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Gospel pioneer J.D. Sumner dies

Sarah Aldridge and Denise Schuster

John Daniel (J.D.) Sumner, Southern gospel pioneer and leader of J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, died Nov. 16 in his hotel room in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He was 73. Sumner, who had performed the previous weekend, died in his sleep after suffering a heart attack. He had experienced heart problems in the past that he had been able to control, said Ed Harper of Harper & Associates, booking agent for J.D. Sumner and the Stamps. Born Nov. 19, 1924, in Lakeland, Fla., Sumner was known as a great influence in Southern gospel music. "He was on the cutting edge at all times. He was always willing to try new things," said Don Butler, former executive director of the Gospel Music Association. One of the founders of the Gospel Music Association, Sumner, along with the Blackwood Brothers (a group he began singing bass with in 1954), is also credited with forming the National Quartet Convention.

"He was one of the leading personalities in Southern gospel music," said James Blackwood, founder of the group. "He was one of the great idea men. It was his idea to customize the buses, so we could travel in them more comfortably. We were the first to do that, and now everyone does it. I don’t know of anyone who could step in and take his place." Sumner began his singing career with the Sunny South Quartet. Then in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he worked in Hollywood with the Sunshine Boys, a quartet whose vocals appeared in many Western films. However, people began to take notice of Sumner and his deep bass voice when he joined the Blackwood Brothers.

As his career progressed and his union with the Stamps Quartet solidified, Sumner and the Stamps began to sing back-up for Elvis Presley from ’72 to ’77. While they sang on all of Presley’s tour dates and his studio work, Sumner and the Stamps also continued to sing gospel music.

Sumner, who was an inductee of the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame as well as the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame, also received a Grammy while he was with the legendary Masters V (which included Jake Hess, James Blackwood, Rozie Rozelle and Hovie Lister, all former members of the Blackwood Brothers or the Statesmen Quartet). Sumner is also registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the lowest bass singer.

"I think he was an early visionary... He had a lot to do with the roots and the history of what we today call Southern gospel music," Harper said.

Sumner and the Stamps were finalizing plans to tour Europe in January and February ’99 with "Elvis the Tour."

"J.D. never wanted to slow down from touring. At the end of this year, they would have toured almost 210 dates in 1998," Harper said.

Sumner is survived by his daughter Shirley Enoch, step-daughter Francis Dunn and grandchildren. Funeral services were held on Nov. 19, at Christ Church in Nashville. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to: Southern Gospel Hall of Fame; 211 Seventh Ave. North, Suite 320; Nashville, TN 37219. Cards may be mailed to: J.D. Sumner and the Stamps; Attention: Shirley Enoch; P.O. Box 150532; Nashville, TN 37215.

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