Comparing Southern Gospel Pianists

Comparing Southern Gospel Pianists June 11, 2012

Comparing Southern Gospel pianists is like comparing Cathedrals albums. Or Gaither Vocal Band lineups. (Or British actors, or Paul Simon songs, or… sorry, I’ll stop now. 😉 ) There’s such a wealth of talent, and the amazing thing is it’s so varied. Every pianist has his signature touch.
Last night I saw Kim Collingsworth live for the second time, and I was blown away all over again by her talent. The opening act was a young local pianist/music teacher named Darin Yoder. He was perfectly capable, but he just couldn’t touch Kim. Then I started thinking, “But what if I tried to compare Kim with Gordon Mote, or Tim Parton, or some other top-notch southern gospel pianist? Would that even make sense?” One thing’s for sure, I definitely don’t feel like I can say for certain “Well x top-shelf SG pianist is objectively more talented than y top-shelf SG pianist.” Not only is it often an apples and oranges thing as far as styles are concerned, but all these pianists are so talented that they can switch sounds at the drop of a hat. Gordon Mote is flashy and snappy most of the time, but he can play a good old-fashioned inspirational piano if needed. Kim Collingsworth revels in said old-fashioned inspirational playing, with lavish flourishes and big octave grabs, yet I’ve also heard her cut loose with jazzy improv (see her live work on the family’s encore of “I Know”).

One of the nice things about SG pianists is that they’re so modest they’re constantly giving place to their peers. In the course of dispelling a speculation that he might be the next Homecoming pianist, Stewart Varnado said that he wasn’t even in Gordon Mote’s league. Because I’m not an experienced pianist myself, and all I know is that all these pianists are phenomenal, I can’t tell whether this is just sheer modesty on their part or whether they’re actually totally accurate in their evaluations.
So, since I lack the ability to rank talent at that high a level, I thought it might be interesting to ask… if you’re reading, and you’re an experienced musician, how do you do it? When you’re presented with a whole slew of fantastic musicians, each a master of his instrument in his own way, how do you tell which ones are the best of the best of the best?

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  • Eugene McCammon

    Let’s not overlook a pianist’s accompanying skills. The big splash is one thing but does not include a pianist’s ability to support the singers – playing in time, creating tasteful and well-placed fills, etc.

  • Excellent point. Another factor that makes me throw up my hands in despair—perhaps we need a separate category for “best supporting pianist”? I’ll put in a vote for Wayne Haun.

  • While I like sometimes to see high-flying piano solos, I’m gonna take Eugene’s comment even further and say I prefer the ones whose strength it is to accompany.
    My favorites are, in no particular order, Roger Bennett, Gerald Wolfe, Stan Whitmire, and Tim Parton.
    I am not well-trained enough, nor do have the desire, to compare different ones to figure out who is the “best”. Maybe you’ll get a comment from a pianist who can do that better.

  • steven

    Great comment Eugene – The “splash” is awesome but some pianists go over board with it. Personally, being a local sg piano player**, I am drawn not to the flashy solo pianists but the ones who support the group. I think one of the ultimate pianists who could do the flash plus was an awesome at fill in work was Roger Bennett. I believe anthony burger was the ultimate, though. Gordon Mote – League of his own!
    For today’s piano players, in my opinion, Matthew Holt (sometimes with the perrys) is one of the greatest. Justin Ellis (formerly with the crabb family) always blew me away – I love pianists who could do the sg, but break into jazz, soul, or straight up black gospel. Nick Succi, formerly with the kingsmen, did some awesome keyboard work. I will miss Stewart Varnado w/ the dixie echoes – great pianist.
    …come to think of it, SG really does have some great instrumentalists.

  • Great point on Roger Bennett. He knew when to shine and when to support.
    I love Matthew Holt too, but maybe I’m a bit biased because he did the track for a song I’ve written. 🙂 Still, I absolutely loved the way he filled in with some groups at NQC last year. Very classy pianist.
    Another one that comes to mind is Channing Eleton.

  • I have always found it interest to compare Roger Bennett and Gerald Wolfe. If you were to play me concert footage of the Cathedrals from that era, I could immediately tell you who was playing piano, simply because I can tell subtle differences in their playing styles.
    Roger was more of a self-taught musician. His style was looser, more relaxed, and less polished. But he also connected with audiences very well, and he played with George and Glen for so long that he knew EXACTLY what to do and when, to the point that it became second nature, thus making his playing even more relaxed.
    Gerald, on the other hand, obviously had musical training. His style as a bit fancier, but also slightly more stilted and technical. While he also connected with audiences, he was relatively young at the time, and had only been with the group for two years total, so he didn’t have time to really build a musical connection with the group to the degree that Roger had.
    As far as comparing Stewart with Gordon, the big difference is that Gordon plays many different styles (especially being a session musician), while I’m guessing that Stewart usually sticks with southern gospel, which is fine, but limits your ability to adapt to new styles, especially on the fly, as Gaither tends to do.

  • That’s something I’m always curious about—could somebody like Varnado adapt to different styles if needed? If somebody becomes known for just one thing, it’s hard to tell what he can really do.

  • Could he? I’m sure he could. Would he want to? That’s his call.
    Anyone can be taught how to play certain styles, but unless you truly WANT to play it, you’ll never be more than just a mechanical player. For example, I could be taught how to play grunge metal on guitar, but I would never be all that great at it because I simply wouldn’t WANT to play it.

  • On the matter of supporting pianist capability, I am going to throw in a partially-related comment. I want to take the opportunity to brag on the “unsung heroes” like the keyboard player at my church. I am so thankful for people like her who serve our Lord so faithfully, skillfully and humbly.
    Perhaps I am easily impressed, but one capability that blew my mind the first time I heard it is a great example of that kind of talent. She makes sure that her keyboard is positioned so that she can see the fretboard of our worship leader’s acoustic. She has been accompanying long enough that she can keep up with the proper key by watching his left hand, knowing the guitar chords well enough to follow along.
    (She is an amazingly skilled pianist who never seeks attention (as should be the case for any area of service to the body of Christ) but she is in high demand also as an accompanist for our local university music majors and also travels to S.E. Asia twice a year to assist her daughter in missions work.)
    The church keyboard player has to be so flexible, patient and johnny-on-the-spot, since he or she must react to the rest of the worship team as well as to the pastor (for churches who do invitation calls).
    I love musical talent and am thankful for how God has gifted individuals like those named in the post and comments and our pianist.

  • Roger Bennett was the first SG pianist I ever watched on a grainy VHS. He played “Goodbye World, Goodbye”. Even though i was too young too appreciate the difference between accompaniment and over playing, i always thought Roger had the edge. Now i’m a little older it’s easy to see why Roger was one of the best. Knowing when to blend in with the group and when to shine and also knowing when to highlight others in the group…..that’s the measure of a true piano player.

  • quartet-man

    There are two different camps, showman and accompanist. Some can do both, but it is sort of akin to being the performer or background singers. Each has their place and each should have differences in what is needed. Roger Bennett was great at filling in holes where there were no lyrics or playing things that complemented the lyrics. One example is the bass notes on “We Shall See Jesus” which made imagery of the hammering of the nails. He once stated something to the effect that he had been an accompanist and would practically freeze up when George would request he do a song on his own. He finally learned how to do that.
    I agree with Kyle that Bennett was less technical and trained than Wolfe, but I preferred him as the pianist in the Cathedrals and generally preferred Wolfe’s vocals. That isn’t to say the other was poor at each thing as each did very good things in both. Bennett just did some nice fills and was a bit more showy when need be in the Cats, whereas Wolfe was perhaps more solid (at least from a technical standpoint), but like Kyle said a bit more mechanical (perhaps more of a studio musician versus live although Wolfe can certainly play live and play well). While we are comparing Bennett and Wolfe, Bennett’s sense of humor and showmanship from a personality standpoint were big draws too. He added to the stage show in addition to the serious moments that he had concerning his cancer. He was an entertainer, but also ministered. He seemed to switch between the two easily and sometimes mixed them together (talking about his cancer for instance). He, Younce, and Lowry all seemed able to easily change between humor and seriousness and seemed to know generally where each should go and what was needed (although Lowry might have sometimes missed the mark (no pun intended) here ).
    J.D. Sumner once made a comment about Jackie Marshall versus Wally Varner. It was something to effect that one was more of an accompanist and knew how to accompany a group, and the other did so much on the piano it sometimes got in the way of the singing. He said something similar as I recall about Burger versus CJ Almgren. To my memory, he said that Burger could do things that Almgren couldn’t, but Almgren knew just the right amount of piano to play to accompany and support the group
    Burger was one of the ultimate pianists, but he was from a different cloth than Mote. Both were cut from a different cloth than Parton, Eleton, Whitmire etc. who were cut from a different cloth than Bennett.
    Trying to compare them is about like comparing Younce or Riley to Gaither or Dwayne Burke as far as bass singing. Each had / has their own gifts, sound, and served /serves their purpose well for what they do. Gaither gets a lot of flack and he isn’t a favorite bass of mine, however, he give the Vocal Band a unique sound and does notes and parts many SG basses would have trouble with. As much as I love Younce / Riley and as cool as it would be to hear them to certain songs with the GVB, there are just songs that they wouldn’t fit on (and they are two of my all-time favorite basses).

  • SavedGirl

    While the topic is on SG piano, I have a question. I am an “amateur” pianist, (high school student, taken lessons for years, etc.) and I have only been familiar with SG for a couple of years. I have tried to look this up but I really haven’t been able to pin it down. What exactly makes southern gospel piano different from other styles, such as classical and jazz? I can definitely hear a difference, but I just can’t figure out what is being done differently by the pianist. I really want to learn to play SG style, but I just can’t exactly figure out what it is. Can anyone help me figure this out? Thanks!

  • That’s a great question Amber, and I wish I could give you a more educated answer, being a mere amateur myself. One person you really ought to ask is David Bruce Murray of Musicscribe. Like you I know an SG piano when I hear one, but I have trouble verbally describing what sets it apart. I guess a couple features that come to mind are octave-grabbing and lots of glissando.
    If you go to Youtube, you’ll find little tutorial videos by Jeff Stice, Roger Talley, and Roger Bennett with tips about Southern Gospel piano playing that might be useful. Also, there’s a video of Anthony Burger playing “When We All Get to Heaven” in different styles, and the camera is focused on his hands so you can see exactly what he’s doing. That video is here:

  • steven

    I have heard his Southern Gospel Players cds and there are some songs where he plays a different style. I truly think he would be versatile on the piano.

  • In a nutshell, much of SG piano playing is designed to accompany in a standard 4/4 style. If you listen close to a SG piano player during your basic 4/4 gospel song, you’ll notice that a lot of their playing is simply a bass note on 1 & 3 with their left hand and chords with their right hand on 2 & 4. Granted, it can get fancier than that, and a lot of players add some off-beat licks to fill in the gaps, but that’s what it boils down to.
    When a group adds a bass guitar to the mix (as many do), then a SG pianist doesn’t have to worry about the bass line with their left hand, so they will actually chord with their left hand on 2 & 4 and use their right hand to play melodies and/or fills. This is a style that I have a very hard time doing personally, as I am in such a habit of chording with my right hand. Add the fact that I am also a drummer, and I tend to want to play rhythm-based patterns (alternating the left and right hands on tempo to create the 1-3 bass line and 2-4 chords), and I get messed up when I lose that rhythm.
    Jazz music, as a comparison, is typically heavy on fancy chords and stylistic changes rather than the straight 4/4 tempo. You will not often find a jazz pianist playing a bass line with their left hand (or for that matter, keeping a chording tempo with their left hand).
    Hope I haven’t confused too many people with my simple-minded explanation 🙂

  • Not at all! It was most instructive. 🙂

  • marywrightt

    I’m a big fan of jazz but when it comes to SG, and piano, you just can’t beat David Bruce Murray (DBM). Not only is he an expert on the subject but he’s the best piano player I have ever heard, bar none. Granted, his personality is evasive–but you aint gonna beat him on the keys.

  • Thanks for the video recommendations! The Anthony Burger video is just fascinating!
    Also, I can’t find the button to respond too Kyle’s comment so I figured I would do that here. I did find it very helpful, but I was wondering if you could clarify exactly what you mean when you refer to “1&3” and “2&4”. Do you meant the beat? Thanks so much for your help.

  • It’s okay, at a certain point the buttons disappear, so you did the right thing. 🙂
    Yes, he means the beats, like if you were counting in 4/4 time: “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…”

  • bert

    jackie marshall of the blackwood broyjers in the 50s could play where buger and roger could not buger said his self he could not do what javckie did on the piano if you ever saw him play

  • Randall E. Murphree

    I grew up in Southern Gospel from the 50’s on. I studied under several teachers. Some are more performers and some are great writers. My pics are James D. Walbert, Little Jackie Marshall, Wally Varner, Smiling Joe Roper.

  • Thanks for reading, and for your picks!

  • eric

    There was a great gospel pianist named Mel who played for a particular family group years back. He played When we all get to heaven in like every country’s music style. From Belgium to Russian on so on. There are some unknown gospel players who can really break it down that many people have never heard since they don’t have the EXPOSURE like most you have named on this forum.

  • I know what you mean!

  • Sherri

    I would “give my eye teeth ” to play like Kim C! I’ve been playing since I was 6 years old and really wish I could have become a southern gospel pianist…I’ll still do it if I can find a great group to play for!! We all do the best we can, and just are so thrilled to see others play and marvel at what they do! I changed my style a bit years and years ago after hearing the pianist for the Cruse Family play in concert. It’s fun to hear someone else’s style and pick up pieces of it!!

  • Maybe you will in heaven. 🙂

  • I want to be a Southern Gospel pianist someday, but I’m nowhere near any of these people (obviously 😉 ) I think it comes back to what Roger Bennet says in one of those tutorial videos. He says not to worry about being the best because there’s always going to be someone better than you or who can do something different than you. For example, Gordon Mote can sing and play at the same time like no one I’ve seen before, Kim Collingsworth excels at the Anthony Burger type stuff, Josh Singletary plays this crazy rhythm no one can touch, and Tim Parton has this “touch” that makes any song he plays amazing! They’re all the best at what they do differently. I just want to combine everything good they do! (That’s extremely ambitious, I know)
    Another thing I love about SG piano is the age span. On the one hand, a 17 year old can play full time (Trevor Conkle for the Hoppers and Josh Townsend for Old Paths) and yet the Speers in the Gaither videos still played ON FIRE when they were a lot older! I’m 17 so that’s encouraging! I loved reading your thoughts in this post! Thanks!