Jim Brady BARITONE Ronnie Booth LEAD Michael Booth TENOR
Tampa, Florida. Began 1949
“The friendliest group in gospel music” is a phrase long associated with the Rebels Quartet from Tampa, Florida. Many excellent musicians have been members of the Rebels Quartet. Their Florida roots run deep, as their history will no doubt show.
The history of the Rebels involves the “marriage” of a couple of Florida-based groups. The Sunny South Quartet was formed in the early 40’s. It’s early membership included Horace Floyd, Lee Kitchens, and Mosie Lister. The group disbanded during the war, but reformed in 1946 with Jim Wetherington singing bass and Quentin Hicks at the piano. As good quartets often do, this group splintered off into the Melody Masters Quartet. Thus, Jim Wetherington, Lee Kitchens, and Mosie Lister were the founding fathers of the Melody Masters Quartet.
Horace Floyd, who later was a member of the Sunshine Boys and the Swanee River Boys, was the manager of the Sunny South Quartet. He hired Stacey Selph to sing the lead position vacated by Lee Kitchens. Joe Thomas was soon hired to replace Mosie Lister as baritone. Stacey Selph had become acquainted with a lanky bass singer from Lakeland, Florida, and he recommended this young singer, JD Sumner, for his first professional singing job.
Times were tough on the quartet circuit and changes abounded. Stacey Selph and Joe Thomas soon left the quartet and were replaced by Jake Hess and Roger Clark. Lead singer Jake Hess would soon become a household word in the gospel world. Roger Clark, a fine singer from Texas and a recent graduate from the Stamps School of Music became the baritone singer. His history includes singing with several variations of the Stamps Quartet, and was noted for having a superb voice.
Horace Floyd decided to move the quartet to Orlando, but JD remained in Tampa. The Sunny South Quartet had been sponsored by the Dixie Lily Flour Company. JD retained that sponsorship and formed the Dixie Lily Harmoneers. He was joined by Joe Thomas from the Sunny South Quartet. Horace Parish was chosen to sing tenor. JD then asked his brother-in-law, John Matthews, to sing baritone.. Ray Mercer was the pianist for the group.
Soon after the Dixie Lily Harmoneers were formed, JD departed for Atlanta, Ga. where he joined the Sunshine Boys. Around this time, Lee Kitchens had resigned from the Melody Masters Quartet and he replaced Joe Thomas. The name of the group soon changed to the Dixie Rebels Quartet. One of the earliest pictures of the group includes Horace Parrish, Lee Kitchens, John Matthews, Norman Allman, and Jimmy Hand. This group shortened their name to “The Rebels” and began singing gospel music as a full time occupation.
Big Jim Waits, a very popular and well-traveled bass singer, joined the Rebels in the early 50’s. Often referred to as “The Deacon of the Bass Singers”, Waits had a Hall of Fame career, having sung with groups such as the Homeland Harmony Quartet, the LeFevres, the Revelaires, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Electrical Workers Quartet, among many others. Jim laid a solid foundation for the Rebels Quartet that characterized their sound. “Little” Jimmy Taylor, an accomplished pianist, arranger, and singer arranged much of the music for the quartet.
The Rebels flourished in the gospel singing world. They were never extremely flashy on stage, but they never failed to capture the audience with their singing. During the mid-1950’s, the Rebels was one of the best-selling artists on the Bibletone label. They recorded around 20 songs on that label with Big Jim Waits.
In the fall of 1955, Big Jim suffered a major heart attack that forced his retirement from the quartet. Norman Allman, the bass singer that replaced JD Sumner in the Dixie Rebels, was granted a temporary leave of absence from the armed forces to fill the void with the quartet. The tragedy of losing Big Jim in the quartet opened the door for a bass singer that would become one of the most beloved singers in gospel music history: Conley “London” Parris. Interestingly enough, when London faced some health challenges in 1964, Waits replaced him in the group for a short time (as did former Harvesters bass singer, Bob Thacker).
Lee Kitchens retired from the Rebels in the late 1950’s, and they carried on for some time as a four man group with Taylor singing lead in addition to playing the piano. Lee was a very well spoken emcee and a fine lead singer. The Rebels were never known for extreme stage theatrics, and Lee Kitchens complimented their stage personna quite well. When Lee retired from the group, John Matthews became the emcee. He soon developed a classy style was soon noted one of the finest emcees in gospel music. His ability as a manager kept the Rebels at the forefront of the gospel singing industry for many years.
The nucleus of Horace Parrish, John Matthews, London Parris, and Jimmy Taylor remained intact for over a decade. This is almost unheard of in gospel music! As mentioned earlier, upon Kitchen’s retirement, Jimmy Taylor assumed the dual role of lead singer and pianist for a short time. Only a man with exceptional talent could fill such a role. Not only does Taylor poses great talent as a pianist and arranger, his vocal abilities were featured on several of the Rebels recordings. During transitional periods between lead vocalists, Jimmy often accepted this dual role.
Several fine lead singers joined the ranks of the Rebels Quartet in the 1960’s. David Ingles had a short tenure as lead singer with the Rebels. He left the Rangers Trio to join the Rebels. The Skylite album, “When I Stand With God” features the voice of David Ingles, although most of the album covers have the picture of their next lead singer, Jim Hamill on the cover. If you have a copy of this album with David Ingles’ picture, then you have a rare treasure.
Jim Hamill was the next in a line of fine lead singers to join the quartet. He had just finished a short stay with the Blue Ridge Quartet prior to joining the Rebels. This would not be the only time that Mr. Hamill would sing with the group. Jim was just beginning to come into his own as a singer when he joined the Rebels. He brought songs such as his wonderful treatment of “Hide Thou Me” to the Rebels performances.
Jay Berry left the Prophets Quartet to sing with the Rebels in the early 60’s. Jay was an excellent song stylist who added a special flair to the arrangements of the quartet. Many people consider Jay Berry to be one of the finest lead singers ever to grace a gospel music stage. Jay’s vocal stylings were prominent on several of the Rebels’ recordings on the Sing and Skylite label.
During the mid-1960’s, London took a leave of absence from the Rebels. The Rebels hired Bob Thacker, but he lasted only a few weeks before they once again procured the services of Big Jim Waits. The Stateswood album, “Good News”, features the four-man group of Horace Parrish, Jimmy Taylor, John Matthews, and Big Jim Waits. Thacker never recorded with the Rebels, but was featured with them on the Singing Time in Dixie television program.
Hamill returned for another stint with the Rebels around 1965, having spent a couple of years with the Oak Ridge Quartet. This group remained intact until Horace Parrish left the group in 1968 followed shortly by the departure of London Parris. Both of these gentlemen left big shoes to fill.
London Parris rose from relative obscurity in gospel music to becoming one of the most beloved singers in gospel music history in a few short years. He was a student of noted gospel music teacher Lee Roy Abernathy. London spent a short time with the Homeland Harmony Quartet as well as a few months with the Lee Roy Abernathy Quartet prior to joining the Rebels. He consistently sang notes lower than most basses of his day, and had a great stage presence. The fans loved his everpresent handkerchief and his encouragement of the group as his words “. . . come on boys” became a part of every big ending by the quartet. When he left the group in the late 1960s to join the Blackwood Brothers, he was replaced by another Abernathy student, St. John Gresham.
The Toney Brothers Quartet was the training ground for the new Rebels tenor, Ronnie Booth. His youth and enthusiasm brought excitement to the stage. Horace was beloved by his fans, but Ronnie soon captured his own following. Soon thereafter, John Matthews left the Rebels to form his own family group and work with the Sumar talent agency. At that time, the Rebels were quickly becoming one of the oldest names in gospel music with some of the youngest personnel.
Jim Hamill moved to the baritone slot, and Roy Tremble joined the group as lead singer for a very short time. Ronnie Booth’s brother, Charles Booth, replaced Tremble and the Rebels added Kenny Hicks as bass guitarist. Jimmy Taylor left and was replaced by Nick Bruno. The Rebels now consisted of Ronnie Booth, Charles Booth, Jim Hamill, and John Gresham with Nick Bruno at the piano. This was one of the most exciting groups in gospel music at the time. Hamill was coming into his own as an emcee, and the other members were quickly becoming a cohesive unit.
This group didn’t last very long, as Eldridge Fox tabbed Jim Hamill to lead the Mighty Kingsmen. Several singers passed through the doors of the Rebels bus in the next few years. Among them were Buddy Lyles, Dony McGuire, Jerry McGuire, Ken Huey, Chuck Bright, Tim Sievert, Gayle Tackett, Jerrell French, Rick Fair, Greg Toney, and Don Taylor.
London Parris returned to the Rebels for a short time and revamped the group. London, Aubrey Bowlus, Curt Lyles and Everette Reece joined the Booth brothers for a short time. However, this was short-lived as London quickly pulled several members out of the group and formed his own group, London Parris and the Apostles, leaving Ronnie and Charles Booth to again regroup the Rebels.
For a group to have been so stable in the early years, the seventies brought about many changes for the Rebels. Lee Kitchens and Jimmy Taylor returned to the group around 1974 and they recorded several albums with country music legend Floyd Cramer (Lee Kitchen’s brother in law) playing the piano. A number of personnel changes occurred around this time before the group retired.
Ronnie Booth and John Gresham both left the Rebels and joined the Thrasher Brothers. They then left the Thrasher Brothers for a short time and joined forces with Lee Kitchens, Jimmy Pierson, Randy McDaniel, Goldie Ashton and Tommy Watwood to form the Americans Quartet. The quartet only lasted a couple of months before many of the group returned to their previous positions.
Time has been kind to the Rebels. Many of the members are still living and performing for selected events. The original four singers from the Dixie Rebels, Horace Parrish, John Matthews, Lee Kitchens, and Norman Allman, have performed togther several times on the stage of the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. Some aggregation of the Rebels Quartet has always opened the Saturday night program at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. London Parris never missed a performance at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion until his untimely death. Jim Hamill often sings with the group for these performances as they relive the memories of this fine quartet.
Ronnie Booth now watches from backstage as his sons, Ron and Michael present their high energy performances as the Booth Brothers. Sadly, their Uncle Charles passed away a few years ago.
Although many of the remaining Rebels are getting older, they never fail to capture an audience with their warmth and sincerity. These traits as well as their keen musical abilities firmly entrenched them as one of gospel music’s favorite quartets of all time.