As gospel singer and songwriter Bill Gaither tells it, "it was an accident."
Gaither's Homecoming series, which has grown into an unprecedented gospel music showcase by bringing together Christian perfomers past and present and generating more than 60 videos, many albums and annual sold-out concert tours, wasn't initially planned, brainstormed or organized.
It all originated from a song, a piano and hungry singers.
Mirror photo illustration by Tom Worthington II/courtesy photo
Members of the Gaither Vocal Band are?(from left) Michael English, Bill Gaither, Mark Lowry, David Phelps and Wes Hampton.
"We wanted to do a song with our heroes," Gaither said. "We called them to do one song. That one song turned into ordering in food, eating together and singing around the piano.
"It was an accident, but it was a good accident."
The writer of such gospel standards as "Because He Lives," "He Touched Me," "It is Finished" and "Something About That Name," Gaither will bring his current Homecoming series tour, with performers such as The Isaacs, Russ Taff, Buddy Greene and Karen Peck and New River, to the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park on March 19. The show begins at 7 p.m.
If you go
What: Gaither Homecoming Tour 2010
When: 7 p.m. March 19
Where: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park
Scheduled performers include Bill Gaither; the Gaither Vocal Band, including Michael English, Mark Lowry, Wes Hampton and David Phelps; The Isaacs; Russ Taff; Buddy Greene; and Karen Peck and New River.
Tickets: $33.50 and $44, available at the Bryce Jordan Center box office, Penn State Altoona, by calling 865-5555 or at www.bju.psu.edu.
Gaither, with his Homecoming series, years of experience and plentiful catalog of songs, has become the "gauge in southern gospel music," while mentoring newer artists and bringing older performers back to the spotlight, said Hap Ritchey, the music director at WJSM-FM 92.7, a gospel music station broadcasting out of Martinsburg
"Anybody who's anybody in gospel music is connected to Bill Gaither," Ritchey said. "His legacy is second to none, and to be a part of Bill Gaither or the Gaither Homecoming is an honor, I would imagine, second only to being inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame."
Ritchey said the station obviously receives a great number of requests for singers and groups associated with Gaither, because the most popular perfomers of gospel music are all somehow linked to him.
"It's the pinnacle to be asked to join the Gaither Homecoming," Ritchey said. "So many gospel groups have been connected to him.
"Some of the most popular gospel groups today have sang with Bill Gaither - Ivan Parker, Janet Paschal, Greater Vision, The Hoppers, Jeff and Sheri Easter. Being associated with Bill Gaither gets you through a lot of doors."
Growing up in the small town of Alexandria, Ind., roots deeply planted in the heart of the Hoosier State's central farm country - the place he still calls home, Gaither, 73, first fell in love with music as a young boy.
"I took private piano lessons, and I was listening to the radio," he said. "I was loving pop music and thought that would be fun to do. Then I heard my first gospel quartet.
"I fell in love with the harmonies and what you can do with the vocal stuff."
But as he got older, and despite his passion, one of gospel's most prolific songwriters almost left music behind.
"I went to college, and I figured I needed a grownup job," Gaither said. "I majored in English, and I taught for 10 years in public school."
But in 1962, things changed when he married his wife, Gloria, who has been his songwriting partner through the years.
"We started writing some songs," he said, "and our songwriting then proceeded into our performing."
The Gaithers have penned thousands of songs throughout their career, and though he refuses to pick a favorite - "They are all my babies," he said - many have become gospel standards and are sung regularly in churches around the United States and the world.
For Gaither, that is the "ultimate compliment."
"It's always a thrill to hear a professional sing your song, but one of the biggest thrills is when you know that regular people sing your songs," Gaither said. "... When they reach the masses, that's a hard thing to top. It's very moving.
"We just came back from Norway, and they were singing our songs in Norwegian. That was a big thrill."
Gaither, who counts "Through It All" by Andrae Crouch as one of his very favorite gospel songs, has seen many changes during his years in Christian music, music that is "constantly changing," he said.
"It went from Gregorian chants to the classical period, to (George Frideric) Handel, to many beautiful (Johann Sebastian) Bach pieces, to the hymns of Martin Luther. That is just great Christian material.
"It continued down through the early revival days to the early songs of Bev Shea, moving on into the '50s and then the Jesus music of the 1970s. How we survived, I don't know, but I'm very grateful we did."
Since the Homecoming's inception in 1995, several of the gospel stalwarts who constituted its lineup - the "heroes" with whom Gaither started the series - have passed away, including Dottie Rambo, Howard and Vestal Goodman, George Younce and Glen Payne of the Cathedrals, J.D. Sumner and pianist Anthony Burger, who, at 44, collapsed and died of a massive heartache during a 2006 Homecoming concert.
"We've lost quite a few of the older singers," he said.
Gaither, however, believes that the Homecoming series - and gospel music, in general - has not suffered with the passing of its elder generation.
"Several people are stepping up," he said. "The current Gaither Vocal Band (including Mark Lowry, David Phelps, Michael English and Wes Hampton) and Jason Crabb. Russ Taff will forever be a favorite in our field. The Isaacs' new record (titled "Naturally: An Almost A Cappella Collection") is unbelievable.
"It's fun to hear people say, 'I haven't heard you in awhile. I wondered what it would be like without the old-timers, but I enjoyed it.'"
But as the newer generation of gospel singers takes the stage, Gaither is adamant that no one is filling, or trying to fill, anyone else's left-behind shoes.
"No one replaces anybody," Gaither said. "That's a misnomer. They (the new generation) bring another special thing themselves.
"I think David Phelps is one of a kind. ... Michael English is a stylist. He's in a category all his own. Are they J.D. Sumner? No. But in their own right, they are becoming something different. If they can hold on, they will become the J.D. Sumners and the George Younces."
But, no matter who is singing, young or old, Gaither hopes that fans leave the Homecoming concert with a "renewed hope."
"I hope these songs give them some weapons to get through, in spite of the reality they live in, and go back to (after the concert)," he said. "I hope they take away the strength of the message of the songs and the power of the Holy Spirit.
"I hope they take away a few ideas they hadn't thought about, and I would hope they see the humor in life. Life is tough, but thank God for laughter."
And after the last note has been sung in Gaither's life, the prolific songwriter, producer and singer - in essence, the face of gospel music - hopes for a simple legacy, that the hope, the joy and the laughter he brought to thousands and thousands of people will be remembered most of all.
"I hope my kids would say I was a special dad," Gaither said, "but from the public's perspective, I want to be remembered as a bridge, a person who brought people together."
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.