Perfect Sound Forever


Vestal Goodman
Photo from the Goodman Family website

They didn't take nothin' for their journey then
by Ken Cox
(August 2007)

What happens when one sees and hears a stout man, that man's brother who is a wisecracking tenor, a brother who is really a baritone but sings bass and writes songs--and the stout man's Rubenesque wife, who once aspired to be an opera singer? What one sees and hears is The Happy Goodman Family, one of Southern Gospel music's major pioneers--and a Grammy winner--from the 1960's through 1990. Actually, the verb in that last sentence should be 'was.' They are all, as country comedian Jerry Clower used to say, graveyard dead. Yet, when they were alive, they were in the major leagues of religious music with that Southern touch; the contributions of The Happy Goodman Family to modern-day Southern Gospel singers are heard every time a song is played on the radio or sung in church.

The first contribution this group made to the genre is the use of country music instruments in their band. The Blackwood Brothers and The Speer Family did not use guitars in their early recordings--and they recorded long before The Goodmans picked up a microphone in Bear Bryant country. Howard, Vestal, Sam, and Rusty hired Nashville-type rhythm, electric, and steel guitarists (Billy Grammar of "Gotta Travel On" fame and Dwayne Friend) and drummers to support their sound. No one had done that because using country instruments was seen as profaning the music of God. Evidently, the Goodmans did not think the Holy Trinity minded a little bit of picking while they sang.

Also, this quartet dared to purchase a Silver Eagle bus to take them from all-day singings to all-night singings all over the South. Other groups had buses; the Goodmans had the Cadillac of buses. One can see a photo of the group standing in front of the bus along with brother Bobby (who played bass guitar) as a wallpaper download on the site. The Lord gave them blessing to sing and He made sure they were going to ride in style--especially important since they were a hefty crowd.

Another important quality in the Goodman musical arsenal was their tendency to extend the last note of a song so everybody's part could be heard at different moments. Howard would hold the note; Vestal joined in; Sam hit the highest note; Rusty bellowed the bass--the sound was tremendous. Today, most performers in a quartet emulate that move--The Hinsons were inspired by their method--and many still use it.

The Goodmans' physical status was quite obvious. Howard, called "Happy" by early devotees, was a huge man whose ham-hock hand covered mine when I shook his hand at a concert in Florence, South Carolina, years ago. His weight was always up there on the scale (no one ever said how big he was--except for his brother Sam telling the fellow manning the spotlight, "You could at least shine the light on me; you can find a big one in the dark"), and his hair went a little over his ears. Vestal, Howard's wife, was not quite as large as her husband, but she was no size 4. Known for her beehive hairdo (which, she mentioned in her autobiography, was a wig), she sang as big as she was. Her voice could instantly be recognized in a song--regardless of whom she sang with. Holding her trademark white handkerchief in her hand, she waved to God as she sang. Sam, one of the two brothers, had a medium build--along with other brother Rusty--and a more sophisticated-looking style. People could be entertained by their differences and yet made awestruck by the electricity their sound generated.

Having a songwriting brother made The Goodmans unique; most groups relied on outside songwriters to give them new material. Rusty's pens lost much ink over the years as he wrote what are now classics: "Who Am I?" "John the Revelator," "Wait Till You See My Brand New Home," "I Wouldn't Take Nothin' for My Journey Now" (written long before Maya Angelou used it as the title of one of her books), and the last song Rusty would sing live with the group as cancer destroyed the singer and the song, "I Believe He's Coming Back (Just Like He Said)."

Having a brother who could tell jokes on command did not hurt the quartet, either. Sam (who died from emphysema a year after brother Rusty left the planet) made fun of virtually everything and everybody--from his family to the White House. "I got nothing to say about Jimmy Carter," he quipped, "he ain't done nothing." Sam was noted for his recitations--reading/performing a poem set to appropriate background music. For example, "The Beauty of a Child" deals with a father watching his child at night and thinking about the future; in the background, "Brahms' Lullaby" plays. However, Sam usually kept a comic relief in the air when the songs were getting a bit too intense or to get the crowd ready for a camp-meeting type of song, in which all four Goodmans had a part--they would all start the song, then go in separate directions simultaneously, then end in that extended note-holding way that made them famous. The song "When Morning Sweeps the Eastern Sky" is the best example of their prowess.

For a while, the group was at odds with the music world: contemporary Gospel was entering the scene in the 1970's. Groups like The Oak Ridge Boys were wearing long hair and bell-bottom suits without ties, and singing songs that did not include the traditional references to the blood of the Lamb or the Cross of Calvary. In fact, The Goodmans made it quite clear that they thought this new type of music was not being used for God. Onstage, they publicly criticized The Oaks and all who followed their lead. Of course, as time went on, the animosity lessened--and Howard and Vestal found themselves onstage with The Oaks and others they had thought little of, as Bill Gaither made money with his "Homecoming" series. Oddly enough, The Goodmans split up over Rusty's desire to modernize their sound as he entered into contemporary Gospel. Howard and Vestal toured as a duet (Howard was a pastor of the Life Temple Church in Madisonville, Kentucky, for years); Sam, Rusty, daughter Tanya (Rusty's girl who later married Michael Sykes of Ponder, Sykes, and Wright fame), and tenor Johnny Cook (who had actually toured with The Goodmans when Vestal was recovering from heart surgery; Cook's high tenor voice filled in for Vestal and was showcased on their release "What a Lovely Name." Fans thought Vestal's voice took the lead, but an uncredited Johnny Cook supplied the sound; he was later replaced by Michael English) comprised The New Happy Goodman Family. Then, Sam went his way; Rusty went his. Finding out in 1990 that Rusty had cancer, the four got back together as a family to record The Reunion--an eerie album, especially in the last song, "Don't Give Up," where the four sound almost like they are saying goodbye to each other, as they reminisce about their career as the music fades.

Today, the sole remaining member of the traveling Goodmans is Howard and Vestal's son, Rick. Howard died a few years ago--his health was deteriorating along with his knees. Vestal died later, during the Christmas season, after having recorded an album of Christmas songs--some sacred and some secular. Rick was the drummer for The Goodmans and maintains site devoted to his legacy and to selling merchandise that features his famous family.

No musical family has had the same resonance and electricity that these four Alabama folk had. On a CD called Remembering the Happy Goodmans, The Perrys came close to reproducing the Goodman sound--even using the same musical arrangements. Yet one can imitate but never duplicate a sound that was as powerful as the sound of these three brothers and a wife. Their journey is over, but their influence lives on. Somewhere in Heaven, Vestal bursts out in song, joined by her brothers-in-law, Sam and Rusty, and husband, Howard, who are sounding even better than they did on Earth.

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