1990: The Unfortunate End of an Era & How The Cathedral Quartet Still Changed Gospel Music Forever “Part I”
The year was 1990. New decade. New expectations. Things in our world were about to change. Michael Jordan was a year away from an NBA title, the year’s highest grossing film was Ghost (starring Patrick Swayze), and Hair Metal was on the decline. And somewhere in a blue-collar Ohio town, Southern Gospel music was about to change too.
21 -ish years ago we would have figured one of the world’s most beloved groups would have some obstacles to deal with. Enduring the not-always so delicate rumor mill, there arose a platonic shift in the music we had fallen in love with. More specifically, we thought we lost so much of what became so endearing, so uncommon, exhilarating, so surreal.
Going into the year of 1990, it’s hard to argue that The Cathedrals weren’t among the two hottest groups in Southern Gospel music. Danny Funderburk, noted for the power and fullness of emotion he seemingly put into every single song (a style all his own and never since duplicated) was leaving Ohio to organize a “super-group”, soon to be named. Granted, singing “Somebody Touched Me” and “I’ve Just Started Living” every night put some pressure on his vocal chords…but he played such a vital role in helping The Cathedrals burst into their glory years. To replace such a unique, explosive, and commanding talent that could and would bring out his entire arsenal from the woodshed for any ballad, the man was leaving. Funderburk was a lot of things to that Cathedral sound of the mid-to late eighties, but the essence of who he was, reflected something rarely tamed. He was more like an All-American wild horse, roaming the Atlantic Ocean islands in freedom, searching for the greenest pastures, glorious and riveting, causing spectators to gaze upon the natural wonders of this land. He was our own, in our landscape, but too distant to touch (overboard with the imagery, I know…I couldn’t stop). How do you find something that even comes to close to equalizing that precious, mesmerizing sound. Unfortunately, one guy couldn’t cut it. This would be quite the task and dream job for a certain individual. But on the surface, was the ship in the process of sinking before our eyes, as the old men began to age?
When we think of the classic quartet baritone, we immediately think of Josh Groban and Bervin Kendrick. I mean, Mark Trammell. We all know the history of the “best quartet man in the business” remarks by George Younce and echoed by virtually every other artist in the genre. When I think of glue, I don’t think of Elmer’s. And I don’t think of wild horses for that matter. I think of Trammell. The man supplied the part that completed the eloquence of that four man vocal band of the 80’s, in which the majority of us were so arrested by. Trammell was everything that Funderburk was not. Controlled… always in place, never elusive or surprising…a steady but subtle force. A legend of his own in the making. He was/is a master of the harmony. His sense of timing was near perfect, when he was singing or slapping the bass guitar, causing the older generation to liken him in the mold of a Glen Allred. In 1990, if you and I were to create a super-group, Trammell would probably get one of the first calls. The Cathedral Quartet was as great of a job as there was in southern gospel music. It would be crazy to leave, even a bit risky.
But it happened. At some point, it had to happen. Even though God aligns the stars all into place, He also allows hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes. Within a year, Funderburk and Trammell were gone. The Cathedral Quartet were probably hit the hardest they ever had been over a one-year span, in terms of personnel since 1979…when Tremble, Webster, and Matthews gave birth to “The Brothers”. “The sound” was gone. All good things must come to an end.
Now, what I am not saying is that anyone left on bad terms. Glen and George were business minded, but gracious gentlemen, and usually always supportive of a departing member’s future endeavor. They were the rocks of the Cathedral enterprise, grooming men musically, managerially, spiritually. They took Matthew 28 very literally. And they made disciples in the industry. The events that ended one dynasty, led to another, cementing the last chapter of a venture forever prestigious. What has proven to be one of their biggest legacies, their resolve.
So in 1990, the Cathedral tree was sprouting new branches. Even though many were saddened and some of the 80’s era loyalists were leaning towards slight apathy, gospel music was about to change in spite of it, in the face of it. Kirk Talley was now singing with his brother Roger and Debbie and in 1990, “The Talley’s” were the hottest family group in gospel music, even drawing a narrow bridge to contemporary fans. Gerald Wolfe and Mark Trammell were now organizing something rare in gospel music…an all male trio, who would soon become one of the genre’s most awarded and influential groups, known as Greater Vision. Most male trios had found little success in southern gospel music until GV changed the way the game was supposed to be played and has maintained great success, paving the way for other trios to find a home in southern gospel music. Funderburk had established Perfect Heart with some of the top southern gospel affiliated talent in the country. Although it was short-lived, they hit the ground running in the business and carved out a sound that embodied the former Cathedral tenor…exciting, entertaining, and mostly, untamed. Dubbed the “Million Dollar Quartet”, they never looked back…well, until they had to. But when it came to quartets, they were top of the line during Funderburk’s tenure. Even more under the radar and less known, Cathedral baritone alumni George Amon Webster and Steve Lee were in the process of launching “The Heartland Boys” and “Crimson River” (with former Singing Americans tenor, Phil Barker), respectively, and both groups had some success in the early 90’s.
I can almost see Funderburk, walking into Glen’s office to meet with the two gospel music pioneers…his voice, a bit naturally raspy, higher pitched a hint, saying farewell to what had been home. Thinking and praying for weeks now, how things would turn out for him. Trammell, a ten year member of the group, and a stout disciple of “The Cathedral Way”, talking to his wife about the opportunity to help create something else, something new, and equally special in its own way in the little east Tennessee town. Maybe he missed the warmer weather…maybe his friendship with Gerald Wolfe had missed out on some cherished fun and fellowship. Certainly, with the talent of “the little giant” and the baritone extraordinaire, a sound and style would scream out in a Cathedral fashion, with an added dose of uniqueness and youthfulness. What were those last concerts like? What were George and Glen truly thinking? Their last time on the stage with Funderburk. Their last time on the stage with Trammell. Was a tear shed? Had they already been shed? One day they are all on the bus together. One day they are not. Men that travel in southern gospel music are sometimes as close to their fellow employees as they are their families.
George and Glen call Roger to come over. The men sitting in the office, strategically discussing the next step in each specific case.
Funderburk leaves around early ’90…what kind of sound are we wanting to look for? How is his spiritual life? Is he okay with being away from his family? Is his relationship with his wife solid? Was he even married? What kind of testimony will he be?
Trammell leaves before ’90 is over…are we going to look for the same kind of blend? Are we sure he can play the bass guitar well? Is he used to the spotlight…does he mind playing a bit of the background for a while?
Remember this: “Danny was the sound, George was the show, Mark, the glue, and Glen was the dough”….or something like that. That was real. “That sound” was ubiquitous.
Oh, the irony of the gospel music shuffle.
In the middle of the whirlwind, stood Ernie Haase, Roger Bennett, and Scott Fowler. Bennett was already an industry staple, but Haase and Fowler hadn’t been around too long. Haase had done some singing with The Dixie Melody Boys and Squire Parsons…Fowler was singing lead with an excellent, but relatively smaller market quartet, The Sound.
Obstacles became opportunities. The aftermath would open new doors. George and Glen wouldn’t see it unfold any other way. A glorious era had ended. And with it…a new legacy would soon be established.
Stay tuned next week…for Part II.