Waco’s Southern Jubilee Singers

By Robert F. Darden

A long-lost 45 recalls a Golden Age of Gospel Music

The Central Texas area was blessed with first-rate gospel groups in the 1960s and ‘70s. Historian Bettie V. Beard has identified the Stars of Harmony, the Estelle Family Singers, the Southern Jubilee Singers and — later — the Gospel Sons, among others. While none of the groups ever “broke” nationally, the Southern Jubilee Singers did record a single 45, which featured “Noah,” their most requested song.

Stan Wojciechowski at Waco’s Spin Connection located a copy of the extremely rare disk and donated it to Baylor University’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Program where — in time — it will be digitized and preserved for scholars and fans.

While the group may have broken up more than 30 years ago, fond memories of the Southern Jubilee Singers remain strong.

Beard told “The Waco Tribune-Herald” that the group was founded in the 1940s by the Barefield brothers and included Rufus McClain, Luther George, Charlie Spratt and Dennis Harris. George’s daughter Etta told Beard that “every time the group performed, people would be jumping up, shouting, stomping their feet and dancing in the aisles.”

Harris and George continued the group as the older members left and the “Noah” 45’s proud red label proclaims the names of the members at the time of its recording during the 1970s:

“Southern Jubilee Singers of Waco, Texas – Luther C. George (lead), N. Lewis (bass), Dennis Harris (tenor), Leslie Ross (lead), and William Bogan (baritone).”

Edward Ross, pastor of Abundant Love Fellowship Church, which shares a building with Victorious Life Church at 7459 Interstate 35 North, is the son of Leslie Ross, and still vividly remembers his father’s tenure with the Singers.

“I grew up in a house of gospel music,” Ross said. “From the time I can remember, my dad played gospel music. I got up to it, I went to bed to it.”

His father Leslie served in several roles with the Southern Jubilee Singers and rehearsals were typically held in the Ross home. When Leslie would hear a gospel song he liked, he would present it for consideration by the rest of the group.

“He had a very unique way of remembering a song,” Edward recalled. “He would listen to the song — as a kid, I thought he listened to it a million times — over and over and over again to both get the lyrics and get the melody down. When the group came over, my dad had listened to the music so much that he could actually teach the guys what their parts were and when they would harmonize.”

Leslie Ross was also in charge of the Southern Jubilee Singers’ “uniforms,” the sharply tailored matching suits that all gospel quartets of the era wore. Months before the group’s gala annual “anniversary” concert, Edward said his father would travel to Dallas “to see what the most trendy thing” was in men’s suits. Edward’s older brother Howard told Beard that the suits were often purchased at the old New York Clothiers on Austin Avenue.

“My dad had one suit that he was very proud of,” Edward said. “It was a tan two-piece suit with a matching white shirt with chocolate stripes and a chocolate tie. The shoes were brown, too.”

Always well-rehearsed, the Southern Jubilee Singers would then travel with their music throughout Central Texas, usually on Sunday afternoons since each of the members had full-time jobs. The group occasionally traveled as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico and had a regular circuit of churches in Arkansas.

The Singers were also active in their home churches. Edward said that the Ross family were dedicated members of Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church on Dripping Springs Road.

For much of the Singers’ history, they were strictly a cappella, and modeled after the great gospel jubilee groups of the 1940s and early ‘50s, particularly the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. Wherever they performed, Edward said, they were “very, very well received.”

“The church’s pastor would introduce the group and they’d go right into it,” Edward recalled. “The Southern Jubilee Singers would then just start singing. They’d sing four or five songs in a row. It was a very electric type of environment because people just loved to hear them sing. As a child, I was always excited when my dad took the mic.”

Luther George handled much of speaking, introducing the songs and the members. After a short break and “love offering” for the group, the Singers would perform a few more songs, and Leslie Ross would offer a few inspirational words.

The closing number would invariably be “Noah,” which had been a hit decades earlier for the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

“They would always do ‘Noah’,” Edward said. “That’s what people loved to hear. Once, in Temple, when it didn’t seem like they were going to sing it, the congregation started chanting ‘Noah’!”

The concerts would close with a potluck dinner on the grounds where the Singers would “fellowship” with church members, which was another highlight for Edward and his siblings.

The Southern Jubilee Singers’ repertoire consisted primarily of cover versions of gospel songs by the Dixie Hummingbirds, Soul Stirrers, the Sensational Nightingales and other popular quartets. But as gospel music tastes began to change in the 1970s, the Singers’ sound changed as well. In addition to more turnover in the core group, they added Milton Biggs, a well-known guitar player from Temple, and Lee Rory on bass. Edward said that emergence of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, his favorite group, “had a huge influence on that transition.”

Eventually, though, the different members of the Southern Jubilee Singers retired, sometimes for health reasons. Edward said his father Leslie suffered a stroke in the late 1970s and worked fiercely at his rehabilitation.

“Dad said, ‘I’ve got to sing again,’” Edward recalled. He did — but his health continued to decline.

In the meantime, Edward was ordained and became a pastor as well, eventually spending 17 years with Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Satin, Texas, before moving to Abundant Love. “I preached my first sermon in 1994,” Edward recalled, “and my father was able to come. That’s the only message he ever heard me preach. He died shortly after that.”

Even now after nine years at Abundant Love Fellowship, Edward said people come up to him and ask if he is Leslie Ross’ son.

“A lot of people, to this day, they still remember the Southern Jubilee Singers.”