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Bad Boy of Gospel Music

Bad Boy of Gospel Music: The Calvin Newton Story

Russ Cheatham
Copyright Date: 2003
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    Bad Boy of Gospel Music
    Book Description:

    "I messed up," Calvin Newton lamented, after wasting thirty years and doing time in both state and federal prisons for theft, counterfeiting, and drug violations. "These were years of my life that I could have been singing gospel music."

    During his prime, he was super-handsome, athletic, and charged with sexual charisma that attracted women to him like flies to honey. Atop this abundance was his astounding voice, "the voice of an angel."

    This book is his prodigal-son story. Audacious, Newton never turned down a dare, even if it meant climbing on the roof of a speeding car or wading into a freezing ocean. As a boy boxer, he was a Kentucky Golden Gloves champ who k.o.'ed his opponent in twenty-three seconds.

    By his late teens he had been recruited by the Blackwood Brothers, the number-one gospel quartet in the world. In his mid-twenties while he was singing Christian songs with the Oak Ridge Quartet, Newton's mighty talent and movie-star looks took him deep into hedonism--reckless driving, heavy romancing, and addictive pill popping.

    As 1950s rock 'n' roll began its invasion of gospel, he and two partners formed the Sons of Song, the first all-male gospel trio. Long before the pop sound claimed contemporary Christian music, the Sons of Song turned gospel upside down with histrionic harmony, high-styled tuxedos, and Hollywood verve. Their signature song, "Wasted Years," foreshadowed Newton's punishing fall.

    This biography looks back at the destructive lifestyle that wrecked a sparkling career. When well into his sixties, Newton turned his life around and was able to confront his demons and discuss his prodigal days. He talked extensively with Russ Cheatham about his self- destruction and the great personal expense of his own bad-boy choices and late redemption.

    In this candid biography, one of gospel's all-stars discloses a messed-up life that vacillated between achievement and failure, fame and infamy, happiness and grief.

    Russ Cheatham is an associate professor and coordinator of the criminal justice program at Cumberland University. His work has been published inBluegrass UnlimitedandMusic Row Magazine.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-591-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xi-2)

    On the video, a group of gospel music singers, many of them senior citizens, a few of them legends, have just concluded a heartfelt rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross,” one of the most popular hymns of the twentieth century. The room is filled with emotion. Some have their eyes closed in prayer, while others seem lost in somber reflection. Written by a Methodist minister, this powerful song recounts a tale of suffering, shame, and lost sinners. It seems the perfect foreshadowing for the story about to be told. A handsome sandy-haired man, now standing, clutches a microphone expertly, just...

  5. 1. Ancestors
    (pp. 3-8)

    Newton is an English name, and a most prestigious one at that. Sir Isaac Newton is considered by many to be the greatest scientist of all time. Grade school children the world over have been taught that Sir Isaac’s discovery of the law of gravitation came to him as an epiphany, when an apple fell from a tree and struck him in the head: what goes up must come down. Another Englishman, John Newton, composed one of the best-known anthems to the power of God’s mercy—“Amazing Grace.” Calvin Newton is related to both, according to several family members who...

  6. 2. Big Boy
    (pp. 9-18)

    He was the second of three children born to Leonard and Irene Newton. His parents named him Wesley, in honor of the prominent British theologian John Wesley. As it turned out, the Wesley he should have been named after was John Wesley’s musically talented brother, Charles. The infant’s father, a staunch conservative, chose Calvin for the middle name, after the tight-lipped Republican president Calvin Coolidge. Wesley Calvin Newton was subsequently called Calvin or Cal.

    Hospital births were rare in those days, and he was born at home, as most babies were. The midwife, noting his size, dubbed him “Big Boy,”...

  7. 3. Bible Training School
    (pp. 19-28)

    In his bookLike a Mighty Army, Dr. Charles Conn stated that the origins of the Church of God can be traced to the hills of east Tennessee, where, in 1886, it began as a group of holiness separatists, pre-dating what came to be known as the Pentecostal movement by a decade. Led by Baptist preacher Richard Spurling, the small group had become dissatisfied with conditions in the area’s established churches. Specifically, they felt that denominations with which they were familiar were spiritually dead and that renewal and reformation were necessary. Their disenchantment was a continuation of the fundamentalism/modernism split...

  8. 4. Headed Straight to the Top
    (pp. 29-42)

    In the mid-1940s three members of the Sunny South Quartet, of Tampa, Florida, left to form their own group. The three—Lee Kitchens, Mosie Lister, and James Wetherington—were the founding members of what came to be known as the Melody Masters Quartet. Wally Varner recalled, “The Sunny South was a super, super group. When they split up the three of them got me and another guy [Alvin Tootle], and we formed the Melody Masters across town in Tampa. The Sunny South went out and got J. D. Sumner, and of course Big Chief and J. D. were both living...

  9. 5. Singing like an Angel, Fighting like a Demon
    (pp. 43-52)

    Although he was no longer working, Calvin was flush with money, having saved most of his income from the seven months with the Blackwood Brothers. He had no firm career goals at this point but his ever-active mind churned out ideas daily. Two immediate goals were to obtain a high school diploma and to become a champion Golden Gloves boxer. He returned to high school and began taking classes, and he also started training to get in shape for the Kentucky State Golden Gloves championship to be held in January 1949 in Lexington.

    The high school classes were a struggle,...

  10. 6. Advice from Two Sources
    (pp. 53-58)

    Joe Louis was arguably the finest heavyweight boxer of all time, and some insist that he was the greatest fighter ever. His fight in 1938 with German Max Schmeling in New York is considered by many to be “the fight of the century.” Schmeling had given Louis his only defeat two years earlier, surprising the Brown Bomber in the first fight. The only surprise in the second was how fast it ended. Louis came out, fists smoking, and pummeled the proud German to the canvas in a few seconds over two minutes. At one point Louis struck Schmeling so hard...

  11. 7. In the Army
    (pp. 59-62)

    Calvin was drafted out of Richmond, Kentucky, where his parents were living when he registered, as required by law. He reported to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on March 30, 1951, and was assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas, for basic training. There, he spent eight weeks learning how to use a rifle, performing calisthenics, marching in full gear, getting yelled at by sergeants, and carrying out all the other duties facing a new soldier. Then he spent eight more weeks in specialized training, learning to become a medic. Calvin made the transition to the army rather effortlessly. He was in good...

  12. 8. Wild and Crazy
    (pp. 63-72)

    After receiving his honorable discharge in 1953, Calvin soon began a period in his life that reads like cheap fiction: nightly romantic liaisons with adoring female fans, fast and expensive cars, outrageous stage performances, wild practical jokes, and the beginnings of drug abuse and criminal behavior, including a brush with the death penalty. All of this would occur in a three-year span with a southern gospel group known as the Oak Ridge Quartet.

    The group’s wild-and-crazy behavior was documented by authors Walter Carter and Ellis Widner in their 1987 bookThe Oak Ridge Boys: Our Story. They wrote, “In 1953,...

  13. 9. The Battle of the Bands
    (pp. 73-78)

    The Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen quartets so dominated their field in the early-to-mid-fifties that it could be said that gospel music consisted of the Big Three: the Statesmen, the Blackwoods, and everybody else. This situation was due in large measure to the talent and professionalism of the two groups but also to the sharp and perhaps questionable business practices of James Blackwood and Hovie Lister. In 1952 the quartets struck a deal: they wouldn’t appear at concerts unless they were both booked.

    Gospel music promoters had no choice but to accede to their demands; after all, they were the two...

  14. 10. Touring and Recording
    (pp. 79-86)

    The Oaks were road warriors during the period when Calvin sang with them in the early-to-mid-fifties. Bobby Whitfield recalled, “The road was hard. Just think, five guys in a stretch Cadillac with songbooks, records, PA system, luggage and no air-conditioning, although eventually we got that. In the beginning, we had two regular Cadillacs, but then the governor of Florida died and we bought his limo. That was the first stretch car we ever had.” When the group obtained the late governor’s limo, they bought a two-inch foam mattress and put it in the back. “With the foam mattress we could...

  15. 11. The Slide
    (pp. 87-94)

    It is said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. If so, it was the good intentions of a decent, respectable, middle-aged Christian woman that put Calvin on his own superhighway to the fiery lake. One often reflects on roads taken and not taken, but this one made all the difference in his life. The Oaks had just arrived back home from another one of their marathon tours that crossed rivers, states, and time zones, and they still had to perform that night in Statesville, North Carolina. They were all exhausted, especially Calvin, who always expended tremendous...

  16. 12. A New Era
    (pp. 95-102)

    Baseball historian Roger Kahn has referred to the years from 1947 to 1957 as “the Era.” It was the period in which the three New York City teams—the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers—ruled the baseball world. Kahn could have left out the Giants except for one brief shining season; the Era, for all intents, was about the total domination of major league baseball by the Yankees and the Dodgers, in that order.

    Many times over the years parallels have been drawn between the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen quartets. Just as the two...

  17. 13. A Matter of Style
    (pp. 103-114)

    The Sons of Song had an unusual and unique sound. When attempting to describe it, most people—even music experts—simply say that it was different. While that may be true, at least one of the reasons they sounded so different was that everyone else sounded the same. By 1957 a rigid framework for singing southern gospel music had evolved; it was nothing less than an orthodoxy or dogma. Within this framework, there was to be an exaggerated emphasis on enunciation and diction because of the lyric content. Gospel songs were inspirational and were considered to have an important message;...

  18. 14. The Magic of Their Singing
    (pp. 115-122)

    By 1957 Wally Fowler’s all-night singings were firmly entrenched in Nashville, Atlanta, and Birmingham. Birmingham City Auditorium was the largest venue of the three stops and was a hotbed of gospel music. Once a month, a huge, enthusiastic throng of seven thousand people queued up in long, serpentine lines to see their favorite acts. Overflow crowds could be accommodated with folding chairs placed on the stage, behind the entertainers. The price of admission was a bargain, considering the bevy of talent Fowler always had on hand. The low admission price and glut of talent resulted in the gospel groups not...

  19. 15. Ralph Carmichael—A Contract with God
    (pp. 123-130)

    As soon as he could grasp objects, Ralph Carmichael had a violin and bow thrust into his hands by his two adoring parents. He soon became fond of playing the instrument and had weekly lessons from the time he was three and a half until just past his seventeenth birthday. He had grown up in the Pentecostal church, hearing, playing, and singing its music. From the outset, his pastor father, also a musician, had encouraged him to embellish his violin playing when he performed in church. Accordingly, young Ralph would take an old religious chestnut and play it more softly,...

  20. 16. The Fat Lady Sings
    (pp. 131-138)

    The Sons returned from California and quickly became the hottest southern gospel group, displacing even the formidable Blackwood Brothers and the mighty Statesmen. In aBirmingham Newsadvertisement for the September 1957 all-night singing in Birmingham, there were four headliners—Wally Fowler, of course, then the Sons of Song, the Blackwoods, and the Statesmen—with pictures of all. It seemed nothing short of incredible that a group that had debuted only six months ago was now starring with established heavyweights. Both the Blackwoods and Statesmen, though extremely talented, had had to pay dues before achieving stardom. The Sons of Song...

  21. 17. “We Sang at Every . . . Pig Trail in the State”
    (pp. 139-148)

    In 1958, the large field of fourteen candidates for the Alabama governor’s office ranged from “the sublime to the ridiculous,” according to George Wallace’s biographer, Stephen Lesher. The governor, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, was forbidden by law from seeking reelection. In those days, the state’s weak Republican party didn’t even bother to provide opposition, so the winner of the Democratic primary would become the state’s next governor. Because of the large and colorful field and the unique campaign style that most of the candidates used—live rural-flavored entertainment—the contest attracted widespread attention. Several national publications covered the race,...

  22. 18. Gentlemen Songsters off on a Spree
    (pp. 149-160)

    The Sons came back from Florida tanned, rested, and eager to pick up where they had left off. On Saturday night, June 15, 1958, the trio delighted gospel music fans at the all-night singing in Atlanta, then caught a 3:40 A.M. red-eye special to Los Angeles to record their second Sacred album. They had worked up a lot of new material and were eager to meet with Ralph Carmichael again and give him their arrangements for the project. As he did on the first album, Carmichael would take the arrangements and write out the instrumentation for all the songs that...

  23. 19. Picking up the Pieces
    (pp. 161-172)

    Bob Robinson’s injuries would require an extended home rest and Don Butler would be laid up for at least a few weeks. In the meantime, there were concert dates to fill and commitments to be kept. The Sons were immensely popular and were booked solid for the next several months. Life had to go on and bills had to be paid, so Calvin had no choice but to seek replacements for his two injured comrades. During the next four years, various combinations would be used, with Calvin being the one constant member and others shuttling in and out. Initially, Jimi...

  24. 20. From Rock ’n’ Roll to Rock Bottom
    (pp. 173-184)

    With his gospel music career at a standstill, Calvin decided to switch gears and take a shot at rock and roll. He had sung pop and country music in nightclubs in the late forties and mid-fifties, so the transition to rock wasn’t as radical as it would have been for anyone else in southern gospel music. To initiate the transition, Calvin contacted Atlanta music executive Bill Lowery to see if Lowery might be interested in recording him. Lowery had been on the Atlanta music scene for a decade and was beginning to experience enormous success, particularly in publishing. Lowery had...

  25. 21. Searching
    (pp. 185-196)

    By the summer of 1961 Calvin was once more at loose ends, with no job, no plans, and a debilitating drug habit. Weighing what few options he had, he decided to go to Houston, Texas, and stay with a young couple who were big Sons of Song fans. The two claimed they could get him bookings. Since he hadn’t been able to get any himself, he was desperate enough to allow two people whom he hardly knew the chance. He had no more than gotten settled in when he set out on foot one evening to buy a pack of...

  26. 22. Wonder Woman
    (pp. 197-200)

    The first time Calvin saw Joyce was at the Ryman Auditorium at an all-night singing in the mid-1950s. In his typical flirtatious manner, he flattered her as he had countless other females. From behind the record table where he was working during intermission, he announced, “Little girl, if you’ll hang around for ten more years, I’ll marry you.” Actually, it was to be more like eight years, although obviously no one realized it at the time. She was only twelve but was extremely pretty and was physically developed well beyond her years. Her appearance and demeanor impressed even a seasoned...

  27. 23. Wedding Bells and Prison Cells
    (pp. 201-210)

    In the latter part of 1962 and on into 1963 the concert dates became increasingly random and infrequent. The Sons of Song had always been considered controversial, but now, with Calvin’s mounting problems and their failure to show up for concerts, the big promoters had become very apprehensive about using them. Calvin’s life continued on the amphetamine roller coaster, with peaks of boundless energy and false optimism, followed by black pits of depression and bone-wearying fatigue. During his few drug-free moments, Calvin was forced to accept a sobering reality: his life was on the rocks. His behavior, always on the...

  28. 24. If I Had Wings
    (pp. 211-222)

    After sentence was pronounced, Calvin was shackled and led to the dank, grungy Robertson County Jail, where he remained for three stressful days before being taken to Tennessee State Prison, thirty miles away in west Nashville. In jail, the bedbugs kept him awake at night, crawling on him and his bunk. In the daytime he had inmates to contend with. Within hours he got into a dispute with an inmate who threatened him with serious bodily injury. Shortly thereafter, Calvin was offered a straight razor by another inmate for protection. Calvin thanked the man but told him he would take...

  29. 25. Musical Chairs
    (pp. 223-234)

    Calvin has always thought that Jerry Redd was the finest first tenor in southern gospel music. Redd’s pure, high tenor voice is both unique and captivating. He and Redd crossed paths in the fall of 1964, and their meeting led to Calvin’s return to gospel music. At that time, Jerry Redd, though young, was an established southern gospel music singer. Born in Etowah County, Alabama, he began singing with the Senators, then sang with the Plainsmen Quartet during the period when they sang backup to Johnny Horton on some of his big hits on Columbia Records, including “North to Alaska.”...

  30. 26. Gospel Fried Chicken
    (pp. 235-238)

    Around 1968 the Newtons moved back to Pulaski, Tennessee, where Joyce’s family lived, and opened up a restaurant that catered to workers at a factory across the street from her parents. Their restaurant—the Horn o’ Plenty—was located in the basement of Joyce’s parents’ home, and featured lunch and dinner meals. Joyce recalled, “Cal did much of the cooking. I prepared the vegetables and the chicken and dumplings—one of our specialties—but he did most of the other meats, made the slaw, and fried the chicken, which was ourbigspecialty. He had a way of frying chicken...

  31. 27. Still Magic after All These Years
    (pp. 239-242)

    By 1970 the Sons of Song had been inactive for five years, and it had been that long since Calvin had seen Bob Robinson and Lee Kitchens, much less sung with them. After the Sons disbanded in 1965, Robinson sang for a stint with the Foggy River Boys, and then joined Billy Graham’s Asheville, North Carolina, radio station as an announcer. Kitchens had been in and out of gospel music, too, but by 1970 had quit singing and was working full-time tuning pianos.

    However, in April 1970 the Sons were invited to perform at an all-night singing at Birmingham’s Boutwell...

  32. 28. Making Money
    (pp. 243-250)

    In December 1974, Calvin and a few ad hoc business partners figured out a way to make a half-million dollars in a month: it involved a printing press and green ink. The plan was set in motion when an old friend of Calvin’s, who was a big fan of gospel music, contacted him. “This guy knew a banker and a lawyer who wanted some [counterfeit] money to take to the Cayman Islands, and he asked me if I knew a printer. I spent a few days and then it occurred to me, ‘Well, I know a printer—Bennette Simpson—who...

  33. 29. Awakening
    (pp. 251-262)

    The federal prison at Atlanta, or “the big A,” as some call it, is a maximum-security institution housing the most dangerous types of offenders. When Calvin was sent there, half of the inmates in Atlanta were serving sentences of twenty years or more; many were lifers. Built at the beginning of the twentieth century by inmates using granite quarried from nearby Stone Mountain, the facility consists of massive, grim, gray buildings contained on 162 acres. By 1975 it was old, nasty, broken down, and dangerously overcrowded, housing over two thousand inmates in an area designed for twelve hundred.

    The prison...

  34. 30. Colson and Parole
    (pp. 263-272)

    Charles W. “Chuck” Colson was so devoted to his boss and believed so strongly in the man’s political philosophies that he once wrote in a memo to his subordinates that he would “walk over [his] grandmother for Richard Nixon.” He became known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” a truly dubious distinction considering that Nixon’s inner circle included some of the most ruthless and misguided zealots ever to serve a president. As revelations unfolded during this period, the public learned about the Nixon administration’s duplicity, which included the “dirty tricks” campaign, the White House “plumbers,” the so-called “enemies” list, the misuse of...

  35. 31. Out of the Depths
    (pp. 273-286)

    Calvin met Joyce, Wes, and Jackie at the prison gates, where they had a joyous reunion, complete with tears, hugging, and laughter. After thirty-two long months in the worst prison in America, he was going home to start his life over. He got behind the wheel in the family car, and headed north up the congested concrete ribbon of Interstate 75 to Chattanooga, the same stretch of road that Joyce and the kids had traveled over a hundred and twenty-five times in the previous three years.

    When they pulled into the driveway, Calvin saw trees in his front yard decorated...

  36. 32. The Holy Accident
    (pp. 287-296)

    By the 1990s Bill Gaither had achieved fame and fortune as a gospel music songwriter and performer. Countless Gaither compositions, cowritten with his wife, Gloria, had been chart toppers, and many were prominent in church hymnals. In addition, Gaither had won the Dove Award—gospel music’s highest honor—numerous times and had also been voted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Over the years he had gotten involved in producing, publishing, and recording. His astute business instincts, coupled with a strong work ethic and musical talent, had made him both wealthy and powerful in the gospel music industry. Yet...

  37. 33. Redemption
    (pp. 297-304)

    In 1999 promoter Charlie Waller temporarily moved his Grand Ole Gospel Reunion to Birmingham, Alabama, from Greenville, South Carolina, where it had been held for the past several years. The yearly event featured southern gospel music old-timers—the stars of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Attendees would see and hear the Statesmen, Palmetto State, the Weatherfords, the Johnson Sisters, the Rebels, the Florida Boys, and many others as well, including Calvin, who sometimes would team up with Lee Kitchens and Jimi Hall for a Sons of Song number.

    It was music by old-timers for old-timers. Senior citizens by the thousands...

  38. 34. Wasted Years . . . Why?
    (pp. 305-312)

    As a young man he seemed to have been disproportionately blessed. He had looks, charm, talent, and athletic ability. He also had that magical and magnetic trait called charisma, which over the years attracted women desiring romance and men who wanted friendship. Thelma Cook, wife of former Oak Ridge Quartet baritone Carlos Cook, said that during the 1950s women flocked to him like flies to honey. Countless others paraphrased Thelma Cook’s observation. Indeed, the most common remark uttered by those interviewed for this book—both men and women—was that Calvin was a “ladies’ man.”

    Yet if he was a...

  39. 35. Sunset
    (pp. 313-318)

    Standing at the top of the mountain he lives on, Calvin looks off into the distance for a long moment and then turns and says, “You know something? Every day is like Christmas to me now. I mean that; I’ve never been as happy in my life as I am right now. I’m happy because I’m surrounded by people who love me, and that is what life is all about.

    “The most important person in my life is my wife, Joyce. I’ve never known anyone like her. She stood by me when anyone else would have said ‘enough.’ She never...

  40. Discography/Videography
    (pp. 319-326)
  41. Sources
    (pp. 327-330)
  42. Index
    (pp. 331-342)