This is a mellow ballad that features Terry Blackwood. Terry is one of the greatest lead singers we’ve ever been blessed to have in Southern Gospel, and he does a magnificent job of communicating a great message in this lyric. Understated, but smooth background harmonies from the other 3 guys really accentuate Terry’s lead vocal well. This was a radio release that did fairly well for the group at the time.
- Just When I Need Him Most – Southern Gospel meets Take 6 in this Brazilian styled song. Mervyn Warren, original member and arranger for Take 6, contributed this arrangement that features some incredibly complex harmonies that you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else in Southern Gospel. One of my absolute favorite songs on this album, even if it does remind you of the theme to “The Love Boat.” :-)
- Great Day – The classic Broadway tune brought to the SG world by the Statesmen is given a great performance here. It’s fast paced, with some great harmonies and a bit of “There’s A Great Day Comin'” added to the middle of the song. The following harmonies on “Gabriel will warn you…” are fantastic. One of the highlights of the CD, even if it is less than 2:30 long.
- Out Of Bondage – This is a huge orchestrated ballad that is typical of Lari Goss productions. Larry Orrell sings the first verse, and does a superb job before the rest of the group joins with some harmony and unison lines interspersed. This is a well written lyric that proclaims the liberty of life in Christ. Chuck Sullivan and Larry Orrell trade off the melody on the chorus. The key changes for the second half of the chorus. There’s another key change on the tag and the tempo broadens just a bit and it builds to a huge ending. Great song.
- Keep On Singin’ – Another song that was covered recently by the Booth Brothers. It’s got a bit of a funky uptown jazz synthesizer feel to it. If you have Sirius/XM, it sounds like what you hear on the Watercolors jazz channel. Once again, the harmonies are close, tight, complex, and thrilling. Sullivan carries the melody throughout the song. This will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step.
- Matter Of The Heart – This is a pop tinged ballad that features Stephen Wright. He’s got a nice, smooth tone that fits the song very well. This is another song that is well crafted with a great lyric, catchy melody, and pretty arrangement. The harmony on “right from the start” in the chorus is impeccable. Does anyone know where Wright went after Friends IV? He’d make a good baritone for ANY quartet. This is a simply gorgeous song.
- One Voice – The GVB has taken to using this song recently, but this is a masterful arrangement of the Barry Manilow tune. Chuck Sullivan sings the melody alone for a while before the rest of the group comes in singing staggered “One voice” phrases. Some light instrumentation finally builds in at “it takes that one voice…” After singing “one voice” again, the key changes and full orchestrations. Sullivan absolutely nails this song. I’m saving my comments on him for later. This is another highlight of the disc. They tag the song with “God is one voice!” Wow.
- How About Your Heart – Terry Blackwood sings this old Blackwood Brothers classic, but James and company never sang it quite like this. It’s given a bit of a cowboy swing feel, but the backing harmonies are stunningly gorgeous. There’s no deep bass on the last part of the chorus singing “How about your heart? Is it right with God?”, but this arrangement is so pretty that you never really miss it. Beautiful.
- Redemption Medley – This starts off with a sweeping chorus of Gordon Jensen’s “Redemption Draweth Nigh” before moving into a verse of “When Redeemed I Shall Stand” sung expertly by Terry Blackwood. The rest of the group enters on the chorus. The key changes and they sing the chorus again, this time with Chuck Sullivan taking the melody. The tempo slows a bit and they tag the medley with the last part of the chorus of “Redemption Draweth Nigh”, changing keys again on the phrase “Lift up your head” just for good nigh. The ending is huge, like a good Lari Goss ballad should be. It’s a great way to end the album.
Summary: In terms of pure musical creativity, Friends IV may have been the pinnacle of Southern Gospel music. I’ve always scratched my head as to why the group never seemed to gain popularity, as you would be hard pressed to find any better music. Chuck Sullivan needs to be back in Gospel music. Period. He was/is a fantastic tenor singer with a clear, high, full tone and he absolutely shines on this disc. Terry Blackwood and Larry Orrell are among SG elite, and for good reason. Both are among the finest vocalists we’ve ever had. Stephen Wright had such a smooth voice, and showed some nice chops on “Matter Of The Heart.”
I think the reason that Friends IV never caught on was they were too unique, too creative for the genre. It’s a big leap from The McKameys to Friends IV. Also, given the general demographic of the average SG listener, I don’t think this group lined up well. While the style was not really contemporary, it wasn’t traditional by any stretch either. This was a fusion of SG, Light Jazz, and Pop. Larry Orrell mentioned in a comment on this site that they were bringing a Carpenters-like sound to SG, and I just don’t think the average SG fan was receptive. To me, that is a shame. I asked Terry Blackwood and Larry Orrell about this particular album and Friends IV in general and both are very proud of the efforts. Terry Blackwood called the Friends IV albums some of the finest music he ever recorded. Incidentally, the albums are actually still available digitally on iTunes, and Terry at least still carries the CDs on his website.
Friends IV featured four incredible vocalists with Lari Goss at the production helm and no limit on his creativity. There are vocal chord voicings and progressions here that are so far above a genre that is generally, rightly or wrongly, seen as being simple musically that I think they overshot the industry. For those like me who enjoy broad musical horizons, however, One Voice stands as just that: one unique voice in Southern Gospel music. I miss Friends IV!