60th anniversary of tragic Blackwood plane crash nearsBy Staff Reports Published 9:40am Monday, March 31, 2014
By Billy Singleton | Chilton County Airport Authority
“There is nothing in God’s world more beautiful than Alabama’s woods and hills, in early summer. The landscape, dressed in lush green, and the light blue haze that shadows the peaks, give you a feeling of awe at the magnificence of God’s creation.”
James Blackwood, founding member and lead vocal of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, penned these words as he recalled the June 30, 1954, flight onboard the group’s Beechcraft Model 18 aircraft bound for Clanton. The quartet, one of the most renowned Southern gospel groups in the nation, was scheduled to perform as the main attraction at the seventh annual Chilton County Peach Festival being held at the Clanton airport.
Established in 1947, the Chilton County Peach Festival was created to recognize the region’s agricultural industry, especially local peach growers. J. Archie Ogburn, civic leader and member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Thorsby, was instrumental in organizing the festival and served as its first general chairman.
With the exception of 1951, the county-wide celebration had been held on an annual basis and had become the region’s most eagerly anticipated community event. Advertised as the “Biggest and best Peach Festival,” marquee events of the 1954 celebration included an agricultural exposition, hillbilly singing and wrestling matches featuring Rowdy Red Roberts, former Southern Junior Heavyweight Champion.
The airport’s large metal hangar had been converted into an auditorium and concert hall with a stage erected at one end. Seats were brought in to accommodate crowds attending events that included crowning of the 1954 Peach Festival Queen.
Thirty-five young women competing for the title would be judged by representatives of five Alabama colleges. Popular Albertville radio commentator Jessie Culp served as Master of Ceremonies. Dressing rooms were constructed adjacent to the hangar for the contestants and other Peach Festival performers.
The area outside the hangar was converted into a “cow palace,” a show place for cattle and other livestock. Workers also completed construction of a display area for local agricultural products.
The headline of the Union-Banner newspaper was almost prophetic in describing the concert that would culminate six big days and nights of the festival: “Entertainment the like of which Chilton County has never seen before is in store until Wednesday night, June 30th.”
On that last night of the Peach Festival celebration, two of the most outstanding gospel quartets in the nation, the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen, were scheduled to perform in the recently converted hangar at the Clanton Airport.
Formed in 1934 in Choctaw County, Miss. during the Great Depression, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet originally performed in local churches, where they would charge a nickel for concerts. Original members of the group included brothers James, Doyle and Roy Blackwood. The fourth member of the quartet was Roy’s son, 13-year-old baritone R.W. Blackwood.
After moving to Memphis in 1950, the Blackwood Brothers’ fame spread as they began to appear on radio and television stations throughout the Southeast. Fellow musician and Mississippi native Elvis Presley was a huge fan of gospel music and especially admired the Blackwood Brothers.
By 1954, several members of the original quartet had retired or left the group. Just two weeks before their Clanton performance, the Blackwood Brothers lineup of Bill Shaw (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), R.W. Blackwood (baritone), Bill Lyles (bass), and Jackie Marshall (piano), won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts competition on national television with their stirring rendition of the gospel classic, “Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs?”