John T. Benson Jr.
John T. Benson Jr. (1904 – 1966)
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: SGMA Friends
Born April 30, 1904, Benson was the son and namesake of the founder of the Benson Publishing Company. Taking over upon his father’s death in 1930, he ultimately became a pivotal figure in the expansion of Southern Gospel via the Benson Company. His love for Christian ministry and sacred music led him to leave the general printing business and focus his personal efforts on religious music.
Beginning in the late 1940s, the Benson Company under his leadership became known for publishing and promoting all forms of sacred music, including the founding in the early 1960s of the Heartwarming and Impact Labels dedicated to Gospel music recording. Prior to his efforts, Gospel music performers typically languished as minor recording artists on major labels or survived via custom recordings only. Heartwarming and Impact represented a major breakthrough for Gospel music, heralding the professionalization of the industry at a time critical for its future. Benson’s personal efforts also extended to other areas of industry development; he was one of the founders and served as the first treasurer of the Gospel Music Association. John Benson Jr. passed away on Oct. 27, 1966, but is still remembered as a businessman whose honesty and integrity were critical in moving Southern Gospel into a more important place on the musical map of the 1960's and 1970's.
Polly Lewis-Copsey (1937-2018)
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: Jeff & Sheri Easter
Leon Copsey – Scott Williamson
Madison & Shannon Easter
Morgan & Maura Easter
Born in Lincolnton, Georgia, on Jan. 23, 1937, Blanche Pauline Lewis was early on nicknamed “Polly” because she possessed such a happy, jovial spirit and captivated her family with a winning smile. It would be a smile that she would share her entire life with Gospel music fans across America and quite literally around the world.
As a member of the talented Lewis Family, Polly was performing regularly by the early 1960s ultimately establishing the singing side of the Lewis performances alongside sisters Miggie and Janis. As a traveling member of the Family, Polly performed at some of the most prestigious venues in the country, including the Lincoln Center in New York, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Polly provided a stabilizing force on stage somehow managing to return an audience to sanity amidst the frequent comic antics of younger brother “Little Roy.” Her voice became perhaps the most recognizable of the talented Lewises and she was featured on some of the Family’s best-known recordings, including “Slippers With Wings” and “Hallelujah Turnpike.” Five times she was honored as the winner of the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association’s Traditional Female Vocalist award and twice she walked away with the organization’s Overall Female Vocalist honors. Health concerns led to her retirement and the official disbanding of The Lewis Family in 2009 but Polly Lewis is certainly not forgotten. Her constant smile and grace onstage remains etched in the memory of Southern Gospel fans across the nation.
Thomas A. Dorsey
Thomas A. Dorsey (1899 – 1993)
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: SGMA Friends
Born July 1, 1899, in Villa Rica, Georgia, Thomas Dorsey’s name is known literally in all genres of American Gospel music. The author of standards like “Peace in the Valley,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “If We Never Needed the Lord Before,” Dorsey migrated to Gospel from the Blues after a late 1920s religious experience with Jesus Christ changed his life forever.
The son of a Baptist minister and a devoted mother who served as church organist, Tom Dorsey came to religious music naturally one might suspect but it was a genre that he consciously rejected in his youth in favor of the raucous sound and lyrics of Blues. His family moved to Atlanta while he was still a small boy and, by the age of twelve, he began playing piano in the Blues style becoming known along parts of Decatur Street as “Barrelhouse Tom.” By 17, Dorsey had moved to Chicago and, as the decade of the 1920s dawned, he played speakeasies and brothels now far removed from the religious influences of his youth. Yet Chicago became the place that moved Dorsey to a new calling.
Attending a convention meeting at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1922, he experienced personal conversion and began writing some Gospel material. Nonetheless Dorsey would spend the remainder of the “Roaring 20s” torn between his talent as a Blues pianist and composer and his newfound love for Gospel. Initially, the lure of secular success seemed to pull hardest. Known as “Georgia Tom,” he flirted with commercial success before a series of emotional breakdowns brought him to his knees in the late-1920s. Through the godly influence of his mother, he ultimately turned his life back to his religious roots, giving up the Blues and dedicating his career solely to religious music.
Coincidentally, it was another religious crisis of sorts the untimely death of wife Nettie and his newborn son in 1932 that led, in the midst of personal grief, to the creation of his most famous song and one of the most piercing and poignant songs in all of music history, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” A pioneer of the modern Black Gospel genre, Dorsey’s works were so associated with the new style of Black Gospel music that, for a time, songs written in that style were known simply as “dorseys.” Beginning in the 1950s, as young Southern Gospel quartets struggled to emerge from the shadow of the control of shape-note music publishing companies, his works and the genre he inspired provided fertile ground for groups like The Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers to record and popularize their own versions of spirituals. Throughout his long life, Dorsey traveled as a song evangelist, promoting religious music and directing Gospel choirs. He passed from this life to his heavenly reward on Jan. 23, 1993.
“Little” Roy Lewis
“Little” Roy Lewis
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: Bonnie Lewis
Bennett & Banks Boswell
Born February 24, 1942, in Lincolnton, Georgia, Roy Lewis was the youngest of the eight children born to the Lewis Family. Named for his father, he has ever since been known to generations of bluegrass and Southern Gospel fans as “Little Roy.” Especially gifted within a family known for its gift of mastering stringed instruments, Little Roy began playing banjo by the age of six winning a local talent contest just two short years later. In time, he became the most visible of the many Lewise’s often dominating the stage with lightning speed on the banjo as well as a comedic genius.
As a singing ensemble, The Lewis Family dates to the late 1940s, when Mom and Pop Lewis began performing with four of their children. In 1951, when brother Esley entered the US Army, Little Roy at the age of nine became a regular performing member ultimately appearing on all of the Family’s musical recordings beginning with the first on the little-known Hollywood label in 1951. Beginning in 1954, The Lewis Family began appearing on their own regular television show airing from Augusta’s WJBF-TV and, with an array of family talent, the show expanded to a number of stations across the Southeast, continuing on the air until 1992 with an amazing 38-year run. Through the late decades of the twentieth century, The Lewis Family continued to perform regularly at both bluegrass and Southern Gospel events logging an estimated 200 stage shows each year. Though the Family ended its regular appearance schedule in 2009, Little Roy continues today to take the stage with Lizzy Long as “The Little Roy and Lizzy Show.” A consummate performer and showman, he as much as anyone was responsible for the long-lived popularity of The Lewis Family. As such, he was a key inspiration for the presence of bluegrass and bluegrass themes within Southern Gospel. He takes his place alongside his father, Roy “Pop” Lewis, and his sister Polly as an honored member of the SGMA Hall of Fame.
Inducted in 2013
Benefactors: Ted & Marietta Terry
Bob & Sue Skelton
Homer & Elaine Smith
Ronnie & Faye Vaughn
and the Nicholson Family
Duane Nicholson, born the son of an Assemblies of God minister on July 29, 1936, in Montezuma, Iowa. Beginning originally in the mid-1950s as the lead singer for a college quartet within Springfield, Missouri’s Central Bible Institute, the versatile Nicholson assumed the group’s tenor position early on when another student, Neil Enloe, joined the group upon the regular tenor singers impending graduation.
Inspired by The Blackwood Brothers, Nicholson, Enloe, and three other students Don Baldwin, Dave Kyllonen, and pianist Eddie Reece took the quartet on the road upon their own graduations and, for the next six decades, the name Couriers became synonymous with quality in Southern Gospel circles. Somewhat afraid that they lacked the stage presence and “big sound” that fans in the South expected from a male Southern Gospel quartet, The Couriers decided to operate north of the Mason-Dixon line, ultimately setting up shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From there, the young quartet began pioneering the sound of Southern Gospel in northern states and throughout the Midwest. Gaining a foothold on local radio and television, they became regional favorites and ultimately became the conduit by which other Southern Gospel groups found singing venues outside the traditional South. And despite their fears, The Couriers proved popular within Southern Gospel’s heartland as well. They were one of the four original hosts of the “Gospel Singing Jubilee” when it began airing in 1964.
Especially popular in Canada, the Couriers charted new territory across the nation’s northern border. True to their roots within the Assemblies of God, The Couriers also foreshadowed Southern Gospels move into more church venues beginning in the 1970s, naturally channeling their efforts increasingly toward a music ministry that reached across denominational borders. Throughout this success, the rich tenor voice of Duane Nicholson was a constant. When Baldwin left the group in the late 1960s, bass singer Kyllonen switched to baritone and The Couriers enjoyed their most successful decade in the 1970s as a trio. The group briefly disbanded in 1980, with Kyllonen going into full-time ministry. Before too long, however, Enloe and Nicholson had reformed and, joined by Neil’s brother Phil, the Couriers continued to travel and record. Another retirement and the passing of the Couriers name to another generation of singers took place in 2000 but, by 2003, Nicholson and Enloe had again reformed with Kyllonen for a limited touring schedule as Dave, Duane, and Neil. Regardless of the changes, always there as a persistent source of strength was Nicholson. His presence both musically and personally was a calming one. A class act within one of the industry’s classiest groups Duane’s spot in Southern Gospel’s Hall of Fame awaits and it is well earned indeed!