Whittle: Sumner, Faircloth families shared
Tuesday, June 11, 2013 9:00 am
J.D. Sumner, the legendary "voice!"
Dwight Faircloth, lifelong friend to the legend.
Their emotional bond was more, much more than mere friendship… living through soulful hard times and family relationships that go back to the 1920s' Great Depression when the Sumner family didn't have gasoline to get a critically-ill child across town to the poor people's county-run hospital.
Faircloth, at age 68, wasn't born then, but knows in detail the life-and-death poverty-rooted survival linkage between the two families.
"Our little family farms were located within walking distance of each other down in Florida, when Mother and Father heard that one of J.D.'s brothers was very sick," recalled present-day Murfreesboro, Tenn., resident Faircloth. "Ike Sumner (the father) didn't have gas in their old farm truck to get the child to the hospital, when Dad offered to share petroleum out of his car that he used to get back and forth to work.
"As it turned out, my dad shared enough gas to get the Sumners to the hospital, and J.D.'s brother survived his illness," Faircloth added. "Dad and Mother never let the Sumners know that for the next two weeks my father walked and hitch-hiked back and forth to his job. That's how scarce cash was to buy gasoline during the Depression."
Ultimately, both families lost farms due to hard times in America during the 1920s and 1930s.
"Our families were close to the point if there was sickness in one family, the Sumners would leave soup on our front porch or my family would do what they could to help our neighbors," Faircloth added.
"J.D., being born in November 1924, was old enough to recall some of those 'hard times' our families shared," Faircloth noted. "After one of his last great singing performances that I attended here up in Kentucky, J.D. sent word for me to join him, just him and me, on his bus.
"J.D. just wanted to sit and share old memories, about how close our families had been down through the good times and the bad times," Faircloth added. "We noted that both families lost their land during the Depression…unable to make bank note payments. We visited privately for nearly two hours, reliving shared memories of our families."
Faircloth shared with Sumner about how he and his wife, the former Barbara Corley, met while he was stationed at Smyrna's old Sewart Air Base.
Faircloth knows the family, farm and church history that put young J.D. on a trajectory toward a world-famed gospel music career.
"Even as a boy, J.D. had a deep voice, that was often in demand before he was 13," Faircloth noted back in time. "When gospel groups came around or near Lakeland, Fla., the groups would often ask J.D., as a mere boy, to fill in when one of their singers became ill or unavailable."
As an adult, J.D. held a world record with having the lowest-registered bass voice.
"J.D.'s first group was 'The Sunny South Quartet' in the 1940s…but when J.D.'s parents and kinfolks heard about the travel and the lack of money paid to gospel singers in that era, they invited him to 'come back home for honest work' as a sharecropper day-laborer…his folks didn't think much of music as a vocation."
Faircloth shared what J.D. told him about those early years of poverty.
"J.D.'s Dad scolded him, taking him out of school because J.D. had a habit of skipping school, but J.D. wanted no part of school, or the hot, low-paying field work," Faircloth noted. "J.D.'s Pentecostal church mother could run and shout with the best of them, and ol' J.D. was hooked on gospel singings at an early age. It was the church music that delivered J.D. out of the hot fields."
Faircloth admits "to also being hooked on gospel music" at an early age.
"At age 3, I recall loving the church songs we heard at Lakeland's First Baptist Church," noted Faircloth. "I've always sung, performing with local groups, such as the Bud Stephens' Quartet out of Williamson County.
"My personal music ministry has been a blessing, getting to meet fine church-going folks ranging from a little church at Gassaway and the fairgrounds at Woodbury to the big cities such as Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville," Faircloth added.
Unlike the vastly-talented Sumner, Faircloth had to make his living out of other venues, ranging from being a ticket taker for old Piedmont Airlines at Nashville International Airport to his present-day Realtor occupation in Rutherford County.
Down through the decades Faircloth has promoted some of the biggest gospel groups as part of his "personal ministry."
Their mutual trails of music joined shortly before J.D. Sumner's death.
"In our last visit before J.D. died in November 1998, he shared about singing at Elvis Presley's funeral," Faircloth shared with obvious emotion. "And I shared about what happened at the Nashville Airport on the day Elvis died in Memphis.
"Piedmont had the next flight booked for Memphis when news broke to the public that Elvis had died at Graceland," Faircloth traced back in time. "Within minutes fans of Elvis began showing up without luggage or anything, just wanting on that flight to Memphis.
"One girl from Murfreesboro shared, 'I just have to get on that plane,' and within 20 minutes after Elvis' death had hit the news that Piedmont flight was filled," Faircloth recalled. "Piedmont folks at Memphis called asking: 'Where's the luggage?' We told them most folks flew there from Nashville without luggage…just to get to Memphis and be near the fallen Elvis."
Elvis, as a boy, had idolized J.D. Sumner's singing after hearing him perform with the Sunshine Boys. In 1971 Elvis hired Sumner and The Stamps as his back-up singers.
"J.D. often talked about touring and recording with Elvis," Faircloth noted. "They did that gig with Elvis from November 1971 to when Elvis died in 1977. J.D. sang at both funerals of Elvis and his mother, Gladys, when she died in 1958."
Faircloth shared one of J.D. Sumner's stories during their fateful last chat on the bus.
"J.D. and Elvis shared a love for the common man, which was evident when Elvis, as a teen-ager, came to hear Sumner at a venue in Memphis," Faircloth shared. "J.D. recalled asking Presley, standing there at the back stage door, why didn't he come in for the performance. When Elvis replied he had no money, J.D. arranged for him to be in the building.
"Not coming from rich families, Elvis and J.D. often befriended poor folks and others in the music industry when they needed financial help," Faircloth added.
"One of J.D.'s favorite Elvis remembrances was after Elvis would perform his epic concerts in Las Vegas and around the world Presley would always stay in a suite that had a grand piano," Faircloth concluded. "And after the performance on stage, he and The Stamps would go back to the hotel, and sang and jam until dawn.
During those all-night jams, the only music Elvis would do was gospel songs. J.D. loved Elvis and Elvis loved J.D."
J.D. Sumner's influence in Nashville's music scene lives on since he and James Blackwood formed the Gospel Music Association in 1964. Sumner was also the founding force behind the annual National Quartet Convention.