A southern gospel music pioneer who paved the way for contemporary Christian music, Hovie Lister lived much of his life in or near Atlanta. The founder of the renowned Statesmen Quartet in 1948, he devoted more than fifty years of his life to gospel music as a pianist, vocalist, emcee, and music publisher.
Born on September 17, 1926, in Greenville, South Carolina, Hovie Franklin Lister was reared in a textile-mill village. At an early age he learned to play piano. Immersed in the music of the traditional gospel singing conventions, Lister’s singing family played a decisive role in his budding career.
In 1941 the Reverend Mordecai Ham (who had converted future evangelist Billy Graham a few years earlier) conducted a citywide revival in Greenville. At this event a teenaged Lister was invited to accompany Ham and his music director, noted hymn writer C. Austin Miles, as pianist for the entire event.
With aspirations for a musical career, Lister enrolled the following year in the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Dallas, Texas, where he sufficiently impressed key gospel-music figures, eventually receiving an invitation to perform temporarily with the Lone Star Quartet of Raleigh, North Carolina. Other early stints included playing piano for Greenville’s Lister Brothers and Connor Hall and the Church of God Quartet. Lister soon moved to Atlanta to perform with such acts as the Homeland Harmony Quartet, the LeFevres, the Swanee River Boys, and the Rangers.
Befriending William Barrett Howell (son of Clark Howell Jr., then the editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Constitution) proved beneficial for Lister, who desired to form his own gospel quartet. A meeting with the elder Howell prompted Lister to assemble a group that would be known as the Statesmen with the assurance of employment at WCON, a radio station newly established by the Constitution. The Statesmen, consisting of Hovie Lister (piano) and vocalists Gordon Hill (bass), Bervin Kendrick (baritone), Mosie Lister (lead), and Bobby Strickland (tenor), soon enjoyed immense popularity in the late 1940s with their live morning show. At this time the group also actively pursued the concert circuit with equal success. Jake Hess replaced Mosie Lister, who did not want to travel outside Atlanta, and Claris G. “Cat” Freeman replaced Strickland.
In his autobiography the Christian-music mogul Bill Gaither recounts the influence Hovie Lister and the Statesmen had upon him as a boy in 1949, when he and his parents attended Wally Fowler’s All-Night Gospel Singing, a regular event at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. Describing Lister’s charismatic stage presence, Gaither writes, “He was bouncing all over the piano stool and pulling at his pant legs, revealing his trademark red socks, when his fingers weren’t flying up and down the keyboard.”
With the onset of the 1950s, another new configuration, featuring James “Big Chief” Wetherington (bass), Doy Ott (baritone), Jake Hess (lead), and Denver Crumpler (tenor), signified the crux of the Statesmen. The group’s fancy, innovative vocal arrangements and tight four-part harmonies, combined with Lister’s piano work, defied imitation and created the signature sound for which the group would become known. Recording for major labels RCA and Capitol, they toured nationally and hosted Singin’ Time in Dixie, a syndicated television show. Popular Statesmen recordings include “Wait Till You See Me in My New Home,” “Faith Unlocks the Door,” “Oh, What a Time,” “The Love of God,” and “Goodbye, World, Goodbye.”
Other gospel-music endeavors for Lister included managing and playing piano for the star-studded Masters V, a group consisting of J. D. Sumner (bass), James Blackwood (baritone), Jake Hess (lead), and Roland “Rosie” Rozell (tenor). In 1982 the Masters V garnered a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Performance. Recording such songs as “Everyday” and “Think on Good Things,” the Masters V, like the Statesmen decades earlier, capably intertwined traditional roots with fresh material and distinctive song arrangements.
Lister was the quintessential crowd-pleaser onstage. His “sense of style and flair for showmanship gave this music class and chic,” according to former U.S. senator and Georgia governor Zell Miller in his book They Heard Georgia Singing. An ordained Southern Baptist preacher, Lister also took seriously his ministerial responsibilities, pastoring the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Cobb County and even taking his music into Georgia prisons.
The Nashville-based Gospel Music Association inducted Lister into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984; Hovie Lister and the Statesmen were inducted in 1998, the first year groups were made eligible. Lister was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1986.
Through Bill and Gloria Gaither’s Homecoming music series and concert tours, Lister came out of retirement in 1992 and experienced a career resurgence late in life. He even resurrected the Statesmen name by recruiting new personnel to record several projects to the delight of old and new fans alike.
Lister died of lymphoma at his Tucker residence, in DeKalb County, on December 28, 2001. He and his wife, Ethel Abbott, had two children, Lisa and Hovie “Chip” Jr.